Discussing the Politics of Child Sexuality

When Professor Harris Mirkin, the chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, published an article entitled "The Pattern of Sexual Politics: Feminism, Homosexuality, and Pedophilia," in the Journal of Homosexuality, in 1999, it received little attention. Then came the Catholic Church scandals and the hubbub over the book "Harmful to Minors" by Judith Levine. Mirkin suddenly found himself in the middle of a storm of controversy. He has since been featured everywhere from the New York Times to the New Yorker magazine to NPR. Amidst all the spin and scandal, Mirkin is rapidly gaining a reputation as a proponent of pedophilia – a charge that Mirkin dismisses as a gross mischaracterization of his work (Mirkin also agrees that priests or teachers who touch children in a sexual way are abusing their authority. He does not condone rape). Mirkin spoke with AlterNet about how his ideas have been distorted, and how the "moralists" have commandeered the public debate and rendered it anemic.

ALTERNET: Did you expect this kind of publicity?

No. I mean, the article was published years ago, it was written years ago, in 1997, and published in 1999. The reason it came up was partly because of Judith Levine's book. A lot of these very conservative groups said that that book shouldn't have been published at all because it said children were sexual. In that whole thing, my article came up. My article had been on the Internet; the same groups had been writing about it there and didn't like it. When it was just on the Internet, no one paid any attention. Then it came to the attention of some newspapers, and then the constitutents of one of the representatives in Missouri's lower house raised the issue on the floor… Then they fined the University $100,000 and everyone heard about the article.

ALT: How much of the attention you're receiving comes as a result of the crisis in the Catholic Church?

I think that the whole issue about defining children's sexuality has been around -- it's certainly been discussed and attacked on the Internet. Levine's book got so much publicity partly because of the Catholic church crisis. It's standard really. The book was attacked before it came out. [Conservative groups] were saying the university shouldn't publish it before anyone had even read it. The argument of this whole group is that this is an undisccussable, unanalyzable, un-talk-about-able topic. Any discussion of the topic will serve to legimitize pedophilia or whatever bugaboo they have in mind.

The approach is essentially biblical. We know the answer, we know that it's bad, and any discussion is to move away from the right answer. The argument that they want to forbid discussion is from… Jeremiah, Ezekiel. The other position is: We don't know the right answer. We can discuss issues, put them in context, and the correct answer may emerge. The thing that they're really opposed to is discussion, which is similar to the position on terrorism that comes from Ashcroft, for example. To discuss the issue is to give aid and comfort to the enemy.

ALT: In an article in the New Yorker, the author took you to task for "intending to be subsversive."

That was a joke. I said that to the New York Times reporter… I forget what she had said. But the article intended to be subversive in the sense that Socrates was subversive. I teach political philosophy, I cause people to question the things that are "true." In that sense, I meant to be subversive, to lead to questioning. Because I question the whole cultural construct of childhood, adulthood and sexuality. That's sort of what I was looking at. In that sense, I was saying that these constructs aren't absolute, but change from culture to culture and from time to time. If you believe they are absolutes, then I'm interested in subverting the absolutes. So in that sense, I meant to be subversive.

It really wasn't an article about pedophilia. I was looking at the political reaction to crises in which the other side was viewed as immoral. I thought that particular kind of conflict was limited to sexual topics, but I now include terrorism. With feminism and homosexuality, for example, feminists and homosexuals were viewed as immoral, as undercutting the American moral code, undercutting the American family, as dangerous, beyond the pale of reasonable discussion.

At one time, you couldn't discuss these issues in movies, plays or in print. Feminists would be ridiculed, and homosexual stuff was explicity forbidden. That was the first stage of all of these political conflicts. The political discussions are the second stage. The big fight is in that first stage, to prevent discussion. The second stage is the one in which the discussion takes place, they analyze issues. I brought in pedophilia as a current example of what, by the time I was writing, was a historical issue. By the time I was writing, people were discussing homosexuality and feminism was widely discussed. But pedophilia was still in that stage where no discussion is possible.

ALT: So, your intention was never to pass judgement yourself on how society should view pedophilia?

The New Yorker said I was equating homosexuality and pedophilia. But the political system has made that equation, treating it the same way it treated homosexuality in the 40s and 50s.

If you look at feminism, it argued that gender isn't biological but social. The roles of male and female vary from culture to culture and time to time, even though they feel natural. Most people think that whatever gender role happens to be around is the natural gender role. Homosexuality, and the gay movement, basically questioned the construction of sexuality. We tend to think that sex is biological, but we see this huge variation from culture to culture of what's considered appealing. So it is a social construction. There is a whole argument that the notion of childhood and adulthood, which we now consider a natural division, is a social and cultural construction.

The notion of the child as a separate and really totally separate stage stars in the 1800s, and the notion of the innocent child starts around 1890. The notion of a teenager is an even newer kind of thing. If the creation of this very innocent, non-sexual child was a social construction, we should see where it came from and why it came up. How did we come up with this notion of the innocent and pure child? At the same time, we have a lot more sexual freedom for adults. Children became seen as less and less sexual. We were making that category larger and larger, and at the same time making adults more and more sexual, especially in the sexual representation of adults.

ALT: It's as if the world of sexuality became more and more dangerous for adults, so it had to become safer and safer for kids.

But it's not really dangerous for adults. There are many images of gay couples, now. There are images of people having sex in museums. MTV and its like are very sexually explicit from what TV used to be. It's an expanded notion of adult sexuality. It's an incessant topic on talk shows. Let me be clear: Raping kids has always been viewed as bad. But now, teachers are told not to hug kids because it's considered too close to molesting them. We've expanded the whole area we think of as sexual, but as far as kids are concerned, it's more and more forbidden. And I was really talking about teenagers, in this whole thing.

ALT: Really? That's not mentioned in most of the press about you.

Yes, I was talking about sexual experiences when you're 11, 12 or 13. People like to ignore that. And there's a gender difference, too. I find almost all men had a dream when they were a kid of being seduced by an older person, a dream, a fantasy – wouldn't it be cool. In a lot of ways, that's a pedophile dream if you turn it from the other way. And nobody talks about that. Down in the South they used to bring boys in to a prostitute when they reached puberty. It's not like, in the culture, the whole idea of sex and teens is totally absent. If we look at it, we have two pictures of kids. One is the innocent child who'll be corrupted by any version of sex, who's totally unable to give permission, who's passive. But also, flip the page, and we have the image teenagers and young kids totally out of control, not listening to adults, driven purely by hormones and driven by sex. There are two conflicting images, and so that interests me.

In a lot of ways, we talk incessantly about sex with kids, it's just put in the negative. As long as we say, "Isn't this terrible?" we can describe the most horribler things. I don't give many interviews, but I gave one to a conservative talk show host who came up with scenarios I had never thought of. I don't sit around thinking these things up. But he was asking me, "What happens if someone puts a cigar in your 12-year old daughter's vagina?" I guess he thought that was OK if he put it in negative terms. This is a culture that talks about these things, as long as it's bad.

ALT: Do you know what the ideal social construct would be for children's sexuality?

No, I'm not a politician, I'm a professor. I wanted to question this stuff, bring up the question of the whole idea of social construction. I was pushing the idea – how far can you push the idea? We know childhood is a social construct, what do you do with that? I mean I suppose if I had a normative element to this thing, it would be that relationship where somebody is hurt is a bad relationship. Rape is a bad relationship. Anything not consensual is a bad relationship.

After that, what do we mean by sex? What do we mean by harmful? What do we mean by consensual? Some people say that kids can't consent, and I'm working on that now, I'm looking at that. There's no disagreement that kids can dissent. If they don't want to do their chores, they can make it very clear that they don't want to. So there can certainly register degress of "I don't want to do this," or "This is painful."

I've gotten a lot of letters since all of this started, and most are supportive. Most of them say, "I was involved in some kind of relationship when I was a kid," and then they vary. Some say, "it wasn't particularly good for me," some say it was very positive. Some say, "thank you for giving me some kind of vocabulary to talk about this." You see, it's a forbidden thing, so they couldn't explore what happened except in this framework that said it was the most horrible thing that could possibly happen. What if it wasn't?

Even if you take the Catholic church, the thing that precipitated a lot of this, it might have been better if there had been much more talk allowed about what was going on. If there was more open discussion, kids might have been much more aware of what was happening to them. They might have been more able to talk to their parents. A lot of this current scene, with the suits saying, "this is terrible stuff but we couldn't talk about it," – with more open discussion a lot of that would have been avoided.

ALT: Judith Levine writes about the possibility that sexual relationships between young people and adults may not always be such a bad thing. Have you explored that argument?

That argument is in the literature. Bruce Rind wrote a statistical article showing that for some people it's very harmful, but for some people it's remembered as very beneficial, and for most people, it's something that happened along the way. There's a whole discussion of it at ipce.org…

What's interesting is that sexual behavior is not that different now than in the 1960s, what's changed is the public dialogue. In the 60s, Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, the list goes on -- they defended the idea of an erotic society rather than an economic society. The shorthand was "love, not war," but there was a real discussion about the issues. Now what's happened is not that behavior is so different, but that the public discussion of the the issues simply doesn't take place. It's gone over completely to the moralists, as I would call them, who express horror at anything sexual… There's no real discussion, it's very anemic.

The idea that children are sexual beings is not new. Dr. Spock said that. Freud said it. It's not a brand new idea, but no one is saying that anymore. There are academic studies, but they aren't making it out into the main culture. No politicians, or even public intellectuals, if you will, are talking about issues. I was really just arguing that we should be talking about these issues.

But you know, one effect of their attempt to stop the discussion is that all of a sudden, everyone is talking about these issues. In a way, this is the first discussion of these issues that we've had in a long time.

Michelle Chihara is senior writer at AlterNet. She can be reached at michelle@alternet.org.

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