Literature has a long history of sexualizing children, especially girls. Often, it centers the adult gaze, exploring pedophilia from different angles. “Death in Venice” and Lolita are two of the most famous examples, but it’s difficult to play literature jeopardy without an explosion of examples where old men fancy young women or even children, whether it’s Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester or Mr. Knightley and Austen’s Emma.
You would think a change in perspective might be enough to do the trick for us in the modern era. After all, we know more about child development, about the trauma of sexual abuse and predation, and the lasting consequences on the young. But Elizabeth Strout’s short story “Cleaning” proves this is not the case. The story is told from the perspective of Kayley, an eighth-grade student who is 13 or 14 years old, but this is not enough to safeguard against the literary bias favoring adult desire over child welfare.
Kayley rides her bike, eats donuts with her best friend, and grieves for her father who died two years ago. For extra cash, Kayley cleans houses for the town’s elderly residents, most of whom disgust her with their “patches of pink scalp through white hair.”
While cleaning her English teacher’s house, one day Kayley feels an overwhelming sensual urge, unbuttons her shirt, and begins playing with her own breasts. She explores how they feel in her hands, how her nipples respond to her fingertips. This is classic teenager-discovers-how-their-own-body-works stuff, which has filled the pages of Roth and Updike and so many other men. It’s refreshing to have the first sexual explorations of a teenager depicted from a girl’s perspective.
But then the elderly husband walks in. Kayley is paralyzed with terror, and he stays right where he is. Three times, he tells her to continue. Twice, she tries to refuse. But the third time, “tremendously frightened,” she shuts her eyes and continues until he leaves. He then increases her pay six times the going rate. This disturbing encounter is repeated many times, and each time the man pays her extra for the peep show.
And let’s stop right there, folks. Let’s be clear on something.
That’s a crime.
It’s called solicitation of a minor, and according to one law firm, the minimum sentence is ten years. The maximum is life.
Which is good, because the long-term effects of this kind of child exploitation can destroy a person’s entire life. Survivors may suffer from depression, self-hatred, addiction, a variety of mental health problems, and dependence on their predators.
But for precisely these reasons, it can be difficult for the average person, inexperienced in child sex abuse and untrained in child trauma, to see these children as victims. Children manifest trauma differently than adults, becoming passive or withdrawn, developing unexplained aches and pains, or struggling with sleep. This can leave adults feeling that either the child is fine because they’re quiet or they’re a troublemaker because they’re struggling academically or socially. Indeed, the full extent of the damage often becomes clear only in adulthood.
Strout, however, seems utterly unaware of this. As the solicitation continues, Kayley does become more secretive with her friend. But otherwise, she plays the piano more brilliantly than ever (“oh, how she played!”). She finds terrific joy in her bike rides. She begins to think of herself as pretty, and she grows more confident. For the first time, she begins to speak her mind with her family. When Mrs. Ringrose calls to tell her that she no longer needs cleaning services, Kayley is “devastated.” The story ends with her desperately longing to be near her predator.
And while the intensity of Kayley’s attachment to the old man is absolutely believable, the consequences of that attachment—artistic outpouring, confidence, maturity, sexual awakening, and joy—are not. The exchange of Kayley’s sexual services for money does the kind of damage that seeps in slowly, but seeps in nonetheless. Whether in listlessness or irritability, insomnia or difficulty at school, lost friends, nightmares, or illness, this kind of trauma would indeed manifest. And in Strout’s story, which is the world of wishful adult desire, it simply doesn’t.
There is no shortage of stories in our culture where girls are targeted by adults and depicted as eerily knowing about adult sexuality, complicit and even eager. Targeted by adult desire, they become liberated.
But this dark fairy tale is dangerous.
In a 2019 case, Judge Michael Gibbens handed a 67-year-old man an astonishing sentence for soliciting sexual acts from two girls, ages 13 and 14. In a state that recommends a minimum eight-year sentence, Gibbens gave him a mere five years. He called the girls “aggressors,” blaming them for the man’s conduct. He even stated that he was “not convinced” they had suffered any harm.
And this is the problem. Culture already conditions us to see feminine bodies as temptations, as sources of sin, of evil. Whether you look at Eve in Eden or Marilyn Monroe in Hollywood, it’s rooted deep in our worldview. So to tell a story about a child who benefits from a man paying her to perform sexual acts only reinforces the beliefs like those of Judge Gibbens. The reasoning goes that children can’t be harmed by adult sexuality because deep down, they want it. Never mind child development. Never mind age of consent. The theme of this nonsense is they want it because I want it.
And Strout not only encourages this dangerous idea that children aren’t harmed by adult predation. She does everything she can to make the man seem “harmless” (an adjective she does in fact use to describe him). In the final pages, we learn that he has developed dementia, and it is not at all clear whether he already suffered from this when he was soliciting sex from a minor.
This is fiction in the worst sense. Not only is it a lie. It’s a lie that fosters other lies we tell ourselves, rather than the uncomfortable truth that children are damaged, often irreparably, from this kind of adult behavior. And it makes no difference what intention or consciousness lay behind that behavior. The damage is done.
The story of a child preyed on by an adult has been done elsewhere, and it has been done better. Joyce Carol Oates’s masterpiece, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is more deft in its depiction of a girl who thinks she’s worldly and knowing but of course isn’t. An adult handily manipulates her out her front door, using her desperation to believe in her own independence. And at the end, she thinks she’s going to her liberation when the reader knows instead she’s headed straight to being the next face on a milk carton.
Strout’s story is an incredible moral failure but a common one. And until our culture reckons with the widespread sexual abuse of not only women but children as well, I expect there will be a great many more wishful and falsely comforting tales yet to come.