The Magazine

"Pedophilia Chic" Reconsidered;

The taboo against sex with children continues to erode

Jan 1, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 16 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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Until very, very recently, public questioning of the social prohibition against pedophilia -- to say nothing of positive celebration of child molestation -- was practically non-existent in American life. The reasons why are not opaque. To most people, the very word "pedophilia" summons forth a preternatural degree of horror and revulsion; and the criminal law that reflects those reactions has consistently treated the sexual molestation of minors as a serious and eminently punishable offense. So it is small wonder that, historically speaking, the taboo against using legal minors for sex was no more publicly controversial in the United States than the prohibitions against, say, cannibalism or bestiality. Those few partisans of the idea who did sometimes sally forth customarily found themselves regarded as the lowest of the social low, even by the criminal class.

This social consensus against the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, however -- unlike those against, say, animal sex or incest -- is apparently eroding, and this regardless of the fact that the vast majority of citizens do overwhelmingly abominate the thing. For elsewhere in the public square, the defense of adult-child sex -- more accurately, man-boy sex -- is now out in the open. Moreover, it is on parade in a number of places -- therapeutic, literary, and academic circles; mainstream publishing houses and journals and magazines and bookstores -- where the mere appearance of such ideas would until recently have been not only unthinkable, but in many cases, subject to prosecution.

Dramatic though this turnaround may be, it did not happen overnight. Four years ago in these pages, in an essay called "Pedophilia Chic," I described in some detail a number of then-recent public challenges to this particular taboo, all of them apparently isolated from one another. n1 Plainly, as the record even then showed, a surprising number of voices were willing to rise up on behalf of what advocates refer to as "man-boy love," or what most people call sexual abuse.

n1 These included, among other events and soundings, a much-publicized Calvin Klein ad campaign that paid homage to the conventions of child pornography; the publication by a reputable publisher, Prometheus Books, of a book advocating "intergenerational intimacy," i.e. pedophilia; a still-notorious piece in the May 8, 1995, New Republic praising NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, for its "bravery" and suggesting that we lower the age of consent for boys; a sympathetic profile in Vanity Fair of a convicted child pornography trafficker; a sympathetic profile of a pedophile in a celebrated book by author Edmund White; and a review of the writings of several prominent gay authors, all published and acclaimed in mainstream circles, whose books featured sex scenes between men and underage boys. Literary critic Bruce Bawer was a minority voice objecting to the latter trend. See "Pedophilia Chic," THE WEEKLY STANDARD, June 17, 1996.

Yet while the examples themselves were easy enough to document, their larger meaning seemed far from clear. Why, in a post-Cold War world bursting with real political controversies, were some people intent on insisting that the time had come to rethink an issue that most people already vehemently, passionately, agreed about? And why was the taboo against pedophilia under particular pressure in the mid-1990s, of all times -- an interval when, readers will recall, public attention to the sexual abuse of girl children had simultaneously reached an all-time high? Perhaps, or so it seemed reasonable to speculate, all that really lay behind these efforts was just that familiar postmodern idol, shock value. Perhaps this "pedophilia chic," I guessed then, was simply "the last gasp of a nihilism that has exhausted itself by chasing down every other avenue of liberation, only to find one last roadblock still manned by the bourgeoisie."