‘May December’ highlights serious consequences of childhood sexual abuse

Key Takeaways

  • The Golden Globe-nominated film, loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau story, shows the “power imbalance” in relationships that start between a child and an adult, said one Northeastern expert.

There’s a scene in the new Netflix movie “May December ” in which Gracie asks her husband, Joe, who had the power when their relationship began. She insists he did — despite the fact he was just 13 when the two of them had sex for the first time.

If the premise and the conversation sound familiar, it’s because it’s similar to an interview with Mary Kay Letourneau, a former teacher who made headlines in the 1990s for having a relationship with her then-12-year-old student. She served over seven years in prison for second-degree rape of a child and went on to marry her student after being released.

“May December” is loosely based on the story of Letourneau, who raised two children with her former student before the couple split in 2019. The film, which was nominated for a Golden Globe, follows the relationship between Gracie and Joe, a married couple who met working at a pet store when Joe was a teen. Like Letourneau, Gracie was imprisoned for statutory rape before marrying Joe and raising a family with him.

The movie, which came out on Netflix this month, highlights how there is an inherent power imbalance in relationships that begin between a child and an adult, even after the minor ages, said Beth Molnar, a social and psychiatric epidemiologist specializing in trauma and director of the Ph.D. program in population health at Northeastern University. This might have an effect on the victims who don’t always realize the unhealthy power dynamics in their relationship until years later.