Reflections on Neverland
How Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse of children sheds light on different kinds of sexual power discrepancies
Leaving Neverland is a documentary with a lot of fucked up shit in it. Two adult men describe the ongoing sexual relationships they had with Michael Jackson as kids, and they’re pretty explicit about it. But there was one moment, one weird moment, that kind of broke my heart.
One of the men, James Safechuck, described how he liked jewelry as a child— still likes jewelry, he clarified. Apparently, Michael Jackson would give him jewelry as a reward for sexual favors. “Something that I enjoyed was used against me and so I think that causes discomfort. It’s still hard for me to not blame myself,” Safechuck explained. And, I don’t know what it was about that particular detail that I found so heartbreaking, but it’s kind of haunting me.
Maybe, it’s the image of a little boy who had confided in a grownup about a somewhat un-masculine preference, about something he was likely to be judged for and that other people might have been cruel to him about, and I imagine that little boy may have felt some degree of relief and belonging with the acceptance Jackson showed him. But, that boy also paid dearly for that acceptance, and from thereon forward has carried a type of self blame in a way that is difficult to unwind and understand.
It reminds me, you know, of these young women who date these old rich guys and everyone thinks of these women as superficial and vapid for being willing to date men who buy them shit, but we don’t blame the men for being manipulative. Somehow, the blame falls on the recipient of the gift, but nearly always, the recipient of the gift is the person lacking in power. And, the gift isn’t really just a gift, of course, it’s a symbol. It’s a symbol that this wealthy, powerful person is willing to invest in you, it’s a symbol of safety, of security. Rich people generally can’t buy off other rich people with expensive gifts; these gifts generally have maximum impact on people who are significantly poorer than the giver. We don’t criticize people who use their economic power as a way to control the agency of those with less financial independence, but to my eye, an attempt to restrict someone else’s agency via economic coercion is a far greater crime than a youthful affinity for sparkly objects.
And, I’d never really connected that up until I saw it in the extreme — who would blame a child for poor judgement in the face of a fancy gift? No one (or, no one sane anyway) but we might judge a 22 year old woman for allowing herself to be coerced in a similar way. And obviously it’s not the same, I just mean to say, a lot of what I saw in this documentary reminded me of gendered relationships between men and women, which makes me think, a lot of what we think of as innate gender differences actually boils down to societal power differences.
In fact, the sexual encounters the men described with Jackson reminded me a lot of straight sexual encounters in general. I think that when those men were boys, by virtue of their youth, they almost certainly felt no innate sexual attraction to Michael Jackson, but rather felt a sort of platonic infatuation due to his celebrity. When they were sexual with him, however, they still described feeling good and happy that they were able to please him. In a way, their encounters appeared “reciprocal” — they would perform oral sex on Jackson, he would perform oral sex on them, one even described what sounded like a prepubescent kind of orgasm — but it was all for the pleasure of Michael Jackson. Those boys would never have requested those kind of encounters, but did feel a kind of validation at being able to make a powerful man happy.
What was confusing for the boys, is despite the fact that they experienced ongoing sexual abuse, it didn’t feel actively bad when it was happening. If anything, they felt good. They felt validated, they felt special, they felt important. They felt like *someone* — a real special magical someone — had seen how special they were as well. But, these good feelings aren’t feelings of sexual attraction; they’re feelings of societal validation.
And, as these men described their childhood sexual encounters, it reminded me a lot of how we think of female sexuality. We think that women are attracted to powerful men, and that many women get off on “pleasing men,” but I think there is a difference between being sexually attracted to someone and feeling validated at someone’s sexual attention in you. And, I think many women can’t differentiate between the two.
When I was younger, I couldn’t differentiate between the two. It wasn’t until I went through a four or five year period of only dating women that I noticed, when I was attracted to women, there was a kind of innate attraction. One of the first times I felt this attraction was with this really beautiful girl I’d been fooling around with. She’d fallen asleep in my bed, and I was overcome with lust, for lack of a better word, for her sleeping body in a way that I’d never felt toward a male body before. With men, I mostly felt turned on because they were turned on by me, and with her, I felt this sexual energy arising even when she was asleep.
During my 5 year women-only period, I suspected I might actually just be a lesbian, and that I’d been “brainwashed” by society into believing I was attracted to men because I got social validation through male attention. I almost started identifying as a lesbian, until eventually my attraction to men kind of came back. However, when it came back, it was different from how it used to be.
The first guy I noticed myself feeling attracted to was this sketchy seeming drunk guy on the subway. He was kind of fat, but also kind of cute in a weird way with greasy blonde hair that was sticking up everywhere, and his face was red from drinking. And, I just stood there being confused for a minute as he talked at me, before I realized — wait, this guy is kind of turning me on.
I was immediately filled with a kind of self loathing; I hadn’t been attracted to men in years, and this drunk asshole was the first guy to get me wet?
Because it was so weird, I didn’t immediately start dating men again, and instead had a period of observation of what men turned me on. At this point, from dating women, it felt natural to have a kind of innate attraction to people that was independent of the validation of their approval and I realized, that I did have innate attraction to men as well. But, those men were nothing like the men I was “supposed” to be attracted to.
They weren’t rich and accomplished; in fact, many of them were people who seemed possibly homeless. But, they were generally young (around my age anyway) and often bold, possibly bordering on rude. Their style was generally idiosyncratic or unfashionable, in a way that deeply indicated they didn’t really care what other people thought of them, but like, actually didn’t care — not “artfully constructed a fiction of not caring because they cared so much.” And, I was deeply ashamed of my attraction to them, because I felt that if I really dated one I would be socially ridiculed.
It was then, I saw how much societal pressure had left me out of touch with my own true sexuality, and that (I believe) patriarchy instills women with a deep shame for being attracted to “low status” men as a way of enforcing social order. Effectively, if we can get women not to fuck low status men, we can use this as a type of pressure to get men to conform to social expectations so they can increase their status and “earn” a woman. However, this obviously has deeper sexist repercussions on our society — most notably, that women are typically very disconnected from their sexuality because we shame them for exhibiting socially disrupting sexual interests.
Anyway, seeing Leaving Neverland made me realize, these kinds of dynamics aren’t a gendered dynamic per se, but rather a power dynamic, and that anyone who is entering a relationship with any kind of power differential is vulnerable to these kind of influences.
And, watching these men talk about their boyhood sexual trauma is a stark and harrowing example of what happens in the case of extreme power differentials.
Powerful (usually) men don’t want to feel the vulnerability of potential rejection, so they set up systems of coercion to stop themselves from facing that vulnerability. And, being close to power (or, celebrity, or money, or a combination of those) is so intoxicating that it doesn’t feel bad in the moment, but after a while, maybe you look back on it and see how you’ve hollowed yourself out to please someone else.
This one time, I modeled for some bondage porn in what was likely one of the most awkward bondage shoots of all time (at some point, I had a “wrestling” match with another woman and ended up accidentally giving her a nosebleed.) Anyway, at some point this guy had me tied up and was tickling me and putting ice on me. He was clearly enjoying it, and in that moment when I was tied up, I got a type of pleasure out of how happy he seemed. I wasn’t turned on, per se, but in that moment — when I was tied up and he was playing with me — it seemed very important to keep him happy.
When I got home and thought about it after the fact, though, I was kind of deeply creeped out by it and how my mindset had shifted in context. Like, there was something pretty fake about how I was behaving; I had wiggled and moaned as if I was turned on, but wasn’t actually feeling the kind of pleasure I was projecting. I was pretending to be turned on because I thought he’d like it.
And, I guess he did, because he kept contacting me. He initially asked me to do another shoot, then when I didn’t respond, he said if the “cameras were the problem” we could come back and do something “camera free” that he’d still pay me for. When I didn’t respond to that, he soon sent a group email to all the models he’d found “good to work with” letting us know how to get in touch with him for future events, and then I never heard from him again.
My interpretation of the situation, is that he caught a slight infatuation with me and just wanted to be sexual with me again but didn’t want to openly proposition me, so he kept manufacturing “business reasons” to get me to go back and see him. In retrospect, I think I was actually pretty afraid during the initial shoot, but I have trouble feeling fear in sexual situations so I don’t think it registered. I’d driven about 2 hours out to the middle of nowhere to this guy’s house so he could photo me. His girlfriend was there, but she was also a model for his site and seemed pretty submissive to him, and she’d left when he was tying me up. I think some part of my brain registered a potential danger, and something instinctively kicked in to stay safe, please the powerful man.
However, when it was all over and I got out of that situation, I recovered and my brain was like “let’s never go back there again.”
Reflecting back on the Neverland documentary, it seems as if some part of the children seemed to register that they were in danger even as they liked spending time with Michael Jackson. Wade Robson describes how Jackson showed him porn for the first time, and that it negatively impacted him and he and he felt bad about it afterward when he was trying to sleep, but that he saw that Jackson liked it and so he wanted to like it. There is a way, that when we are dealing with powerful people, we try to please them and try to hide the parts of ourselves that will not be enjoyable for them.
And, it is natural, I think, and not bad that most of us want to be pleasing for our lovers. However, I think it becomes a red flag when you start noticing things like, there is no part of your partner’s body that captures your fascination, or if there is no sexual activity that you have proposed that they seem less excited by than you. One of the tricky things, is that sometimes, we get a sense of what is going to turn our partners on and suggest it to our partners as if it was our idea, but we only do this to preemptively win their affections. If you haven’t tossed a sexual suggestion out to your partner that you’re secretly afraid they’re going to get a little weirded out by, I’d suggest introspecting on that closer.
No two people are 100% compatible, and if you feel like you are, then one of you is lying. And, often when we’re the ones doing the lying, it indicates much bigger problems that are likely to lead to a longstanding unhappiness when unaddressed. As Robson described in the documentary, no part of it felt weird to him at the time and I think it is this lack of obvious weirdness that can lead us into dangerous sexual situations. I think we imagine that sexual abuse feels a lot different than it really feels, in part, because we are generally so unaware of how the majority of our sexual encounters are tainted by power. Indeed, my experience with straight encounters, is that a power differential is such an unconscious part of it that I couldn’t even see it until I began having regular same sex encounters.
But, sex doesn’t have to be about power. In fact, I personally believe the best sex I’ve had hasn’t been about exploring extreme power differentials (ahtough there is usually at least a small power differential due to how people land differently in society, I generally see that as something to tolerate rather than indulge.) Power differentials make true vulnerability hard and, as Brené Brown explained in her Ted talk, without vulnerability there can’t be true intimacy. And, I think that is something we’re deeply fucked up about nowadays; the idea that sex is supposed to be intimate seems almost antiquated, and scorn-worthy. I don’t even know how to date, unless it involves getting blind drunk for one night stands on Tinder.
But, this isn’t a particularly modern problem — it’s an articulation of ancient power dynamics, between rich and poor, men and women, adults and children, slave and masters, etc. And, we draw a strict line between the “acceptable” and the “unacceptable,” but part of the reason the “unacceptable” is turning out to be so ubiquitous — the reason that “Me too” happened and tons of people stepped forward, that the Catholic Church is full of pedophile priests, that stuff like “familicide” is a thing —is that these are “unacceptable” situations are extensions of dynamics that are culturally normalized. We see it as normal that people with more power will use coercive methods on people with less power to achieve sexual gratification, and our main concern is the degree to which this happens.
Like the apocryphal quote says, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Our conception of sex and power is so bound up, we can’t imagine it any other way. We struggle to conceive of a world where individuals respect the true sexual agency of others, a world where men don’t get angry at women for rejecting them because they wouldn’t want to have sex with a woman who wasn’t attracted to them anyway. We struggle to imagine a world where what we seek in our lovers is the truth of their experience, rather than a flattering image of validation reflected back to us. Most of us are so bound up in our own egos, that we can’t be bothered to truly connect with others, and generally this goes unnoticed until it becomes egregious.
However, the fact that we’re now starting to examine it more now, that we’re beginning to pull these dynamics apart and re-conceive of what is happening, gives me hope for the future. I think sex can get better, that human relations can get better, and that deep love and intimacy is more available than most of us really believe. But, to get there, we’re going to have to get a good look at how deep the rot goes to see how to unearth it.
And, it’s fucking grim.