Monday, December 18, 2006
Within contemporary U.S. dominant culture, it is often accepted as a given that all cross-generational sexual relationships between adult men and adolescent boys under the age of 18 are inherently abusive, regardless of the specifics of a given situation. Labels like “pedophile” are applied broadly and uncritically to diverse individuals and experiences with little differentiation. Collective hatred of the “Pedophile” with a capital “P” – socially constructed as the ultimate sexual deviant -- often seems to be the only commonality uniting diverse communities otherwise conflicted over moral and ethical concerns. Simultaneously, actual sexual abuse is still accompanied by denial and severe social stigma. When abuse is acknowledged, it tends to be addressed individually and psychologically, rather than within the context of systemic power and inequality with relation to gender, sexuality, race and class. Within feminist theorizing and organizing, sexuality-related issues are frequently divisive. Anti-violence-based feminist perspectives on sexuality problematize sexuality as a primary site for the manifestation of social hierarchies – ie White supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism, while sexual rights-based perspectives see dominant culture as disenabling diverse sexual acts, identities and sources of pleasure that should be socially validated. These two positions are sometimes understood as conflicting.
My own position on cross-generational sex is without question a product of my experiences. As such, it is undocumented and un-researched. For four years, I’ve been in an intimate relationship with a man who is fourteen years my senior. This relationship has provided me with maturity, perspective and levels of intimacy that would not be possible with someone my own age, “going through the same things as me.” I have heard many gay men share similar stories of transformative cross-generational relationships. Although I was nineteen years old when we first met and became involved, I could just as easily have been sixteen or seventeen. In fact, throughout my high school years, I craved sexual contact with adult men. My mother lived in terror that as an openly gay high-schooler in Greenwich Village, I would be “taken advantage” by predatory older males. My mother, a political progressive/leftist committed to GLBT rights struggles, manifested her homophobia in this fear of cross-generational sex. As a result, I often felt greater shame because of my desire for adult men than because of my same-sex desire more generally. But the majority of the boy-loving older men I’ve met are a far cry from the voracious wolf stereotype I was taught to fear. Many are protectors and nurturers who, if anything, are left wounded by their emotionally noncommittal younger partners. At the same time, I am aware that there are many situations of abuse that go unrecognized due to our dominant culture’s general disavowal of sexual abuse, and that age can function as a site of harm-inflicting power. I have long felt it was possible to provide a feminist defense of cross-generational gay male sex without counteracting feminist struggles against sexual violence. In both instances, sexuality functions problematically as an axis of power and privilege, while open and honest reflection upon sexuality is generally prohibited. Although discussion of sex is frequent, it most often extends particular discourses that reify existing hierarchies.
Gayle Rubin’s theoretical model of sexual hierarchies in “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” provides useful perspectives on these issues. In Rubin’s schemata, sexuality is hierarchized into a “charmed circle” of “good, normal, natural or blessed” sexual acts and identities and an “outer limits” of “bad, abnormal, unnatural and damned” personalities and behaviors. Rubin’s “charmed circle” includes such normative behaviors and identities as “married, monogamous, procreative, vanilla and coupled,” while the “outer limits” are occupied by “deviant” sexualities” like promiscuity, pornography, homosexuality, cross-generationality and public sex. Although different forms of deviance may be more or less penalized at different times in history, sexuality functions as its own axis of power, with validated forms of sexuality are defined against their invalid or demonized counterparts.
Rubin’s inclusion of “cross-generational” sex alongside sexual identities like gay and lesbian often raises conflict in Women’s Studies classroom settings, where the primarily progressive students resent any association of (in their eyes) more acceptable marginalized sexual identities with sexual acts associated with violence and abuse. But in my opinion, this reaction only serves to confirm Rubin’s hypothesis. I was struck by the salience of Rubin’s hierarchies last year while facilitating a workshop on sexuality and power for Spectrum, DePaul’s Queer student group. Attempting to address multiple manifestations of power and privilege at the intersections of sexuality, gender, race and class, I introduced a series of images and asked participants to examine power dynamics within them. Wanting to establish the demonization of sexual fetish communities as a related topic, I included what I though to be the most innocuous fetish image imaginable – an adult man on a bed wearing a diaper and clutching a stuffed teddy bear. But rather than identifying him by his participation in consensual fetishes like “adult baby” or “plushie,” the workshop participants immediately and without hesitation labeled him a “pedophile.” I was genuinely taken aback by the speed with which a group of Queer college students thrust one of the most pathological labels associated with our communities upon other sexually marginalized individuals.
How can we ever hope to deconstruct heteronormativity without also deconstructing its most powerfully disempowering labels of “otherness”? What does “pedophile” mean within specific circumstances at specific times? How can we disrupt this term’s hold over our collective dominant cultural imagination and its ability to politically marginalize whole communities? I firmly believe that the current discourse of pedophilia functions more effectively to pathologize and vilify consensual intimate relationships between adult men and adolescent boys than it does to prevent age-based violence and abuse. Open and honest reflection on sexuality’s function as an axis of power and its intersections with White supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy would enable both sexual rights and anti-violence-based activisms. It is necessary to examine the particularities of diverse individual situations within the context of larger social systems. Cross-generational gay male sex can be validated in ways that support feminist activism against sexual violence.