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Can We Talk?: Censorship, Pedophilia, and Panic [16 November, 2005]

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Recently, Haworth Press cancelled its anthology Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, edited by Beert C. Verstraete and Vernon Provencal.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the decision came after the press received 20 letters of complaint from readers of (WND).  This extreme right-wing Web site routinely condemns homosexuality and supports reparative therapy.  Focusing on Dr.  Bruce Rind’s “Pederasty: An Integration of Cross-Cultural, Cross-Species, and Empirical Data,” WND, on the strength of a 187-word abstract, implied that Rind was endorsing “rampant child molestation.”  The press succumbed to the sensationalistic and willful misrepresentation of the book, instead of standing by the research of scholars who have cumulatively written about sexuality for decades.

Haworth will now publish the volume without Rind’s essay, which is to appear in The Journal of Homosexuality, along with responses to the controversy.  On the face of it, this seems like a scholarly tempest in a teacup, and it’s easy to laugh off WND as the misbegotten intellectual progeny of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger.  But this issue has serious ramifications for our ability to have an honest discussion about children and sexuality and about sex, period.  Haworth’s initial and craven capitulation and the firestorm it set off gives us the opportunity to revisit the history of terms like “sexual abuse” and “pedophilia” that have been thrown around.

Pederasty and pedophilia have been topics of debate in works about gay and straight history, given long-standing traditions of intergenerational sex between and among men and women.  The right uses that fact to condemn all queers, particularly gay men, as predators of children.  Haworth vice president Kathryn Rutz furthered the incendiary conflation of terms: “For the record, we do not in any way support or endorse the practice of pedophilia, pederasty, or any form of child abuse.”  To study the historical import of pedophilia or pederasty is not the same as practicing child abuse.

Some of that history involves Rind”s earlier work.  In a 1998 article, he and co-authors argued for a re-evaluation of the term “child sexual abuse” (CSA) .  They acknowledged the circumstances in which sexual encounters between children and adults might indeed be harmful and abusive.  But they also reported that many of their subjects experienced sex with adults as positive experiences.  In part, Rind et. al. sought to initiate a discussion about the concept of the “child,” a term that suffers from extreme malleability.  Depending on the state and the circumstances, the legal age of a “child” varies enormously and that can have serious consequences for anyone suspected of sexual relations with or desire for “underage” people.

Images of children’s bodies are fraught with contradictions.  It’s apparently all right for us to watch toddlers wiggle and twirl as mini-adults at pageants and talent shows.  But anyone who takes a picture of their children naked in the tub (imagine, naked, while bathing!) and tries to develop it at a photo store stands a good chance of being jailed and separated from them forever.  That kind of hypocrisy and hysteria led to Rind’s essay becoming the focus of a campaign led by conservative groups like NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) and the Family Research Council.  The uproar led to Congress’s censure of the essay despite an independent academic panel’s support of the methodology used.  Haworth showed a similar willingness to dismiss scholarly work at the instigation of those who are least qualified to judge it.  And they legitimized the ravings of those who have a vested interest in literally eradicating homosexuality.

There remains, of course, the emotional resonance of terms and concepts like CSA, especially for those who have actually experienced physical and sexual abuse as children.  Combine that with the fact that the appearance of standing up for children is the easiest way for politicians to get votes and you have the heady sensationalistic brew that is the extreme paranoia around children’s sexuality.

Feminism helped to end the silence around topics like incest and sexual abuse, making it easier for people to speak out.  Today, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction to the extent that we care less about protecting children and more about increasing the scope of the prison industrial system so that it effectively forms a virtual jail around those convicted as “sex offenders.”  Bill Andriette points out that those convicted become “guinea pigs for technologies of biometric and electronic surveillance-and-tracking that increasingly, under the guise of fighting terror, are rolled out for everyone.” 

Anyone labeled a sex offender, pedophile, or pederast is sentenced to a lifetime of surveillance, barred from many occupations, and from living where they choose.  This does not reduce the sexual coercion of children behind closed doors by relatives and family, and it prevents us from any meaningful discussion about consent.  The stigmatization of groups like NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) which have asked for conversations about the age of consent means that we drive forms of desire inwards and underground.

We fail to remember that someone who knows beforehand that their desire, legitimate or not, will cause them to lose everything is more likely to act upon it with a desperate sense that they have, in a sense, nothing to lose.  Eventually, those who do suffer from sexual damage have a lot to lose as well.  A system that sees “predators” as beyond repair and thrusts them to the outermost regions of society also deeply pathologizes the “victims.” We assume that those who experience abuse are forever damaged individuals and that we must exact the greatest revenge on their behalf.

Years ago, a woman matter-of-factly told me and others about the sexual coercion she endured in nearly every one of her foster homes.  But whenever someone asked what she would have changed about her life, her response was “Nothing.” Because, as she put it, she wouldn’t be who she was without what happened — and she rather liked herself.  That’s not to claim that children/adults should experience sexual abuse as a rite of passage or as a life-affirming experience.  But it does illustrate that we need to move beyond the monolithic idea that people respond in exactly the same way to abuse, however we define it.  The conflation of pedophilia and pederasty with child molestation prevents us from considering a range of ways of responses and effects of sex between adults.

Why should queers worry about either the Haworth issue or those punished for sex with “minors” (the term is as malleable as “child”)?  The contemporary “gay movement” insists that gays are second-class citizens because they cannot marry.  But it has nothing to say about the gay and straight men who are routinely and unfairly apprehended for public sex.  It ignores the fact that such surveillance and that of “sex offenders” is also a policing of gay desire.  As Andriette points out, a “sex offender” on parole can be put back in jail just for reading Best Gay Short Stories.  We are determined to prove that we are not only as good as straight parents and spouses but infinitely better.  To that end, we’ve repudiated our sexuality and anything that hints of “deviant” sexual practices.

But how long can we carry the burden of exceptionalism?  If there is ever a story about gay incest, or gay child abuse, the backlash will guarantee that we lose every one of our supposed gains and we will have hung everything on the tenuous concept of the “equality” of marriage rights.  Gay marriage proponents argue that marriage will guarantee our rights to adopt and keep children.  Really? Straight parents have their children taken away all the time, for the simplest acts like photographing their children in the nude.  We may lose a lot more if we don’t speak up for the rights of those most vulnerable amongst us.

The gay community’s silence around the Haworth press issue repudiates or at least rewrites sexual history.  It’s not just that gay history has recorded intergenerational sex as a formative social influence.  Queers know that our understanding of sexual and gender identity comes about through a complicated nexus of secrecy and knowledge, and in affiliations with people who are sometimes simultaneously our intellectual and sexual mentors.

But the problem with the current discussion around “adult-child” relationships is that we are conditioned to think that sex with an older person is traumatic.  We talk more about sex these days and mistakenly believe that talking about the sex lives of desperate housewives or queer fashionistas means that we think about sex in more interesting ways, but the truth is the opposite.  The more we discuss sex, the less we think and talk out loud about complicated questions about power and consent, secrecy and knowledge.

We’re dealing with questions about children’s sexuality by making them paradoxically invisible in our representations of them.  We image them as sexless creatures of fantasy, with pixelated blue patches where their genitals should be.  Conversations about children’s sexual bodies and lives may be more difficult than censoring thought and speech and throwing people in jail for the rest of their lives, but they’re absolutely necessary if we want to do more than reiterate narratives about “trauma” and “abuse.”

Haworth’s decision to separate Rind’s essay is unsatisfactory because it implies that his work is outside the pale of “normal” research.  Even now, Haworth distances itself from its own authors by not keeping the abstracts on its Web site.  Instead, these can be found on the website of International Pedophile and Child Emancipation (IPCE), an organization.  Once in print, it’s likely Rind’s essay will be relegated to the “Special Collection” areas of libraries and that anyone asking for it might be suspected of being a potential molester.  I want to read Rind’s essay as part of legitimate sexual research, not divorced from it.

Ask yourself if you would like the simple privilege of talking and thinking out loud about matters which affect us so deeply.  Write now to Haworth Press, objecting to its capitulation on this matter.  And maybe next time, the right will hesitate to assume such victories.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 16 November 2005


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