This week I’m publishing a series of posts about what I’m calling the Active Pedophile phantasy. Part I was published Monday.

I know, I know. I just wrote about the ills of conflating homosexuals and pedophiles. But then I read about Helmut Kentler, and I started to wonder where this conflation comes from, how it happens, and what it means.

A sexologist in post-WWII Germany, Kentler was haunted by the horrors of fascism, which urged parents to ‘suppress everything in the child.’ Such ideas, he wrote, only created ‘authoritarian personalities who have to identify with a “great man” around them to feel great themselves.’ Kentler, an open homosexual at a time when it was still illegal in Germany, pushed for greater acceptance toward sex and sexualities, which he thought would help the country heal from its collective trauma.

This is where the happy part of the story ends: In his respected position, Kentler formed an experiment which matched orphan boys and wards of the state with pedophilic foster fathers. The hypothesis seemed to be, as the author, Rachel Aviv, writes, ‘that some children are fundamentally second class, their outlook so compromised that any kind of love is a gift, a proposition that his colleagues apparently accepted, too.’

At the center of Aviv’s piece stands Marco, the man I mentioned above. Marco’s life had been a life of ruin for so long, his whole personality having just shut down to the world as a result of coping with his near nightly abuse, which abuse—and this is likely the part of the story that sends the hackles up on your neck, as it did mine—the government not only knew about but believed in the value of. When the German parliament called Kentler in to speak about decriminalizing homosexuality, he went off, unprompted, into a discussion of pedophilia and his foster father experiment. This was received less as an alarm than a digression.

Here’s the story’s twist: Kentler was himself part of the experiment, bringing in boys to house whom he soon starting molesting. At age 57, he wrote a colleague a letter explaining why he felt he was aging well (quoting Aviv’s story): ‘[H]e and his twenty-six-year-old son were “part of a very fulfilling love story” that had lasted thirteen years and still felt fresh.’ In other words, he’d been molesting his foster son since age 13 and convinced himself this was a love story.

Six years later, that foster son killed himself.

I bring Kentler up first to show how even us queers (it’s unclear from Aviv’s piece whether Kentler ever had relationships with other adult men, only that he ‘was attracted to men’) have historically been complicit in conflating homosexuality and pedophilia. But of course we learned this from heterosexuals, who’ve been doing this for far longer, the most famous example perhaps being Boys Beware, a 1961 educational film that warns boys about the dangers of ‘homosexuals’.

The film opens with Jimmy, a boy who innocently thumbs a ride from a man named Ralph, driving through town alone. Here’s what Ralph looks like:

(John Waters’s decision to co-opt this look as one of America’s more public homosexuals is one of my favorite acts of queer resistance.)

Boys Beware is a silent film with a voiceover soundtrack, which tells us that this friendly stranger returns to the playground where he first met Jimmy, and a friendship develops where they go fishing together:

Then during lunch, Ralph showed him some pornographic pictures. Jimmy knew he shouldn’t be interested but, well he was curious. What Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick, a sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious. A sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual, a person who demands an intimate relationship with members of their own sex.

Not one of the so-called homosexuals in Boys Beware is looking to meet another homosexual, meaning that all of them are pedophiles. What I’m trying to call out as apples and oranges many others see as rectangles and squares. This goes back at least to 1914, when the New York State Hospital Bulletin reported some recent findings on homosexuals: ‘According to the age of the attracting person homosexuals are divisible into ephebophiles (lovers of youths), androphiles (grown men up to the period of old age), gerontophiles (lovers of the aged) and pedophiles (lovers of small boys).’[1]

This feels in its classifications as more exacting science, but it’s junky science, in that this homosexual writing today is attracted to more than one of those above categories, and also: what are heteros divisible into? Or do their attracting persons not have ages?

Before Havelock Ellis popularized the word ‘pedophile’, the common term was pederast, which the OED helpfully (for my purposes here, but unhelpfully for all of our purposes forever) defines as ‘A man who has or desires sexual relations with a boy. Also in wider sense (chiefly derogatory): a man who practises anal intercourse; a homosexual man.’

My point: when our very language has for more than a century conflated and confused men who love men with men who love boys, it’s inevitable that many would look at the homosexual—any homosexual—and see some latent threat.[2] This is a sickness of the mind our culture needs help healing from—and that work has been going on for the 100+ years of this tangle. Men kissing on TV, adults-only sex clubs, queers rioting at bars, Bravo TV, assimilationist gays adopting babies with their unfortunately named life partners and giving up their candidacy for U.S. president at a critical moment in the primary races so’s to secure a cabinet position—all are part of that work.

The homosexual is the pedophile and the pedophile is the homosexual when both figures need to hide. Hiding, they become in our phantasy the other P-word we prefer to use: predators we need to go catch.[3] When, over time, the homosexual refused to hide, demanded to be known and understood, what happened to the predator, the pervert, the pedophile?

Read Part III.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Incidentally, only one of these words is still, in a sense, a word, according to my browser’s built-in spell-checker:

    One happy phantasy is a future where all those words get squiggles underneath.

  2. Multiple studies have shown that heterosexuals tend to feel disgust toward gay men. In one study, they gave Ivy League college kids a survey about their feelings regarding different groups of people. The control group filled out the survey in a classroom. The experimental group filled out the same survey in a room the researchers had filled with a foul smell. The two groups had similar reported feelings on every racial, ethnic, religious, gender, political, etc. group except for one: the people who smelled something foul during the survey (shit, is my guess) ranked gay men less favorably. (Not homosexuals or queers broadly. Not gay women or bisexual men or even trans people: only gay men receive this disgust quotient.) I’ve always thought this was about anal sex, but now I think it might be about the Active Pedophile phantasy.
  3. My hate of To Catch a Predator should probably become clear by the end of this series of posts, but if you need more on its hideousness, see Joseph Fischel’s Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent: ‘It may be more useful to think of [To Catch a Predator] less as a reflection and stimulant of moral panic and more as a hybrid genre of reality crime television and pornography. As reality crime, it breeds “law-and-order ideology” that evacuates any structural account of social violence and disorder by pinning the problem of crime onto the delinquent and defective criminal. As pornography, it insists on visibility, on relentless epistemological revelation through seeing and surfacing that becomes an erotic placeholder for what cannot be known through representation. TCAP, then, eroticizes criminal justice, eroticizes law, and aggrandizes its efficacy. That final moment, the arrest of the beaten down predator, grants its audience political efficacy, epistemological certainty, and pleasure.’