Mary Eberstadt has an article in First Things titled "How Pedophilia Lost its Cool" in which she assesses the increasing intolerance in our society, even among the liberal elites, for the sexual exploitation of children. You might be shocked to read this thinking that sex with children has always been a taboo, but not so, at least not so among those who fancy themselves enlightened on such matters. Eberstadt offers four examples:
Plainly, the boundaries of public discussion, at least about the subject of sex with youngsters, are more restrictive today than they were in the 1990s. Back then, the toxic moral fallout of the 1960s and 1970s was fresher and lay more visibly in the public square. Fourteen years ago, for example, The New Republic published a short piece called "Chickenhawk" (pedophile slang for a young boy) that discussed a short film about the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The piece expressed sympathy for the pederasts and would-be pederasts depicted and echoed them in asking whether the boys weren't sometimes the predators in man-boy sex. The piece is so damning of itself-so perfectly representative of a time when wondering aloud about "man-boy sex" exacted no penalty from the readers of a major magazine-that one could quote almost any sentence for the desired effect: "It might even be that a budding young stud had the upper hand over the aging, overweight loner," for example.
When it came time this fall to speak about [Roman]Polanski, however, bloggers for the same magazine seemed to compete over who could most thunderously denounce the confessed child rapist and his apologists. Most important, many were not just attacking the idea of sex with girl minors but with all minors, period.
Similarly, seventeen years ago another sophisticated magazine, Vanity Fair, published a whitewashing of a Phillips Exeter Academy teacher who had been caught surreptitiously filming boys in the showers and splicing those images into pornographic movies. The essay not only painted this former teacher as a victim of his accusers but also cast negatively one accuser who had come forward. Along the way, the article conflated pedophilia with homosexuality, blaming the teacher's victimization on a school atmosphere that allegedly left him stuck "in the closet."
The notion that such an apologia could appear in Vanity Fair or any similar venue in 2009 is simply grotesque. To the contrary, this fall that magazine's blog also ran over with commentators weighing in vehemently against Polanski.
Example three: In 1998 the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, printed a subsequently notorious study called "A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples." In it, three researchers took issue with "the common belief that child sexual abuse causes intense harm, regardless of gender." The authors further criticized the use of conventional terms such as victim and perpetrator and recommended that "a willing encounter with positive reactions" be labeled "simply adult-child sex." For good measure, they also compared consensual adult-child sex to "masturbation, homosexuality, fellatio, cunnilingus, and sexual promiscuity"-behaviors the APA once considered pathological but does no more. The clear implication was that "adult-child" sex would someday become as normalized in therapeutic circles as had these predecessors.
Can anyone imagine a similar study being published in a similarly prestigious venue today? A Google search of the APA's website suggests that the last time the word pedophilia was even used there was in 1999-tellingly, in a letter written to Tom DeLay, attempting to distance the institution from the article: "It is the position of the Association," the letter said, "that �sexual activity between children and adults should never be considered or labeled as harmless or acceptable."
Or consider one last and especially surreal example. Back in 1989, The Nation published a short piece called "On Truth and Fiction" by a novelist who said he had lately penned an "entertainment about a San Francisco private eye who wandered into the business of transporting Haitian boys to boy-lovers all over the world." Apparently in the interest of promoting that book, the novelist wanted to report to The Nation's readers that he'd lately verified its "factual basis," thanks in part to a "charming and cultivated American priest [in Haiti] who educated boys for export." During a visit to the island, the author also enjoyed a "tour of the house of Monsieur G., who was in the business of cultivating, training, and exporting comely lads." At a party at G.'s house, one of the other guests, a Frenchman, explains why he is visiting Haiti-because "his insomnia required two black boys every evening, two different ones each night." (He had tried Calcutta, the Frenchman explained, but the boys were "pas suffisament fonces" - not dark enough.)
In sum, "On Truth and Fiction"... was a horror. But it is also a perfect instantiation of the kind of pedophilia chic that only a few years ago raised no eyebrows whatsoever in certain enlightened places.
Once again, that kind of nod to pederasty would be far less likely to make the pages of any magazine sold in public today. In fact, if such a piece were to appear, it would excite plenty of comment-including calls for international investigation and prosecution of some of the characters in the tale. As if to clinch the point, the same Nation magazine that published such nonchalant reportage about pedophile sex tourism twenty years ago also happened this fall to publish one of the more blistering pieces on the Polanski matter-a column by feminist Katha Pollitt that was catapulted into heavy circulation on the Internet. Hollywood's apologism for the director, she concluded, "shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst. . . . No wonder Middle America hates them."
So, in the nineties pederasty and other forms of pedophilia were not seen as morally repulsive, mostly because no sexual behavior was seen as morally repulsive. But, in a fine example of how moral relativism works, that consensus has shifted, except in Hollywood, of course, and now many of the former defenders of exotic exploitative sex are appalled by it.
The question Eberstadt then assays to answer for us is what caused the change?
So what happened to turn yesterday's "intergenerational sex" into today's bipartisan demands to hang Roman Polanski and related offenders high? Mainly, it appears, what happened was something unexpected and momentous: the Catholic priest scandals of the early years of this decade, which for two �reasons have profoundly changed the ground rules of what can-and can't-be said in public about the seduction and rape of the young.
First, the scandals made clear that one point was no longer in dispute: The sexual abuse of the young leaves real and lasting scars. In the years before the scandals, as the foregoing examples and many others show, a number of writers contested exactly that. Today, however-thanks to a great many victims testifying otherwise in the course of the priest scandals-it's hard to imagine them daring to do the same.
All those grown men breaking down on camera as they looked back on their childhood, describing in heartrending testimony what it meant to be robbed of their innocence: It will take a long time to wipe such powerful images from the public mind again. At least for now, no one would dare declare that the victims had gotten what was coming to them, or that they had somehow asked for it, or that seduction by an adult wasn't as bad as all that-three notions that were most definitely making the rounds before the scandals broke. Moreover, that the vast majority of victims were male-81 percent, according to the definitive study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice-proved a particularly potent antidote to the poison about boys that had been circulating earlier.
Talk about your silver linings. The scandal of Catholic priests exploiting boys for sex forced the elites to confront a hard choice. Wanting to seize the opportunity to excoriate Catholicism they found the revelations of priestly perversion a wonderful pretext, but it wasn't possible to condemn Catholic priests without condemning the behavior they indulged in. Nor was it possible to condemn the behavior when priests did it but not when others did it:
Yet this hate-fest on the Catholic Church in the name of the priest-boy scandals, rollicking though it was for some, came with blowback: It prospectively cast all those enlightened people into a new role as defenders of the young and innocent. In other words, it logically created a whole new class of anti-pederasts. And since the Church's harshest critics are, generally speaking, the same sort of enlightened folks from whom pedophilia chic had floated up, there lurked in all of this a contradiction. After all, one could either point to the grave moral wrong of what the offending priests had done- or one could minimize the suffering of the victims, as apologists for pedophilia had been doing before the scandals broke. But one could not plausibly do both any more, at least not in public. And so, in a way that could not have been predicted, but that is obviously all to the good, the priest scandals made it impossible to take that kinder, gentler look at the question of sex with youngsters that some salonistes of a few years back had been venturing.
Presumably, had it not been Catholic priests who were involved in pederasty such behavior would still have its defenders, but since the elites want to be able to condemn Catholic priests and, by extension, Catholicism, their tolerance for adult/child sex had to be sacrificed. We can be thankful for the result if not for the reason for it.RLC