In September, prominent MIT computer scientist Richard Stallman made a clarification on his personal website regarding his beliefs about sexual contact with children, under the heading “Sex Between an Adult and a Child Is Wrong.” “Many years ago, I posted that I could not see anything wrong about sex between an adult and a child, if the child accepted it,” he wrote. “Through personal conversations in recent years I’ve learned to understand how sex with a child can harm per psychologically [sic]. I think adults should not do that.”
That Stallman, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, took so long to arrive at an ethical norm so obvious and basic that most of us hold it intuitively beggars belief, and his previous stances make for queasy reading. In a 2003 post, he said, “Everyone age 14 or above ought to take part in sex, though not indiscriminately,” adding in a chilling parenthesis that “some people are ready earlier.” Three years later, he wrote that he is “skeptical of the claim that voluntarily pedophilia harms children. The arguments that it causes harm seem to be based on cases which aren’t voluntary, which are then stretched by parents who are horrified by the idea that their little baby is maturing.” In 2013, he reiterated this position: “There is little evidence to justify the widespread assumption that willing participation in pedophilia hurts children.”
It’s unbelievable that a publicly renowned scientist ever made such irresponsible and illogical claims, but he’s not as much of an anomaly as you’d hope. In 2013, famed biologist and atheist figurehead Richard Dawkins told the U.K. Times magazine that he can’t find it in himself to condemn “mild pedophilia,” which he says doesn’t do “lasting harm,” comments he’s reiterated several times (in 2006, he also wrote that the Catholic Church has been “unfairly demonized” over the issue of child sex abuse). And in 2017, flailing far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos expressed gratitude to a Catholic priest who had sex with him as a teenager, saying he “wouldn’t give nearly such good head if it wasn’t for him” and defended sexual contact between adults and “somebody who is 13 years old and sexually mature.”
The list goes on, too. In 2014, millionaire novelist John Grisham spoke out in defense of the “60-year-old white men in prison [for accessing child pornography] who’ve never harmed anybody” and drew a distinction between “real pedophiles” and those who look at videos of “16-year-old wannabe hookers.” In 1997, lawyer and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz argued that “it is doubtful that sanctions should apply” to people who have sex with “teenagers above the age of puberty” and that the age of consent should be lowered to 15 as an “appropriate compromise.” Academics like Ken Plummer and Philip Tromovitch have also claimed that “pedophilic interest is natural and normal for human males” and that pedophilic action doesn’t harm children. And recently, British socialite Lady Colin Campbell opined that soliciting sex from minors is “not the same as pedophilia” and that “there’s a difference between a minor and a child” — statements issued in defense of Jeffrey Epstein, a man who abused dozens of girls, some as young as 14, when he was in his 50s and 60s.
These stances aren’t all the same, but they all serve to minimize, justify or excuse sexual contact between adults and minors, and some are overt apologia for child sex abuse. They’re also regrettably evergreen and issued by the famous and non-famous alike. In dark corners of the internet, self-styled “pro-contact minor attracted persons” argue that pedophilia and hebephilia or ephebophilia — terms that are meant to elucidate the difference between attraction to prepubescent versus pubescent children — are natural and normal (as Plummer and Tromovitch argue), that sexual contact doesn’t harm them (à la Stallman, Dawkins, Yiannopoulos and Grisham) and that the age of consent should be lowered (per Dershowitz).
D., a 47-year-old musician in Brooklyn who experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather at the age of 8 and was abused by different adults at the ages of 11, 12 and 14, has no patience for the attempt to distinguish pedophilia and hebephilia, and tells me that the aforementioned arguments are “rage triggers” for her. “The hair-splitting these men are engaging in is a sign that they know their arguments are in bad faith,” she says. “Because, yes, there’s a huge difference developmentally between an 8- and 14-year-old, but there’s still a giant power differential between the latter and an adult.”
She says this power imbalance deserves more focus. “The whole term ‘hebephilia’ is another way of overwriting the subjectivity of the person some creeper is attracted to,” she continues. “Have you noticed that the ‘discourse’ around this shit is always, ‘Well, a 15-year-old is old enough to consent’ without ever investigating if the individual young girl really was consenting or not? All these pedo defenders use hypothetical cases, and it’s because the living, individual [survivors] in these scenarios are reduced to abstractions and things.”
D. and I go on to discuss how consent cannot be a sufficient condition for ethical sex, and she says more attention needs to be paid to the circumstances in which sexual contact is agreed (or not resisted). “You have to look at factors like whether there’s any kind of financial constraints,” D. explains. “Like, so many of Epstein’s victims really needed money and were vulnerable.”
What compels these public figures to make such comments, especially in the wake of the horrific revelations about Epstein? It’s difficult to know their personal motivations, of course — my roommate suspects that Dawkins and Yiannopoulos, who were abused as children, may be trying to avoid viewing themselves as victims; and I can’t help but feel it’s relevant that Dershowitz has been accused of sexual abuse by multiple women, one of whom, Virginia Roberts Giuffre, says she was a minor at the time. But perhaps they simply want to turn back the clock to a time when it was more socially acceptable for old men to fuck pubescents — which it was, for many of them, in their younger years.
“The culture was sort of snickeringly approving of the pursuit of underage girls,” feminist author Rebecca Solnit has written about the 1970s. “It was completely normalized, like child marriage in some times and places.” She says she “grew up north of San Francisco in an atmosphere where once you were 12 or so, hippie dudes in their 30s wanted to give you drugs and neck rubs that were clearly only the beginning, and it was immensely hard to say no to them. There were no grounds. Sex was good; everyone should have it all the time; anything could be construed as consent; and almost nothing meant no, including ‘no.’” The media played a significant role as well:
“Louis Malle released Pretty Baby in 1978, in which an 11-year-old and sometimes unclothed Brooke Shields played a child prostitute; in Manhattan, released the following year, director Woody Allen paired his middle-aged character with a 17-year old; color photographer David Hamilton’s prettily prurient photographs of half-undressed pubescent girls were everywhere. At the end of the decade Playboy attempted to release nude photographs of a painted, vamping Shields at the age of 10 in a book titled Sugar and Spice. In 1977, Roman Polanski’s implicit excuse for raping a 13-year-old girl he had plied with champagne and quaaludes was that everyone was doing it.”
Feminists have always been at the vanguard of the fight to denormalize sexual contact between adults and (pre)pubescents. It was first-wave feminists and their supporters who agitated for the age of consent to be raised from 12 to between 16 and 18 at the end of the 19th century, and since then, it’s primarily been feminist groups who have held the line against attempts to reduce the age of consent or abolish it altogether, which employed arguments similar to those advanced by Stallman, Dawkins et al. In March 1976, for example, the National Council for Civil Liberties argued that the age of consent should be abolished or set as low as 10 in Britain and claimed that “childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage.”
It’s important to note, too, that age of consent laws are a minimal, and often insufficient, legal protection. They’re often badly designed to deal with the specific problem of significant age gaps between offenders and victims, which means that men like Dershowitz are able to seize on examples like the 18-year-old high school senior who was prosecuted for impregnating his 15-year-old girlfriend to ferret in the conclusion that age of consent laws should be scrapped or reduced. Also, like all criminal laws, age of consent laws are enforced selectively to punish and control working-class populations, sex workers and people of color, sometimes punishing the very populations they’re ostensibly designed to protect.
“In trials, juries were often unwilling to simply enforce the law,” historian Stephen Robertson writes of jurors in the 16th century. “Rather than focusing strictly on age, they made judgments about whether the appearance and behavior of a girl fit their notions of a child and a victim.” In the 1930s, he says, prosecutors and jurors were still refusing to apply these laws in cases where they felt the young girls had expressed loving feelings or sexual desire toward their adult male abusers. (Age of consent laws only became gender neutral in the 1970s, again because of feminist activism.)
Despite being such a basic (and insufficient) legal protection, it’s common for people to treat the age of consent as the sole deciding factor separating moral and immoral sexual contact between adults and teens, which fuels a culture in which online timers count down until the 18th birthday of female celebrities and the term “jailbait” has persisted in the lexicon for almost a century. Here, men are concerned only about their own risk of punishment, and not about the disparate power dynamics or lasting harm these sexual encounters can cause “almost legal” or “barely legal” girls.
“Most of the wounds are internal and have taken forever to work through, and I’m still terrified of seeing him on the street,” says Jess, a pseudonymous 29-year-old social media worker in New York City, who was pursued by a 26-year-old man when she was 16. She was aware the man had kissed a 13-year-old; he had confided in her that he thought 12-year-olds were “fine.” The relationship ended when she turned 17, the age of consent in her area. “Even the conversations were harmful for me,” Jess says. “The playing field wasn’t equal, and it can create unsafe, fucked-up patterns of subservience and obedience. And, as corny as it is, I feel robbed of a childhood and a lost-virginity story.”
And yet, remarks that these relationships “do no harm” continue to receive airplay. “That is one of the pro-contact arguments I hear a lot, like, ‘Well, as long as they’re consenting and they don’t look like they’re hurting, then nothing bad is happening!’ You can’t make that assessment, especially at that age, based on what you see,” says Todd, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a member and moderator of a support community for adults who don’t act on their pedophilia. “It’s like the film The Tale — she was in denial about it up until a few years ago and she finally faced it down and realized, ‘My God, I actually hated this abuse’ and she starts remembering the things that actually happened instead of her trying to minimize it and gloss over it. Even in relationships where it’s seemingly consensual, there’s no way to accurately determine that harm isn’t going to happen.”
This squares with D.’s experience, who says you cannot determine harm from outside appearances. “I went through some really fucked-up abuse and I have a great life — I have a decent job, health care, therapy, a wildly rich creative life — but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t also massive damage done to me that I’ve had to work really hard to overcome,” she says. “There are days I don’t know where I am or what subway stop I’m at. I drove away relationships because I didn’t trust anything. Think of all the lost opportunities that abuse costs.”
While figures like Stallman, Dawkins, Yiannopoulos and Grisham frame themselves as brave challengers of the status quo, they’re actually advancing retrograde views that seek to turn back the clock on almost a century of hard-won social progress, and it’s always fallen to feminists and other survivor advocates to hold the line against them. The argument that sexual contact between adults and minors does no harm seems to be a particularly pernicious and recurring rhetorical tool — and the testimony of survivors is its most powerful antidote.
“The people who go through with it [sex with minors], refusing to wait a few years is unbelievable,” Jess tells me. “Every so often a guy confides in me how hot he thinks teens are, to, like, absolve himself. I feel like they all probably view it as slightly bad or not ideal, but not harmful.
“It’s because they don’t see the harm,” she continues. “It’s invisible to them.”