Jeremy M. Barker
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On June 8, the growing national controversy over the fairly small pro-pedophilia movement came to Seattle in the form of a poorly reported news story broadcast on KIRO 7. The day before, Monday, June 7, Larry Reynolds, the owner of Evergreen Pacific Publishing, took out ad space in The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer to run an open letter to Jeffrey Bezos, the President and CEO of Amazon.com. In the letter, Reynolds formally withdrew his company’s line of Northwest sailing guides from the on-line retailer in protest of their continued sale of David L. Riegel’s Understanding Loved Boys and Boylovers, which argues that some erotic relationships between men and boys are consensual and nurturing.
David Riegel and like-minded individuals and organizations have often complained of being unfairly maligned in the media, who choose to label them “child molesters” without examining their claims. KIRO 7’s report went a long way towards vindicating them on that point. Instead of reporting the controversy over Riegel’s book, they spun the story as “little guy takes on the big corporation,” featuring direct comments from only Larry Reynolds. The subtext was clear—Reynolds was right on all charges concerning Riegel’s book. But considering that the reporters did not have a copy of the book and all the information on it may have been provided by Reynolds, KIRO 7 seems to have had no capacity to verify the veracity of Reynolds’ charges.
In person, Larry Reynolds is an affable older man, hardly the stereotype of a book-burning zealot. Although he did identify himself as an evangelical Christian when I met with him a little over a week after KIRO 7’s broadcast, in the tiny Shoreline offices of his company, he went to lengths to differentiate himself from mainstream conservative politics. While he expressed a desire to have larger media pick up his story, he somewhat jokingly noted that he didn’t want to see his face on television “next to Bill O’Reilly’s.”
Asked about the free speech issues involved in banning a book, Reynolds noted that as a former teacher of literature and now as a book publisher, he had a “deep appreciation” for the First Amendment Protections. But he felt that a line had to be drawn at advocating activities that harm children.
In comparison to KIRO 7’s hardly impartial reporting, Reynolds’ approach to Amazon.com was marked by remarkable patience and restraint. According to Reynolds, he first learned of Riegel’s book over a year and a half ago, in a conservative religious magazine. Unwilling to take such a partisan publication at its word, he did his own research to verify the article’s claims about Riegel’s book. Although he declined to buy a copy (the author provided one to me for this article), he went to Riegel’s website, which contains the book’s introduction and several complimentary essays. After determining that Riegel’s position was irreconcilable with his own, Reynolds privately approached Amazon.com with a letter addressed to Bezos on March 20, 2003.
On May 13, 2003, Kristina Barsalona, a member of Amazon.com’s Executive Customer Relations Department, responded to Reynolds. In her e-mail message, she asserted that
“Amazon.com does not support or promote perverse or criminal acts; we do support the right of every individual to choose his or her own reading material.”
Unfazed, Reynolds continued to press his case. The correspondence between Reynolds and increasingly high-ranking Amazon.com officials continued until March 29, 2004, when Reynolds wrote a letter to Patricia Q. Stonesifer. Stonesifer, a member of Amazon.com’s Board of Directors, also serves on the board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent millions of dollars in recent years combating the exploitation of children world-wide. With no response from Stonesifer, on June 7 Reynolds went through his threat to remove his books from Amazon.com and went public with his crusade.
Amazon.com officials refused to comment on specific books throughout their correspondence with Reynolds, but continually cited their dedication to opposing censorship and “to provide customers with the broadest selection possible.” When I contacted Peter Herman, a representative of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), he similarly couched the debate in free-speech terms, noting, “I have not read [Riegel’s] book, but I maintain that he has the right to market it. Amazon has the legal right to refuse to sell it, but in doing so it would violate the moral value implicit in its role as a seller of books.” NAMBLA is perhaps the best known advocate of “man/boy” relationships, though Riegel stressed to me in our correspondence that he is not, nor has ever been, a member of that organization.
The peculiar nature of reducing such a debate to one over free speech is that it tends to obscure the actual points being raised. When I first contacted both NAMBLA and Riegel, it was difficult to get beyond defensive comments about First Amendment Rights to engage in a serious dialogue about what it is, exactly, that they stand for. While Riegel’s book has been accused of dubious scholarship and being defensive in tone, it does rely on a growing (though still small) body of scholarly and scientific research which has sought to reconsider and interrogate many of our contemporary notions of pedophilia, child molestation and child sexuality. At its most basic, such research tends to ask us to consider exactly why we would think that children of a certain age who engage in sexual contact—whether with adults or peers—are harmed by it, and further, if that belief is correct at all. Many academics and scholars feel that America is in the grips of national paranoia regarding pedophilia, and they are no more immune to political and legal attack than advocates like NAMBLA and David Riegel.
This is a situation with which Harris Mirkin is painfully familiar. A professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, in 1999 Mirkin published an essay called “The Pattern of Sexual Politics: Feminism, Homosexuality and Pedophilia” in The Journal of Homosexuality. In it, he argued that the feminist and gay rights movements offered a pattern by which sexual minorities coalesce into a political movement, and suggest pedophiles will likely follow suit.
The paper went little noticed outside of academic circles until 2002, when it was caught up in the wake of an even larger controversy. That year, Judith Levine’s book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex was published. Although the book has little or nothing to do with pedosexual relationships, its scathing indictment of contemporary American attitudes and contingent laws regarding youth sexuality caused quite a stir. Advocates of man/boy relationships similarly saw hope that Levine’s book, which argued that sex is something the youths can enjoy in a healthy fashion, would help their case. Both Riegel and NAMBLA are as concerned with the rights of children, whose sexual freedoms they believe are unfairly circumscribed, as they are with the rights of pedophile adults.
But Levine’s book instead caused a massive controversy before it even found a publisher. While it was being considered at the University of Minnesota Press, according to Prof. Mirkin, reached via e-mail, it caused a legislative debate. As Prof. Mirkin put it, “During the argument about the Levine book there was an assertion that there was an academic group that was trying to legitimize pedophilia, and it was said that I was its head.” Although Mirkin is one of a group of academics who seek to explore issues of pedosexuality, the characterization was wholly off base. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter the Missouri state legislature censured the university with a punitive $100,000 cut in funding for employing Mirkin.
Far from a simple, clear-cut issue regarding raping children, pedophilia is a complex legal, scientific and ethical problem. Its central components, more often than not glossed over in the process of public discourse, are those concerning the nature of being a pedosexual; the effects that erotic encounters—even if they are not characterized by sexual penetration—have on children of this age; and the legal issue of “age of consent” laws.
While NAMBLA seems to view “man/boy” relationships as a particular sort of homosexual relationship, Riegel contends—in keeping with modern psychology—that pedosexuality is a particular sort of sexual orientation, as distinct from homosexuality as heterosexuality. When I contacted Heather Rathjen, a social worker in Oregon with a background in psychology, for comment on the psychology of pedophilia, she told me that,
“From what I can tell, psychologists and psychiatrists have the same questions as you, at the moment. For a couple of years now, there has been a movement to remove all sexual paraphilias from the DSM for basically the same reasons that homosexuality was removed. Some argue that pedophilia is merely a sexual orientation, and some argue that pedophilia is the concern of law enforcement rather than the behavioral sciences. Additionally, some of the debate addresses the seemingly arbitrary age criteria.”
At first, it would seem that age of consent laws are the simple and most basic issue: Our society legally dictates that, with minor exceptions, youths below the age of 18 are not permitted to consent to sexual contact. Adults who engage in sexual contact with someone below the age of consent have committed a child sex offense, which in popular parlance is known as “pedophilia.” In actuality, from a psychological perspective, pedophilia refers to sexuality directed at pubescent and pre-pubescent youths. Many European nations, for instance, have lower age of consent laws, and Judith Levine’s book is mostly concerned with showing how the legal treatment of youth-sexuality is more dangerous to youths than sexual contact itself.
But both NAMBLA and Riegel took issue with the concept of “age of consent” itself. Instead, as Peter Herman put it, “To first clear up a basic misunderstanding about ‘age of consent’ it might be helpful to instead use the phrase ‘age appropriate.’” In fact, they both strongly suggest that the consensual, positive man/boy relationships they advocate—as different from cases of forced child-rape or molestation—are generally not characterized by sexual penetration. According to Riegel’s book,
“By far the most frequent consensual activity is fondling and the masturbation to orgasm of the boy by his older friend, the next most common is unilateral oral sex performed by the older partner.”
In fact, according to Riegel, one of the salient features of being a “boylover” is “a desire to provide companionship, protection, nurturing, and material needs for a younger boy,” who may not be aware of the benefactor’s erotic interest, which may not manifest itself in sexual contact at all. But as Rathjen pointed out,
“When children or adolescents have consensual sex with each other, harm isn't really a concern. Whatever they do is likely to be developmentally appropriate, as they wouldn’t otherwise initiate sexual behavior.”
Such is not the case is a relationship with a power dynamic, such as that between a child and adult.
In short, the issue seems more fraught than either Reynolds or Riegel will generally admit. As Rathjen told me at the end of our correspondence, “This is a tricky issue, and it tends to reveal the inadequacies of psychology as a science.” More research seems to be necessary, and there does seem to be a national fear of discussing the sexual issues involved. But the interests on both sides of the debate have tended to obscure the issues, and both have scorn to pour on the scholars who are concerned with them. Pedophile advocates refer to research which disagrees with their position as “junk science,” whereas scholars like Mirkin or Levine who try to reassess the issues are accused of “moral relativism” and the continued demoralization of American society. The nature of the debate, which too often drifts from a serious discussion of the claims and counter-claims offered in favor of shrill partisanship, does everyone a disservice.