Notes & Comments: February 2001

New Criterion, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Notes & Comments: February 2001


What more can they ask for?

In June 1996, the critic Mary Eberstadt wrote a much-noticed article for The Weekly Standard entitled "Pedophilia Chic" Detailing the many signs in our culture that the taboo against pedophilia was eroding, the piece caused a sensation, and rightly so. Eberstadt showed that there were many signs that pedophilia -- and in particular sexual relations between men and legally underaged boys -- was in the process of becoming "normalized." Citing as evidence everything from the notorious Calvin Klein ad campaign for underwear that featured boys and girls in provocative poses to sympathetic profiles of child pornographers in mainstream magazines, Eberstadt sounded a tocsin about this latest instance of what former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously called "defining deviancy down" Shocking though "Pedophilia Chic" was, in some ways it ended on a note of cautious optimism. For despite the new acceptance of pedophilia in many "advanced" quarters, Eberstadt concluded that general public revulsion against the practice remained essentially intact. Perhaps, she speculated, the rash of pedophiliac-friendly phenomena should be understood as "the last gasp of a nihilism that has exhausted itself by chasing down every other avenue of liberation, only to find one last roadblock still manned by the bourgeoisie."

Well, that was then. Today, it seems, the guard house is often empty. In "Pedophilia Chic Reconsidered" the cover story for the January 1/8 issue of The Weekly Standard, Eberstadt revisits the issue. Her news is not good. She shows in meticulous detail how the "social consensus against the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents ... is apparently eroding." Granted that "the vast majority of citizens" still "abominate" pedophilia; nevertheless,

   elsewhere in the public square, the defense of adult-child sex--more
   accurately, man-boy sex --is now out in the open. Moreover, it is on parade
   in a number of places--therapeutic, literary, and academic circles;
   mainstream publishing houses and journals and magazines and
   bookstores-where the mere appearance of such ideas would until recently
   have been not only unthinkable, but in many cases, subject to prosecution.

Eberstadt has marshalled examples from a broad social spectrum--technical papers in scholarly journals, opinion pieces by respected journalists, prize-winning fiction published by major houses--to show how the interdiction against pedophilia ("intergenerational relationships" is the current favored euphemism) has begun to disintegrate. Or, to be more accurate, she shows how the interdiction against man-boy sexual relations has begun to disintegrate. The taboo against sexual exploitation of young girls, she says, remains in force: "Nobody, but nobody, has been allowed to make the case for girl pedophilia with the backing of any reputable institution."

That's as of January 2001. We would not be at all surprised to open The Weekly Standard a few years hence to find a third installment of Eberstadt's opus showing that, alas, what was endorsed by "nobody, but nobody" yesterday was today increasingly common, if not indeed taken-for-granted. Eberstadt's two essays on pedophilia constitute an important piece of cultural and moral criticism. They are all the more effective for being calmly and patiently argued. For all her obvious passion about what after all is a moral enormity, Eberstadt is careful to keep a firm hand on her rhetoric. She is admonitory but not alarmist. And she is surely right when she concludes that "If the sexual abuse of minors isn't wrong, then nothing is."

Compelling though Eberstadt's reflections are, however, we found ourselves wondering whether in the end she did not rather understate the problem she did so much to expose. Toward the end of "Pedophilia Chic Reconsidered" Eberstadt writes that

   it is tempting to throw up one's hands on reading a litany like this one,
   and to blame it all on our anything-goes postmodern life. … 

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