The Magazine

Pedophilia Chic, Part 2

Jun 17, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 39 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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A GOOD WORD FOR NAMBLA

The most overt attempt by a hip journal to give pedophiles a place at the table came in the form of a May 8, 1995, "Washington Diarist" in the New Republic by Hanna Rosin entitled "Chickenhawk." Ostensibly inspired by a " riveting" documentary of the same name about the North American Man-Boy Love Association, "Chickenhawk" opens with the following quote from the film's star, a real-life pedophile named Leyland Stevenson: "He's just like a flower in bloom. He's at that perfect stage, in which he is hermaphroditic. . . . He's in that wonderful limbo between being a child and an adolescent--he's certainly an adolescent, but he has that weird feminine grace about him."

Stevenson, of course, is talking about a little boy. It is a quote intended to jolt the reader, and no doubt for most readers it still does. Having already invited the reader to imagine a child as seen through the eyes of a pedophile, Rosin then proceeds to something more avant-garde still: a chatty review of man-boy love and of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (whose informal motto, as some readers may know, is "Eight is too late").

"Chickenhawk," the author explains, "is worth seeing" because it " succeeds, at least partially, in making monsters human." Though it may be true that Leyland Stevenson is "every mother's worst nightmare," it is also true--at least true according to Hanna Rosin--that Stevenson and his fellow NAMBLA members have gotten an unnecessarily bad rap. "There are no steamy orgies" in the documentary, she notes dryly, "or bound-up boys languishing in NAMBLA's basement." NAMBLA itself, she casually explains, "functions mainly as a support group for fantasizers, with the requisite forums for victim-bonding." Like members of any other group united by common interests, its rank and file have their humdrum clubby moments; they hold roundtables (where they "hug and share persecution stories"), solicit subscriptions, exchange "bulletins." Not only are these activities benign, it seems, but their propriety is enforced by the club itself. "Group policy," we are assured, "strictly forbids contact with live boys or even illicit pictures on the premises."

Next, Rosin praises NAMBLA's "bravery." "After all," she writes, "it is still heresy even to consider the possibility of the legitimacy of their feelings." Today's pedophiles, she reminds us, live in especially unfriendly times. Politically, things could hardly be worse; witness the tough language on child pornography in the Contract with America. Even President Clinton, she notes sarcastically, "was cowed into taking a courageous stand against 'softness on child pornography.'" Yet NAMBLA, despite it all, continues pluckily on: "keeping all their activities above board"--even publishing their New York phone number.

Just as the grownups of NAMBLA turn out to be more innocent than one might expect, the boys, for their part, seem to be far more sophisticated. As Rosin reasons, "it might even be that a budding young stud had the upper hand over the aging, overweight loner." And how old does a boy have to be, in the Rosin/ NAMBLA view, to qualify for "budding young stud" status? Sixteen? Fourteen? Twelve? No? Well, how about ten?

One NAMBLA member in his 20s, an enticing blond with slits for blue eyes, describes a sexual experience he had with a karate instructor when he was 10. "I came on to him. I knew what I was doing. I felt very empowered. I felt I controlled the relationship, which is a good thing for a kid. It dispels the belief that adults are always in power in such relationships. You know, I led him around. I was the one in power."

Well, boys just want to have fun--or, as the New Republic seems to have it, just boys want to have fun. It is "plausible," Rosin muses, that "a teenage boy [emphasis added] might agree to sex with an older man." Similarly, though she notes approvingly that, for example, the age of consent in the Netherlands is twelve, she nowhere advocates changing the age-of- consent laws for girls. And she certainly shies away from suggesting that the figure of the "budding young stud" might be interchangeable with that of a " budding young slut"--a phrase whose appearance would surely have incurred the wrath of a good many New Republic readers. "Chickenhawk" itself, interestingly enough, passed almost without comment from those same subscribers.

'KIDS WANT TO PLEASE YOU'

Actually, these latest attempts to manage a good word for pedophilia are not quite as au courant as they first appear. Similar themes have been floated for years by a number of self-described, self-consciously gay writers--and not only by those on the cultural fringe, but by several who have crossed over to the mainstream literary market.

Perhaps the most prominent of these writers is the acclaimed novelist and essayist Edmund White. The author of a number of enthusiastically received novels--"Forgetting Elena," "A Boy's Own Story," and "The Beautiful Room Is Empty"--White has also had a brilliant career as an editor and essayist. He has worked at Saturday Review and Horizon, been a contributing editor to Vogue and House and Garden, and written for publications ranging from the New York Times Magazine to Christopher Street. In 1980, a number of his pieces reflecting on post-liberation gay life were collected into yet another critically acclaimed book called "States of Desire: Travels in Gay America."

On account of its historical timing alone--the book amounts to a city-by- city celebration of gay life published on the very eve of the identification of AIDS--"States of Desire" remains a fascinating and retrospectively poignant sociological document. But it is a work that deserves to be remembered for something else as well: It is probably the most critically acclaimed piece of reportage in which the taboo against pedophilia has been examined at considerable length and judged archaic--a judgment that moreover passed virtually without comment from White's admiring critics. Throughout most of this reflection, White studiously keeps to an Olympian "on the one hand this, on the other hand that" rhetorical monologue--in which one hand, as in most such monologues, consistently manages to get the better of the other.

Pedophilia, White asserts at the outset of this discussion, is "the most controversial issue" in the lives of many in the gay movement. It is also, the reader is led to understand, a terribly complicated subject. As one gay man--ostensibly not himself a pedophile--puts it in words that the author quotes approvingly, "There's no way to answer it [the issue of pedophilia] without exploring it. We need information and time for deliberation. There are no clear answers--who would provide them?"

White is willing to try. "Those who oppose pedophilia," he posits, "argue that the "consent" or seeming cooperation of an eight-year-old is meaningless. " On the other hand, "those who defend pedophilia reply that children are capable, from infancy on, of showing reluctance." Similarly, "critics of pedophilia contend that children are easily manipulated by adults--through threats, through actual force, through verbal coercion, through money." Here again, the other side is allowed the last--and longest--word:

"Champions of pedophilia (and many other people) argue that children are already exploited by adults in our society--they are bullied by their parents, kept in financial and legal subjugation, frequently battered. And they have little legal recourse in attempting to escape punitive adults. . . . They can't vote, they can't drink, they can't run away, they can't enter certain movie theaters, they can't refuse to go to school, they can't disobey curfew laws--and they can't determine their own sexual needs and preferences. Pedophiles find it ironic that our society should be so worked up over the issue of sexual exploitation of children and so unconcerned with all other (and possibly more damaging) forms of exploitation. If anything, the pedophiles argue, sex may be the one way in which children can win serious consideration from adults and function with them on an equal plane; if a child is your lover, you will treat him with respect. [emphasis added]"

And where does our narrator locate himself between these camps? "I am not in the business of recommending guidelines for sex with youngsters," he writes coyly, for "I simply haven't gathered enough information about the various issues involved." At the same time, though--or so the author insists--"the question of sex with children remains"; and White makes a final attempt to get to the bottom of it by interviewing an actual pedophile in a bar in Boston.

This man, the author coolly reports, "has a lover of twelve (he met him when the boy was six)." Far from the voracious predator so feared by the general public, however, our pedophile could scarcely appear more ethereal. He is "thirty-six, dressed in faded denims, his face as innocent and mournful as Petrouchka's. His voice was breathy and light, his manner anxious and almost humble." Lest there be any last doubt of this man's suitability for polite company, White erases it with the ultimate compliment. "I was," he writes candidly, "strongly attracted to him."

There follows a conversation in which the amorous adventures of White's pedophile are fondly recounted. White asks how the man met his present "lover, " and the pedophile replies: "At the beach. He was there with his mother. He came over to me and started talking. You see, the kids must make all the moves." In case that point has been missed, White reiterates it a few lines later, this time asking explicitly: "Did your friend take the sexual initiative with you?" "Absolutely," Petrouchka affirms, adding, "I've been into kids since I was twenty-two, and in every case the kids were the aggressors."

"What do you two do in bed?" White next inquires. There follows a graphic description, which the pedophile concludes on a mournful note. For there is, as it turns out here, at least one problem with man-boy love that most readers may not have anticipated: namely, that the kids are too loving. " My last lover," the pedophile explains, "told me that he didn't like getting f--d. 'Why didn't you tell me?' I asked. 'Because you liked it so much--I wanted to please you.' That's the problem; kids want to please you."

A second writer who has explicitly addressed the matter of men and boys, this time adolescents, is Larry Kramer, author of the hugely celebrated AIDS play "The Normal Heart" and of an earlier novel called "Faggots" (1978), one of the classics of the postliberation gay genre. The comparison between Kramer and White is particularly useful insofar as the two authors differ markedly in a number of important ways. Kramer's authorial perspective, as well as his political persona (he is a well-known activist and co-founder of the New York Gay Men's Health Crisis), have made him something of an anomaly in his chosen circles. Between the 1970s and the dawn of AIDS, at a time when most gay figures were proclaiming the joys of post-Stonewall "liberation," Kramer, for his part, was nearly alone in emphasizing its dark side. "Faggots," for example--a controversial book then and now concerns the plight of a man looking for homosexual love in the hedonistic heyday of Manhattan and Fire Island. Kramer includes a number of scenes in which older men drug, flatter, and seduce teenage boys. Most prominent among these is a 16-year-old named Timmy, who is initiated into the high life at a party by a series of experienced men and finally "devoured" by ten at one time. In the course of this brutal description--one of several in the book involving adolescent boys--Kramer repeatedly invokes the appeal of Timmy's "beauty," his "teenage skin," his status as "forbidden fruit." One by one, the men at the party succumb to Timmy's charms, including even the most macho of them all ("the Winston Man"), who finds himself "excited in a way that he has not been since" high school.

Timmy's fate in the course of the book, it should be added, is not a happy one. Is Kramer implying that such is the price paid for decadence, or is there tacit empathy in his depictions of Timmy's many would-be "fathers"? It is left to the reader to guess. Much less ambiguous, at any rate, is the role played by Timmy and other "youngsters" in the world that "Faggots" portrays.

Another celebrated gay author who broached the subject of sex with minors is the late Paul Monette. Monette's 1988 book "Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir" garnered a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination and was acclaimed by many as "one of the most eloquent works to come out of the AIDS epidemic" (USA Today). His 1992 book "Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story" won the National Book Award. It is in this volume that Monette, like Edmund White before him, puts forth what would once have been a controversial thesis about the sexual wants of prepubescent boys. "Nine is not too young to feel the tribal call," he notes early on while recollecting his own childhood adventures with a boy his age. "Nine and a half is old enough," he repeats later, adding the by-now familiar note that "for me at least, it was a victory of innocence over a world of oppression."

Several chapters later, while reminiscing about an aborted affair he had with a high-school student while teaching at a boarding school, Monette sounds another theme that once would have been guaranteed to shock: that of the predatory, empowered adolescent. "Behind the gritted teeth of passion," writes the author of his first sexual encounter with a particular boy, "I heard the ripple of laughter, so one of us must have been having fun. Must've been Greg, for I was too busy feeding on sin and death to play."

"It was Greg who always chose the time," he continues, adding dramatically, "I stood ready to drop whatever I was doing. . . . I lived in thrall to Greg's unpredictable needs."

That is not to say that Monette, at the time, felt himself relieved of responsibility for the affair--far from it. "If I am particular about the fact of being seduced--putting it all on him, the will and the dare and then the control--it doesn't mean I didn't feel the guilt. . . . I had become the thing the heteros secretly believe about everyone gay--a predator, a recruiter, an indoctrinator of boys into acts of darkness." But this self-recrimination, he goes on to reveal, was simply false consciousness. For finally, "I don't think that now. Twenty years of listening to gay men recount their own adolescent seductions of older guys has put it all in a different light."

Have all these trial balloons just passed without comment over the public head? One of the few critics to have taken notice is Bruce Bawer, who in his 1993 book "A Place at the Table" castigates Edmund White in particular for his advocacy of man-boy sex. Such radicalism, Bawer argues, is part of the twisted legacy of the closet--a legacy that has forced "subculture" writers like White to evermore in-your-face positions on account of their oppression by the rest of society.

But writers have from time immemorial endured oppression--including jail time and execution--without leaping to the defense of pedophilia. And what kind of "oppression" is it, exactly, that confers fame, fortune, critical raves, national awards, and--in the case of Edmund White--a Guggenheim fellowship and anointment as a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres?

PEDOPHILE SCIENCE

Actually, even the likes of White were being more derivative than they would ever like to believe. Hands down, if you'll pardon the expression, the real big daddy of pedophilia chic could only be the long-dead Alfred C. Kinsey. As Judith A. Reisman and Edward W. Eichel point out in their 1990 expose "Kinsey, Sex and Fraud," "It is Kinsey's work which established the notion of "normal" childhood sexual desire"--a notion that, as their book documents, was field-tested on the bodies of hundreds of children, most of them boys, in ways that might today be considered imprisonable offenses.

How did Kinsey and his team get away with it? "As we can see now," wrote Tom Bethell in his excellent review of the Kinsey facts for the May 1996 American Spectator, "science had vast prestige at the time and Kinsey exploited it. Any perversion could be concealed beneath the scientist's smock and the posture of detached observation."

Yet if Kinsey is now suffering a public disrobing, his intellectual heirs display their researches still. For a final model of pedophilia chic--this one tricked out with all the requisite charts, tables, models, and talk of methodology--consider a volume published in 1993 by Prometheus Books. As its name seems to suggest, Prometheus is a publishing house of cutting-edge aspiration, whose backlist reveals its focus on issues like paranormal psychology, freethinking, and humanism. And, oh yes, a trans-Atlantic exploration of the virtues of pederasty called Children's Sexual Encounters with Adults: A Scientific Study, by a trio identified as C.K. Li ("a clinical psychologist in Paisley, Scotland"), D.J. West ("Emeritus Professor of Clinical Criminology at Cambridge University"), and T.P Woodhouse ("a criminological research worker in Ealing, England").

Like our other pioneering looks at sex with kiddies, Children's Sexual Encounters with Adults is sexually biased, concentrating as it does on the " startling contrast" between boys and girls when it comes to sex with grownups. ("Surveys," as the authors explain at some length, "find that on the whole boys are less likely than girls to experience bad effects attributable to sexual incidents with adults.") It is not sexual contacts per se that pose problems for children, the authors argue, but rather the cultural prejudices by which most members of society judge such acts. "The damaging effects on children of intimate but non-penetrative contacts with adults," note the authors in a section on "cultural relativity,. . . . are clearly psychological rather than physical and to a considerable extent dependent upon how such situations are viewed in the society in which the child has been brought up."

Again, and as Hanna Rosin and NAMBLA fans everywhere will appreciate, the study also emphasizes the positive side of man-boy love for the boy in question. As one typical paragraph has it:

"There is a considerable amount of evidence that some boys are quite happy in relationships with adult homosexual men so long as the affair does not come to light and cause scandal or police action. . . . The great majority [of boys in a 1987 'study'] came from apparently normal homes, but were pleased to have additional attention and patronage from a devoted adult and willingly went along with his sexual requirements."

Parents everywhere will be relieved to learn that pedophiles themselves are not the predators of popular imaginings, but congenial well-wishers much like Edmund White's alluring Petrouchka. "Men who approach boys," the social scientists write in conclusion, "are generally looking for what amounts to a love relationship." Thus, "they employ gradual and gentle persuasion. The average pederast is no more seeking a rape-style confrontation than is the average heterosexual when looking for a congenial adult partner . . ."

At a time when almost every kind of advocacy comes equipped with statistical batteries, it should come as no surprise that pedophiles and their allies, too, have acquired their own pseudo-scientific apparatus. Only the unsophisticated would be surprised to find such a numerological polemic put forward by a reputable publishing house and advertised in the Barnes and Noble book catalog. But then, only the unsophisticated stand in need of the reeducation its pages offer. And there, to return to the figure of Larry Don McQuay, is where the matter of pedophilia chic would seem to stand. In one corner, enraged parents from across the country screaming for help in protecting their children; in the other, desiccated salonistes who have taken to wondering languidly whether a taste for children's flesh is really so indefensible after all. And they wonder why there's a culture war.

Mary Eberstadt is adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute.