The Magazine

Pedophilia Chic

If you thought sex with children was taboo--think again.

Jun 17, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 39 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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WHEN MOST AMERICANS hear the word "pedophile," they usually think of men like the self-described "child-molesting demon" Larry Don McQuay, who was released from a prison in East Texas in April and driven to San Antonio to begin a closely supervised, but nonetheless semi-free, new life. And when most Americans think of men like McQuay roaming the streets, they react much as did the outraged, screaming-in-the-streets, placard-carrying citizens of San Antonio. About the mildest thing said by one of them was "I sure hope there will be more indictments" to send McQuay back to jail--this, from the chairman of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, under whose auspices McQuay was released. The local victims-rights groups were less restrained. As the president of one such group put it, in a straddle between threat and hope, "In this city, he's not going to be safe"--thus summarizing neatly the vigilante desire that most parents, when contemplating a figure like McQuay, would doubtless second.

In addition to a spate of high-profile cases like McQuay's, the past few years have also witnessed an ongoing public obsession with child abuse in any form; a Congress that, at the urging of the White House and Justice Department, has toughened the penalties for child-pornography trafficking; and Bill Clinton's signing of the constitutionally complicated Megan's Law, which makes it impossible for those once convicted of child-sex offenses to move anonymously into an unsuspecting neighborhood. And yet a funny thing happened on the way to today's intense fear and loathing of Chester the Molester. For even as citizens around the country have sought new ways of keeping the McQuays of the world cordoned off from the rest of us, and even as the public rhetoric about protecting America's children has reached deafening levels, a number of enlightened voices have been raised in defense of giving pedophilia itself a second look.

After all--or so some of these voices have suggested--what if pedophilia is in fact a victimless crime? What if teenagers, and even children, are more in control of their emotions, their bodies, their sexuality, than the rest of us think? What if sexual relations with adults are actually "empowering" to the young? What if pedophiles and would-be pedophiles are in fact victims themselves--exploited by the cunning young people they befriend?

There are also the matters of civil liberty. Is it fair to send people to jail for owning, trading, and obsessively consuming child pornography when no one is really injured by such practices? And what about the notion of an "age of consent"--isn't it an anachronism, in this age of adolescent sexual precocity? Shouldn't it be lowered to a more realistic standard? Say, to fourteen? Thirteen? Twelve?

Once upon a time, the reader losing sleep over questions like these would have had to travel to Times Square, or the local porn shop, or perhaps the nearest branch of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). But no longer. Now he need only subscribe to the right stylish magazines, the right cutting-edge publishers, and be familiar with the work of the right celebrated authors. It is hard to know what to make of these piecemeal attempts--which amount to nothing so elevated as a movement--to rewrite what most of the rest of us persist in thinking about adults whose sexual interests run to kids. Call it the last gasp of anihilism that has exhausted itself by chasing down every other avenue of liberation, only to find one last roadblock still manned by the bourgeoisie. Call it pedophilia chic.


For laymen, the best-known example of this phenomenon was last summer's much-reviled and ultimately abandoned ad campaign for Calvin Klein jeans. In fact, as the record will show, when measured against other recent soundings on the subject of adult-child sex, that ad campaign itself appears--pun intended--mere child's play. But first, a review of the facts.

Just about a year ago, the company launched a series of print and television ads that were, according to almost every critic who reviewed them, bizarrely and upsettingly reminiscent of child pornography. Even for a public made blase by exposure to Calvin Klein's many other provocative images, the seediness of this latest effort proved just too much. There were, first, the images themselves: teenage models--most looking bored, with legs spread apart and underwear revealed--lounging around semi-dressed. There was also the matter of setting. The cheap wood paneling and shag carpets were supposed to suggest a suburban rec room--another visual convention, it seems, of the child-porn genre.