Doubt, Conviction, and Sex With Minors.

Posted on March 5, 2009


Last night, I went to see A Gladstone Production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Some people may be familiar with the recently released film version of the play which I have not yet seen. I am now really looking forward to seeing it because the script is very good. Regrettably, the performances at last night’s production were not nearly as satisfying as I might have hoped. Based on my experience, I can’t recommend seeing the show but I should say that the rookie theatre-goer I brought along with me was pretty satisfied with the experience. So, it may still be a good way to see a highly acclaimed and award winning script, especially if you are not as fussy as I am.

As it happens, the script provided some questions well worth discussing. 

Doubt, as the title suggests, is a play concerned with unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, questions. There are three in particular, I would suggest — with a wink and nod to the Doctrine of the Trinity. One question drives the narrative of the play, one question provides the theme of the play, and one question challenges conventional mores. 

Did an overly familiar priest who wears his nails a little too long initiate a sexual relationship with the only black child at the school? This question drives the narrative of the play. An older conservative Nun, who is well aware of her second-class status in the hierarchy of the Church, is convinced that he did. A much younger nun’s convictions shifts through the course of the play. The priest denies everything and, by play’s end, there is no definitive proof either way. 

The overarching theme of the play emerges from the question at the heart of the Reformation. Should a person have faith in her own convictions or should she have faith in the decisions of her community and its recognized political authorities? Arguably, it is the fundamental question at the heart of society for any relatively independent thinker. The play suggests uncertainty, in the end, may be the only outcome either way.

Finally, the third question concerns the now conventional assessment of a sexually intimate relationship between a minor and an adult who occupies a position of authority. The mother of the boy, when confronted with the possibility of the encounter, indicates that the she thinks the boy is gay, desperately needs some positive attention from an older and well-intentioned male figure (his actual father is abusive), and is prepared to accept that the experience could be on balance beneficial. The playwright is smart enough to highlight the racial and economic disadvantages the boy faces and how this also motivates the mother’s assessment. To get into a good high school, the boy needs to graduate from this school, and it is clear the mother is willing to turn a blind eye for the long-term benefit of the boy. Clearly, a mother who is not trapped in the circumstances of institutional racism might reason differently. Even still, the essential questions hangs in the air: if a minor benefits from a relationship with an adult and that relationship involves non-coercive sexual intimacy, is it really wrong?

I think most people accept that boys and girls should have meaningful relationships with adults who are also not their parents — especially in this age of the (often fractured) nuclear family. What is it about sexual intimacy that changes our assessment of the value of that relationship? Is the present day obsession with preventing and punishing sexual relationships inhibiting the quality of the non-sexual relationships between minors and adults? The law often distinguishes crimes and punishments based on intent. Is it possible the some allowances could be made in criminal law to distinguish between coercive and non-coercive sexual relationships between adults and minors? 

Any thoughts?


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