Feminism, Pedophilia, and Children's Rights

by  Pat Califia

in: Paidika, 1991
The Culture of Radical Sex, 1994

In 1980 I published a two-part article in The Advocate, critiquing American age-of-consent laws. While extremely controversial, the articles did hit print and spur discussion about the sexuality of young people, intimate relationships between men and boys, and the dangerous implications of banning all erotic images of minors. Eleven years later, I am writing this piece. It will be translated into Dutch and published abroad in a special issue of Paidika on women and pedophilia. I support Paidika and enjoy working with the editors of this special issue. I also know I probably could not get anything on this topic published today in the American gay and lesbian press.

Doc and Fluff, my recent science-fiction novel, has been banned by some women's bookstores because it supposedly depicts a cross-generational lesbian relationship, and I've been attacked as “an advocate of child molestation” in the feminist press. This happened despite the fact that I made it clear that the younger character, Fluff, had reached the legal age of consent. She initiates all the sexual activity. If I had made Fluff eleven or even sixteen, instead of eighteen, the book probably would not have been published at all.

The American government's campaign against the sexual rights of young people has been so successful that most gay men, lesbians, and feminists are convinced that the movement to repeal age-of-consent laws was nothing more than an attempt to guarantee rapacious adults the right to vulnerable child victims. The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) has been banned from so many annual gay pride marches that people are astonished when the organization does appear.

The adult gay community here has cut off its next generation. We are afraid to reach out to young men and women who are coming out. A teenager who has suffered abuse from parents, peers, and teachers for being homosexual often finds that adult gay men and lesbians will not offer her or him sanctuary from homophobia. We do not because we dare not. We have been terrorized and made ashamed.

And yet I know very few lesbians, and even fewer gay men, who waited until they were eighteen to come out. Most of us were aware well before puberty that we wanted to be close to or sexual with members of our own sex. I've heard countless stories from women about their attempts to seduce their high school gym teachers or camp counselors. Not all of these attempts were unsuccessful. Our real-life experiences do not jibe with our politics on this issue. In this case, at least, the personal does not seem to be political.

It's impossible to sum up thirty years of American politics in a short article. But a sketchy chronicle of this background is important for anyone who wants to understand the suspicion and hatred that most American gay-rights activists and lesbian-feminists display toward pedophilia.

During the '60s, the military draft which sent young men to war in Vietnam proved to be the impetus for the formation of several popular radical movements. Because the draft was age-linked, the campaign against it used age as a rallying point, protesting the government's “sending young men to fight an old men's war.” Movements for the liberation of blacks, women, and homosexuals emerged. And there was a nascent movement for the liberation of young people. High school students fought for the right to publish underground newspapers, wear their hair long, and join in antiwar protests by wearing armbands and other political symbols to school. They contested searches and seizure of their property conducted by school officials.

In the early days of the women's movement, feminists criticized all the institutions of male-dominated society. The traditional family was under siege. It was common to talk about how young women were oppressed by the public schools and received an inferior, feminized education. There was agitation for reproductive rights for all women, including teenagers.

The antiwar movement collapsed when the draft was repealed, and the war in Vietnam ended. Few of the movement's members had developed a comprehensive or sophisticated critique of the American state. The feminist movement was deflated by the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which granted American women the right to abortion in 1973. Ironically, because of this major victory, American feminism lost its intense, radical focus. It was also divided by bitter struggles over the presence of lesbians in the women's movement and their eventual departure from it. Mainstream feminism became bogged down in a doomed campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Litigation against sex discrimination in the areas of employment and education made significant gains for women, but it was difficult to use this issue as a rallying point for a mass movement.

The Antiporn Movement

Feminism did not regain its fervor until the antiporn movement emerged in the late '70s. This campaign almost immediately won a large number of adherents. Antiporn activists were successful in attracting both lesbian and heterosexual feminists. All women could unite against misogynist violence. Because the antiporn movement quashed discussion of private sexual practices that might conflict with its critique of sexually diverse imagery, it became much easier for women with differing sexual orientations to work together. Their leaders were excellent public speakers who allowed followers to be titillated by pornography without giving up their righteous indignation about it.

This social-purity movement promised to do away with discrimination and violence against women by simply eliminating porn. It also made street action and protests viable once more, instead of focusing on boring legal cases. Closing adult bookstores is much easier than changing the power relations between the sexes. And it allowed women to take action within the private sphere, politicizing something we were already accustomed to doing—regulating other people's sexual conduct.

The feminist antiporn movement routinely trashed its feminist critics by attacking them as perverts and advocates of rape, battery, and child abuse. Members of the antiporn movement have been so successful that most people—including the press—today assume that they represent the only feminist position on issues of sexuality, censorship, pornography, violence against women, and the sex industry.

The feminist antiporn movement mirrored a growing conservatism in American society about all sexual matters. As economic conditions here got worse, people began to look toward “traditional values” to provide a feeling of security and safety. It became much harder for women to survive economically outside the nuclear family or to criticize it. Plenty of evidence exists to show that the traditional family is not a particularly nice place to grow up. Sexual abuse is a common experience for girls (and not so uncommon for boys) in the family. Federal law-enforcement figures indicate that five children per day (mostly infants and young children) are murdered by their parents in the United States. Yet the nostalgia for this ideal, safe, loving, nurturing, patriarchal family persists.

The panic over child pornography and pedophilia that has racked American society since the '70s is an inseparable part of our society's denial of the shortcomings and failures of the family. Moral crusades have also been used to attack both feminism and gay rights, and neither of these progressive movements has been very successful at defending itself against such attacks or at presenting a complete analysis of them.

Child Pornography

Child pornography has been a special category in American law since 1977. This was the year that Anita Bryant began her campaign against gay rights legislation in Dade County, Florida, and Congressional hearings were held on the sexual exploitation of children. The most flamboyant agitators against kiddy porn included Judianne Densen-Gerber, manager of a chain of drug rehabilitation centers, and Los Angeles cop Lloyd Martin, who had received city funding to head the Sexually Exploited Child Unit. Since the hearings concluded, Densen-Gerber's Odyssey House drug-rehabilitation centers were the subject of a two-year investigation conducted by then New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams. The investigation found that federal, state, and city grants had been diverted to pay for her private expenses. Densen-Gerber had to agree to repay the money, and Odyssey House was placed on probation to avoid criminal charges. Lloyd Martin was eventually transferred out of the Sexually Exploited Children Unit to a less visible and less powerful position. Activists speculated that this transfer was the result of remarks Martin had made alleging that the Big Brother program and the Boy Scouts of America did not screen their volunteers carefully enough and were full of pedophiles. After this transfer was announced, Martin went on “psychiatric sick leave” and finally resigned from the police department.

Witnesses' claims that the child-porn industry grossed billions of dollars and involved the abuse of millions of children were never substantiated. In fact, even in its heyday, child porn was not a popular genre of sexually explicit material. One expert has estimated that no more than five thousand to ten thousand copies of each magazine were sold worldwide.

In 1978 a federal law took effect that made it a felony to photograph anyone under the age of sixteen in the nude, engaged in sexual activity with another person, or masturbating. By that time, most distributors and bookstores had stopped handling the controversial material. The only child pornography left was produced by amateurs, usually for private use. Since 1978 the law has been amended to make penalties more severe, and the definition of a minor now includes any person under the age of eighteen. Subsequent court decisions have determined that material depicting minors does not have to meet the same strict criteria that adult material has to meet to be defined as obscene and therefore proscribed. If a boy-lover has a nude photograph of his seventeen-year-old boyfriend in his wallet, that photograph—even though it is not commercially distributed and does not depict sex—is child pornography. It is illegal to transport it across state lines, and in many states it is even illegal to possess it.

In 1990 the Supreme Court upheld an Ohio state law which criminalized the possession and viewing of child pornography. Many other states then passed similar legislation. In the U.S. it is illegal to be in the business of producing or distributing obscene matter, but it is not illegal for a private citizen to possess obscene material to view in her or his own home—unless it depicts minors.

Despite the fact that child pornography is no longer commercially available, law-enforcement efforts against it have escalated. Special task forces to combat it have been set up by U.S. Customs, the FBI, the Justice Department, and state and local police. In order to justify their swollen budgets and manpower rosters, the cops have created a series of expensive entrapment schemes. Ironically, the only kiddy porn now produced in the U.S. is paid for by taxpayers' dollars and hawked by the guardians of our legal system.

Between 1978 and 1984, only sixty-seven defendants were indicted for federal child-porn crimes. But since May 1984, about six hundred defendants have been indicted as a result of sting operations conducted by U.S. government agencies.

This is how it works: The Post Office targets people who are unlucky enough to have landed on mailing lists compiled by U.S. Customs. These lists come from many sources. When adult-porn businesses are raided, the authorities also confiscate their mailing lists, even if their customers have committed no crimes. The Post Office and Customs keep track of people who order sexually explicit material through the mail. Police have even confiscated the membership list of a gay computer bulletin board that was shut down because its operator was accused of violating age-of-consent laws. The Post Office then conducts direct-mail campaigns soliciting orders for child porn. Some of the government brochures are vaguely worded and do not make it clear that the customer is ordering contraband. Law enforcement officials sometimes become pen pals, pretending to be pedophiles or sexually active children, and solicit their correspondents to send or receive child porn through the mail. If targeted individuals seize the bait, they are arrested, and the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of conviction even if they have never ordered this type of material before. One such operation, Project Looking Glass, conducted in 1986, involved more than two hundred U.S. Customs inspectors and state and local cops. The government paid millions of dollars to obtain a mere one hundred indictments.

Strict child-porn laws have created a chilling effect upon any discussion of child sexuality. After the passage of the 1978 law criminalizing nude photographs of minors, the excellent sex education book, Show Me! , was withdrawn by its publisher, St. Martin's Press. Art photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Jock Sturges who display nonerotic, nude portraits of children have been threatened with prosecution. Since film developers are required to notify police any time they see negatives that feature nude minors, parents have been charged with and even convicted of child-porn offenses for taking nude pictures of their own children at play or in the bathtub. There have been so many wrongful accusations regarding pornography and sexual and physical child abuse that wrongfully accused child care workers and parents formed Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL).

The government has also tried to use child-porn laws against adult material. American magazines that publish nude photographs are required to keep files on their models, showing proof of each model's age and legal name. These files have to be kept available for inspection by law-enforcement personnel.

When most people think of child pornography, they imagine full-color movies and magazines that show adults raping prepubescent children. In fact, most of the material consisted of black and white photo magazines. The bulk of the imagery was of nude children or teens. A minority of images showed young people being sexual with each other, and a very tiny proportion of it showed adults engaged in sexual conduct with minors. Since the pictures were so hard to obtain, they were usually pirated by rival magazines and reprinted.

It's certainly true that some of the young people who appeared in this material were coerced into modeling and were damaged by that experience. But it would be a mistake to characterize all child porn as “a record of child abuse.” Sometimes it was a record of children's exhibitionism and free erotic play with one another. Sometimes it was a record of adolescent vanity, pride, and budding sexuality. Sometimes it preserved a moment of exceptional trust and pleasure between partners whose ages would normally have kept them apart.

To simply speak this truth is very dangerous today. But we do not serve ourselves—or children—very well when we interpret all sexual experiences in the most negative terms possible. Sex is not simply a matter of violence or danger. And issues of consent, autonomy, and power are never simple to sort out, especially in the realm of the senses. Adult panic or disgust about young people's seeking pleasure for themselves is responsible for much of the trauma that minors experience when they are caught behaving “inappropriately” for their ages, even in a consensual context.

Missing Children

The campaign against child pornography was fueled by related moral hysteria over missing children. During the early '80s, the American media was full of melodramatic accounts of the “millions” of children who were kidnapped and then sexually abused by strangers. A representative article appeared in the women's magazine Family Circle in 1986, headlined, “Every Mother's Fear: Abduction,” with the subhead, “An estimated 1.8 million children will be reported missing this year. What can you do to protect your child?” Photos of missing children who were supposedly in grave danger appeared everywhere—on grocery bags, milk cartons, billboards, and flyers. Public fear about missing children grew to such a pitch that in 1984 the Justice Department awarded a $3.3 million grant to set up the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

It took a while for the facts to emerge, still longer for the panic to fade. An alarming 1983 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistic that there were 1.5 million missing children reported each year was widely quoted. But this huge number was hardly ever broken down into appropriate categories. About 95 percent of those children were runaways, most of whom returned voluntarily within days; throwaways (children abandoned by their parents); or children who had been kidnapped by parents or guardians involved in custody battles. Jay Howell, executive director of the Justice Department-funded center, often told the press that he estimated that 4,000 to 20,000 children were kidnapped by strangers each year. But other child advocates such as Bill Treanor, executive director of the American Youth Work Center, put the figure closer to one hundred, and the F.B.I. logged only 67 stranger-abduction reports annually.

Even after the scare about missing children had begun to abate and its credibility to wane, it continued to color public policy. The U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released a report entitled America's Missing and Exploited Children: Their Safety and Their Future in March of 1986. While acknowledging that many so-called missing children were actually abandoned by their parents, had run away “to flee from intolerable conditions of emotional or physical abuse at home,” or were “victims of family abduction,” the report still called up the specter of:

paedophiles, serial murderers, or those who want to sell abducted children on the black market... They photograph children engaged in sordid, explicit sexual activity and sell the photos on the international market that is available for the exchange of such pictures.

Rather than analyze why young people might prefer precarious lives on the street to the dangers of remaining in their homes, the advisory board recommended giving police the authority to detain anyone under the age of eighteen. The report says primly that minors “do not have a right to freedom from custody.” Both runaway and throwaway children should be returned to their parents as soon as possible. The report blames “violent and sexually explicit facets of the popular culture such as art, rock music lyrics, and video games” and “preadolescent peer culture” for young people's desire to escape from the family, and asks:

Would children be less vulnerable to running away, to sexual exploitation, to sex rings, and destructive cults if they were more sheltered from lurid, everyday depictions of perversion?

In other words, teenagers who voluntarily leave home or who are thrown out have been tainted by sexual deviance.

In fact, the sexuality of young people often provokes violence within the family—whether it's a child's demand for birth control or sex education; a need for treatment of a venereal disease; pregnancy; coming out as bisexual or homosexual; or a parent's discovery of a minor's sexual activity. But the Justice Department report does not suggest that adults need to accept the reality of youth sexuality and give young people the information they need to cope with it, including access to birth control and abortion. No mention is made of alleviating poverty, providing better health care or mental health services, or making it easier for families to deal with substance-abuse problems. It's much easier to jail the young man whose father beats him up for being a fag and then buy him a bus ticket home. It's much tidier to ship the pregnant high school junior back to the hometown where her mother does not want her to be seen in public.

The Attack on Feminism

In the late '80s, a series of scandals about child abuse which supposedly occurred in day care centers represented a major assault on feminism and the increasing numbers of American women with children who worked outside their homes. These scandals also created the myth that organized rings of Satanists were preying on America's youth.

What one author has called “the ritual sex abuse hoax” began in 1983, when Judy Johnson noticed that her two-year-old son's bottom was red. Her son attended the McMartin preschool in Los Angeles. She told police her son had indicated a man at the center, named Ray, but it wasn't clear what Ray had done. In the next few weeks, Johnson's accusations grew more complex and colorful. Eventually she accused Raymond Buckey, whose family owned the school, of making her son ride naked on a horse, of wearing a Santa Claus suit while abusing him, of jabbing scissors into his eyes, and of putting staples in his ears. She accused Peggy Buckey, Ray's mother, of killing a baby and making her son drink the blood. She also said that an AWOL marine and three models in a health club had raped her son, and that her family's dog had been sodomized. Johnson was eventually diagnosed as psychotic, and defense attorneys would claim her son had been abused by his own father. But her wild stories set in motion the most expensive criminal case in U.S. history.

Police sent about two hundred letters to families whose children attended the McMartin preschool, asking if their children had been molested. The letter suggested that families take their children to Children's Institute International (CII), an abuse therapy clinic, for therapy. There, children were questioned by social workers plying anatomically correct puppets. The therapists at CII assumed that children who denied being abused must be lying and encouraged them to prove they weren't “stupid” by telling “the yucky secret.” The children began to tell stories about being assaulted in hot-air balloons and on the shoulders of busy freeways, and about being used in Satanic rituals in tunnels beneath the school. Teachers supposedly mutilated and killed animals in front of the children to persuade them to keep silent about the abuse. Eventually, several members of the Buckey family, including a seventyseven-year-old, wheelchair-bound grandmother and three female teachers, were accused of committing hundreds of acts of sex abuse against children.

The case wasn't resolved until 1990. None of the defendants were convicted, mostly because it became apparent that the child witnesses had been coached, and there was a lack of hard, physical evidence to support their claims. For example, no tunnels were ever found below the school. But many people caught up in ritual-abuse cases have not been that lucky.

From 1984 to 1989, some one hundred people nationwide were charged with ritual abuse crimes against children. About half of them were tried and half of those convicted, usually with no evidence except testimony from children, parents, experts who testified the children seemed traumatized, and doctors who were willing to make definitive diagnoses of sexual abuse even though this is very difficult to detect in any victim, regardless of age. These convictions were made possible in part by many state laws enacted around 1986, which were intended to make it easier for child victims to win justice. In some states, it wasn't necessary for the children even to be in court—parents could testify as hearsay witnesses, or the children could appear on videotape or closed-circuit TV. Of course, this also makes it more difficult to confront one's accusers and present a defense.

FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, who initially believed allegations of Satanic abuse, today says, “If the cults were real, they would constitute the greatest conspiracy in history.” Yet law-enforcement personnel continue to receive government funding to attend conferences where experts tell them how to detect Satanic child-pornography and prostitution rings, and government-funded publications warning parents about the phenomenon have been published in several states.

These cases have been used, not very subtly, to make parents who need day care feel guilty for leaving their children in other people's hands. For the first time, women are being labeled as pedophiles. This increases the public's paranoia. If children aren't safe with female caretakers, there must not be any safe place for them except home with Mommy.

This moral panic conveniently locates the source of child abuse outside of the home. It also precludes demands for increased government subsidization of child care and more frequent state safety inspections, since neither measure can prevail against child-hating witches who can kill babies without leaving bodies around for the cops to find, and covens that skewer toddlers' private parts with swords, film the ritual for sale on the international pedophile market, and leave no telltale negatives or wounds behind. People can wax indignant about the “selfishness” of mothers who endanger their children by placing them in day care and ignore the economic reality that most mothers have to work if their children are going to have shelter and food.

Cross-Generational Relationships

American society has become rabidly phobic about any sexual contact between adults and minors. In this social climate, very few lesbians will admit to having cross-generational relationships or defend even the abstract idea of them. Within the lesbian community, other forces exist that prevent girl-lovers and underage lesbians from telling their own stories. We encourage incest survivors to break the silence and tell family secrets about violence and sexual abuse. But this sisterly support turns to outrage and cries for silence if a woman wants to talk about being a sexually active child or even a teenager who was not traumatized by the experience. Lesbian-feminism supposedly empowers women, but we are reluctant to see young women's sexual experiences as anything but victimization.

Lesbians work constantly to undo their racism, classism, able-bodyism, looksism, coupleism. and all other forms of prejudice. We give lip service to confronting ageism, but we do not really include underage lesbian and bisexual women in our community. The simple truth is that we are afraid to. We are afraid the state will come down on us, brand us as child molesters, and put us in jail.

Why should a woman have to wait until she turns eighteen or twenty-one to be sexually active with other women? You may argue that adolescent dykes should experiment sexually and romantically with each other. But when they are trapped in schools, neighborhoods, churches, and families where being called queer targets them for harassment and assault, how many young lesbians can afford to come out or seek out others like themselves? The adult lesbian community is much easier to find than gay peers. True, not all younger dykes are interested in older women. But if a woman is interested in having a cross-generational lover, I cannot think of one good reason—apart from the threat of persecution—why she should deny herself such a relationship. Each generation of lesbians winds up to some extent recreating the wheel—rediscovering the possibilities of women's sexuality, relationships, and culture. We could save each other so much time and pain if we were not so deeply divided.

Opposing the state is a fearful thing. Nobody wants to go to jail, be blacklisted, or experience the violation of a tapped telephone and mail opened by strangers. But sometimes the injustice is too huge to ignore. I cannot blot out the memory of my own adolescent struggle to become a lesbian, how hard it was to persuade adult dykes to move over just a few inches and let me stand with them at the bar, how few of them were willing to talk to me, much less sleep with me. I cannot forget how freakish and alone I felt because other deviants were afraid to acknowledge me, how guilty I felt because I seemed to threaten them and make their marginal lives even more perilous. I understand now why those gray-haired women and the younger women in their twenties turned their heads away from me, but it was wrong. Self-hatred and cowardice often conceal themselves as self-preservation. I wish I could believe that fewer adult dykes would make those mistakes today.

Our government is happy to spend millions of dollars to put pedophiles in jail and keep the bogeyman of kiddy porn before the public eye to justify inflated law-enforcement budgets and increasingly draconian enforcement of obscenity laws. But the government is not willing to make sure people have enough money to support their children or to create safe and affordable day care. Funds for education still take a back seat to defense. The state is not willing to take the radical action that would be necessary to protect child victims of abusive adults. That would mean challenging parents' ownership of their children. It would mean providing viable alternatives to the family. Minors who are given the power to say “no” to being sexually used by an abusive parent or relative are also going to assume the right to say “yes” to other young people and adults whom they desire. You can't liberate children and adolescents without disrupting the entire hierarchy of adult power and coercion and challenging the hegemony of antisex fundamentalist religious values.

Afternote: In Pat Califia's 2nd Edition of Public Sex, The Culture of Radical Sex, she expresses a sad change in stance. As of 2000, she no longer accepts prepubescent children's and many young teenager's possibility to consent to erotic or sexual contacts with adults. She has become much more cynical about adults and their ability to listen to children, and now as a parent she thinks more in terms of making the child's welfare a priority than of consent.