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 (“inter-generational 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. But this is determinism masquerading as pessimism, and a determinism that does not fit the facts. Today’s pressures to normalize pedophilia are not the result of some omnipotent and unstoppable taboo-devouring social and moral juggernaut; they are occurring one bookstore, one magazine, one publisher and advertiser, one author and editor and consumer at a time. Case by case, given a more enlightened public, it is not hard to imagine these decisions—like the one that led to Penguin’s putting its imprimatur on a pedophilic sex scene, or like the misguided efforts by some gay organizations to refer teens to unsavory and perhaps even unsafe websites—being made otherwise.
There is clearly a lot to be said for Eberstadt’s caveats. And considered practically—as an answer to the question “What should be done?”—her ad hoc, case-by-case approach has much to recommend it. But if it is the better part of wisdom to avoid “determinism masquerading as pessimism,” it is also wise to acknowledge widespread cultural trends for what they are. That is not pessimism but realism. It is certainly true that “pressures to normalize pedophilia are not the result of some omnipotent and unstoppable taboo-devouring social and moral juggernaut.” But those pressures are part of a larger cultural-moral shift—and an enormously powerful one. No juggernaut is “omnipotent” or “unstoppable.” But one can point to many cultural trends that run like wildfire through a society. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was one such development. We believe that the normalization of man-boy pedophilia that Eberstadt decries can only be understood when seen in the context of that larger emancipatory—or pseudo-emancipatory— project.

The pressures to normalize pedophilia did not emerge in a vacuum. They are a natural outgrowth of the same liberationist ethos that underwrote the culture of “free love” in the 1960s and that underwrites in our own day the dramatically increased prevalence of such “transgressive” phenomena as “sex-change” operations, “trans-sexuality,” sado-masochism, pornography, and other sexual exotica that had hitherto been confined to the nethermost fringe of human imagining. The fact that no trendy college today is without courses catering to the “differently gendered” shows that the process of “normalization” Eberstadt discerned with respect to pedophilia is proceeding apace in other out-of-the-way neighborhoods of human sexuality.

Eberstadt may well—in fact she probably does—give us the best formula for responding to the pressure to normalize pedophilia. But if criticism is to be more than “case- by-case”—if it is to address the moral climate that makes such normalization possible—then it has to step back to consider the larger cultural situation. Writing about Bruce Bawer’s book A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society in National Review in 1993, Father Richard John Neuhaus observed that

there is no denying that public debates over homosexuality in the last decade and more have often been fevered, confused, uncivil, and downright nasty. It is frequently forgotten that agitations about homosexuality are part of a great cultural commotion about sexuality itself. The homosexual insurgency did not come out of nowhere. It is the logical extension of the doctrine, which has now assumed dogmatic status in this “therapeutic society,” that there is no higher morality than self-realization through self-expression. Some heterosexuals who oppose the insurgency, including some calling themselves conservatives, do not have the nerve or the wit to challenge the dogma that gave it birth. They wink at fornication and adultery, and take in stride the serial polygamy that is the current practice of divorce. They are in a doubtful moral position to censure homosexuals, who, in Joseph Campbell’s feather-brained phrase, also want to “follow their bliss.”
Neuhaus’s essay is far and away the most searching commentary on Bruce Bawer’s book precisely because it places the debate about “gay rights” in the larger context of the meaning of human sexuality generally— a realm, he emphasizes, “of ambiguity, confusion, gradation, temptation, and decision,” but also “a realm of moral possibility.” Denying the moral dimension of sexuality is at the center of the gospel of sexual emancipation, which is one reason that gospel has proved to be so shallow. Regarding sex primarily as an instrument of self-gratification, it tends to foster what the philosopher Roger Scruton called the Kinsey view of sex: “a tingling of the genitals, with orgasm as the goal and the partner as the means to it.” In this sense, “sexual liberation” is a liberation of sex from the future—a liberation, that is to say, that turns out to be a new form of enslavement. Regarded in this way, sex offers less a window on the world than a narcissist’s mirror. As Neuhaus noted later in his essay on Bawer’s book, “Our culture is largely dominated by the imperative of being ‘free to be me’—with ‘me’ being defined by our strongest libidinal urgencies.” If those self-defining urges prompt one to have sexual relations with boys, girls, newts, or corpses, can society legitimately object?

Of course it can. But only if it challenges the motivating premise underlying the dogma of the sexual revolution: that sexual “self-fulfillment” is an ultimate good to which all other goods must be subordinated. What we see in the pressure to normalize pedophilia, “trans-sexuality,” “gender-reassignment surgery,” and the rest is the logical flowering of the emancipationist ideology outlined by such gurus of sexual liberation as Herbert Marcuse in the 1950s and 1960s. In Eros and Civilization—a book that was first published in 1959 and that became a bible of the counterculture—Marcuse spins a fairytale about the fate of humanity in the modern world. He conjures up the image of a “non-repressive reality principle” in which “the body in its entirety would become . . . an instrument of pleasure.”

What this really amounts to is a form of infantilization. Thus Marcuse speaks glowingly of “a resurgence of pregenital polymorphous sexuality” that “protests against the repressive order of procreative sexuality.” He recommends returning to a state of “primary narcissism” in which one will find “the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death; silence, sleep, night, paradise—the Nirvana principle not as death but as life.” In other words, he looks forward to a community of solipsists. Marcuse is quite explicit about the social implications of his experiment in narcissism. “This change in the value and scope of libidinal relations,” he writes, “would lead to a disintegration of the institutions in which the private interpersonal relations have been organized, particularly the monogamic and patriarchal family.” That is to say, ultimate liberation is indistinguishable from ultimate self-absorption.

Despite various setbacks—many precipitated by the threat of AIDS—Marcuse’s vision of total sexual indulgence has become a guiding ideal of our society. In sheer extravagance, Marcuse’s blend of radical, Marxoid political hectoring and neo-Freudian sexual fantasy has few rivals. But he was hardly the first to understand the kinds of changes that would follow upon a systematic emancipation of human sexuality from what he disparagingly calls “procreative eros.” We think, for example of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World. It is not, we think, a particularly good novel. As a piece of social-moral prognostication, however, it has proved to be remarkably prescient (even if Huxley’s notion of sexual emancipation, involving only relations between men and women, seems almost prim by contemporary standards). Huxley was writing in the early 1930s. But he foresaw with startling exactitude the numbing spiritual wreckage that follows upon the effort of mankind to remake itself in its own image and divorce sexuality from procreation. (Not for nothing were the words “mother,” “monogamy,” and “romance” considered obscenities in Huxley’s anti-paradise.) Today, as we contemplate the awesome potentialities of genetic engineering, on the one hand, and recent efforts to normalize the more florid precincts of sexual divagation, on the other, it is hard not to admire Huxley’s crystal ball. He was right that the two things go together. He was also right that their union leads to infantilization—even, perhaps especially, among the most privileged members of society: “It is their duty to be infantile,” one character says, “even against their inclination.” Two other items need to be taken into account. One is euthanasia—a crucial feature of Huxley’s brave new world, as, increasingly, it is of ours. The other is mood-altering, ecstasy-producing drugs. Huxley called his imagined concoction soma: we have other names for the real things, including, of course, “ecstasy.”

Some two-thirds of the way through Brave New World, a character known as the Controller is asked whether working people are happy in their drug-ordered, genetically-reprocessed, sexually-promiscuous society. “They like it,” he replies. “Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?” Of course, Huxley meant his readers to discern an irony in that question that passes the Controller by. The frightening thought is that we may be rapidly approaching a situation in which such questions can be asked without fear of irony or rebuke.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 6, on page 1
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