The Magazine

Pedophilia Chic, Part 2

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