The Magazine

Pedophilia Chic

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

Jun 17, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 39 • By MARY EBERSTADT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

By common consent, the scripts for the TV ads--which ran only in New York before being withdrawn--were even more compelling evidence of the campaign's indebtedness to the pornographic canon. In those ads, an offstage male voice seemed to goad the young models into responding through a combination of wiles and special pleading. "You take direction well--do you like to take direction?" the voice asked a girl. The lines to boys were smuttier still. "You got a real nice look. How old are you? Are you strong? You think you could rip that shirt off of you? That's a real nice body. You work out? I can tell." And so on.

Though girls and boys alike appeared in the ads, it was clear to any savvy viewer that the boys, rather than the girls, were the main event. For one thing, there was nothing really new about the girls. As a critic for Adweek remarked at the time, "Girls have been objectified forever. It's not shocking, sad to say." (It is particularly unshocking in a Calvin Klein jeans campaign; after all, it is now fifteen years since an underage Brooke Shields was used to suggestive effect.)

No, what was new in this latest effort was the question of who those boys were posing for. As James Kaplan noted acidly in New York magazine, " What especially got to many people was the images of the boys, scrawny and white-chested, posing like pin-ups, their cK Calvin Klein jeans partially undone. . . . That was really groundbreaking advertising."

The talent, too, was cutting edge. The ad campaign was shot by the well- known photographer Steven Meisel (who is credited, among other work, with the photos in Madonna's Sex book). Meisel in turn made another personnel choice of celebrity interest. As the Washington Post reported later in September:

"When President Clinton railed against those notorious Calvin Klein ads . . . he probably didn't know that the off-camera voice in the television versions belonged to a gentleman named Lou Maletta--aka the Leather Daddy. Since Calvin Klein proclaimed loudly in his defense that there was no pornographic intent to the ads, Maletta was certainly an interesting casting choice. . . . Maletta, 58, is founder and president of the New York- based Gay Cable Network, which produces 'Gay USA,' a news show; 'In the Dungeon,' 'about the New York leather scene'; and 'Men & Films,' which features excerpts from gay porn videos, and for which Maletta's Leather Daddy character was created."

The next day, the Post was forced to publish a correction: At the last minute, and for reasons unclear, Klein himself decided to replace "Leather Daddy" with a professional voice-over actor. Interesting though that decision may be--at the very least, it does seem to imply an awareness on someone's part that there was such a thing as going too far--it is not nearly as significant a choice as that of commissioning Maletta in the first place. What that choice signified was what any sophisticated viewer would already have discerned--that the ads had an obvious man-boy sexual subtext.

The second interesting fact about the outcome of the Klein affair was the inadvertently revealing rationale put forth by company officials. The main idea seemed to be that teenagers are more sexually sophisticated than many adults want to believe. "The message of the cK Calvin Klein jeans current advertising campaign;" as a full-page ad in the New York Times and elsewhere informed the public, was that "young people today, the most media savvy generation yet, have a real strength of character and independence. They have very strongly defined lines of what they will and will not do . . ." It was this very strength, offcials reiterated, that proved discomfiting to the public at large. "The world," as Klein himself told an interviewer shortly after the ads were pulled, "is seeing a reflection of what's really going on."

In a sense, Calvin Klein got it exactly right. All that ground-breaking advertising was indeed reflecting something real, albeit something very different from what the ex-post-facto explanations claimed. What those ads did mirror was something else: the idea that non-adults (particularly if they are boys) are appropriate sex objects for adults (particularly if they are men).

Contrary to what some critics implied at the time, Calvin Klein and his team did not invent the idea of using man-boy sex to grab public attention; they merely submitted it to a commercial plebiscite. Middle America, to the surprise of the fashion moguls, vote d the campaign down. But Middle America has only been one testing ground for revisionist suggestions about pedophilia. Other, more sophisticated venues have proved more willing to give the subject a second look.