The Magazine

"Pedophilia Chic" Reconsidered

The taboo against sex with children continues to erode.

Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By MARY EBERSTADT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

I

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]."