"Pedophilia Chic" Reconsidered
The taboo against sex with children continues to erode.
Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By MARY EBERSTADT
UNTIL VERY, VERY RECENTLY, public questioning of the social prohibition against pedophilia--to say nothing of positive celebration of child molestation--was practically non-existent in American life. The reasons why are not opaque. To most people, the very word "pedophilia" summons forth a preternatural degree of horror and revulsion; and the criminal law that reflects those reactions has consistently treated the sexual molestation of minors as a serious and eminently punishable offense. So it is small wonder that, historically speaking, the taboo against using legal minors for sex was no more publicly controversial in the United States than the prohibitions against, say, cannibalism or bestiality. Those few partisans of the idea who did sometimes sally forth customarily found themselves regarded as the lowest of the social low, even by the criminal class.
This social consensus against the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, however--unlike those against, say, animal sex or incest--is apparently eroding, and this regardless of the fact that the vast majority of citizens do overwhelmingly abominate the thing. For elsewhere in the public square, the defense of adult-child sex--more accurately, man-boy sex--is now out in the open. Moreover, it is on parade in a number of places--therapeutic, literary, and academic circles; mainstream publishing houses and journals and magazines and bookstores--where the mere appearance of such ideas would until recently have been not only unthinkable, but in many cases, subject to prosecution.
Dramatic though this turnaround may be, it did not happen overnight. Four years ago in these pages, in an essay called "Pedophilia Chic," I described in some detail a number of then-recent public challenges to this particular taboo, all of them apparently isolated from one another.1 Plainly, as the record even then showed, a surprising number of voices were willing to rise up on behalf of what advocates refer to as "man-boy love," or what most people call sexual abuse.
Yet while the examples themselves were easy enough to document, their larger meaning seemed far from clear. Why, in a post-Cold War world bursting with real political controversies, were some people intent on insisting that the time had come to rethink an issue that most people already vehemently, passionately, agreed about? And why was the taboo against pedophilia under particular pressure in the mid-1990s, of all times--an interval when, readers will recall, public attention to the sexual abuse of girl children had simultaneously reached an all-time high? Perhaps, or so it seemed reasonable to speculate, all that really lay behind these efforts was just that familiar postmodern idol, shock value. Perhaps this "pedophilia chic," I guessed then, was simply "the last gasp of a nihilism that has exhausted itself by chasing down every other avenue of liberation, only to find one last roadblock still manned by the bourgeoisie."
Four-plus years and many other challenges to the same taboo later, it is clear that this hypothesis got something wrong. For one thing, no sustained public challenges have arisen over other primal taboos. Even more telling, if nihilism and nihilism alone were the explanation for public attempts to legitimize sex with boy children, then we would expect the appearance of related attempts to legitimize sex with girl children; and these we manifestly do not see.2 Nobody, but nobody, has been allowed to make the case for girl pedophilia with the backing of any reputable institution. Publishing houses are not putting out acclaimed anthologies and works of fiction that include excerpts of men having sex with young girls. Psychologists and psychiatrists are not competing with each other to publish studies demonstrating that the sexual abuse of girls is inconsequential; or, indeed, that it ought not even be defined as "abuse."
Two examples from the last few weeks will suffice to show the double standard here. In the November 12 New York Times Book Review, a writer found it unremarkable to observe of his subject, biographer Gavin Lambert, that when "Lambert was a schoolboy of 11, a teacher initiated him [into homosexuality], and he 'felt no shame or fear, only gratitude.'" It is unimaginable that New York Times editors would allow a reviewer to describe an 11-year-old girl being sexually "initiated" by any adult (in that case, "initiation" would be called "sexual abuse"). Similarly, in mid-December the New York Times Magazine delivered a cover piece about gay teenagers in cyberspace which was so blase about the older men who seek out boys in chat rooms that it dismissed those potential predators as mere "oldies." Again, one can only imagine the public outcry had the same magazine published a story taking the same so-what approach to online solicitation, off-line trysts, and pornography "sharing" between anonymous men and underage girls.
No: As was true four years ago, contemporary efforts to rationalize, legitimize, and justify pedophilia are about boys. Forget about abstractions like nihilism; what the record shows is something more prosaic. The reason why the public is being urged to reconsider boy pedophilia is that this "question," settled though it may be in the opinions and laws of the rest of the country, is demonstrably not yet settled within certain parts of the gay rights movement. The more that movement has entered the mainstream, the more this "question" has bubbled forth from that previously distant realm into the public square. It should go without saying, though under the circumstances it cannot, that many, many leaders and members of that movement draw a firm line at consenting adults, want no part of any such "debate," and are in fact disgusted and appalled by it. Then there are other opinions.
Let us begin with one recent public challenge to the taboo against pedophilia that did garner the public attention it deserved, albeit belatedly, and which demonstrates both the boy-specific character of today's revisionism and the gulf between popular and other views of the subject. This was the episode that began with the publication in July 1998 of an essay in the American Psychological Association's (APA) prestigious Psychological Bulletin called "A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples" and co-authored by Bruce Rind (Temple University), Robert Bauserman (University of Michigan), and Philip Tromovitch (University of Pennsylvania).
The density of its professional jargon and 30-plus pages aside, the argument of "Meta-Analytic" was straightforward enough: that the common belief that "child sexual abuse causes intense harm, regardless of gender" was not supported by the studies the authors cited; that, to the contrary, "negative effects [of child sexual abuse] were neither pervasive nor typically intense, and that men reacted much less negatively than women." The article also criticized the "indiscriminate use of this term [child sexual abuse] and related terms such as victim and perpetrator," suggesting instead that the child's feelings about sex acts with adults should be taken into account, and that "a willing encounter with positive reactions would be labeled simply adult-child sex."
What was equally radical about "Meta-Analytic," though less discussed at the time, was its specific comparison of pedophilia to "behaviors such as masturbation, homosexuality, fellatio, cunnilingus, and sexual promiscuity." All such, the authors noted, "were codified as pathological in the first edition of the American Psychiatric Association's (1952) 'Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders'"; and all are so codified no more. What this analogy tacitly suggested, of course, was the assurance that pedophilia, too, would someday take its place at the liberationist table. In the meantime, as the authors put it, "This history of conflating morality and law with science in the area of human sexuality by psychologists and others indicates a strong need for caution in scientific inquiries of sexual behaviors that remain taboo, with child sexual abuse being a prime example [emphasis added]."
As MIT psychologist G. E. Zuriff observed later in an essay for the Public Interest, "It is not difficult to see how these ideas would antagonize not only Dr. Laura [Schlessinger] but the public at large." For although the incendiary potential of asking people to give pedophilia a second look may or may not have been grasped by the APA authorities who accepted the article for publication, no such ambiguity marked the reaction of the lay public. Most people were made aware of "Meta-Analytic" in March 1999, when Schlessinger devoted the first of two radio talks to attacking the article, and their own livid view of the matter was made known in the course of a multi-dimensional public uproar that took months to die down. The denouement was a series of unusual events, including a public castigation of the American Psychological Association by majority whip Tom DeLay; a House vote to condemn the "Meta-Analytic" essay itself (355-0, with 13 abstentions); and a highly unusual public rejection by the APA of the piece's conclusions, along with a promise to acquire an independent evaluation of the article.
In retrospect, there were two significant and little-noticed facts in all this. One was not so much the schism that this controversy revealed between elite-therapeutic and popular thinking about pedophilia, but rather that the schism itself had gone unnoticed for so long. For shocking though it may have been to the general public, "Meta-Analytic" was in fact only the latest in a very long series of professional attempts to revise therapeutic conceptions of boy pedophilia, attempts of which most lay readers remain quite ignorant.
Professionals in the field know better. Fifteen years ago, for example, in his careful research volume "Child Sexual Abuse," noted authority David Finkelhor was already drawing attention to the "body of opinion and research [that] has emerged in recent years which is trying hard to vindicate homosexual pedophilia." To read Finkelhor's sources on the subject--or, for that matter, to read the notes in the heavily sourced "Meta-Analytic" itself--is to see exactly what he means. In their call to redefine "abuse" as "contact," for example, Rind, Bauserman, and Tromovitch were merely resurrecting research and conceptual work stretching back over two decades; similarly, their distinctions between boys' and girls' supposed experiences of abuse have a pedigree that begins with Kinsey and branches out dramatically in professional publications of the last 25 years. The authors of "Meta-Analytic" may have made their points boldly enough to get noticed; but that is the only academic novelty to which they could truly lay claim. The real news about the normalization of pedophilia displayed in "Meta-Analytic" was that nothing about it was conceptually new.
The second peculiarity of the outrage over "Meta-Analytic," which also went unnoticed at the time, was that it was not, in fact, universally shared. The notorious North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), predictably enough, cheered the study as "good news." Less explicable was the reaction within the gay press, which not only failed to distance its movement from the study, but went on to excoriate the APA's critics (particularly Laura Schlessinger). This was the same approach taken, independently, by at least two mainstream--and relatively conservative--gay journalists.
Writing in the New York Times Magazine, prominent author and activist Andrew Sullivan complained about the "sour reception" that had greeted the study. After all, he wrote, Rind et al. had found that "lasting psychological trauma among adult survivors of abuse, particularly for men, was much less than feared." This, according to Sullivan, should be "a reason for relief." Instead, and what he evidently found disagreeable, "outraged members of the religious right accused the APA of tolerating pedophilia" and "launched a crusade to punish the organization." He concluded sarcastically: "That'll teach them to look on the bright side."
Another writer outraged over the outrage about "Meta-Analytic" was respected reporter and political analyst Jonathan Rauch. In his commentary on the controversy published in the National Journal, Rauch roundly defended the study. It was the critics of the "Meta-Analytic" piece, Rauch wrote, who were "turning out stomach-churning stuff." The vote in Congress--as opposed, say, to what Rind et al. had written--was "faintly sinister." Like the authors of the piece itself, Rauch advocated that, in the name of "science," researchers should "abandon the current custom of referring to all adult sexual encounters with minors, regardless of the circumstances, as 'child sexual abuse,'" because they could "perform finer-grained analyses if they used 'abuse' to denigrate injurious or unwilling encounters. Other encounters," Rauch echoed, "could be called 'adult-child sex' or 'adult-adolescent sex.'"
To his credit, Rauch did report that "in 1989, when he was 23 and just out of college, Bauserman [one of the Meta-Analytic authors] published a cross-cultural comparison of attitudes toward man-boy sexual relations in a Dutch journal called Paidika." This journal, in Rauch's description, "had taken pro-pedophilia stands"--something which he admitted "raises red flags."
But at the same time Rauch, like Sullivan, avoided the real issue at hand--that "Meta-Analytic" quite obviously aimed at de-stigmatizing boy pedophilia itself. Even more startling, though, was his bland depiction of Paidika. This is not exactly a journal in which pro-pedophile ideas have somehow surfaced accidentally. It is a publication dedicated to the phenomenon of "boy-loving," the most prominent such "scholarly journal" in the world, whose longtime editor, the late Edward Brongersma, was a convicted pedophile as well as the author of a two-volume pedophile classic, "Loving Boys." (To describe this as a journal which "had taken pro-pedophilia stands" is akin to describing The Weekly Standard as a magazine where conservative arguments have reportedly appeared.) And, of course, the qualifier "23 and just out of college" served to soften Bauserman's earlier appearance in Paidika, suggesting it was an excess of youth.
Both Sullivan and Rauch are not only prominent gay journalists but also leading proponents of the worldview to which the gay rights movement owes much of its recent and stunning political success--the argument that, as Sullivan's "Virtually Normal" puts it, "homosexuals . . . have the equivalent emotional needs and temptations of heterosexuals." Both writers are also members of the Independent Gay Forum, an institution aimed at "forging a mainstream identity"; and both have frequently broken ranks with the leftists and radicals who dominate gay activism. That two such mainstream authors should mock the public outcry against that APA article illustrates something noteworthy: that in place of a social consensus against pedophilia per se, a separate option--call it anti-anti-pedophilia--appears to have taken root. According to that view, the problem is less sex with minors than the people who declare themselves against it--Dr. Laura fans, congressmen, dissident therapists, religious types, and anyone else who does not grasp the necessity of putting words like "child sexual abuse" in quotes.
In some of the clinical and therapeutic literature on pedophilia, it has become customary to distinguish between "ephebophilia," or sexual attraction to prepubescent children and teenagers, and "pedophilia" proper, meaning attraction to prepubescent children. Both forms are exhibited more than occasionally in another part of the written world, namely gay fiction. "Fiction" here emphatically does not mean pornography as such, but the kind of literature authored by self-consciously gay writers, published by reputable houses, and reviewed respectfully in the mainstream press. Again, it must be emphasized that numerous gay authors of note do not positively portray sex between adults and minors, and ipso facto are not part of this discussion.
Plenty of authors do cross the line, though. "Gay fiction," Philip Guichard complained in an article for the Village Voice last summer, "is rich with idyllic accounts of 'intergenerational relationships,' as such affairs are respectfully called these days." Over four years ago, "Pedophilia Chic" quoted passages from the works of several acclaimed authors--including Edmund White, the late Paul Monette, and Larry Kramer--which frankly and often sympathetically portrayed men seeking and having sex with underage boys. Today there are many more such examples to be found in gay fiction, all verifiable by a trip to the local chain bookstore.
Last year, for example, St. Martins Press published a novel called "The Coming Storm" by Paul Russell, a professor of English at Vassar and the author of three previously well-received works of fiction. The drama of this tale revolves around something that remains an imprisonable offense in almost every state--a sexual "affair" between a troubled 15-year-old boy (Noah) and his 25-year-old gay boarding school teacher (Tracy). (The age of 15, incidentally, is no definitive limit in Russell's narrative. In the course of the book, Tracy also fantasizes about 14-year-old boys.)
"The Coming Storm" became the object of effusive praise by award-winning reviewer Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post Book World (August 15, 1999). "The Coming Storm," Drabelle enthused, "takes off from a sensational subject--forbidden sexuality--to arrive at unexpected heights and subtleties." It "persuades the reader" that "the sexual relationship between Noah and Tracy is not only not harmful to either but a boon to the precocious junior partner, who becomes a better, more engaged student after the affair gets under way." What is "troublesome" about the book, according to Drabelle, is not that anyone is "corrupted" by what happens ("no one is"), but that "it is apt to be stereotyped, not least by the legal system that makes it a crime [emphasis added]."
This cheerleading for the sexual molestation of teenagers in the Sunday pages of one of the country's major newspapers did not pass without comment. One reader berated Drabelle in the letters column for "strongly implying that child abuse, when it takes place between two males, should no longer be viewed by the public as either a social offense or a crime."3 Yet as even a partial survey of related literature shows, what is truly anomalous about this case--of a mainstream reviewer in a mainstream family newspaper ratifying sex between grown men and boys--was that anyone bothered to be bothered about it at all. Other writers, including prominent writers among them, have gone further still, and with even less consequence.
Consider David Leavitt, one of the best known of contemporary gay authors, whose numerous novels and short stories, among them "The Lost Language of Cranes" and, most recently, "Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing," are routinely reviewed in the better journals and magazines. In fact, it would be hard to think of a gay fiction writer more consistently represented in mainstream publishing.
For that reason, it is all the more surprising to read what this ostensibly mainstream author chose to write in his introduction to the equally mainstream "Penguin Book of International Gay Writing" (1995, edited by Mark Mitchell). There, in the course of describing what the anthology includes, Leavitt notes matter-of-factly that "Another 'forbidden' topic from which European writers seem less likely to shrink is the love of older men for young boys." He then draws attention to one particular book excerpted in the volume, "When Jonathan Died," by Tony Duvert. "The coolly assured narrative" of this work, Leavitt informs, "compels the reader to imagine the world from a perspective he might ordinarily condemn." Duvert, writes Leavitt, "offers us a homosexual Lolita--one in which the child is seducer as much as seduced."
The object of this praise by one of America's leading gay novelists, appearing in one of publishing's most prestigious book series, is the tale of a man and boy who are living together in Italy. The scene selected is sexually graphic. And the age of this child, whom Leavitt considers "seducer as much as seduced"? He is--page 427 in the hard cover edition--"hardly seven."
Another seemingly representative collection of gay literature, this one on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and also apparently selling without comment, is "The Gay Canon: Great Books Every Gay Man Should Read," an Anchor Book published by Doubleday in 1998. Its editor/author, Robert Drake, is a novelist and editor of other anthologies who has won the Lambda Literary Award. Like the Penguin anthology edited by Leavitt, Drake's book too strives for canonical status, aspiring to offer a roadmap to the most important texts of gay history.
As it turns out, several of the texts that editor Drake thought worth including feature scenes of man-boy sex--again, what most of the rest of the public calls abuse or molestation. One work is something called "The Carnivorous Lamb" by Agustin Gomez-Arcos, described as a book about an incestuous relationship between a boy and his older brother (to Drake, "the best, most complex yet satisfying novel of filial love ever written"). Another text, this one by writer Matthew Stadler--described as the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship for his first novel--is called "The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee." This book, says editor Drake, "is an operatic adventure into the realms of love, personality, ambition and art . . . a pure joy to read." Its protagonist is "a pedophile's dream: the mind of a man in the body of a boy." Drake also excerpts and discusses William S. Burroughs's nightmarish "The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead," the pederastic violence of which defies description. Yet this work, according to Drake, "tears straight to the heart of one of the greatest sources, community-wide, of 1990s gay angst: What to do with men who love boys?"4
Still another example of how standards are being lowered by a major publisher and respected writer--this one from academia and available at Borders--is "A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition," published in 1998 by Yale University Press. This book, "the first full-scale account of gay male literature, across cultures, languages and from ancient times to the present," is authored by Gregory Woods, described on the jacket as "the foremost gay poet working in Britain today." It includes a longish chapter on "Boys and Boyhood" which is a seemingly definitive account of pro-pedophile literary works, ranging over texts from the platonic "Death in Venice" to the noir likes of the aforementioned Tony Duvert. Nothing is questioned, much less condemned, in the course of Woods's account of these works. The only moral ambiguity that occurs to him concerns not the boy but the man in the equation. Woods concludes: "By playing [i.e., having sex] with boys, the man remains boyish. Whether you regard this as a way of retreating from life or, on the contrary, as a way of engaging with it at its most honest and least corrupted level, depends on which writer you consult at any given time [emphasis added]."