Phi Beta Cons

Subtly Eroding Disapproval of Pedophilia

There is much consternation at the events at Penn State, and there should be, but the fact is, disapproval of sex or sexual attraction between older men and young boys has been eroding in subtle ways for some time. Even aside from our widespread culture of non-judgmentalism and repudiation of traditional morality, which by definition would help to implement the exercise of hitherto forbidden desires, as well as restrict the swift and immediate condemnation of them, there is the pervasive sexualization of children (of both sexes) throughout the media and popular culture. Moreover, the widely and ecstatically praised play The History Boys could be said to be about the sexual attraction of a grown man toward his young male students as much as about anything else. The play Doubt, a friend pointed out to me, could be taken as a defense of such attraction, as much as it could be taken as a critical exposure of it. (There are a number of works of art that cleverly manage to have things both ways; another is J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which has been praised by some white South Africans, who see it as an illumination of the savagery they believe they face, and by some black South Africans and white liberals and the Nobel Committee, who are happy to see a novel detail the humiliating comeuppance they believe whites deserve after apartheid.) Allen Ginsberg, who continues to be accepted as a major modern poet, was himself a pedophile and defended the practice, provided it was consensual, as he saw it. There has also been some academic work in the direction of removing the stigma against attraction to children.

Mary Eberstadt wrote about what she or her editors called “pedophilia chic” in a couple of articles in the Weekly Standard in 1996 and 2001. She saw it as mainly concerning men and boys, not men and girls, and in the 2001 article she cited two examples of casual and non-judgmental references to it in the mainstream media:

In the November 12 New York Times Book Review, a writer found it unremarkable to observe of his subject, biographer Gavin Lambert, that when “Lambert was a schoolboy of 11, a teacher initiated him [into homosexuality], and he ‘felt no shame or fear, only gratitude.’” . . . Similarly, in mid-December the New York Times Magazine delivered a cover piece about gay teenagers in cyberspace which was so blase about the older men who seek out boys in chat rooms that it dismissed those potential predators as mere “oldies.”  

Of course when the whole issue explodes as blatantly and horrifyingly as it did with the scandals in the Catholic Church, and now at Penn State, Americans are rightly outraged. But I am reminded of the more subtle scenario detailed in Lolita, in which a pedophile named Gaston Godin is not suspected by the unsophisticated Americans in his town who, no doubt impressed by his Europeanness, gladly send their little sons to him to do his chores and are too wide-eyed to realize that he is gaining some unsavory satisfactions from this contact.