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The reason that the monstrous crime of pedophilia matters is simple: In an increasingly secular age, it is one of the few taboos about which people on both sides of the religious divide can agree. It remains a marker of right and wrong in a world where other markers have been erased.

And that is also the reason that the questions surrounding the attempted extradition of Roman Polanski for a 1977 child rape briefly became the Rorschach tests of our times. Sophistication vs. prudery, the morality of the 1970s vs. the morality of today, European artistes vs. American law, Hollywood vs. Middle America: Given just how many cultural and moral buttons were punched by the case, it’s small wonder that l’affaire Polanski generated commentary as voluminous and passionate as it did.

Even so, and to the surprise of many commentators, one singularly interesting fact about the whole wretched matter was that the director and his fate generated little sympathy anywhere in the United States east of, say, Malibu. To the contrary, the Polanski case somehow succeeded in doing what no one actually trying has managed to do in years: uniting practically all Americans, liberal as well as conservative, in this case, against the hapless director.

It’s been a long time since the left in America has competed with the right for the high ground of a morals charge, but such was the weirdly intriguing scramble following Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland. One of the manifestos that helped catapult the case into a media frenzy, the bluntly titled “Reminder: Polanski Raped a Child” appeared first in the left-leaning Salon, then went ricocheting around the blogosphere with the firm assent of many more socially conservative sites. The New York Times and the Washington Post, also untrue to form, found themselves editorializing about the case in phrases that the Washington Times or the Catholic League could have reprinted verbatim. And on the unaccustomed consensus went. “If the propriety of punishing child rapists were the only issue in the country,” conservative blogger Patterico noted at the height of cyberspace’s attention to the case, “I do believe we could hold hands with the left and sing Kumbayah.”

The question, of course, is why all this welcome unanimity? After all, it wasn’t very long ago that some enlightened folk took a considerably more relaxed view of the question of sex with youngsters, and they weren’t afraid to say so. From the 1970s through the 1990s, a number of trial balloons were floated that almost no one in America would dare release now. Some people, including celebrated novelists, asked outright whether sex with minors might be worth a cheer or two. Other sophisticated voices wondered aloud whether “intergenerational sex” was really as bad as all that, at least where boys were concerned. Still others staked a claim to what might be called “anti-anti-pedophilia.” This was the frequently expressed notion that the sexual abuse of children, although wrong, had given rise to something that also was wrong—a kind of national hysteria, an instantiation of Richard Hofstadter’s famed American “paranoid style.”

Given the public record of those years, it seemed, if anything, overdue to talk of “pedophilia chic,” as I did in the Weekly Standard in two essays written several years apart (1996 and 2001). Those essays consisted mostly of quotations, sometimes long ones, from a variety of public sources. They demonstrated something that most people would have thought shocking then, as most people still do today—that the moral dumbing-down of both pedophilia (sexual attraction to children) and ephebophilia (sexual attraction to teenagers) was making slow but steady progress in sophisticated society. And while a few critics resisted having that record held to the light, their objections were beside the point. The facts themselves about who said what during those years to define down the phenomenon of sex with minors were beyond dispute. They still are.

The phenomenon of pedophilia chic revealed the intensely troubling possibility that society, especially literate and enlightened society, was in the process of sanctioning certain exceptions to the taboo against sex with minors, particularly sex between men and boys. As a matter of criminal law, of course, girls are often and tragically the victims of older men. But pedophilia chic concerned not the rate of criminal conviction but rather the open public questioning of the taboo itself. What the record through the 1990s showed was that in the case of girls the taboo remained solid, and in the case of boys it did not. In other words, to take the example before us now, had Roman Polanski been arrested for the same crime a decade ago, in all likelihood we would have witnessed the same outcry that we did this fall.

So now let us ask the more difficult question: Would Polanski in 2009 still have inadvertently united almost everyone in America against him if his victim had been a thirteen-year-old boy rather than a thirteen-year-old girl? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is yes—and for interesting if unexpected reasons.

Plainly, the boundaries of public discussion, at least about the subject of sex with youngsters, are more restrictive today than they were in the 1990s. Back then, the toxic moral fallout of the 1960s and 1970s was fresher and lay more visibly in the public square. Fourteen years ago, for example, the New Republic published a short piece called “Chickenhawk” (pedophile slang for a young boy) that discussed a short film about the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The piece expressed sympathy for the pederasts and would-be pederasts depicted and echoed them in asking whether the boys weren’t sometimes the predators in man-boy sex. The piece is so damning of itself—so perfectly representative of a time when wondering aloud about “man-boy sex” exacted no penalty from the readers of a major magazine that one could quote almost any sentence for the desired effect: “It might even be that a budding young stud had the upper hand over the aging, overweight loner,” for example.

When it came time this fall to speak about Polanski, however, bloggers for the same magazine seemed to compete over who could most thunderously denounce the confessed child rapist and his apologists. Most important, many were not just attacking the idea of sex with girl minors but with all minors, period.

Similarly, seventeen years ago another sophisticated magazine, Vanity Fair, published a whitewashing of a Phillips Exeter Academy teacher who had been caught surreptitiously filming boys in the showers and splicing those images into pornographic movies. The essay not only painted this former teacher as a victim of his accusers but also cast negatively one accuser who had come forward. Along the way, the article conflated pedophilia with homosexuality, blaming the teacher’s victimization on a school atmosphere that allegedly left him stuck “in the closet.”

The notion that such an apologia could appear in Vanity Fair or any similar venue in 2009 is simply grotesque. To the contrary, this fall that magazine’s blog also ran over with commentators weighing in vehemently against Polanski.

Example three: In 1998 the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association, printed a subsequently notorious study called “A Meta-Analytic Examination of Assumed Properties of Child Sexual Abuse Using College Samples.” In it, three researchers took issue with “the common belief that child sexual abuse causes intense harm, regardless of gender.” The authors further criticized the use of conventional terms such as victim and perpetrator and recommended that “a willing encounter with positive reactions” be labeled “simply adult-child sex.” For good measure, they also compared consensual adult-child sex to “masturbation, homosexuality, fellatio, cunnilingus, and sexual promiscuity” behaviors the APA once considered pathological but does no more. The clear implication was that “adult-child” sex would someday become as normalized in therapeutic circles as had these predecessors.

Can anyone imagine a similar study being published in a similarly prestigious venue today? A Google search of the APA’s website suggests that the last time the word pedophilia was even used there was in 1999, tellingly, in a letter written to Tom DeLay, attempting to distance the institution from the article: “It is the position of the Association,” the letter said, “that ­sexual activity between children and adults should never be considered or labeled as harmless or acceptable.”

Or consider one last and especially surreal example. Back in 1989, The Nation published a short piece called “On Truth and Fiction” by a novelist who said he had lately penned an “entertainment about a San Francisco private eye who wandered into the business of transporting Haitian boys to boy-lovers all over the world.” Apparently in the interest of promoting that book, the novelist wanted to report to The Nation’s readers that he’d lately verified its “factual basis,” thanks in part to a “charming and cultivated American priest [in Haiti] who educated boys for export.” During a visit to the island, the author also enjoyed a “tour of the house of Monsieur G., who was in the business of cultivating, training, and exporting comely lads.” At a party at G.’s house, one of the other guests, a Frenchman, explains why he is visiting Haiti, because “his insomnia required two black boys every evening, two different ones each night.” (He had tried Calcutta, the Frenchman explained, but the boys were pas suffisament fonces (not dark enough.))

And on the worldly story went, with yet more Scotch poured by yet more houseboys in white shorts, and “other fun . . . preceding the orgy” that night (before which the author allegedly departed). In sum, “On Truth and Fiction”—which appeared at the height of the AIDS crisis, a time when Haitian boy prostitutes were dying by the boatload—was a horror. But it is also a perfect instantiation of the kind of pedophilia chic that only a few years ago raised no eyebrows whatsoever in certain enlightened places.

Once again, that kind of nod to pederasty would be far less likely to make the pages of any magazine sold in public today. In fact, if such a piece were to appear, it would excite plenty of comment including calls for international investigation and prosecution of some of the characters in the tale. As if to clinch the point, the same Nation magazine that published such nonchalant reportage about pedophile sex tourism twenty years ago also happened this fall to publish one of the more blistering pieces on the Polanski matter, a column by feminist Katha Pollitt that was catapulted into heavy circulation on the Internet. Hollywood’s apologism for the director, she concluded, “shows the liberal cultural elite at its preening, fatuous worst . . . . No wonder Middle America hates them.”

So what happened to turn yesterday’s “intergenerational sex” into today’s bipartisan demands to hang Roman Polanski and related offenders high? Mainly, it appears, what happened was something unexpected and momentous: the Catholic priest scandals of the early years of this decade, which for two ­reasons have profoundly changed the ground rules of what can—and can’t—be said in public about the seduction and rape of the young.

First, the scandals made clear that one point was no longer in dispute: The sexual abuse of the young leaves real and lasting scars. In the years before the scandals, as the foregoing examples and many others show, a number of writers contested exactly that. Today, however, thanks to a great many victims testifying otherwise in the course of the priest scandals—it’s hard to imagine them daring to do the same.

All those grown men breaking down on camera as they looked back on their childhood, describing in heartrending testimony what it meant to be robbed of their innocence: It will take a long time to wipe such powerful images from the public mind again. At least for now, no one would dare declare that the victims had gotten what was coming to them, or that they had somehow asked for it, or that seduction by an adult wasn’t as bad as all that—three notions that were most definitely making the rounds before the scandals broke. Moreover, that the vast majority of victims were male—81 percent, according to the definitive study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice—proved a particularly potent antidote to the poison about boys that had been circulating earlier.

In a fascinating bit of moral jujitsu, the scandals helped in a second way to repair the preexisting public consensus against sex with minors. Naturally enough, throughout the scandals and beyond, the spectacle of priests committing crimes proved irresistible to the people who already hate the Catholic Church. Also attracted by the fray were other, more refined souls who simply wish the Church ill as a matter of habit because they want it to conform more to what they mean by Catholic. And so, throughout the scandals, both subsets of Church detractors—non-Catholic anti-Catholics and anti-Church-hierarchy Catholics—took every opportunity to excoriate the institution and claim the moral high ground for themselves.

There was plenty of high ground for them to claim. Some Church officials stupidly played ostrich about the scandals. Others formally or informally cooperated in the evil of the crimes. With so much blame to go around, critics from all directions could hardly be faulted for turning the scandals into an opportunity to air every other grievance they harbored about Christianity—most especially, about its traditional teachings on sexual morality.

Yet this hate-fest on the Catholic Church in the name of the priest-boy scandals, rollicking though it was for some, came with blowback: It prospectively cast all those enlightened people into a new role as defenders of the young and innocent. In other words, it logically created a whole new class of anti-pederasts. And since the Church’s harshest critics are, generally speaking, the same sort of enlightened folks from whom pedophilia chic had floated up, there lurked in all of this a contradiction. After all, one could either point to the grave moral wrong of what the offending priests had done—or one could minimize the suffering of the victims, as apologists for pedophilia had been doing before the scandals broke. But one could not plausibly do both any more, at least not in public. And so, in a way that could not have been predicted, but that is obviously all to the good, the priest scandals made it impossible to take that kinder, gentler look at the question of sex with youngsters that some salonistes of a few years back had been venturing.

Look, for a contrast, at Europe. Why, following Polanski’s arrest, did some among the continent’s elite, along with Europeanized Americans, like many in Hollywood take a blasé view of child rape? The most obvious answer remains the priest scandals, which America suffered in far greater numbers than did Europe. The scandals operated here as a lustration not only of the Church and its seminaries but also of public opinion—including the public declarations of the most secular of commentators.

Before cheering for this unexpected and welcome new order, we should bear in mind certain other truths. First, to say that the double standard concerning sexual exploitation of the young has eroded markedly is not to say that it has disappeared altogether. Consider, for example, the Obama administration’s controversial appointment of Kevin Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network as “safe schools” czar.

As conservative groups have repeatedly pointed out, Jennings as a principal once failed to report sexual contact between a sixteen-year-old male student and an older man; and he also has praised as his personal inspiration one Harry Hay, a fabled gay-rights activist who numerous times defended a place at the public table for the North American Man-Boy Love Association. The point for our purposes is obvious: Had any similar candidate for Jenning’s appointment overlooked a similar act of sex or seduction involving a teenaged girl, or publicly praised a known defender of a pedophile organization aimed at girls, his nomination would not have gotten off square one. Hence, in some places, a double standard lingers on.

Second, globalization appears to be making sex crimes against the young ever easier. Consider the recent exposure in France of Fréderic Mitterand, the minister of culture who was one of Polanski’s leading defenders, as a sex tourist whose autobiographical novel speaks frankly of his use of boy prostitutes in Thailand. (“I got in the habit of paying for boys,” he explains.) Along with those who don’t believe sex with minors is all that bad, there are others who are actively pursuing children, whether in person or in cyberspace.

Third, there remain prominent salons where pedophilia has not lost its chicness. Witness the louche reaction to the Polanski case emanating from most of Hollywood. It was as if someone had brought to life novelist Bruce Wagner’s ferociously depressing 1996 novel I’m Losing You, a horrifying but largely believable depiction of Hollywood decadence in which child molestation figures large. As Jonah Goldberg notes, the apologism for Polanski has been interesting in its own right as “a dye marker, ‘lighting up’ a whole archipelago of morally wretched people.”

Even so, let’s welcome the good news whenever we can get it. The public furor this fall over Roman Polanski’s rape of a thirteen-year-old girl many years ago has forcefully revealed that, in most of America, yesterday’s itinerant savoir-faire about sex with minors has been pushed from the mainstream and forced back underground. It is a consensus that did not exist in such force a decade ago, and the priest scandals are largely responsible for it.

If there’s a clearer case of good coming out of evil lately, it will take some time to think of one. Meanwhile we can be thankful, at least for now, for something that so often eludes the world—a case of small but real moral progress that bodes a little better for the youngest and most innocent among us.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer for First Things, and author, most recently, of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism, forthcoming from Ignatius Press in spring 2010.

Image by Pxfuel, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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