You better believe I practiced the speech, to be delivered in their hotel room on their first visit to me in Nebraska, four months after I came out to myself. It started like this: ‘I wanted to tell you guys that [pause for a sec] I came out to BJ last spring.’ BJ was my oldest friend, my ‘brother from another mother’ as our mothers had often put it. So there was a familiar friend amid what I assumed would be, for them, overall bad news.
But also there was the past action, the fact (L. facere: ‘a thing done’). I made sure to deliver them the fact of what I’d done in lieu of the fact of what I am. ‘I’m gay’ sounded in my newbie ears like an explosion, a slap in the face with the hand of my difference, which would highlight what might feel like a sudden departure from the family mold.
Mine is a history of acting not for or from myself, so much as acting to minimize others’ disapproval I imagine being always at the ready. When I told my parents, ‘I came out last spring,’ that was for them.
What I needed to say, for me, was something like, ‘I’ve always been gay. I’m only now strong enough to say it.’
The Parental Rights in Education bill Florida’s governor signed into law yesterday has a number of provisions to uphold ‘the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children,’ but the big one is this: ‘Classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3.’
A recent Politico poll showed that 51 percent of Americans are in favor of this bill, or at least of what it prohibits. The rest of us have nicknamed this the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, because, I imagine, we’ve read George Orwell and know the work it takes to cut through the lies of political language. You score many points in the game of amassing political power when you affirm ‘parental rights’—witness the racist SF school board recall and Terry McAuliffe losing the Virginia governor race after stating what sounds to me a basic truth of how education works to develop a child into a free-thinking adult: ‘I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.’
52 percent of Virginia voters believed that parents should have ‘a lot’ of influence over how school teach children. I can’t find stats on what percentage of parents talk to their children about sexualities and gender identities, but it’s safe to assume the number is scary low. And ‘scary’ meaning dangerous: ask anyone working with sex education, pregnancy/STI prevention, queer/trans youth etc., and they will all agree that talking less about sex and sexuality creates more suicide, more unwanted pregnancy, more date rape.
You can’t pass a bill that aims to hurt more children—queer or otherwise—but you can very easily pass a bill that gives parents more power, because people love power. (The Parental Rights in Education bill even lets parents sue schools, with state-refunded attorney’s fees, when they feel taboo topics have been addressed.)
To be clearer: Florida’s bait-and-switch has been to tell parents they deserve more control over their own children, and that schools are trying to take that control away from them. In whipping up this frenzy, they’ve found another way to long-term fuck up the lives of queers and trans folks they fear getting political power.
Three things I knew when I was in 2nd grade: (1) what my dick was for, other than peeing, (2) what I wanted to do with the dicks and butts of other boys, (3) 1 and 2 were disgusting and I should hate myself for them and keep it all a deep, deep secret. This is what parental control over my education got me. No teacher ever said ‘gay’ in all the health/sex ed classes I took.
I survived, but barely. If you want to talk about the longterm damage of never being told my sexuality was okay, buy my forthcoming memoir (please).
Some counterarguments, to keep thinking about this. Florida hasn’t prevented sexuality or gender being taught, just being taught ‘in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate’. Setting aside the obvious problem that no queers or trans folk are being given the power to define ‘age appropriate’, it seems we have in this country a fundamental unwillingness to accept that children are sexualized at birth. Gov. DeSantis expressed this as clearly as anyone after he signed the bill: ‘As the parent of three kids that are age 5 and under, thank you for letting me and my wife be able to send our kids to kindergarten without them being sexualized.’
No school has ever ‘sexualized’ a kid. It’s not how sex works. It’s not how normative sexual development in children works. Like most heteros, DeSantis hears ‘sexuality’ and thinks about intercourse, because he’s another undereducated American. Nobody working in comprehensive sexuality education mentions sex practices to kindergartners. Instead, younger children (the Netherlands starts sexuality education at age 4, and fewer Dutch teens regret their age at first intercourse than do U.S. teens) talk about crushes, and they learn about bodies and difference, and they learn about boundaries and good-touch/bad-touch distinctions.
When I think about this, I go right to regret and ager. I think about all the years of needless pain I put myself and others through because of what I had been taught—directly and indirectly—about what I was. There is never an instance in which less education is the answer. America needs more education—on everything, including sex, which fewer U.S. students get now than they did in the early 2000s. (Abstinence-only education is not education, it’s lies.)
Another use for the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ nickname is how it connects this bill to Russia’s 2013 bill ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, which forbids—anywhere in the country, not just in schools—talking or acting in any way that might argue that homosexuality is normal. Neal and I were very much aware of this bill when we visited St. Petersburg in 2019, as foreigners who broke the law (by, say, our holding hands in public) could be arrested and detained for up to 15 days.
More and more it seems the GOP’s dream is to enact a future as authoritarian and ‘tough’ as Russia’s. Their hate is relentless. The laws they pass—against race education, against medicine for trans kids, against women’s autonomy over their own bodies—are fascist by simple definition: they lie about a culture in decline, point to an Other as the cause of that decline, and promote authoritarian rule as the solution.
We have little reason to believe the work of radically restoring justice will take less time than the long history of white men in power denying equal treatment under the law to others. It’ll be a long, slow, difficult struggle to upend the structures we older folks grew up inside and felt that we survived without much stress. I get it, straight parents: you didn’t need anybody telling you about sex when you were 7. This isn’t because sex isn’t a part of a 7-year-old’s imagination. It’s because every day, in everything you saw and heard, your sexuality was already being told to you, in positive terms. Every day you got this message: You are normal. You are okay.
It often seems like silence is neutral, that nothing good or bad is being said. But children fill any silence with whatever they have at hand—usually it’s other children, who’ve heard in silences the untruths of other children, on and on like a dangerous game of Telephone. All I know from my own experience is that lack of affirmation didn’t feel that different from being called a faggot, and worrying about what the other boys saw in me, and what I’d somehow become.
Imagine every day learning the opposite of what straight and cisgender kids learn. You are wrong. You are not okay. You are a problem. When you’re mad about change, or about losing some form of control—or when faced with a poll or ballot—try to put yourself in that mindset before you find your voice, the voice you’ve always been allowed to have.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
ABC News found that 62 percent of Americans opposed measures that would prohibit sex education in elementary school, and it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t exactly what Florida has banned. You can teach sex and gender in 4th grade, just not 3rd.↵
And women. A woman wrote Russia’s anti-gay bill, after all. As Hilton Als put it in a recent Instagram post on Ginni Thomas, ‘I’ve sat across from some version of this woman my entire professional life. And had to pretend I didn’t feel her rage at my being in the room. She hasn’t always been white. But she has always believed in one source of power: His. And I don’t mean Jesus.’↵
The title for this series of posts (read Part I here) was taken from Bill Fay’s song “Pictures of Adolf Again”:
In the papers, on the TV screens
Pictures of Adolf again
As sure as I sit here there will appear
Pictures of Adolf again
You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
If you say Adolf he won't come
OK deny representation
By leaders of all nations
But have you got, have you really got
Anyone to replace them?
You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
OK then who's gonna come?
Christ or Hitler? Christ or Vorster
Christ or all the Caesars to come?
That's the choice, that's the choice
Sooner or later
That's the choice, that's the choice
You're gonna have to make
Fay is singing, on an album filled with second-coming hopes, about the perils of placing politicians in the role of heroes and even anti-heroes. He’s asking us to think about what happens when we idolize men whose chief aim is power, even when we believe they’ll use that power for good.
Fay’s choice is Christ, whose aim always is to eschew power, give everything away, love all equally. Our answer need not be so Christian, but I’m trying to ask similar questions about what happens when we perpetuate images of men we loathe, and we continually tell stories about how these men we’ve caught are predators. We likely don’t look closely enough at those predation dynamics—who is hunting whom, who is in the strong position and who is in the weak—because we may soon find that the evil one, the predator we both hate and fear, is us.
This week I’m publishing a series of posts about what I’m calling the Active Pedophile phantasy. Read parts I, II, III, and IV.
We know CSA is a bad thing, but how do we know this, those of us who haven’t experienced CSA but feel committed to stop it? What happens, over time, to the CSA victim? (Though we ought not to disregard the physical abuse attendant to much sexual abuse.) We have an understanding that CSA scars and traumatizes the child, so that it becomes doubly violent, a la Aviv’s story on Marco, whose experience turns out is common among CSA survivors.
The best writing on this I’ve found is from Sandor Ferenczi, a Freud protege who made a name as one of the leading writers on trauma in the 20th century. Ferenczi is cited in Aviv’s story; Kentler read the article I’m about to quote from late in life, and it (along with his son/beloved’s suicide) made him reverse his long-held beliefs about the supposed benefits of man-boy relationships.
Ferenczi’s argument is spelled out in his paper’s title: ‘Confusion of Tongues Between the Adult and Child (The Language of Tenderness and of Passion)’. In his clinical practice treating patients with CSA traumas, he theorized that intrafamilial ‘seduction’ (Freud’s original term) occurred when children showing love for the parent assume, in play, a parenting role to the adult. These children are operating on the level of tenderness. The danger comes when the adult mistakes the child’s tenderness as passion or desire—languages within his adult idiom, which Ferenczi holds that children, with their not-yet-consolidated personalities, neither exhibit nor understand.
In other words, the child thinks they’re being tender to Daddy the way Daddy is tender to them, and the father through some disturbance or pathology thinks his child is coming on to him. What exactly is the danger of this confusion of tongues? It lies, Ferenczi writes, in the child’s continuing acceptance of the adult’s authority, which ‘compels them to subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor.’
Incidentally, this is one way that child-on-child sexual abusers (not all CSA perpetrators are adults) are able to victimize other children: they’ve often been victimized themselves, and have since taken on their aggressor’s role. In Marco’s case, it wasn’t that his foster father made him an abuser, but it made him mirror the rage of his father toward anyone.
CSA robs a child of their Self, which to me is a far worse crime than robbing a child of any innocence we might assign to them. The part of Ferenczi that opened Kentler’s eyes, at least according to Aviv, is this line [his italics]: ‘If more love or love of a different kind from that which they need, is forced upon the children in that stage of tenderness, it may lead to pathological consequences in the same way as … frustration or withdrawal of love….’
But Ferenczi is writing about CSA between child and parent—which, it bears repeating, accounts for around two-thirds of all CSA cases. We’re thinking this week about ‘Stranger Danger’, the pedophile lurking online or around playgrounds looking to abuse children they don’t know. Certainly they’re not mistakenly giving children more love than they need. But what happens when an adult (e.g., Ghost) poses as a child to trap another adult into meeting them for sex? Inevitably, that faux-child is going to use the language most legible to them: i.e., the adult language of passion.
Which is to say, the ‘predator’ we imagine lurking online is responding in these sting ops to enticements no real child would deliver.
What we have in TCAP and Ghost are lying adults working to get men to confess to some murky desires we hate them for. I never watched TCAP, but viewing Ghost’s videos it’s no surprise that he never shows any chat logs, reveals no details of how his team goes about enticing these men to meet in public. What the videos do reveal is the libidinous pleasure Ghost gets from—let’s finally make it clear—his predation of these prey. Some headlines (all sic) from his videos:
Cross Dresser Gets AGGRESSIVE When Caught In Car
Crystal Meth Head Tries Having Orgeey With 4 and 5 Year Old [Worst]
Coke Nail admits having victims
Creepy Staring Guy CRIES When CAUGHT!
Patrol Officer CRIES When Exposed
Lance Corporal CRIES When Caught
System Manager Almost FAINTS When Caught!
We know There but for the grace of God go I has no bearing in the Internet age. And maybe it’s never had a bearing when it comes to sex. But before I wrap up this series of posts, I want to try to think through what’s so damaging and harmful about Ghost’s TCAP-style tactics. My original argument went that, in going after pedophiles because we can no longer persecute homosexuals, we make the real problem of CSA worse. But how is that true?
One way, I’ve tried to show, is how ‘pedo hunting’ and persecution helps CSA abusers themselves become ghosts, people we don’t see because we won’t look at them. It’s like bemoaning the dearth of manufacturing and agricultural jobs in the U.S. and choosing to blame workers who’ve immigrated and not the policies of the actual people in power.
But I think the larger way persecution worsens CSA is how it sanctions shame—public shaming and lifelong stigmas—as a reasonable and just response to sexual deviance. This hurts all of us, but it hurts the deviant worse because shame has this magical ability to charge a desire with compulsivity and even a kind of rebellious streak. Knowing I ‘wasn’t allowed’ to do something, or that ‘only bad people’ did something—cruising men’s rooms, say—led me to not be able to resist it. Indeed, I saw any resistance as endorsing all the public shame I imagined. Fuck the haters, I’d say, and then give myself another 10 minutes to see if anyone with wandering eyes would come join me.
Persecution brings to light far less than we might think; shame makes us push what’s already hidden to darker corners of the closet. Talking openly about what I was doing, without judgement, is how a lot of compulsive behaviors became, to me, curiosities. They became misfires that were usually about something other than sexual desire.
And this was stuff I was doing out in the world, which is a categorically different experience than being an avatar online. When the things we do in private online become who we are as people, we’re all in trouble.
But we’re already in trouble, as I’ve shown. We’re a nation of people—a community—who believe (given how bipartisanly our sex laws are passed) that those who want, but don’t commit, sex with minors deserve not just punishment or incarceration, but lifelong public shame. We want to type a town name into search field and get their names and addresses and—the most important piece—the specific kind of hateful sex they went after. We want photos and videos of them on social media. We want to make sure these photos capture these men at their ugliest, their fattest, their most shameful, because the fact itself of what we’re shaming them for isn’t enough to feed our disgust pleasure. Our own hypercarceral justice system, and its approach of locking up and (in theory) rehabilitating criminals, is not enough to feed our disgust pleasure.
I want to repeat what I said on day one: understanding justice need not strip us of our compassion, just as our desire to feel compassion does not blind us to justice.
This equanimity finds its limit in Ghost, a man whose understanding of justice is so poor and so certain that I find it hard to retain for him any of the compassion I feel for his victims, and for all men currently struggling with pedophilic desires. Ghost may be the only man on whom I pray for more shame to fall. He’s as great a cautionary tale as Kentler, and I fear he may cause as much ruin.
In the LA Times piece he’s careful to say he and his team never make first contact, and this is a question he’ll often ask on camera of the men he entraps. Who messaged who first, dude? Who messaged who first? ‘It’s better in court,’ Ghost says, ‘if they reached out first, because it doesn’t look like we enticed them or we instigated the conversation first.’ It doesn’t take a legal scholar to see that not initiating a conversation doesn’t absolve one from enticement.↵
This week I’m publishing a series of posts about what I’m calling the Active Pedophile phantasy. Read Parts I, II, and III.
But what men are we talking about exactly? Who are they and how do we identify them? Trying to find good stats on incidence rates of pedophilia in men is tricky, because you basically have to ask men to admit to it. One researcher estimates that around 1% of men feel sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children, but this includes men who’ve ever once felt such an attraction and men with an exclusive ongoing attraction. If you widen the field up to age 14 (i.e., ephebophilia), you get around a 4% incidence rate.
We don’t talk as a community about what happens once we widen the field to 18.
Trying to find good stats on CSA is doubly tricky, as one 2018 meta-analysis estimates that only 1 in 20 victims report the abuse in childhood, so the problem is likely more prevalent than we know. Global studies have shown around 12% of kids being victims of CSA, with 8% of males and 19% of females so reporting. These rates vary when it comes to national populations, with greater incidence in Africa and less in Europe.
To be clear, this is enough to take action. If 0.01% of children are sexually abused, we still have—globally—a sexual abuse problem.
To address the problem of CSA, we ought to understand it. Step one might be knowing, and repeating, and calling out one finding from that that 2018 report above: In the U.S., 61% of children reporting CSA were abused by a relative and 38% were abused by an acquaintance.
Most child sexual abusers are fathers of their victims, or step-fathers or uncles or grandfathers. If the aim of Ghost and his followers and all the people who tuned in to To Catch a Predator is to ‘serve the community’ and protect children, these are the predators they ought to hunt. But how? How to intervene on the moment a father abuses his daughter? And how to ‘bait’ or ‘profile’ an actual child sexual abuser when (again from the above study) ‘Intrafamilial child sexual abusers when compared with extrafamilial abusers show significantly lower atypical sexual interests … and antisocial tendencies.’
Meaning that CSA perpetrators are not what we think of when we say ‘pedophiles’. They’re not ‘creepers’ with child pornography on their hard drives. They don’t stalk or groom children found at public places. Their sexual orientations and social interactions are non-pathological. The Active Pedophile, then, is a chimera we think we know but don’t. He constitutes 1% of CSA crimes and 99% of our thinking about them.
So okay. Well and good. If it’s true that even a 0.01% CSA prevalence is a problem, why not go after the 1% of abusers? Maybe it’s not going to make CSA go away, but it’s going to stop some abuse from happening, right?
To answer this question let’s look at sex laws in the U.S. Despite Ghost’s claims of wanting to protect the innocent, when we look closely at sex laws (which sexual abuse vigilantism takes its pages from), we see they aim more to punish the pervert—as we understand him at the time. As Jesse Bering writes in Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us:
Which is worse, … a stud manager forcibly collecting the semen of a prized racehorse by ‘electro-ejaculating’ the animal for commercial gain (which involves inserting an electrified rod into the animal’s rectum and delivering a high-voltage shock to its prostate) or a zoophile gently masturbating his companion horse with the sole intent of bringing it satisfaction? That the first is perfectly legal and the second illegal shows that bestiality laws are more concerned with a person’s sexually deviant desires than they are with the animal’s actual harm.
I’d open the point up to apply to all sex laws, CSA / offender-registry laws included. In support for this leap, recall our old sodomy laws. Sodomy per se harms nobody; when consensual, it’s a sexual act that creates no victims and much pleasure. That laws forbidding it were upheld when I was 8 years old and learning what a faggot was, and that those laws only became unconstitutional 19 years ago, shows that only very recently did we stop making the homosexual a scapegoat to punish for our fears and disgust.
To put it another way, if sodomy laws protect anything it’s the lie that procreative hetero sex is the sex we should, or even want to have.
I showed earlier in the week how defining the homosexual in the 1800s created the heterosexual and their no-questions-asked status, and I’m trying here to show how laws against sodomy performatively create the Sodomite. It turns occasional behaviors into an identity, and one with a pathology. We tend to think the opposite is true: that sodomites in esse necessitate laws against their practices, which laws we trust will protect the innocent from their crimes. This, as Melanie-Angela Neuilly and Kristen Zgoba write in a study on pedophilia coverage in French and U.S. media, is an essentialist understanding of crime, whereas what more accurately happens is that “[n]ew crimes are identified as old crimes fade.” Crime is far more socially constructed than absolute.
Their ready example is heresy trials, which our collective thinking evolved from, in the political parlance, in a long slow process over hundreds of years. Despite what I said above about my growing up with sodomy laws on the books, what’s true is that they were roundly unenforced and mostly relics by the time Lawrence v. Texas was decided (i.e., that old law had faded). However, consider that the first state to decriminalize same-sex sex was Illinois, sixty years ago, in 1962. That might seem like another time, another century, but I’ll point out that the average age of U.S. senators in this current Congress is 63.7.
We’re a country with a lot of old bad vestigial ideas about sex, which is a problem that both feeds into and is worsened by the sex laws we write. To feel better about the (ignorant, dispassionate, sadistic) sex laws we write, we’ve usually needed a scapegoat, a criminal figure we stoke fears of and then claim to punish. In the absence of the sodomite, we’ve turned to the pedophile, which, as this graph from the Neuilly-Zgoba study shows, also happened very recently.
Neuilly and Zgoba point in their study to a moral panic occurring in both countries, along the lines of the Satanic panic of the 1980s. But why call what our high-profile abuse cases of the early 1990s caused ‘a panic’ and not, more generously, ‘a heightened awareness’? That is, if it’s the news media’s job to expose the truth of what’s happening in our culture, isn’t the resulting deluge of laws persecuting sex abusers evidence of a job well done?
Neuilly and Zgoba answer this question by finding that cases of CSA were already decreasing in the time states passed new sex laws—i.e., not as a result of those laws. I would respond by pointing to the manydifferentwritersacrossdisciplines who show how the punishments we’ve formed don’t fit the crimes—or do, if you believe that sex offense (an umbrella term including such behaviors as a 19yo having consensual sex with his 17yo boyfriend, a 50yo man raping a 30yo woman, and an adult man jerking off alone in a park) is the worst crime imaginable, and should stain a person for life.
My point in today’s long stats-y section, is that we don’t know the pedophile, and we don’t know pedophilia, and that the pedophile in our phantasy is young, historically. He’s new. CSA, however, is as old as sin, and it’s time we did better work separating the two.
Turns out the end of Helmut Kentler’s story can show us a way to do it.
Worth noting that even as late as 2018 this study needed to make our favorite clarification: ‘A common misconception is that homosexuality is correlated with child sexual abuse. Anywhere from 9% to 40% of pedophiles are attracted to children of the same gender, but homosexual adults are no more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual adults.’↵
Technically not. I mean, a wife can sodomize her husband just by going down on him, but we all know who we conjure up when I write the word ‘sodomite.’↵
i.e. ‘the 1987 case of Earl Shriner raping and mutilating a six-year-old boy, the 1990 disappearance of Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota, the 1993 abduction and murder of Polly Klaas in California, and the sexual molestation and murder of Megan Kanka in 1994 in New Jersey.’↵
This week I’m publishing a series of posts about what I’m calling the Active Pedophile phantasy. Read Parts I and II.
Lately, the pedophile has been hidden, even harbored, by such institutions as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America; those institutions’ knowledge of and work hiding these abuses reeks of the Kentler experiment and deepens the tragedy already in place when a trusting boy is abused. If we’re to better understand the phantasy, or better prevent CSA, it’s good to pause and ask a tough question: What is it about Catholic priests and scoutmasters, or the environments in which they do their work, that seems to have led, so often, and for so long, to these men abusing the boys in their care?
It’s easy, as a writer drawn to sex-liberationist stances, to blame the Church’s prohibition of sex among priests. ‘Let priests fuck,’ as I’ve written about another sex scandal whose coverage was thoughtless and stupid. But Scoutmasters can fuck, many if not most are married, and so cause must lie elsewhere. What both institutions seem to share are plenty of scenarios in which a boy is alone with a man of let’s say benign authority, a man who has or is something the boy desires: ability, piety, maturity. Which leads us to ask an even tougher question: What is it about the Man And Boy Alone Together scenario that invites some men to decide to add sex to it?
The other (perhaps more comfortable) way to look at this is to go back to ‘harboring’: the Catholic Church and the BSA attract men who know themselves to be pedophiles, and who want to find boys to molest. Unlike in schools or little league sports, these two environments provide pedophiles close, trusting, and often solitary contact with potential victims under the cover of organizations with vested interests in looking the other way.
This is akin to Ghost’s position, per the Times:
When asked if he believes that pedophiles can change, Ghost says perhaps people in their 20s.
‘But the older ones? No, I don’t think they can change. They’ve been doing it for their whole life. It’s not like, one day out of the blue, when they’re 50 years old, they wake up and they want a kid. It’s not how it works.’
How does it work? What’s that ‘it’ refer to exactly, and is that pronoun the same ‘it’ in his ‘They’ve been doing it for their whole life’? This pseudonymous 20-year-old San Diegan is certain that pedophilia is a thing people do, their whole lives, but that early intervention can get them to stop ‘it’. (Most of his victims the ‘predators’ he catches are in their 20s.) That is: if one’s sexuality is flexible, then it’s flexible the way our limbs are, getting increasingly calcified in old age. What does it reveal of our thinking about sex when we hold onto positions like this that no sexologist alive believes? There is only and everywhere evidence to the contrary. Two ready examples are people who discover queer desires late in life (click through for studies), and pedophiles who stop abusing children, as Kentler did (more on this on Friday).
We’re now at a nature-nurture origin story for the Active Pedophile. Are they born or made? Are they a crime of opportunity or against humanity? The confusion is infecting even my thinking on this, in that I seem to say Nature when I call for sympathy for someone who, like me, grew up with a desire he didn’t want, and then I say Nurture when I ask what it is about certain environments “that invites some men to decide to add sex to it.”
Another way of figuring this out is to ask my straight readers: What made you heterosexual? When did you realize your sexual desire was oriented toward people of the opposite sex? As Gayle Rubin taught us ages ago, one of the privileges of heterosexuality is not to need an origin story. Everyone else, however, has to explain themselves. (Which brings us back to the NY Hospital Bulletin’s disinterest in heterosexual pedo-, ephebo-, or gerontophiles.)
In medicine, you seek an etiology for a disease to isolate and thus stop its spread. If we think of pedophilia as a disease (of the mind, say), then the hope is that by understanding what makes a pedophile, we can catch them early and rid them from the world.
We used to treat homosexuality this way, until we saw the numbers and started looking at the history. We might start trying to do this work with pedophilic men. The number of such men is tinier than the number of men who desire sex with men, but if they exist, if we believe the Active Pedophile phantasy, then we should understand these men aren’t going away, no matter how much we scare them.
Women are perpetrators in about 40-55% of all sexual abuse cases, but I’m tacitly claiming throughout this piece that we don’t consider the Active Pedophile to be female. We’ve been trained not to, and here’s what I’ve got by way of evidence: (1) The female homosexual was less problematic to the patriarchy in the persecution era than the male homosexual was. (Witness the prevalence of the former in the patriarchy’s porn.) (2) The old 1960s film Girls Beware is not about ‘homosexual’ women preying on them, but hetero men looking to rape and kill them. These men are pedophiles, too, but nobody in the 1960s is calling them that.↵
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).’
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. 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. When, over time, the homosexual refused to hide, demanded to be known and understood, what happened to the predator, the pervert, the pedophile?
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.↵
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.↵
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.’↵