The Magazine

Pedophilia Chic, Part 2

Jun 17, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 39 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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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.


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.