Chapter 4 - Child-victim - text- A - Liberation

The Rise of the Child-Victim: Children’s Vulnerability and the Changing Politics of Victims and Saviors

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As I have already shown, the figure of the modern child came to be broadly exploitable on the political landscape. Both its ability to symbolize the nation and its status as a sexualized being made the figure of the child a ubiquitous tool in political rhetoric in the US in the 1970s and ‘80s.

By the late-1960s feminist health reformers in the Boston Women’s Health Collective and the Elizabeth Stone House had seized upon the figure of the child in an effort to radicalize maternalist rhetoric while politicizing what it meant to be healthy. These activists pursued protection and empowerment for women and children in equal measure by focusing on the vulnerability and strength of both.

A scant decade later the nascent North American Man/Boy Love Association argued that the modern child should share fully in the rights, privileges, and liberties of democratic citizenship. Presenting the child as an autonomous agent, NAMBLA challenged family and state ownership models that focused on safeguarding/restricting children rather than ensuring their freedom. Despite their different uses of the figure of the child, activists in each of these groups framed children as victims of violence and argued that their groups’ mission contained the solution to the widespread cultural
problem of child exploitation.

This chapter interrogates the implication of the use of this language of victimization to demonstrate the ways that progressive groups in the 1970s unknowingly contributed to the emergence of an iconic child-victim whose protection became central to the broader cultural conservatism of the 1980s. I use conservatism here to signal a foreclosure of dialogue and the introduction of a protectionist imperative whenever the figure of the child-victim is invoked.

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As Lee Edelman has aptly argued, the figure of the child signifies the originary moment in the development of concept of the political and is implied in all calls for change. Hence, the figure of the child cannot be opposed when it is conjured in public debate. This chapter builds on Edelman’s characterization of the child as an unquestionable entity by tracing the shift from a rhetorical reliance on the figure of the child to advance libratory agendas in the 1970s to a preoccupation with the child-victim and its need for protection in the 1980s.

Conversely, those groups, like NAMBLA, that attempted to apply their libratory
rhetoric to children rather than succumbing to protectionist fervor ultimately failed to
garner public support for their political agendas.

Mirroring Edelman’s formulation of the use of the figure of the child, the groups active in the 1970s deployed the rhetoric of child victimization to advance libratory agendas that were often about more than children. I will reveal that these groups were unknowingly laying the foundations for the emergence of an uncontestable child-victim, which in turn led to a protectionist discourse of the 1980s. As we shall see in this chapter, this discourse produced conditions for the victimization of other people. Thus the day-care abuse panics of the 1980s can be read as an insidious side-effect of the proliferation of child-victim protectionism.

As Rebecca Stringer notes, “‘Victim’ is an unruly word.”  [*203]

  • [* 203 - Rebecca Stringer, “Blaming Me Blaming You: Victim Identity in Recent Feminism,” Outskirts: Feminism Along the Edge 8 (2001), 3.

It communicates information about agency, power relations, and personal interactions while simultaneously
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inviting compassion or contempt. Indeed, the varied work performed by the word is dependent upon what Stringer describes as the

  • “‘type’ of victim [that] is being addressed … on whether ‘victim’ is supposed to denote a kind of agency or an utter lack of agency, and on what reading of power relations the denotation is servicing.” [...]

Thus, when group members advanced claims about children’s (and their own) victimization, they were constructing frameworks to communicate complex interactions on both personal and cultural levels. In fact, by identifying themselves and children as victims, group members sought to define victimization in a way that allowed themselves to locate a lack of agency with vulnerable children while retaining a kind of agency for themselves.

The word ‘victim’ houses numerous definitions from a variety of disciplinary settings: criminology, psychology, and feminist theory to name a few. [...] When constructing their frameworks, group members borrowed from each of these disciplines to define both the ‘victim’ that they were protecting and also the act or situation that led to victimization.

Their claims about what produced victims were varied and ranged from criminal acts like incest, rape and battery to cultural biases such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and systemic problems like poverty. In raising the specter of the victim, these groups addressed the issues of immediate personal concern to their members while advancing broader cultural critiques. However, situating their critiques on a foundation of victimization left group members vulnerable not only to alternative disciplinary constructions of ‘the victim,’ but also to different political responses to victimization. That is, the long cultural and disciplinary reach that made focusing on ‘the victim’ an
attractive political strategy overlooked the word’s unruliness.

The groups under examination here each carefully constructed both a child-victim and its adult counterpart.
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In doing so, they presented their groups’ vision of what led to victimization as well as the best responses to combating it. However, the construction of the victim employed by these groups to advance their libratory agendas was ultimately incompatible with a cohesive politics of liberation.

I will argue that even in their claims to radicalism, members of these three groups engaged in a conservative protectionist politics when addressing child-victims. This political inconsistency was made more pronounced and ultimately more destructive to group missions because group members had paired their own victimization with that of children.

My analysis of these groups and their activism around issues of children’s sexual victimization reveals a constitutive relationship between victimization and liberation. The political rhetoric that the groups produced and in which they participated highlights the ways that libratory discourse in the United States has acknowledged victimization as a necessary precondition for liberation. [* 206]

  • [* 206 - Here I am building on a long history of thinking about freedom that dates back to the Enlightenment when freedom emerged as an important political concept. Building on the work of scholars who have unpacked both positive- and negative- liberty, I construct a framework in which activists advance a positive-liberty (a call to be free to pursue a particular end) as a response to an invented negative-liberty (freedom from a particular form of victimization). That is, through their approaches to liberation, each of the groups coalesced around a rejection of the violence that was visited upon it.

For example, the experience of cultural oppression such as sexism or homophobia was framed

  • by the Boston Women’s Health Collective as victimizing all women (and children).
  • In the case of the Elizabeth Stone House, poverty was coupled with the realities and omnipresent threats of coercive sexual contact and both were presented as part and parcel of the ways that patriarchy victimized women.
  • Finally, NAMBLA used the pathologization of its members and their banishment from the political sphere as an example of repressive victimization.

Thus, group members worked to show how these phenomena victimized them, using their activism to expand public perceptions of what constituted violence and who could be considered a victim of it.

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Moreover, by identifying themselves as victims, group members created a context in which liberation would be understood as a necessary goal. Thus, the libratory politics espoused by each group involved not only battling persecution, but also redefining what constituted violence within popular and political culture.

At stake in this (re)definition of violence was the establishment of new categories of victims. By expanding the definition of violence, members of these groups created a space to position themselves as victims. Beyond merely claiming to be victims, however, members of these social movement groups situated their victimization along-side that of children. Indeed, the ability to link their victimization to that of the figure of the child was central to group efforts to communicate their political agenda to a broad audience.

For example, the laws and diagnostic criteria that prevented men from having intimate relationships with under-aged boys were seen by NAMBLA members as victimizing both the men and the boys. Criminalizing consensual behaviors, pathologizing desire, and endorsing the sexual repression of youth were all framed as part of the same system of state-sponsored violence. Persuasive performance of the role of victim rested on social movement groups’ ability to advance new definitions of violence and demonstrate the ways that this violence led to their victimization and the victimization of children.

This language of victimization had very important political implications. To analyze them,

  • [1] this chapter will begin by tracing group efforts to formulate new categories of victims and to situate their members along side of the figure of the child within these categories.
  • [2] I will then unpack the ways that group members, having
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    identified new ways of being victimized, positioned themselves as uniquely qualified to save child-victims. That is, I will expose the ways that members of these social movement groups simultaneously enacted the roles of victim and savior.
  • [3] Next I will demonstrate the ways that activists in the period made compelling performance as victims and saviors central to the success of their libratory models.
  • [4] Finally, I will conclude with an exploration of the ways that employing a libratory framework so steeped in models of victimization ultimately contributed to the emergence of a broader and more conservative protectionism within American politics.

[1] The Politics of Victims

The role of the victim assumed a measure of strategic importance to social movement groups, especially those involved with children’s issues. In as much as public sympathies rested with victims of violence rather than its perpetrators, those groups that could perform their own victimization while also tapping the cultural weight of the figure of the child held powerful tools for swaying public opinion and winning political victories. Because of the child’s assumed vulnerability, connecting adult group members’ victimization to that of children invoked a stronger, more emotionally resonant image.

The Stone House did more than frame poverty as a kind of violence — one that repressed potential, exposed its victims to crime and heightened surveillance, and limited their access to resources. By highlighting the ways that women in general and single mothers in particular were disproportionately affected by the violence of poverty, the Stone House painted the family — women and children — as victims.
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Connecting the welfare of its female residents to children created a space for women
who might otherwise be subjected to the negative stereotypes of mental illness to emerge in a more sympathetic light.

Social movement groups often used this pairing of adult and youth victimization to legitimize their claims about violence. However, those claims rested upon particular understandings of the figure of the child. That is, the child was deployed by some as a victim of sexist violence (incest, poverty) while being positioned by others as a victim of repression at the hands of the state (age of consent laws). Though the child that was imagined and the violence that was inflicted upon her/him differed, the discursive formula was the same. In each case, the definition of violence was expanded; the group was poised to counter that violence; and the child was central to both efforts.

The rhetoric employed by the three groups under examination relies on a relational dyad when discourses of violence are in use. That is, violence is understood to be meted out to a victim by a victimizer.  [* 207]

  • [* 207 - Here, I’m building on theories of violence seen especially in conflict studies. I rely primarily on the work of scholars and theorists who apply a multi-level analysis, questioning the nature of change and utility of violence along with varied cultural and organizational responses to violence.
    • See especially:
      Tim Jacoby, Understanding Conflict and Violence: Theoretical and Interdisciplinary Approaches(London: Routledge, 2008).

Within this framework, one must identify with the victim if one is to champion the just cause. However, the groups in question did more than align with the position of the victim. They reframed the very act of victimization so that their members could assume the role of victim rather than being limited to ally status. They positioned themselves alongside of the figure of the child as victims of the same system of violence.

In this framework, the victim holds rhetorical power, compelling action and amassing allies. The strategic usefulness of the victim position is derived, in part, from its capacity to define violence.
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In describing one’s victimization, one necessarily exposes the (violent) act by which one was victimized. Thus, the victim becomes a site through which violence is given meaning. In addition to defining violence, the victim also identifies the victimizer. Here too the role of the victim holds strategic clout. For once an “abusive individual” and a “violent act” are identified, an agenda to stop abusive individuals from engaging in violent acts emerges. That is, violence (or the threat of it) is ultimately what compels action within this framework.

The figure of the child was at the heart of group efforts to perform the role of victim. When claiming victimization, group members did more than point to acts of violence. They positioned themselves alongside of the figure of the child and alleged to be victims of the same systems of violence that exploited children. Immediately understood as vulnerable and significant, the figure of the child already had an established place in American culture and politics. By pairing their victimization with that of the figure of the child, group members were able to use the cultural resonance afforded to children. This link elevated their own cause while simultaneously expanding the reach of the group.

The Boston Women’s Health Collective’s initial move to define rape as “sexual
aggression by a man (or men) against a woman (or a child)” linked women and children as victims of male violence. [...] The second edition of the text went further to center the figure of the child and link its victimization with that of women.

  • “Rape is a crime against women and children (far more children are victims of rape than most of us realize), a crime which might be viewed as the ultimate expression of negative attitudes toward, and contempt for, women of all ages.” [*209]
    • [* 209 - The Boston Women’s Health Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves: A Book by and for Women, Revised and Expanded (1976), 155.

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In the three years that elapsed between the publication of the first and second editions of the text, Collective members were even more explicit about women’s vulnerability across generations:

  • “Children asyoung as six months and women as old as ninety-three years have been raped.” [...]

Additionally, the second edition did more to implicate American culture in the victimization of women and children. While the 1973 text focused on the inability of legal and medical systems to provide adequate services to victims, by 1976

  • bystanders who failed to intervene,
  • individuals who blamed victims for their assaults,
  • those who did not recognize a need for reform in courts and hospitals, and
  • men who sought to keep women dependent upon them for protection

were all framed as participants in rape culture. [...]

Indeed, the Collective maintained that,

  • “the problem of rape extends far beyond the rapist: there are many who would never commit a rape, but who continue to condone or accept others’ rape crimes.” [...]

Implicating so many allowed the Collective to redefine the scope of rape and the acts (or failures to act) that constituted violence.

In his own move to reframe violence and victimization NAMBLA co-founder John Mitzel told the story of Gary, a sexually active, gay 15-year-old. After identifying Gary from a collection of polaroids seized at Peluso’s apartment, the police pressured Gary to cooperate with their investigation of the ‘Sex Ring.’ According to Mitzel, Gary

  • “had occasionally taken money for sex with men in the apartment of Richard Peluso and elsewhere. And many times no cash was involved.”

Mitzel continued:

  • "After police located him, he and his mother were visited no fewer than 6 times by their parish priest who urged him to cooperate with police.
  • Police showed nude pictures of Gary to neighborhood kids and encouraged them to badger him.
  • He and his mother (recipients of state social aid) were threatened with a cut-off of funds if Gary refused to cooperate.
  • The police finally coerced his mother to sign over legal custody of Gary to the State.
  • Gary was promptly locked up in a youth detention house under police guard and told that if he refused to testify he himself would be indicted for ‘sex crimes.’ He relented and became the primary witness in 8 of the 24 cases." [* 213]
    • [* 213 - Mitzel, The Boston Sex Scandal , 43-44 (emphasis in the original).]

Both Mitzel’s account and the official record understood Gary as a victim. However, Mitzel painted “the state” in the form of coercive police presence and “dominant culture” in the form of

  • a persistent parish priest as the villains.
  • They harassed Gary and his mother,
  • threatened their livelihood,
  • exposed Gary to public humiliation and ridicule, and
  • finally detained him under threat of indictment.

Mitzel implicitly asked of Gary’s cooperation with the police what his feminist opponents may have asked of Gary’s sexual encounters in Peluso’s apartment: under what circumstance did Gary consent?

In reframing Gary’s victimization, Mitzel was able to portray the police and the priest as the violent actors, and in so doing, he was able to open a space to redefine the role of the older men with whom Gary had sex. These men were also victims of the state, implicated in “wrong-doing” and prosecuted only because Gary was subjected to a targeted campaign of harassment.

In many cases advancing shared victimization with children involved a dramatic revision of what constituted violence, who could be imagined a victim of it, and what was understood to contribute to it. The different aims of these groups can leave little doubt that the left did not produce a singular definition of violence in this period.

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Instead, movement rhetoric expanded the definition of violence while specific groups
fought for their definition to gain political primacy.

Ultimately, by expanding the definition of violence, members of social movement groups were able to locate themselves in the role of victim. Once this position was assumed, groups could use the rhetoric of victimization to condemn their opponents, protest their marginalization, and call for public support.

Group memberswere not alone in the victim position, however. In linking their victimization with that of the figure of the child, these social movement groups attempted both to forestall opposition and to create a space for the advancement of their libratory framework. In advancing frameworks for liberation, members of social movement groups reached beyond the victim to the role of savior at the same time.

[2] The Politics of Saviors

Merging the status of group members with that of children was not without its pitfalls. In this framework, children’s resilience did not remove them from a position of eternal vulnerability. Despite its effectiveness, foregrounding violence and victimization and linking with children exposed group members to the vulnerability attached to the figure of the child. Just as the child held both growth and vulnerability, those groups that linked their status to that of the child accessed a culture of promise as well as a culture of fear.

To address this duality, group members had to make themselves distinct from the figure of the child, even as they emphasized their shared victimization. This simultaneous connection and separation was accomplished by groups identifying as the saviors of children.
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The savior role was figured as an altruistic one since members were using their activism to save children rather than merely forwarding their own ends. Ultimately, social movement groups that articulated a shared victimization with children positioned their members as both victims and saviors.

To the extent that group members suffered the same ill effects of cultural, institutional, and physical violence as the figure of the child, they imagined and portrayed themselves as victims. However, when they organized collectively on the basis of that shared victimization in the hopes of affecting change, members of social movement groups became political subjects.

Finally, when they advanced libratory social agendas as a means of rescuing children (and themselves) from cultural, institutional, and physical violence, they framed themselves as saviors. Identifying a shared victimization not only allowed them to attempt to gain public sympathy, it also granted them political authority to speak out against particular forms of violence. At the same time, group members’ activism on behalf of children made their efforts appear altruistic rather than self-interested.

The role of savior, like that of victim, was one of strategic significance. Its power was derived largely from the cultural standing of the victim population being ‘saved.’ By positioning themselves as saviors of children, members of social movement groups chose a population that carried tremendous cultural weight. Because children were already seen as vulnerable, and because group activism often exposed new threats to children’s safety, they were already understood as a population in need of protection.

Moreover, as saviors of children, activists could lay claim to broader significance for their cause, linking it to the future health of the nation/society through the figure of the
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To do this, group members linked their victimization with that of the figure of the child while maintaining the adult subjectivity that allowed them to act on behalf of

Mitzel’s telling/recounting of Gary’s story demonstrated the degree to which
NAMBLA used this strategy.

In January, 1978, Gary did manage to escape his captors long enough to attend, at his own request, a meeting of the Boston/Boise Committee. [* 214]

  • [* 214 - The Boston/Boise Committee (B/BC), formed in 1977 to respond to the Revere Sex Ring, became the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) in 1978. Though I attend to the ways in which the mission of the group expanded with the adoption of the new name in chapter 3, the similarities in membership, political orientation, and organizational strategy encourage me to use NAMBLA throughout this chapter as a short hand for both chronological moments.]

While there, he ran up and embraced one of the men he had named in the grand jury. Later, at the same meeting, he gave a signed statement to the B/BC chairman and counsel detailing the various forms of coercion used against him and he asked the B/BC to arrange neutral legal counsel to represent his interests, something the police had failed to inform him was his right. He wanted out of the whole mess.

It was a graphic illustration of what enlightened sex counselors have long said: police and judicial interventions into instances of sex between adults and minors, when launched under the banner of protecting the children, always have the contrary effect. The ‘children’ are traumatized by the publicity, notoriety and police manipulation of their lives. [...]

As told by Mitzel, Gary’s story fits the discursive formula outlined in this chapter. Gary’s victimization is (re)framed such that the police and the parish priests are figured as his abusers and the adult men with whom he engaged in sexual behavior are linked with him as victims of the same persecution. Moreover, B/BC members who listened to his story, arranged for his counsel, and helped him escape “the whole mess” emerged as the heroes of the tale. These activists were framed as the people intent on saving Gary from harm.

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Aligning with victims was used to win public sympathy, but advancing a libratory framework was the centerpiece of group efforts to propose solutions, propel social change, and perform radicalism. Reframing victimization was a strategy that lent more credence to the various political agendas that were advanced; it was these libratory agendas, however, that were the real focus of group efforts. As group members sought to liberate children from the very models of violence that they brought to light, they became saviors not only because they identified previously unseen dangers to the figure of the child, but also because they advanced plans to minimize those dangers.

Moreover, the victimization that adult group members shared with the figure of the child could now be framed as an advantage that gave them an empathic link, making them better equipped to understand and connect with imperiled children.

The empathic connection between group members and the figure of the child also enabled the establishment of a safer public image by seemingly depoliticizing calls for social change. By using empathic language, the groups were able to situate their politics within the realm of emotion. This move elided rational objections to their reform agendas as such objections were incongruent with emotional pleas for change. To the extent that formal political debate was understood to be a rational endeavor, when these groups privileged emotion over reason in their rhetoric, they were effectively reframing the method of political debate.

This is not to say that emotional appeals did not have a long history in politics. However, the move made by these groups went beyond using emotion in the service of logical argumentation. Instead, emotion became the grounds on which calls for change were based. This represented a significant shift in political discourse that held profound
gendered implications. [* 216]

  • [* 216 - Much of Western political thought separates thinking/reason from feeling/emotion, equates reason with men and emotion with women, and privileges masculine rationality. This approach is best typified by:
    - Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2006);
    - John Rawles, A Theory of Justice , (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971);
    I am borrowing from and building on the feminist critiques of this approach, especially those offered by:
    - Susan Moller Okin, “Reason and Feeling in Thinking about Justice,” Ethics 99.2 (1989): 229-49.
    - Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

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To the extent that Western political philosophy gendered rational thought masculine and emotional feeling feminine, it also privileged reason over emotion, making reason the seat of politics and morality. When group members elevated emotion over reason and centered it within political discourse, they reversed this trend and enacted an alternative approach to libratory politics, one that masked the radicalism both of their agendas and of how they were pursuing them.

The nature of the Stone House mission, to redefine the causes and consequences of women’s emotional distress, made empathy and emotional modeling one of the cornerstones of their work. Indeed, when searching for a way to introduce the program to others involved in grass roots activism, they relied on the letter of a former resident.

  • “This is the first real home I’ve ever had. Thanks for caring enough about yourselves to be able to make possible a community where respect for women is not a theory but is lived out daily in this home … Bless you all for loving yourselves first of all and forloving your sisters.” [...]

The act of love, of self and of other, was the very thing that made liberation/transformation possible. Moreover, the modeling relationship, which the letter writer described as “the parenting that I never got in my own family,” was framed as something that reached back into the woman childhood to heal old wounds.

The figure of the child was present even when the interaction was between adults, and
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the attention to love and healing rendered the Stone House commitment to respecting women nurturing rather than political.

Thus social movement groups were able to use such an emotional approach to frame their libratory efforts as apolitical when interacting with the general public while highlighting the radical politics behind this move when engaging other activist groups/communities. That is, the very claims of radicalism that so informed group members’ identity within a community of leftist activism were often muted when groups interacted with a broader public.

Indeed, the performance of victim and savior, though it involved a radical expansion of cultural understandings of violence and radical revision of the language of politics/political debate, was designed to allow groups to take root in the public imagination as approachable and sympathetic rather than being perceived as radical extremists. To the extent that these efforts were successful, groups appeared to be calling for reasonable reforms in the interests of society as whole instead of advocating for radical, transformative change.

Simultaneously exhibiting the face of victim and savior, indeed, using the first to substantiate the second, group members used their victimization to advance an altruistic, libratory politics of emotion. Grounding their altruism in their efforts to save children, members of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, the Elizabeth Stone House, and NAMBLA all located the figure of the child at the heart of their libratory political agendas.

Despite the diversity of those agendas, members of each group made use of similar strategies to gain attention and support. When violence was used as the impetus for liberation, and victimization and altruism were used as the means of calling for liberation, libratory politics became the province of the vulnerable (victims) and
their protectors/advocates (saviors).
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[3] The Politics of Liberation

In as much as victims and saviors were the actors in political drama, liberation was the driving force behind the plot of that drama. That is, the groups examined here performed these roles in an effort to bring their libratory frameworks to life for an audience whose good will was necessary if the framework was to be enacted on a broader stage.

Compelling performances were rewarded with legislative initiatives, victories in court, or changes in public opinion polls. As members of each group circulated their message of victimization and salvation to more and more people, they found themselves in competition not only with the institutions that they sought to transform, but also with other social movement groups whose path to liberation was markedly different from their own.

Despite the difference in the liberation proposed, each group

  • expanded the definition of violence,
  • linked the victimization of the figure of the child to that of the group, and
  • situated members as singularly able to understand victimized children and prevent future victimization.

As self-identified participants in a radical leftist political struggle, members of these three social movement groups sought not only to forestall the violence that they identified/publicized, but also to liberate society from the attitudes and institutions that created the violence.

When they did so, they relied on a model that advanced liberation as the solution to violence. To the extent that children and group members were subjected to systems of violence, they needed to be liberated from those systems and the conditions that produced them.
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Even when group members played savior to the imperiled child, they portrayed their role as one in which they rescued children and freed them from the dangers of violence.

The Boston Women’s Health Collective’s mission was to empower women by educating them about their bodies and to transform patient care. The Collective sought to free women from both the paternalism of male experts and the sexism of socialization. Collective members highlighted the victimization of girls and women who were denied information about their bodies and their development, denied spaces in which they could understand and relationships in which they could express their sexual desires, and denied the opportunity to make informed decisions about their reproductive health like whether and how to have children.

According to the Collective, such girls and women were victims of the violence of neglect, first at the hands of parents who were unwilling or unable to create an environment that fostered girls’ natural sense of being at home in their bodies.

They were further victimized by a culture that devalued women’s sexual needs and finally by a medical establishment that dismissed women who had the temerity to question the validity of its diagnoses or its reliance on sexist cultural tropes.

Having identified the various ways that girls and women were neglected, Collective members portrayed themselves as autodidacts capable of freeing women from a legacy of ignorance and insecurity. Collective members used the testimonials in Our Bodies, Ourselves as evidence of their own histories of victimization and of their triumph over it through the empowerment of the education.

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Sometimes testimonials were used to foreground cultural and institutional mistreatment of women. In such cases, indifferent medical practitioners and the limited cultural space available to women were shown to be far more disabling than other physical maladies.

  • "Because multiple birth defects (cleft lip and palate, spina bifida) made my body different, my whole being is perceived and related to as different. My body creates feelings of denial, anger, guilt and rejection both within myself and within others. The only people who touched my body were medical personnel, with all their clinical coldness and detachment, and then it was to induce pain. I never thought my body could be itself pleasurable or be a source of pleasure.
    In a disabled and disfigured body, I am ‘desexed’ by both society and myself. I was never aware of my sexuality until at twenty-two my emotional and social development put me into relationships where sexual attraction toward me occurred. A thirteen-year-old has greater knowledge, skill, and a sense of her sexuality than I did! I struggled to identify with and accept my ‘womanness.’
    With no one there to help, I was forced to go it alone. Always I’ve asked, ‘Am I a person despite my physical handicaps?’ Now I ask also, ‘Am I a woman?’  [...]

Included in the Sexuality chapter under the heading “Growing Up,” this testimonial was used not only to highlight an unfeeling medical establishment, but also to reveal the ways that women, regardless of their physical abilities, were made to feel isolated, ashamed of their bodies, and removed from their sexuality. The text following this
testimonial asked the reader

  • “could anyone be as ugly, dull, miserable as I?/What did we really learn about sex in a positive way in our teens?”

In response, the Collective along with readers of Our Bodies, Ourselves worked to give children more openness, honesty, and information.

To the extent that the Collective framed children’s natural curiosity as healthy and children’s innocence as a seat of knowledge, its task was to safeguard that state and allow children to develop unfettered by the sexism that pervaded American culture.

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Put another way, the libratory agenda advanced by Collective members became increasingly protectionist in orientation when children were the population under examination. And while the disabled woman whose testimonial was added to the “Sexuality” chapter for the second edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves could easily be figured into a framework of liberation, children and childhood recollections occupied a murkier space. Recounting a tale in which she dealt openly and honestly with her
daughter’s curiosity about her body, one Collective member wrote,

  • “My father was extremely upset and told me afterward that I had handled it all wrong. I should have scolded her and told her not to talk that way. Not, he assured me, because he cared, but because there are some pretty small-minded people out there who will give her a rude awakening if she’s not trained now.” [...]

The mother telling the story protects her daughter from those who would “train” her by candidly responding to questions and by refusing to shame the three-year-old for her teasing curiosity. Despite the grandfather’s desire to shield the child from future harm, his parenting philosophy represents the ethos from which Our Bodies, Ourselves sought to liberate its readers.

Celebrating childhood innocence, whether the pre-sexual innocence rejected by the Collective or one of innate power, knowledge and sexuality that Our Bodies, Ourselves advanced, made protection necessary. The very social ills from which the Collective sought to liberate women had not yet corrupted innocent children; this is how the child was able to teach the mother about natural, healthy sexuality. Liberation of the sort the Collective was advocating was incompatible with the figure of the child it constructed.

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Since children were uncorrupted by sexism, there was nothing from which to free them, only a charge to protect them from the reach of violence of sexism.

Like the Collective, NAMBLA members understood theirs as an educative mission, one that would change public attitudes about intergenerational relationships and the transform laws and other cultural constraints on children’s free sexual expression and choice of partner. To NAMBLA members a repressive state apparatus and a culture that celebrated the privatized, nuclear family were far more damaging to children than consensual, intergenerational relationships.

Indeed, NAMBLA’s political agenda was steeped in libratory rhetoric precisely because the solution that they proposed — the unfettered sexual expression of children and youths — was

  • criminalized by the state,
  • pathologized by the medical establishment, and
  • vilified by a culture bent on preserving and promoting children’s sexual innocence.

In response, NAMBLA identified the violence that undergirded each of these positions, pointing first to the violence of state repression, then to the violence of medical demonization, and finally to the violence of ownership models that gave parents near absolute control over their children.

From this excessive repression, NAMBLA members sought to save children, liberating them so that they could exercise some measure of sexual subjectivity and enjoy the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship. Unlike the insecure girls and women championed by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, the gay youth on whose behalf NAMBLA organized were painted as defiant. Because NAMBLA portrayed the dangers to this population as primarily punitive rather than pre-emptive, their “victims” were rebellious instead of vulnerable.

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NAMBLA’s efforts to capitalize on children’s perceived vulnerability was less successful than the efforts of their feminist counterparts in part because the gay youth on whose behalf NAMBLA organized were already culturally marginalized and in part because NAMBLA’s proposed solution — sexual emancipation of children — actually
erased the very vulnerability on which its strategic maneuvering depended.

That is, NAMBLA members’ arguments for children’s sexual subjectivity challenged cultural presumptions of children’s vulnerability. By arguing that children were victims of the individuals and agencies charged with their protection (families, police, courts), NAMBLA attempted to recast victimization and reframe violence. However, the idea that left to their own devices and freed to make their own (sexual) choices children would flourish actually championed children’s autonomy not their vulnerability.

Thus, NAMBLA’s attempts to make use of the same discursive strategies was compromised both by the marginalization of population they represented and by the ways that the group’s mission was at odds with the discursive formula they employed.

NAMBLA claimed that gay youth needed only to be left alone to make autonomous decisions about their sex lives, in its own way echoing the rhetoric of natural development espoused by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. While a laissez-faire approach to sexual decision making was congruent with the radical libratory posture assumed by the group, Gary’s story demonstrated how easily interchangeable liberation and protection were by exposing the vulnerability of youth not only to intrusions from the state, but also to the trauma wrought by such intrusive contact.

Though Mitzel redefined the nature of Gary’s victimization, positioning the priest and coercive police officers as the true villains and B/BC members as the heroic saviors, the proper way to address the coercive arm of the state was to protect children from its traumatizing effect.
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That is, NAMBLA’s efforts to liberate boys and the men who loved them were rhetorical and legislative in scope. To the extent that NAMBLA members ‘saved’ gay youth, they did so by affirming young people’s sexual expressivity and also by trying to protect these youths from the prejudices and punishments that could be meted out to those who violated social (and legal) standards.

In contrast, staffers and clients at Elizabeth Stone House organized on behalf of a population that was, comparatively, more easily fit into existing categories of victimization. Nonetheless, the Stone House mission challenged the status quo by arguing that the feminization of poverty was as damaging as the prevalence of incest; they argued that trauma of diagnosis, institutionalization, and the suspension of parental rights, which amounted to a state sponsored rape, was at least as damaging to women and children as an actual forcible rape.

With their alternative to institutionalization, their attention to autonomous empowerment, and their therapeutic community, Stone House staffers and residents provided a libratory model in which women overcame the violence of their past and were equipped to combat the violence of their culture. Unlike NAMBLA and the Collective, the Elizabeth Stone House provided temporary protection as part of their libratory efforts. With this group, even more than the other two, the space between a politics of liberation and one of protection was especially small.

Though the Boston Women’s Health Collective, the Elizabeth Stone House, and the North American Man/Boy Love Association all engaged in radical leftist politics, the violence-based libratory frameworks they advanced created a space for the emergence of a more conservative protectionist discourse/activism.

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That is, there were two responses to expanded cultural definitions of violence: a politics of liberation and one of protection. That each group slipped, however minimally, into a protectionist stance demonstrated the ways that violence could compel either/both liberation and/or protection. Their radical leftist identities left members of these social movement groups reluctant to embrace protectionist rhetoric.

Despite this reluctance to advance protectionism, the libratory frameworks that they developed contained the seeds of for an alternative, protection-oriented politics. By the 1980s the child-victim was the subject of unprecedented media attention, and the protections discourse that surrounded it became the driving force behind a series of child abuse panics that ultimately painted children as equally vulnerable to those trying to help as they were to those trying to harm.

* Note

The text of this chapter continues in part B. Click here below on > next > - Ipce