The double standard: recent sex abuse scandals have given new life to the old canard that all gay men are out to seduce teenage boys. There's even a word for it: ephebophilia. But RICHARD GOLDSTEIN points out that straight guys' eroticizing of teenagers is a mainstay of pop culture. So why is it a disease when gay guys do the same thing? (Commentary).
If you can't place this word, it's probably because it isn't part of the official psychiatric lexicon. You won't find ephebophilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the thick volume most shrinks consult when they want to identify a patient's condition. Ephebophilia isn't listed because it's a newly invented term that describes a very old obsession. It's derived from the Greek word for youth--but not just any youth. Ah ephebe is a boy in the throes of puberty. The ancient Athenians certainly didn't regard an attraction to such lads as a disease, but we do. Indeed, ephebophilia is today's hot-button homosexual pathology.
Even in this seemingly gay-friendly era, sex between adult men and teenage boys remains a taboo. It's also a crime if the teen in question is under the age of consent (which remains 18 in most states where gay sex is legal). But you don't have to act on this desire in order to qualify for the diagnosis. Just having the hots for teens is enough to make you an ephebophile, according to some therapists. They regard this attraction as the sign of a stunted sexual development--and so it is, if it becomes a fixation that retards intimacy or damages a child. The problem with this diagnosis is that it can easily be applied to any gay man who finds teenagers sexy. That's when a newly minted mental illness becomes an instrument of oppression.
When the right-wing Family Research Council recently released a report claiming gay men commit "up to one-third of the sex crimes against children," the group tapped into the age-old idea that homosexuals are a threat to kids. The myth of the predatory pervert is a building block of homophobia, bolstering the belief that all same-sex desire is evil. Indeed, in many languages the same word may be used to describe both a boy-lover and a homosexual (in English the word is pederast).
Other stigmatized groups have been saddled with similar projections. For centuries Jews battled the so- called blood libel, the bizarre idea that the blood of Christian children is an essential ingredient in matzo. Gays stand accused of a sexual version of the blood libel: that we are out to seduce young people in order to "recruit" them into our lifestyle.
This myth is always waiting to be summoned up--as it was by conservative Catholics in the wake of the priestly sex abuse scandals. Many conservative church leaders continue to support a purge of gay priests, on the assumption that when the clerics are straight the kids are safe. If this thinking takes hold outside the church, gay teachers and youth counselors (and there are many of them) could find themselves under suspicion--or maybe even framed.
Yet there's no proof that homosexuals are more fixated on youth than heterosexuals are. On the contrary, there's plenty of evidence that this is an equal opportunity obsession.
Consider the recent case of R. Kelly, the pop performer accused of starring in a contraband sex video with a 14-year-old girl. What's notable here is the large market for this tape, which was hawked on street comers from Los Angeles to New York. It's the latest version of a forbidden game many men would like to play, whether they are willing to admit or not-and as long as the object is a girl, no one considers it a disease. A straight guy with a jailbait jones might be known as a dirty old man, but no one would call him an ephebophile. Though this diagnosis is meant to apply across the board, in practice it's reserved for homosexuals. When straight people act out with adolescents, it's a moral lapse; when gay men do the same, it's a mental illness.
The e word never came up in the recent case of Riverside, Calif., teacher Tanya Hadden, 33, who ran away with a 15-year-old mate student; nor in the case of Seattle sex education teacher Mary Kay Letouneau, imprisoned for having sex--and two children--with a boy who was 12 when the affair began. Nor was it applied to Woody Allen, though he was called a lot of nasty things when he made off with his girlfriend's 21-year-old daughter. If anything, this scandal put hair on Woody's pigeon chest.
In macho culture, lusting after barely legal girls is considered the mark of a robust libido. In fact, under the right circumstances, a man who has sex with a n-nor can inspire a certain admiration. Consider the mate gym teacher from the Bronx who ran off with his 15-year-old female student a few years back, leading police on a cross-country chase. The tabloids were riveted by this story; the New York Daily News even dubbed the rogue instructor "Classanova," alluding to one of history's greatest lovers. No one called the perp an ephebophile.
This is not to suggest that straight men can act with impunity on these urges--as "Classanova" learned when he was sent to prison. Child abuse is one of the most severely punished sexual offenses, as it should be. But what about sex between two minors? In some states, that's not a crime; in others, the law allows for leniency when the partners are close in age--but not if they're the same sex.
Take the case of Matthew Limon, sentenced to a 17-year prison term in Kansas for having performed oral sex on a boy a little more than three years his junior. Both were residents at a home for developmentally disabled youths, so the issue of consent took on a special urgency. But Kansas's so-called Romeo and Juliet law cuts a break for teens who have sex as long as both are under 19, within four years of the same age, and "members of the opposite sex." Limon had just turned 18 when the encounter took place. So if his partner had been a 14-year-old Juliet, her slightly older Romeo could have gotten 15 months at most.
This harsher treatment is often justified on the grounds that boys suffer more than girls from the unwanted advances of men. That's a remarkable presumption given all the female alcoholics and drug addicts who grew up as abused girls; fully 40% of women with HIV were molested as children. This is not to minimize the anguish of the men who've come forward with horror stories of predatory priests. But the notion that child abuse is more serious if the offender is someone of the same sex defies reason. Nevertheless, it persists because it is part of a culture that condemns men who have sex with teenage boys while savoring the fantasy of sex between men and teenage girls.
For a culture that bans explicit erotic images of minors, we sure know how to market teenagers by leaving a little to the imagination. Consider Brooke Shields, Kate Moss, and all the other beneficiaries of the waif look over the years, who made their names by tarting up their childlike bodies. Britney Spears is the latest pop incarnation of the barely legal temptress type; when she hit the top of the charts in the skimpiest: of outfits at age 17, her fan club no doubt included many dudes in their dotage.
Yet no one is suggesting that men with a yen for nymphets are mentally ill. If anything, they ate a target audience. Consider the ads for the current independent film comedy Cherish, which show a hot young babe licking a large lollipop under the slogan SHE'D GET OUT MORE--IF IT WASN'T A FELONY. In the film, she's a 29-year-old erroneously placed under house arrest, but you have to see it to figure out that this is not yet another remake of Lolita.
What distinguishes Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece flora the current crop of nymphet romances is its point of view. Lolita forces us to consider the complex moral issues such relationships raise. But modern tales about an older man deflowering a girl take a gauzier view: Often the girl does the seducing, and the affair leads to her empowerment. Rent Pretty Baby, Louis Malle's torrid drama set in the child brothels of New Orleans, and you'll see what I mean. Malle's scenario is a far cry from the one Dorothy Allison and other survivors of child abuse have described, but it's the classic pedophile fantasy. You can find it in movies and books from the sleazy to the sublime--nymphet eroticism is part of the pop culture repertoire.
There are Lolito stories too, but they are nearly always violent of mercenary. No one can claim that a film like L.I.E. makes sexual relationships between men and under-age teen boys desirable--grim realism is the requisite tone of such dramas. But imagine a Lolito tale as darkly comic as Nabokov's. For that matter, imagine a gay version of the hit song about jailbait temptation "Young Girl (Get Out of My Mind)" or Rufus Wainwright crooning "My heart belongs to Daddy." Definitely not ready for prime time.
I know what you're thinking: Justin, the coltish cutie flora Showtime's Queer as Folk. He was pure jailbait when he captured the heart of Brian, the show's promiscuous protagonist. Certainly, this breakthrough series is a big step toward candor about all sorts of gay and lesbian relationships. But it skirts the issue of ephebophilia by making Justin a singular sensation. Brian is no chicken hawk; in fact, he has no type at all. In his boundless lust, he's a rogue hero very much in the straight male mold.
There's never been a major film about gay teens and older men that probes the actual psychology of such relationships. Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche comes close, but it's hardly about a stable, socially tolerated romance like the one between 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and 42-year-old Isaac in Woody Allen's Manhattan. We don't see movies about the ordinary problems that can arise flora a Batman-Robin combination or the difficulty of achieving empathy in a relationship where one partner is still dealing with family business while the other is coping with the specter of mortality.
These are things to think about before plunging into a May-December romance, even when it doesn't violate the law. But that doesn't mean we should feel guilty about having the desire. Teenagers are sexy to many adults--and more than a few teens are attracted back. When it comes to this fantasy, gays and straights are very much alike. But when the culture pathologizes a gay man's lust even as it permits the same thing in a straight guy, it sets a double standard. The underlying message is that homosexuality is more dangerous than heterosexuality and more diseased. My generation grew up with that message, and we've struggled to see that the next one doesn't. That's why it's so important to demand a single standard.
If the chicken hawk is to be diagnosed as an ephebophile, then so should the straight sugar daddy. On the other hand, if we eroticize the nymphet, why not the lascivious lad? And if we trust straight men to enjoy such reveries without committing child abuse, why compel gay men to deny them? What's at stake is more than some abstract issue of equality: A libido that is too heavily policed is an incubator of pathology. The authors of the Diagnostic Manual take pains to distinguish between a fantasy and a fixation. Guilt is often what turns the former into the latter. That makes it crucial to fight for candor about sex and young people, It's the best way to see that such feelings can be safely--and morally--expressed.
The greatest casualty of the child abuse panic is nonsexual relationships between gay men and youths. Now a teen must think twice before trusting such a friend, lest tongues start to wag. The teen could suffer social ostracism, and the man might risk arrest. Generations of young people have benefited from the great capacity for mentoring that many gay men have. Who knows how many boys will now be deprived of this nurturing in the name of safety. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Richard Goldstein is an executive editor of The Village Voice and the author of The Attack Queers: Liberal Society and the Gay Right (Verso).
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Aug 20, 2002|
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