It’s always unnerving when an adult author effectively tells his reader, “Consider these children having sex,” but some books do a better job of justifying it than others (like Edmund White’s gay bildungsroman A Boy’s Own Story). Stephen King’s It, in my estimation, does not do a very good job of justifying a chapter-long scene in which Bev, the sole girl in the Losers’ Club, the group of 11-year-old kids the book is centered on, invites each of the six boys in her misfit clique to have sex with her. It has been described as a “gang bang” and a “full-on kids orgy” in incredulous blog post after incredulous blog post because, even 31 years after the publishing of the novel, it’s still completely bonkers that this ever made it into print.
Wikipedia describes the scene like this:
After the battle, the Losers get lost in the sewers until Beverly has sex with all the boys to bring unity back to the group.
The scene first surfaces as a repressed memory within Bev—she remembers during another sex scene with the adult Bill:
“All of you? I made love to all of you?”
She saw shocked surprise on Bill’s face, the drop of his jaw ... and sudden understanding. But it was not her revelation; even in her own shock she saw that. It was his own.
“Bill? What is it?”
“That was y-y-your way to get us o-out,” he said, and now his eyes blazed so brightly they frightened her. “Beverly, duh-duh-don’t you uh-understand? That was y-y-your way to get us out! We all ... but we were ...” Suddenly he looked frightened, unsure.”
And so, what King presents a few chapters later, in the book’s final stretch, is a depiction of pre-adolescent female sexuality as a functional device—as a means and not an end in itself. This utilitarian view of sexuality, despite operating in something as utterly wild as a group sex scene amongst kids, is ultra conservative in its reinforcement of the idea that female sexuality is meant to serve men, that sex for women operates for the greater good, like making babies or unifying a bunch of guys. And further, that platonic friendship amongst women in men is simply impossible (rereading this, I thought about the Nicki Minaj/Drake/Lil Wayne/Chris Brown song “Only,” in which she asserts that she has not fucked the men in her crew, but if she had, here’s how it would go).
These guys, by the way, do not interact in the scene, leaving some ambiguity as to the setup (is she having one-on-one sex with them or are they silently all watching this?) but ensuring there’s not a whiff of homoeroticism.
I don’t want to repeat King’s utter creepiness and describe this in too much detail, but there are some elements of the scene that deserve mentioning. Again, functioning in misogynist misunderstanding of female sexuality, for at least one of these encounters Bev “feels no physical pleasure, but there is a kind of mental ecstasy in it for her.” When she does feel “some pleasure, dim heat in her childish unmatured sex,” she thinks of birds and resolves that having sex “is what flying is like.” The penis size of the character of Ben is commented on (“is he too big, can she take that into herself?”) and she eventually has an orgasm with him.
King is very deliberate in framing this as all Bev’s decision (“Did she have to talk each of them into it all over again? Yes, probably.”). This scene also, rather clumsily, is tied in to the book’s title:
And she feels the thing begin to happen—something of which the girls who whisper and giggle about sex in the girls’ room have no idea, at least as far as she knows; they only marvel at how gooshy sex must be, and now she realizes that for many of them sex must be some unrealized undefined monster; they refer to the act as It. Would you do It, do your sister and her boyfriend do It, do your mom and dad still do It, and how they never intend to do It; oh yes, you would think that the whole girls’ side of the fifth-grade class was made up of spinsters-to-be, and it is obvious to Beverly that none of them can suspect this ... this conclusion, and she is only kept from screaming by her knowledge that the others will hear and think her badly hurt.
Doing it is...It.
When people write about this scene, as many have over the years, there is one King quote that’s cited again and again via a messageboard on StephenKing.com:
I wasn’t really thinking of the sexual aspect of it. The book dealt with childhood and adulthood —1958 and Grown Ups. The grown ups don’t remember their childhood. None of us remember what we did as children—we think we do, but we don’t remember it as it really happened. Intuitively, the Losers knew they had to be together again. The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood. It’s another version of the glass tunnel that connects the children’s library and the adult library. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.
Yikes, what a non-explanation that is both disingenuous (evidence above ensures that he was thinking about the sexual aspect of it) and a copout (if there is more “sensitivity” to gratuitous depictions of child sex now, it only reflects past failure). And in an interview with Collider, the director of the 2017 version of It, Andy Muschietti, had this to say about not including the scene in his movie:
I think the whole story is a bit of a— approaches the theme of growing up, and the group sex episode in the book is a bit of a metaphor of the end of childhood and into adulthood. And I don’t think it was really needed in the movie, apart that it was very hard to allow us to shoot an orgy in the movie so, I didn’t think it was necessary because the story itself is a bit of a journey, and it illustrates that. And in the end, the replacement for it is the scene with the blood oath, where everyone sort of says goodbye. Spoiler. The blood oath scene is there and it’s the last time they see each other as a group. It’s unspoken. And they don’t know it, but it’s a bit of a foreboding that this is the last time, and being together was a bit of a necessity to beat the monster. Now that the monster recedes, they don’t need to be together. And also because their childhood is ending, and their adulthood is starting. And that’s the bittersweet moment of that sequence.
Plenty of readers have defended this scene—check out the StephenKing.com board for a lively debate on its merits. Yeah, no.