It was the year I turned fifteen- 2005- and also the year the movie Hard Candy was released. Starring Ellen Page as Hayley, an antihero, it was a kind of tragic revenge film that explored consent in a way I had never seen before.
I won’t spoil the movie, only to say that Hayley traps a pedophile and spends a night torturing him. The film ends at dawn with Hayley running through pathologically manicured upper class backyards, climbing fences and rolling down hills filled with lemon trees while “Elephant Woman” by Blonde Redhead plays.
It was the first time I made the connection between consent and power.
At the time Hard Candy was released, Ellen Page hadn’t yet come out of the closet. I knew she was queer though. Maybe it was her awkward half-smile in every paparazzi photograph - a smile filled with the same shame I saw when I smiled in the mirror. Or maybe it was the way her shoulders slumped forward as if her body was bound in chains. I saw her the way I saw myself; ungodly. The exhaustion that I felt in constantly looking over my shoulder, afraid of being found out as some sort of worthless immoral waste was reflected back to me in her eyes.
A few months before I saw Hard Candy, I started the complex journey of exploring my queerness. Being assigned male at birth, all I knew about gay men was what little representation I had seen in media: The funny yet disposable sidekick in sitcoms, the sex-crazed guest on Jerry Springer, or the sad, dying HIV+ leper on Oprah. I stole my older brother’s passport so that I could go to gay nightclubs. Luckily, we have a strong family resemblance and bouncers never looked twice.
I would enter these dark establishments filled with mostly old men standing around drinking. I remember seeing two men kissing openly for the first time in my life and feeling frightened by this blatant public display. Cheesy 90’s gay porn would play on TV’s placed above the bar and in dusty corners. I would go up to the bar and order a Long Island Iced Tea and sit at an empty booth fascinated by the plotlines of the porn. One was called “Horny House Husbands” and every scene was always the same: Some guy’s wife would go to work and then he would go outside to water the lawn only to start up a conversation with the neighbor, whose wife had also gone to work. Conversation about sports would quickly escalate to hardcore bareback sex with such lines as “I bet your wife can’t do this.” and “Take it like a real man.” The misogyny was blatant.
Keeping my eyes locked on what was happening on the bar TV allowed me to avoid eye contact with anyone. I was scared to death of speaking to a single person. I still felt the weight of shame upon my shoulders with the instinct to keep trying to pass as straight heavy in my throat. I don’t think I had ever talked to another gay person before. Eventually someone would always stumble over to me and start up a conversation.
My body would shake as I sipped my drink, trying to think of what to say. At some point the topic of my age would come up and I always gave the same answer: “I’m fifteen, but I got in with my brother’s ID.” I thought this would deter them from speaking with me but that never happened. Instead, it would entice them.
Almost all the men I would encounter were over the age of thirty. Many were over the age of fifty. They would buy me drinks, which lead to shots, which lead to us doing drugs in the bathroom. At some point they would ask me back to their apartments. I only realized this meant that we were going to have sex until after it happened the first time. I hadn’t yet realized sex was a commodity, naively thinking you don’t have sex with someone you just met.
A week before Hard Candy was released, I had gone out to an after hours gay bar and blacked out. I woke up disoriented in a strange man’s bed. He made me breakfast - fried eggs on top of Eggo waffles because he had run out of bread. He told me what a wonderful time we had and how beautiful my eyes were. I quickly left to take the bus home where I proceeded to scrub every inch of my body in a scalding hot shower.
I didn’t think I would ever return to any of those bars again. I felt embarrassed, as if I had done something wrong. Things soon took a turn a month later when Hard Candy was released.
I used to skip school and go to the movies a lot. I would look at the marquee and pick based on the poster. The poster for Hard Candy depicted Ellen Page in a red hooded sweatshirt standing inside a giant bear trap - an allusion to Little Red Riding Hood. It immediately grabbed my attention. I watched as Ellen Page’s character, Hayley, met up with an older man at a coffee shop that she had been talking to online. She pretended to be into him, disclosed that she was underage, and then went with him back to his house. Hayley then proceeded to drug and torture him, revealing her intentions were revenge for all the other underage girls he had picked up online. At one point she says to him “We are children, we can’t consent.”
At the end of the movie I sat in the theatre and sobbed. It was the first time I realized I had been raped. I was flooded with emotion as I realized that my exploration into my queerness had all been exploitation. For months I thought I held power but when the concept of consent was brought to my attention through Hard Candy, I realized the extent of the abuse I had experienced.
Hard Candy taught me that there is a very thin line between predator and prey. I decided to become the predator, and, like Hayley, I was going to take my revenge.
The bars became my battleground. I would wait to be approached, disclose my age, flirt, then go back to these older men's apartments. We would have sex but instead of leaving afterwards as I did before, I would ask to sleep over. I would pretend to be sleeping until I felt sure they were asleep. I would carefully climb out of their bed and begin the process of robbing them. I would take anything that could fit in my backpack. Wallets, drugs, cash, even entire CD collections (remember, it was 2005, CDs were everywhere). I knew that they couldn’t call the cops on me, because then they would have to admit to statutory rape. Every $20 bill I took felt like a little piece of myself that I was reclaiming.
This continued for several months until one incident where the guy woke up in the middle of my robbery. He pushed me down to the ground and held a knife to my throat and told me that if he ever saw me again I would be dead. That was the moment where I realized how risky my actions had been. I had turned a corner into violence and it scared me away from going back to any of those dark and dusty gay bars again.
What definitely isn’t talked about in media is that the male gay community is filled with pedophilia that goes unchecked. The concept of man-boy love is widely accepted and fetishized. While this isn’t universally true, it’s more present than most think.
Hard Candy taught me about consent. It also taught me the perils of revenge. I look back on that year as traumatic, yet somehow Hard Candy allowed me to turn a traumatic experience into one that I look back on today as more empowering than destructive. I am grateful for that. Consent is not black and white. Like the ocean, it is shades of grey; unending, with giant waves and a violent undertow.
Sometimes I will walk past some of the men I had robbed fifteen years ago. I always recognize them, sometimes I even remember what I stole from them. I think about what they stole from me. They never recognize me - or at least they never acknowledge me. I wonder if it’s because my face has found its adult form. Maybe it’s because I carry myself differently, having finally broken the chains of shame that bound my body. Every time I see one of them, “Elephant Woman” plays in my head.