Responding to Ortberg Responding to Ellen: On Child Perpetrators of Sexual Harm

limeblossomThis is an essay in response to an essay in response to an essay. Mallory Ortberg of the Toast thoroughly picked apart and criticized Elizabeth Ellen’s “Open Letter to the Internet,” in which Ellen defends a few high profile alt literary men facing rape accusations because she thinks the accusers’ ways of saying “no” were not strong enough and other victim-blamey things.

I share most of Ortberg’s umbrage with Ellen. Ellen’s essay is a piece of shit. Not only does Ellen weaken the position of women speaking out against abuse, but she uses the same essay to arrogantly pump up her own literary cred by saying she’s too good to accept invitations to write for pay for Jezebel or The Rumpus. If her open letter is any indication of her talent, I can’t imagine how the hell that happened. (Sulky sour grapes: No one has ever invited me to write for Jezebel or The Rumpus.)

Since Ellen’s an asshole, she’s not easy to sympathize with, but I disagree with Ortberg’s most damning statement. The section of the essay that Ortbers believes takes it from “‘half-baked and poorly written’ to entirely devoid of moral sanity” is the part where Ellen confides to the entire internet that when she was nine or ten she molested three children that were about three years younger than she. Since she was so young “I know you’re going to say this doesn’t count,” Allen assumes.

When does it count? Are there levels of counting? And who gets to decide? If these victims were adults, I would say that they would be the ones to decide. But what about children? At what age can they fully grasp what they are doing or what has been done to them?

According to Ortberg, it definitely counts to some egregious degree.

Is a nine or ten-year-old… as morally or legally culpable for molesting a younger child than, say, an eighteen-year-old? Not quite, no. But is it still an act of molestation? Is it still an abuse of power and authority by someone older over someone younger? Is it still coercive and manipulative? Is there still a clear pattern of abuse? Is it still wrong?…
Jesus God, it counts.

Abusing other children as a child counts enough to Ortberg that it is more morally reprehensible than blaming adult victims. This is where I have a problem with Ortberg’s assertions. Ortberg expects atonement and believes that Ellen’s childhood actions uniquely disqualify her from publicly having opinions of rape and consent as an adult.

Ellen’s grandmother caught her abusing a younger half sister.

I was shunned. Rightfully so, I thought. Separated from my sister (I was never caught in the other two cases). I remember being sent down to the swimming pool (who knows the logic behind this) while my grandmother comforted (?) or talked to my sister. I remember feeling like a monster. Ashamed.

It’s normal for children to engage in sexual exploration individually and with other children, but when is it just a stage of development and when is it exploitation of another child? Ellen and children like her who sexually hurt other children may be, in turn, victims of our prude society. If we weren’t so fucking Puritanical (my well-educated and socially-liberal parents included) we’d sit down with kids and teach them about sex and how to express our sexual urges in ways that don’t hurt others, and not wait for them (to fail) to figure it out for themselves. Children have sexual interests and that discomforts us. We latch onto purity and pretend that they don’t have those feelings or tell them to hush up about it, keep their little hands out of their pants, and be the innocent carefree beings that they aren’t. We don’t talk about masturbation or pleasure, much less about enthusiastic consent.

“I don’t know why I did it,” Ellen says.

Ortberg directs Ellen to dig deeper until she understands why. Can you explain why you did the awful things you did as I kid? There are some strange exploitative things I did as a child that I can’t explain. I still wonder why I set up a game in which an neighbor with an intellectual disability who had a crush on me could kiss me, if he could get through my strong and tall younger sister, like a perverse version of red rover. My sister clobbered him first. I do know it had something to do with my discomfort with sexuality. Maybe it was my cruel way of saying “no” before I had ways of understanding the concept of consent. I can speculate all I want, but my child brain was not as sophisticated as my adult one and if I ever come to a conclusion it can only be revisionist.

This is nitpicky, because I agree with most of what Ortberg says, only her harsh condemnation of children who sexually hurt other children frustrated me. It’s a discussion that I think it worthy of an additional word.

One thought on “Responding to Ortberg Responding to Ellen: On Child Perpetrators of Sexual Harm

  1. Thanks for taking on this subject, Lauren. I completely agree with you about sending a more sex positive message to children as they start to discover their sexuality. Who knows how much shame and self-disgust went into Ellen’s actions. So many parents have this horror of their child’s sexuality, even this newest generation of parents. I hope that more and more people will cultivate a more nuanced view, as you have.


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