There is no nuanced position on pedophiles in this country. They are dirty, dangerous monsters who only care about getting their hands on children and doing violent and terrible things to them. Yet in her debut novel Tampa, Alissa Nutting accomplishes something that even Nabokov did not achieve with Lolita. Through Celeste Price, Nutting creates a pedophile who is complex, sympathetic, and dare I say it, occasionally likable.
On the surface, there is not much to like. Celeste is a 26-year-old woman who takes a job teaching middle school so that she can have sex with her male students. When Celeste finds 14-year-old Jack Patrick, she allows him to think she loves and will one day marry him, though she knows that once he begins to look like an adult, her attraction will fade and she’ll leave him for someone younger. In order to keep their affair from surfacing, Celeste plays a part in the death of Jack’s father and eventually tries to kill Jack.
But Celeste is a person trapped by desires she is unable to change in a world that finds those desires repulsive. In order for Celeste to have any of the safety and privilege that heteronormative people enjoy, her life outside of her fleeting sexual encounters is a series of painful lies. Celeste marries Ford, an adult man who she can only bear to have sex with when she is drugged to the point of unconsciousness. She takes a job she doesn’t care about because it is the only way she can be around children and her few friends know only the most surface aspects of her life.
Celeste’s attraction to young boys is consuming and has terrible consequences, but still, part of what makes Celeste appealing is her ownership of her sexual desires—a sadly rare trait in female characters. She knows her body, she knows what it wants, and she is unapologetic about it. She fantasizes and masturbates constantly and almost any classroom object she can press herself into brings her to orgasm. It’s the kind of behavior we’d expect, funnily enough, from a middle school boy. And I have to admit it is satisfying to read about a woman who is that obsessed with her own pleasure. When she talks about being dissatisfied with her marriage to Ford, she says, “Just weeks after our wedding, I could feel my screaming libido clawing at the ornately papered walls of our gated suburban home. At dinner I began to sit with my legs clenched painfully together for fear that if I opened them even the slightest bit, it might unleash a shrill wail that would shatter the crystal wineglasses.” It is tragic moment, but one that is also relatable –we all have libidos that when denied and shamed scream. Again, this is not to say pedophilia should be condoned, but it is to say that sexual desire comes from a deeply human need for fulfillment.
Celeste is smart and observant, and her internal musings are often darkly funny. When she leaves her old school, a male teacher leaves her a note “that tried too hard to play it cool and included his cell phone number, which I made a point of keeping in my purse until my next bowel movement.” Her primary value to the men and boys in her life is her youth and beauty, something that is fleeting and ultimately beyond her control. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert certainly didn’t have to go through an elaborate daily shaving and tanning ritual in order to attract Lolita, but Celeste spends most of her time, money, and emotional energy trying to fight off the inevitable aging process. And what woman, no matter how self-aware, hasn’t felt that pressure? Celeste wants the attraction she feels toward the boys to be mutual. She needs to feel wanted and loved by them, and that puts her in a vulnerable position because just as she has the power to seduce, they also have the power to reject. When Jack is angry or jealous, she offers her body to him as a way to keep him happy. She allows him to have anal sex with her even though it hurts and she doesn’t want it. Jack’s willingness to take out his rage and powerlessness out on Celeste’s body also points to how early boys learn to objectify and use women’s bodies and it mirrors the violent sex that Ford has with Celeste at different times when she denies him for too long.
The conversation about pedophilia is a complicated one and each situation is different. In Tampa there is also the added reality that the 14-year-old boys in the school are sexual—if not sexually mature—beings, some of whom are already having sex with their peers. It is important that there are laws and services in place to protect all children from sexual predators. But our narrative about pedophiles and who they are needs to change, too. What if we differentiated people who repeatedly commit sexual abuse on vulnerable targets and people who are attracted to children even if they never act on it? Why, unlike Canada and Europe, aren’t we putting money into scientific research on the roots of pedophilia, or support groups where pedophiles can get counseling or have community? Why don’t we think about what it means to live life knowing you have an unalterable desire that, if even spoken aloud much less acted on, could cause you to lose your job and family or be imprisoned? Why don’t we think about the ways pedophiles’ “freakish” desires might be similar to our “normal” ones? Reading Tampa, I kept wondering what Celeste would have been like if she lived in a society that actually engaged with pedophilia as a desire that can’t be shamed or punished away.
When I came out at 13 in 1999, the prevailing narrative about gay people was not dissimilar. While pedophilia and homosexuality differ on a number of levels, the ability to give consent being one key difference, homosexuality has been similarly demonized and disavowed by society at large. Only recently and in small sections of the world is homosexuality seen as a legitimate identity that deserves legal protections and nuanced media representation. And, as evidenced by the speedy passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Michigan’s House of Representatives and the twelve states that ban sodomy, we still have a ways to go.
I did not fear for my life or think I would go to jail for being gay, but I understood that, in many people’s eyes, my attraction to women made me someone to be feared and avoided. The first girl I liked would only talk to me at school or on the phone because she didn’t feel safe being alone in a room with me. When a fellow classmate outed me to another girl by walking by and saying, “Be careful of Amy: she’s a lesbian,” that girl did an about face and ran in the opposite direction. With my first girlfriend, we kept the relationship a secret because she was worried what people would do when they found out. When people did find out about us, one of the boys she used to date stalked and threatened her online. I spent a good amount of my senior year of high school having screaming matches in the hall with her former friends who wanted to kick our “collective dyke asses.”
When I turned to books or movies for representations of myself, I saw people who had even less community than I did, and whose sexuality defined them—at best as an embarrassing joke, at worst as a dangerous entity that had to be killed. We use shame and fear as a culture to keep people from doing what we don’t want them to do. But shame and fear don’t quiet those things, they twist and amplify them. Shame and fear didn’t make me stop being gay; it made it so that even the simple, passive act of looking at a girl made me feel threaded through with embarrassment and self-loathing. It made it so that every time I held my girlfriend’s hand or kissed her in public I obsessed over it—who was watching, what did they think, what were they going to do? Sexuality is not the whole of someone’s personality, and part of heterosexual privilege is the freedom to forget about sexuality for a while, to wear sexuality like a hat, rather than a ball and chain. Celeste is never able to put down her desire either, and it haunts her to a point where it crushes her completely.
I am not arguing that sex between two consenting adults is the same as an adult having sex with a child. But I am saying that we have a long history of denying the humanity of people whose desires don’t resemble our own, and it neither changes those desires, nor protects the people those desires might be aimed at. Ultimately (spoiler!), Celeste and Jack are found out, Celeste is put on trial, and she loses all the carefully constructed safety measures and privileges she had in place. But her attraction to young boys remains. Changes and solutions don’t grow out of shame and repression; they come from slow, vulnerable, patient conversations and acts. They come from engaging with the uncomfortable, not denying it.
Amy Gall holds an MFA in fiction from The New School. Her work has appeared in, among others, PANK, The LA Review of Books, Lambda Literary Review, and the forthcoming anthology, Queer Landscapes.