Sexuality Without Agency

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Tampa is about a middle-school teacher who has a sexual fetish for adolescent boys, who is cunning and ruthless enough to indulge in that fetish. The main arc follows her singling out her new prey, a process which involves much consideration about the boy’s vulnerability, reliability and willingness, and then luring him into her web, making her plans a reality.
Nutting is said to have based her novel on the real life events of one Debra Lafave. And just as in real life, the protagonist of the novel, once she is caught, manages to evade prison based on her counsel’s argument that she is too attractive for life behind bars.

The brazen writing style clearly sets out to emphasize what society at large seems to find too hard to digest – the fact that women, just as men, can be equally vicious sexual predators. Nutting doesn’t shy away from capturing the animalistic drive that motivates much of Celeste’s actions; her obsessive zeal to indulge in her desires is at times a threat even to her own carefully constructed façade as perfect suburban housewife and caring schoolteacher.

The point being that when I was reading it, I had no compunction about who was at fault here. Sure, the boys she lured in were more than willing to engage in a sexual relationship with her, but Nutting is very clear about the complex game of manipulation and planning that Celeste is a master at. All her mental faculties are directed into how and when she can best exploit her students, with zero consideration for their emotional and psychological well-being.

Reading the real-life story that was the inspiration for this novel, I was struck by many of the casual and flippant comments made by the general public; comments which were not scandalized or shocked by what Lafave did, but derided Lafave’s husband, punning on his name joking that he “got Owened” by kids ten years younger than himself, seeming to place all responsibility on Lafave’s victims. The boys, filtered through those crude jokes, seem to be the ones with agency, the ones who were able to “get” an older woman, who were able to live out every school boy’s ultimate fantasy.

Lafave’s actions are belittled and pushed aside. In fact, she isn’t even viewed as a grown woman able to make choices for herself – the only time her adulthood is brought into spotlight is when the boys are lauded for being able to score someone so much more sexually advanced and experienced than themselves. The power, apparently, lies entirely in the boy’s hands – Lafave’s agency is not the main argument here.

Yet, it is exactly this type of perception that robs women of their sexual agency; this is exactly the kind of thought process that would put young girls at a disadvantage if the situations were reversed. It seems to me that a grown woman’s paedophilic actions being belittled have a significant connection to a young girl’s silence being exploited by an adult male. I’m not suggesting that the young girl is responsible for the adult male’s illegal advances, but rather, that the forceful silencing of the young girl’s protests, or wilful ignorance of her refusal to give consent is similar to a grown woman’s paedophilic tendencies being downplayed.

Society sexualises girls from a young age, and does it without their consent. In doing so it renders the girls voiceless, leaving them unable to defend or define themselves in terms of sexuality. Society chooses to speak on the girls’ behalf about their sexuality, whether the girls are choosing to indulge “too much” or “too little”, and what kind of people this makes them seem.

This denial of self-definition only worsens as girls mature. Grown women are constantly being told what types of role they play in society in relation to their sexuality – the prude, the slut, the virgin, the good girl, the bad girl – these are all labels applied to women with a direct reference to their sexual activities (or lack thereof).

In this case, Lafave is able to hide behind the perception that her child victim was as complicit in their relationship as she was. Nutting’s protagonist is more than aware of how she is able to use her appearance and youth to her advantage. She is more than willing to allow society’s misperception of her role to ease the punishment for her crime.

On the other hand, it is also her appearance that attracts crude attention from officers, who take explicit and unsolicited photos of her. This book is layers upon layers of consent, sexual obsession and exploitation. Nutting tracks the sexual obsession and distorted fantasies of a single woman, but in cutting out this individual image, she inevitably unpicks the fabric of society that rests on sexual oppression and exploitation.

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