The Sexual Assault Narrative In Boy Erased Deserves Another Look

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
In her review of Boy Erased, Refinery29's movie critic Anne Cohen calls the film “required viewing for all parents.” Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut concisely captures how horrific gay conversion programs are for LGBTQ+ youth, while compassionately examining the motives of parents who would choose such an intervention for their children, however misguided they may be. Boy Erased expounds upon what we think about trauma, sexuality, and coming out. And perhaps unintentionally, the movie also offers a different perspective on surviving sexual assault than the narrative with which we're usually presented.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Garrard Conley, Boy Erased takes viewers to early 2000s Arkansas, where Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is an all-American preacher’s kid. His experiences as an 18-year-old are mostly familiar: He’s on his high school basketball team, he works at a local Ford dealership under his dad, he dates a cheerleader at his school. One of his experiences is not: During his first year of college, he is raped by another male student he thought was a friend. The fallout of this event leads to Jared being outed as gay. His desires are in conflict with the heteronormative religious views held by his family and the faith community in which he was raised. This fear of isolation, compounded with his own confusion about his attraction to men, create a sense of guilt that make him agree to conversion therapy in the first place.
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Jared’s shame does not, however, extend to his victimization at the hands of someone else; nor does he conflate the violence he experiences with those desires. During his time at Love in Action, Jared is called by coordinator Victor Sykes (played by Edgerton) to make numerous problematic connections that justify his same-sex attraction: his posture, perceived anger at his dad, and his family history of deviance. But things come to a head between the two men in a pivotal scene where Victor insists that Jared admit to sinning with his attacker as part of a moral inventory, and Jared claps back. This confrontation is the catalyst to his escaping the conversion program.
While Jared’s reaction may seem like common sense at the theoretical level — of course you shouldn’t carry guilt for the bad thing that someone else did to you — it simply isn’t a reality for many survivors of sexual assault. Silence, shame, regret, and even a sense of personal failure are emotions that are often cited after experiencing sexualized violence. Even the most empathetic depictions of surviving rape often rely on this cocktail of subsequent emotions to portray survivors on screen. From Precious to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, surviving often means swallowing the incident and letting it eat you up inside. I didn’t realize how badly I needed to see resiliency like Jared’s modeled.
It’s worth noting that male privilege is likely the reason Jared could so easily reach for empowerment after his assault. Even within the context of religious conservatism, men are socialized to be in control of their bodies and their sexuality. For example, when Jared wants to go out with his girlfriend, his father (Russell Crowe) reminds him of his responsibilities as a man not to create children he can’t take care of yet. Pastor Eamons does not lecture Jared on the sanctity of his body, which is certainly the advice his girlfriend would have received. Sexual assault disproportionately impacts women because we live in a rape culture that is inherently sexist and puts the onus on women to prevent the violence that happens to them. Jared’s sense of autonomy over his own body and willingness to defend it were the result of never having to walk with the fear that if he didn’t follow a strict set of behavioral rules, sexual assault was somehow inevitable.
Still, I didn’t cheer him on any less as he stood his ground. And the impact of such a strong representation is just as meaningful. Boy Erased is not just a lesson for parents in what not to do for their LGBTQ+ children. It also presents an alternative method of making space for the survivors in our lives, and survivors themselves.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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