Most of us would agree that a sexual relationship between a teenager and a man in his mid-twenties would be creepy, if not downright immoral. But the film “Call Me by Your Name,” which tells the story of a relationship between a man and an adolescent boy, has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, hailed as “one of the best romances of the 21st Century,” and is likely to be nominated for one or more Oscar awards.
In the film, Oliver, a 24-year-old American graduate student, is working as a summer intern for 17-year-old Elio Perlman’s father. Oliver spends the summer living in the Perlman’s home, and over the course of his stay he forms a sexual relationship with Elio.
The summer ends and Oliver leaves Italy, breaking Elio’s heart. It was implied that Mr. Perlman suspected something was going on between the two, and after Oliver is gone, Mr. Perlman tells his son that he approved of the relationship.
“Call me by Your Name” was met with rapturous praise from film critics and many in the LGBT community. But thoughtful adults should recognize the dangers inherent in the type of relationship depicted in the film. Although technically consensual, the fact that the relationship is between an adolescent and an adult opens the door for emotional manipulation and abuse.
Most obviously, a relationship between an adult and a child has a power differential. A child—even an older teenager—is likely to look up to and even accept abuse from an adult because the youth thinks it must be “normal.”
Teenagers also often do not possess good decision-making skills—partially because of incomplete hormonal and cognitive development, but also because they are still developing socially and lack life experience.
Even if a teenager initiates sexual activity with an adult, an adult who engages in this behavior is clearly taking advantage of the adolescent—who likely does not understand all the consequences of this behavior and may regret it later.
It’s precisely because of such dangers that most countries and all states in the U.S. have a legal age of consent to sexual activity. In fact, the relationship between Elio and Oliver would meet the legal definition of statutory rape in several States, including Virginia, the state in which I currently work.
Because of my position at a counseling agency, if I or another staff member heard of a sexual relationship between a minor and an adult, we would be legally required to report it to the proper legal authorities.
Of course, the age of consent in Italy is 14 years old. Thus, the Italian government has determined that Elio is old enough to engage in sexual activity with an adult, so it must also be morally permissible, right?
Wrong. A sexual relationship between a 14 year old and a 24 year old isn’t necessarily morally permissible just because it’s legal in Italy. (Legal positivism can get you in trouble, can’t it?)
Gay author Chad Felix Greene has written eloquently against the main problem with this film – the adult-teen sexual relationship, which he argues is always immoral, regardless of legality. The movie promotes “a cultural message to teenagers to seek out adult partners and romanticize relationships they are not yet able to manage,” writes Greene.
The “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy glamorized relationship violence in the name of “sexual exploration” and “love.” “Call Me by Your Name” normalizes another exploitative sexual practice, this time in the name of celebrating same-sex relationships.
Ironically, many in the LGBT community, who demand that same-sex relationships be treated the same as opposite-sex relationships, are failing to do just this by ignoring the obvious sexual abuse that occurs in this film–abuse that would be widely condemned were to occur in a heterosexual relationship.
Time To Start Asking Questions
It may shock us that LGBT leaders and media professionals are so nonchalant about the abuse in this movie. But rather than simply express our disapproval of the sexual practices the movie depicts, perhaps we should begin to ask some probing questions about those who refuse to condemn it.
Perhaps media and entertainment figures are blinded by the sexual abuse that they’ve learned to ignore in their own circles. Maybe the abuse in “Call Me by Your Name” just doesn’t look that bad to them.
While the movie looks to us like a terrible innovation, what if it’s not an innovation at all, but only a revelation?
And what if it’s only the tip of the iceberg?
Editor’s Note: What do you think? Feel free to answer Virginia’s question in the comments!