The Magazine

"Pedophilia Chic" Reconsidered

The taboo against sex with children continues to erode.

Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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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."