Briefly back in the office with a non-April Fool’s post.
Christine caught my attention with this post about something I’d managed to miss: French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s father, Pal, and his story of having sex with his nanny when he was eleven. The anecdote appears in the new autobiography from the elder Sarkozy.
Christine is struck by the circumstances of the encounter that Pal relates. Though only eleven, the father of the French president recalls himself as the initiator, and the nanny as silently acquiescent. Lots of power dynamics are at play. She is older, but he is male. She is his nanny, but he is the son of her employers. She is an adult, he a child — but he is the aggressor. Christine notes that today, we might charge the nanny with a crime for failing to stop Pal’s overtures. But the story raises the troubling reminder that aggressive sexual behavior, and a disdain for consent, is not limited to adolescents or adults.
It is not hard to imagine that Pal’s nanny weighed the cost of resisting the boy’s advances. He wasn’t an infant; if he made his displeasure known in one way or another, she might well have feared for her job. His capacity to consent was vitiated by his age, but hers was no less vitiated by her subordinate economic status. Given that all we have now are the recollections of a man describing an event that took place before the Second World War, there’s little more we can say definitively.
There is one thing that we do need to point out, and that is that even pre-pubescent boys can be sexual aggressors. Their targets are usually those who are, for reasons of age or status, vulnerable. An eleven year-old boy who is sexually assaulted by his thirty year-old female teacher is in a very different position than an eleven year-old boy who initiates sex with his thirty year-old nanny. Age compromises the capacity to consent, as we all know. But we must also acknowledge that class, status, and fear compromise consent as well.
There is also this much-reported related nonsense: Do Nannies Really Turn Boys into Future Adulterers? Based on a thoroughly unproven theory by an English psychiatrist, the discussion centers around the hypothesis that a little boy, “abandoned” by his mother for his nanny, develops the idea that multiple women are required to meet his needs. His mother’s “infidelity” to him (by having a life or a job of her own) leads to his own future infidelities years later. It’s a clever notion, nasty enough to add an extra frisson of guilt and anxiety into the lives of working mothers.
I didn’t have nannies growing up, but I spent a great deal of time with an au pair or two. I can vaguely remember that when I was five or six, I had a young woman named Sue (who must have been college-aged), whose job it was to take care of me one summer we spent on the family ranch. I am quite clear on the memory of the time she tried to teach me origami. It didn’t end in tears, but very nearly.
I had a great many women taking care of me when I was small: mother, aunts, babysitters, au pairs, grandmothers, and so forth. I am quite confident that I would have ended up a rotten husband (which I was in my first two marriages) no matter who it was who had raised me. One thing that I did bring out of my childhood, however, was a genuine liking for women as people. Women weren’t just my caregivers, they were my first friends and my best interlocutors. And my feminism, as imperfect as it was for so many years, was in no small way rooted in those early experiences.