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“The so-called molestation of the young is the start of politics.” [*266]

[* 266 - John Mitzel, The Boston Sex Scandal , (Boston: Glad Day Books,1980), 137.]

With this statement, Mitzel ended his polemic about activism surrounding the 1970s Boston pedophile panic and attempted to create a space for advancing children’s sexual subjectivity. [*267]

[* 267 - The Boston Sex Scandal outlined the origins of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) from its beginnings as The Boston/Boise Committee and situated it in relation to broader liberation struggles, cultural change and institutional power. Mitzel’s heroic tale of resistance represented a dramatic revision of legal, political, and medical authority. For more information, see chapter 3 of this dissertation.]

Unlike Mitzel, this dissertation has not attempted to re-imagine the sexual dynamics of intergenerational relationships (“so-called molestation”). Instead, I use this quote to demonstrate the ways that the “so-called molestation of the young” — that is, the sexuality attached to the figure of the child — came to drive politics and culture at both the community and the national levels as well as to highlight the peculiar landscape of sexual politics in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, Mitzel’s inflammatory conclusion linking sex, children, and politics is emblematic of a broader cultural ethos in the period that saw connections between these three categories. On the heels of calls for more expansive sexual politics from boy-lovers in Boston to best-sellers like "OurBodies, Ourselves" that celebrated sexuality as a healthy part of life from infancy to old age, the sexual revolution of 1970s gave way to the sexual panics of the 1980s.

Indeed, these panics may be read as a response to the laissez-faire approach advocated by NAMBLA and the sensual awakening promoted by the Boston Women’s Health Collective.

Essential to these activists’ and social movement groups’ strategic maneuvering was their centering of the child within libratory frameworks. Radical queer groups like NAMBLA, as well as feminist groups like The Boston Women’s Health Collective and the Elizabeth Stone House focused on issues of children’s sexuality as part of broader contests over the nature of violence and the meaning of liberation.

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My dissertation has taken the child as its focus to understand both liberation politics and social conservative movements in the postwar United States. I have argued that, even as leftist social movements viewed children as possessing “sexuality” and argued for the liberation of children’s sexual expression, they simultaneously invoked the child as a vulnerable figure who must be protected from sexual abuse and violence in a dangerous postwar culture.

Ultimately, the protectionist rhetoric about children’s sexuality proved more powerful and influential than the libratory rhetoric, in large part because it shared features with the burgeoning rhetoric of the religious right, who found political power in a broad call to “save the children.”

My analysis of these competing rhetorical frameworks revealed the ways in which the child came to structure late 20th century political discourse by marking the limits of liberation. Using children’s sexuality as a point of entry into postwar political activism, my dissertation shed light on the evolution of political identities.

Ultimately, my work highlights the shrinking of progressive political possibilities and the emergence of a consolidated conservative political discourse. Through their attention to children’s sexuality, each of the social movement groups that I investigated advanced distinctive libratory frameworks while grappling with expanding public perceptions of what constituted violence. Rather than focusing on a single movement, this project demonstrated that the child repeatedly emerged as a political tool in leftist activism and argued that this figure shaped the boundaries of liberation and the content of radicalism.

[Page 169]
As preceding chapters have shown, the 1970s and ‘80s witnessed the narrowing of discourse about sexuality, particularly children’s sexuality, and the corollary elevation of the child-victim.

The groups examined in this dissertation participated in this process first by engaging in a diverse cultural and political politics of sexuality and then by adopting a more protectionist orientation when invoking the figure of the child.

Increased media attention devoted to child-victims and to abuse panics reflected a kind of cultural consensus regarding children’s (lack of) sexual subjectivity and their vulnerability to sexual victimization. As the sexual revolution came to a close, leftist social movements had to come to terms with the legacies of their own libratory ideologies. The lines

- between sexual liberation and exploitation,
- between erotic agency and pathological deviance,
- between consent and coercion

appeared increasingly permeable and in need of definition.

My project has intervened in the recent turn in queer studies toward reproductive futurism, offering historical grounding by examining a moment when the figure of the child shaped political discourse on the right and the left. Although the New Right is often associated with child- and family-centered politics, my dissertation reveals the ways that groups on the left also placed the child at the center of their political rhetoric.

I have argued that relying on the child introduced conservative protectionism into leftist radicalism instead of cementing a broader investment in libratory politics.

Indeed, groups on the left displayed striking discursive and rhetorical similarities with their conservative counterparts when addressing issues of children’s sexuality. These similarities fostered the rise of the New Right and ultimately rendered the figure of the
child a tool of conservative politics.

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Investigating the ways that the New Right exploited the spread of protectionist discourse as well as the ways that conservative groups in the period organized themselves around the protection of children and families would be an ideal site for future research.

Future research might also return to Boston, which remains a focal point in debates about children and sex, thrust into the spotlight by persistent allegations of sexual abuse within the Boston archdiocese. The clergy abuse scandal offers a unique opportunity to continue the work begun in this dissertation because it bridges the gap between the 1970s and ‘80s (when a bulk of the abuse is alleged to have happened) and the present when the allegations are being prosecuted in the courts, the Church, and the media.

This project and its examination of political contests over children’s sexuality are located at the heart of historical debates that seek to make meaning of age and erotic desire.

As a local study with national implications, this dissertation grounds theory while revealing the ubiquity of political strategies that use sexualized children. Moreover, my attention to social movements and their interaction with cultural change shows the ways that approaches to children’s sexuality in the period polarize the left, making manifest the differences between those who supported the erotically oppressed and those who sought to rescue the sexually victimized.

At the same time, acknowledging children as they related to and were related to sex reveals the very limits of the libratory ideologies that were advanced by exposing the points at which they converged with conservative groups or become so radical as to be written out of the left.

The juxtaposition of these groups and their approaches brings clarity to discursive and
political battles about the regulation of children’s sexuality that began in the twentieth
century and continues today.

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The specter of the pedophile continues to loom large as the United States considers registration and civil commitment of sex offenders, the dangers posed by “online predators,” and the international sale of children into sexual servitude.

At the same time, persistent debates about sexual education, the availability of contraceptive devices to youth, and parental notification for reproductive services reveal the ways that consensual sexual contact between young people is still controversial.

In recent decades these debates and others within the culture wars have arguably defined American politics on both the right and the left. [..] With the implementation of new standards for child testimony and new approaches to child therapy, the legacies of the 1980s panics remain with us twenty years later. And though day-care panics remain, for now, a thing of the past, the media frenzy generated by the child in peril is still very much felt. If anything, cultural anxieties about the sexual dangers facing American children remain high as new technologies lead to new ways to exploit children.

Concerns about “sexting” and increased internet access have sparked debates about the sexual misadventures young people get into without aid or pressure from adult predators, while technologies like cell phones and GPS tracking systems are marketed to parents as tools to protect their children, allowing adults to maintain a watchful eye even when children are not in their presence.

This surveillance is a legacy of the sexual politics and protectionist discourse of the 1970s and ‘80s.
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Both children and their extra-familial caretakers are subjected to ever-increasing methods of tracking from fingerprinting and id badges for children to nanny cameras, background checks and psych profiles for caretakers. In addition to this surveillance, we are arriving at a cultural consensus to restrict children’s mobility and limit them from being outdoors without supervision, whether for play or transportation. Together this increased surveillance and restricted mobility amount to the virtual imprisonment of youth in the name of protection and safeguarding.

The 1970s exposed the sexual child, and the 1980s left us with a child whose sexuality is at once imperiled and perilous. Despite the 1990s exoneration of ‘80s daycare defendants and the condemnation of therapeutic and investigative tactics, the childvictim remains a powerful paradigm. The pedophiles and predators on display on talk shows and television dramas continually (re)present the child-as-victim while stirring fears of omni-present danger and conspiracies of abuse.

Intergenerational sexual relationships, the sexualizing of young people in popular culture, and the recognition of children’s own sexual appetites highlight American uneasiness with sexual development, desire, and the fragile and constructed nature of purity and innocence.

Even the attention given to the sexual exploits of youth reify ideas of childhood innocence and victimization. Young people engaged in sexual activity are often presented as victims of sex-saturated culture who have “grown up too fast.”

In this framework, sexual activity remains understood as the province of adults, and youth who engage in sex are still framed as victims.