Betraying Elmo

Just a few days ago, I spent an evening weeping with joy over the documentary Being Elmo.  The subject of that documentary, Kevin Clash, is now facing accusations of “sex with an underage boy.”  No matter what the truth of the story is, it will be disheartening.  Which is worse?

1. The allegations are true.

Clash has been accused of sex with a 16-year-old male.  In Canada, 16 is the age of consent; there is a section of the law that criminalizes anal intercourse unless both participants are over 18, but in Quebec (and Ontario and Alberta) this section has been declared unconstitutional.  That is to say: there would be nothing illegal about this alleged relationship if it happened here, and in a lot of other places.  (Please feel free to correct me if I’m getting the legalities wrong here; I’m scrambling around the internet for corroboration, and we all know what that’s worth.)

The fact that Clash was 45 at the time is discomfiting, but calling it “child abuse” is muckraking (the parallels being drawn with the Sandusky case, for example, are shameful.  A consenting relationship between a 16-year-old and a middle-aged man is problematic, illegal in some places, disillusioning if that man is the voice of a beloved puppet…but it is not child rape.)  As for the motivations of the accuser…well, he’s now 23 and it isn’t clear why he chose to come forward at this time.

2. The allegations are false.

Clash doesn’t deny that the relationship happened.  He says, however, that it began when the accuser was of legal age.  Sesame Workshop says there is no evidence to the contrary, and that emails that supposedly incriminate Clash are fraudulent.  The accuser’s lawyers say that SW is protecting its own bottom line, in the form of Elmo, who will obviously never recover from this no matter what happens to Clash.

The possibility that the young man is making up this story is as disheartening as the possibility that it’s true; one way or another, it reminds us that the world is a terrible place full of damaged people with poor judgement willing to make destructive decisions to fill the voids in their lives.  As the A. V. Club article linked to above puts it,

Clash’s current leave of absence, like the one recently taken by your faith in the inherent goodness of things, is ostensibly temporary, and meant to allow him time to take “actions to protect his reputation,” as well as try futilely to return this nation to a place where “Tickle Me Elmo” jokes do not inspire empty, hyena-like laughter.

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I spend a lot of time around people who would not be considered legally consenting adults in much of the United States.  I’ve heard plenty of stories about CEGEP teachers taking up with their young students, sometimes for temporary gratification, sometimes abandoning their spouses and ending their careers.  I’ve always felt such incidents were sad and understandable and mystifying and ridiculous.  But mostly sad.

(Yes, of  course it’s conceivable for a 50-year-old to be attracted to a teenager.  Teenagers are often beautiful.  Sometimes they’re also fascinating, and brilliant, and exciting.  It’s possible to get all stirred up by one, if things align in just the right way.  Why on earth would you act upon it?  They’re TEENAGERS.  You’re a GROWN PERSON.  A teenager needs you to be an adult.  A teenager who wants to have sex with your 50-year-old ass has issues that you don’t want to get involved with.  Besides, don’t you have important stuff to take care of?  Like, responsibilities that require your time and emotional energy?  Given that, you know, you’re a GROWN PERSON and all?)

A teacher-student relationship has its own power dynamic.  I don’t know how Clash met his accuser, even if the young man was indeed underage at the time – perhaps that dynamic was in place, or perhaps it was something different.  Clash is a teacher, even if 16-year-olds aren’t his target audience; he’s a celebrity, even if his face wouldn’t have been widely recognized at the time; any older person has a certain authority over a younger person.  At the same time, how do we draw definitive moral lines?  If the accuser was 16, or 17, or 18, how much difference does it really make?

Is Clash guilty of a crime, or a foolish decision, or nothing?  Even if all the facts come out, the answer to this question will not be clear.  In the meantime, the world is a sadder place.

When I saw Being Elmo last week, it rescued me from a dark day.  It’s unlikely to rescue anyone else.

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