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Strategic Considerations: Foucault and Man/Boy Love

By M. van Houten

This essay was originally written as a book review for the Nambla Bulletin

Saint = Foucault, by David Halperin.

For some time, I have been questioning what strategy I need to follow as a politically active man/boy lover. Saint = Foucault has brought me closer to this goal. It is difficult to categorize this book. At some times it reads as Halperin's tribute to Foucault (hence the title). At others it is a historical interpretation of how Foucault has influenced the modern gay movement. At still other times it is an apology for some of Foucault's most controversial views. Many consider the book a foundation for the study of queer theory, because Halperin's work focuses on the application of Foucault's philosophy to homophobia and homosexuality. Foucault's own focus was on the more general ideas of oppression and power, however. His ideas are surprisingly applicable to the situation boylovers face.

An example of Foucault's insight, as expressed by Halperin:

'Modern forms of governmentality actually require citizens to be free, so that citizens can assume from the state the burden of some of its former regulatory functions and impose on themselves--of their own accord--rule of conduct and mechanisms of control.... Liberal power does not simply prohibit; it does not directly terrorize. It normalizes, "responsibilizes," and disciplines. The state no longer needs to frighten or coerce subjects into proper behavior: it can safely leave them to make their own choices in the allegedly sacrosanct private sphere of personal freedom which they now inhabit, because within that sphere they freely and spontaneously police both their own conduct and the conduct of others...'

This excerpt makes clear why NAMBLA struggles even if the police take little interest in us. The media, with the help of individual vigilantes, use the freedoms of liberal society (the same freedoms we use to expound on our positions) to propagate deceptions and distortions about us. We pose a threat to liberal society, not the government. And it is the liberal society that works against us.

Halperin's work also warns activists about engaging detractors in debates about the untruthfulness of their contentions. Our detractors lie about us. These lies often involve contradictory arguments. As we "shoot down" one argument, another stands ready to replace it. Several years ago, many therapists insisted that "children never lie about sex." If children claimed that they had sexual contact with an adult, the children were presumed to be telling the truth. But the claim that "children never lie about sex" didn't mean that if a child denied sexual contact had occurred, the adults under suspicion would be cleared. These children, therapists explained, were too traumatized to acknowledge the sexual contact - and that trauma proved that the adults (who children refused to accuse) were guilty as well. Under this reasoning, of course, anyone accused is guilty, a Catch-22 that too few made any effort to expose or explore. Many innocent people went to prison. In another example, Society convinced itself that children were ignorant of sexual matters, and thus knowledge about sexuality had to have come from adult sexual interaction. A number of well-publicized trials involving day care centers eventually convinced many of the error of that idea. Some advocates of limited rights for children argued that kids (especially teenagers) need the freedom to explore their sexuality, but only with peers. They must be protected from adult participation. Lately we are exposed to news stories of the molester that is a child, and in need of incarceration. Their arguments change faster than they can be discredited! In another example, experts in the field of penology label boy lovers as incorrigible. We must be put into treatment centers (indefinitely) because we continue to be a threat to society through out our lives. They also have the audacity to claim to appeals courts that such treatment is seriously applied, and has a real chance of success. Successful treatment will result in the prisoners' release. How can one be incorrigible and yet be successfully treated?

In each example sited above the arguments contradict each other or completely flip-flop as those in control of the discussion see the need. How can there be a rational debate on these terms? Foucault teaches that disproving the arguments of our detractors is a game that can never be won. Those in control by definition have control of the rules of the discourse. They arbitrarily decide what is logical or right to them at any point in the argument. By participating we are only distracted from our goals. As Halperin writes:

'The reason it is pointless to refute the lies of homophobia is not that they are difficult or impossible to refute - on the contrary, taken one at a time they are easily falsifiable ...but that refuting them does nothing to impair the strategic functioning of discourses that operate precisely by deploying a series of mutually contradictory premises in such a way that any one of them can be substituted for any other, as different circumstances may require, without changing the final outcome of the argument.... Stop playing long enough to stand back from the game, to look at all its rules in their totality, and to examine our entire strategic situation... analyze discourses in terms of their overall strategies.'

Foucault wrote his History of Sexuality not from the perspective of science, but by looking at how the world perceived and discussed sexuality. He recognized that the scientific method was not being applied to human sexuality because social pressures short-circuit the application of true science to the field. Psychology and psychiatry, to give just two examples, are not based on the scientific method. To begin a discourse on pederasty or pedophilia on the basis of these academic subjects is doomed to failure. Evidence to support our views will simply be discounted by nonscientific means. For example, a recent meta-analysis published in a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA) suggested that not all adult/child sexual encounters were detrimental to the children involved. Political pressure resulted in an APA statement repudiating the conclusions of the research. As this quote from a letter from the APA to a Congressman:

'Clearly, the article included opinions of the authors that are inconsistent with APA's stated and deeply held positions on child welfare and protection issues. It is the position of the Association that sexual activity between children and adults should never be considered or labeled as harmless or acceptable.'

The APA also announced that that in the future they would consider the social impact as well as the scientific validity of the research they considered for publication. When it appears that the oppressed might win a round, the rules are suddenly changed.

Why does society do this? By marginalizing men and boys involved in sexual relationships, society can perpetually deflect criticisms of its own views and behaviors. For example, the gay male community's history and eroticism is intertwined with that of pederasty. Yet they are quick to oppress its overt expression because by doing so they can deflect attacks on themselves. Most feminists are adamant in their condemnation of man/boy love. But their (often-insightful) views on the power of patriarchy should not result in the condemnation of every relationship in which men participate. We can better explain the phenomenon of a pubescent boy turning to an older male for an intimate friend without resorting to the assumption of the dominance of patriarchy. Their adamant condemnations of a phenomenon that doesn't include females invites further scrutiny. Foucault's emphasis on following the flow of power in a society suggests the following alternative view.

The family is a dense locus of power implemented almost entirely by the parents. Parental control assures that children are brought up in the parents' image. Parents fear that their kids will be exposed to alternative ideas before their offspring have thoroughly absorbed parental values. The gay or lesbian teenager, for example, is a nightmare of many parents. A worse nightmare is growing up as a gay or lesbian child in a homophobic family. Society does almost nothing to assist those kids. To do so would violate 'parental rights'. Children's emotional dependence on parents and their values is a tool too powerful to give up. Many homosexuals are never able to break away from that dependence, and live their lives in a self-loathing closet. These constraints on children are not limited to sexuality. Religious beliefs and sectarian identification are other areas where parents demand de facto control of their children's lives. Society has agreed that its members can do almost anything one wants with one's own children. To implement this agreement, it is necessary that they have complete control over who has access to their children. It is not the sexual abuse of the pederast they fear, it is the affection, and that affection's ability to liberate the child from the emotional dependence on the parents. Because family life is one of only a very few areas where women have some degree of control over others, women can be especially jealous of that control. The threat to their position is real, but is their position as self-appointed guardians of youthful males simply matriarchy replacing patriarchy? Women have no more right to restrict the sexuality of youth than men have to demand it. Pederasts are not universally condemned because of their success at manipulating the strings of patriarchy. Pederasts are condemned for violating a border between youth and adult which only parents are allowed to cross.

Halperin reminds us of the use of camp and satire as tools against our oppressors. He quotes Foucault: "power's success is in proportion to its ability to hide its own mechanisms." He gives a wonderful example of a Newsweek cover story on "Lesbians," with typical newsmagazine subtitles on the cover: "coming out strong" and "what are the limits of tolerance?" Halperin then supplies a satirical response from "The San Francisco Bay Times entitled: Dykeweek with a cover story entitled "Heterosexuals, what are the limits of tolerance." The Bay Times then goes on, Halperin explains:

'to foreground the role-playing, gender polarization, and power asymmetries that are both fundamental and essential to heterosexual relationships - and that heterosexuals take far more seriously than do even the most butch and fem lesbians (insofar as heterosexuals tend to see them not as role-playing, gender polarization, and power asymmetries but as the natural facts of life).

Just to expose deceptions is not enough. Using humor and camp diffuses the vitriol and hate they mix into the discourse and engages the questioning mind.

Foucault did not provide a formula for a perfect world, or even a recipe to liberate an oppressed group. His emphasis was not on liberation but on resistance. An important aspect of this resistance is not to acknowledge that other people can understand us better than we understand ourselves. The only experts we should recognize on the subject of man/boy love are the men and boys in loving relationships. Any broader acceptance (such as a favorable article in an APA journal) just leaves us vulnerable to the (inevitable) later denunciations. If anyone (professional or layman) wants to truly understand man/boy love, our position must be that they have to ask us. We will not participate in debates with our detractors, because those discourses are already set up to facilitate our defeat. NAMBLA activists learned this after repeated appearances on such television shows as Donahue and Geraldo. To paraphrase Queer Nation: We're here. We're pedophiles. Get used to it.

Foucault's idea of resistance is not simple friction, burning away the energy of our detractors. Let me paraphrase Halperin (substituting pederasty for homosexuality):

'The aim is not to produce a supposedly kinder, gentler, more objective, less tendentious form of expertise about pederasty, to be licensed presumably by non-ped-identified authorities or by men and boys accredited by straight institutions; it is not to reconstitute man/boy love as a real object to be studied and understood, definitively if sympathetically, by those in a legitimate position to know. The aim, rather, is to treat man/boy love as a position from which one can know, to treat it as a legitimate condition of knowledge. Man/boy love... is not something to be got right, but an eccentric positionality to be exploited and explored: a potentially privileged site for the criticism and analysis of cultural discourses.'

We must have the audacity to use our positive experiences to challenge our oppressors. We resist because it gives us the perspective and experiences to glean unique insights into the larger culture. These insights are then used as leverage to increase our ability to resist. Avoiding illegal activity doesn't protect our movement, but emasculates it. Personal experience of a loving relationship with a boy or man debunks all of their theoretical objections. It also raises questions about why the objections were raised in the first place.

Foucault was ready to embrace many different and novel forms of sexual relationships, such as sadomasochism and fisting. He was interested in relationships outside the egalitarian ideals that dominate much of today's gay and feminist culture. Foucault did not see S/M as a form of subjugation, because both participants enter into the relationship voluntarily, and because there are implicit and explicit rules that are understood by all parties. Foucault saw human society as burdened with a paucity of sexual and social modes of interactions. He saw no reason to limit sexual expression to those who were social equals. It was in this part of Saint = Foucault that Halperin was apologetic. He recognized how uncomfortable many of today's homosexuals and feminists would be with this view. Saint = Foucault says little about the politics of man/boy love. But in the explanation of Foucault's views of power and consent in sadomasochism we see a vision broad enough to embrace man/boy love.

Sexuality in straight society is so moribund with tradition, convention, and law that man/boy love detractors have never experienced alternative relationships such as man/boy love. The depth of feelings, especially trust, that is required for a man and boy to share sexuality is not understood by them. Tradition and convention strictly govern their erotic relationships and their relationships with children. Any deviation from their standards (such as a man and boy sharing a blow job) is labeled as a violation of trust. The mutual and voluntary sharing of sexuality is an act of trust. They see a violation because they trust conventions, and not each other. They expect us to do the same. They are a very boring, stale people whose ideas on intimacy deserve to be toppled.

  [Newsletter E 7]