For more than five decades, a small and deviant sub-culture has been lobbying, without much success, for greater understanding and acceptance of those who experience sexual attraction to children and teenagers. Transgendered sociologist Allyn Walker’s attempt to destigmatize pedophilia through a new book, A Long Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity, is just the latest attempt to define down the deviance of adult-child love. Walker was a professor at Old Dominion University before stepping down last week.
Beginning in the 1970s with the much-maligned North American Man Boy Love Association, the LGBTQ community has attempted to distance itself from attempts by the self-described “boy-lovers” to affiliate. Although the pro-pedophile group was allowed to participate in the earliest annual Pride parades—replete with their own banners proclaiming man-boy love—a group calling itself the Lesbian Caucus boycotted the 1980 New York City Gay Pride Parade because the organizing committee had been dominated by NAMBLA.
Undeterred, the deviant sub-culture turned to academia—and postmodern theory—for support and assistance in defining down the deviance of pedophilia. It is not a coincidence that Allyn Walker is a sociologist and that A Long Dark Shadow is published by the University of California Press. Like its predecessors, Walker’s book encourages all of us to reject the pejorative label “pedophile” and replace it with the morally neutral “Minor Attracted People” in order to acknowledge that those who are sexually attracted to children do not necessarily act on their impulses. Holding pedophiles “blameless” in terms of their sexual attraction, Walker, who uses the pronoun “they,” suggests that we need to be more understanding of those who experience these sexual urges.
As I point out in my Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books), in the 1990s, there began a movement on some college campuses to redefine pedophilia as the more innocuous “intergenerational sexual intimacy.” Drawing upon the language of postmodern theory, those working to redefine pedophilia are first redefining childhood by claiming that childhood is not a biological given. Rather, it is socially constructed—a historically produced social object.
One of the most cited sources for this is the book Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological and Legal Perspectives. Published by the academic publisher Routledge, the book is a collection of writings by scholars, mostly European but some with U.S. university affiliations, providing a powerful argument for man-boy love. Ken Plummer, one of the contributors, writes that “we can no longer assume that childhood is a time of innocence simply because of the chronological age of the child… a child of seven may have built an elaborate set of sexual understandings and codes which would baffle many adults.”
Claiming to draw upon the theoretical work of the social historians and the Foucaultians, and the constructionist sociologists, Plummer promised to build a “new and fruitful approach to sexuality and children.” Within this perspective, there is no assumption of linear sexual development and no real childhood, only an externally imposed definition. Decrying “essentialist views of sexuality,” these writers attempt to remove the essentialist barriers of childhood. This opens the door for the postmodern pedophile to see such behavior as part of the politics of transgression. No longer deviants, they are postmodern “border crossers.”
In 1990, the Journal of Homosexuality published a double issue devoted to adult-child sex titled “Inter-generational Intimacy.” David Thorstad, former president of New York’s Gay Activists Alliance and a founding member of NAMBLA, wrote that “boy love occurs in every neighborhood today.” The movement continues but has gone mostly underground since NAMBLA found itself embroiled in a $200 million wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston. The suit claimed that the writings on NAMBLA’s website caused NAMBLA member Charles Jaynes to torture, rape, and murder a 10 year old Boston boy.
Not so long ago, the postmodern pedophiles had help in defining down their deviance from the American Psychological Association. In 1998 the association published an article in its Psychological Bulletin that concluded that child sexual abuse does not cause harm. NAMBLA quickly posted the “good news” on its website.
For a while, we lived in a culture in which man-boy sex was not only tolerated, but it was actually celebrated in a deviant segment of the gay community. Those days are over. And with the overwhelmingly negative response to Walker’s new book and subsequent suspension and resignation from Old Dominion University, it appears that man-boy love remains contested terrain.
But for many, woman-girl sex is less objectionable, because the power of the women’s movement scarcely registers on the cultural radar screen. Recall the popularity of the Vagina Monologues—part of the standard repertoire on hundreds of university campuses not so long ago—which depicts the sexual seduction of a 13-year-old girl by a “Minor Attracted” adult woman.
It is likely that the movement will continue because there are entire academic departments on university campuses here and abroad devoted to destigmatizing pedophilia. Professor Ken Plummer taught sociology for more than 30 years at U.K.’s University of Essex. Professor Walker, who received a Ph.D. from the prestigious John Jay College and specializes in “Queer Criminology,” published a Ph.D. thesis while at the premier criminal justice college titled Understanding Resilience Strategies Among Minor-Attracted Individuals. Walker’s thesis argues that pedophiles should be permitted to view child pornography as a harm reduction technique.
The problem with that—for now—is that it is still a federal crime to view, purchase, produce or distribute child pornography because children are sexually exploited in the process of creating the pornography. But as we have seen in the past, as deviant behavior becomes defined down, law begins to reflect the redefinition and we find ourselves on the road to normalization.
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.