As the #MeToo movement continues to topple public figures, the new sexual morality that it represents demands something really sensational from time to time. Harvey Weinstein is the iconic example, although he was preceded by others: for example, television entertainers Bill Cosby, the late BBC hero Jimmy Saville, and the Australian legend Rolf Harris, all accused of child sexual abuse, among other things.
This month has seen the unmasking of the late pop music idol Michael Jackson and the jailing of Catholic eminence Cardinal George Pell for the same reason.
In the hierarchy of sexual outrages, the abuse of children is currently at the top, as it should be. As many are now testifying belatedly, it can do lasting harm to both body and soul. Such abuse has been going on for a long time, probably forever; some of the victims speaking up today cite experiences going back to the 1950s and 1960s. Society must do what it can to help and compensate these people and bring perpetrators to justice.
But the morality of the third millennium can be very confusing.
Its core belief comes from the sexual revolution of the late 1960s: we are, above all, sexual beings, so sexual repression is wrong and harmful. Celibacy is said by many to the cause of sexual abuse – of children and adults – by Catholic clergy. The Church’s “phobias” about homosexuality and sexual diversity in general allegedly arise from its fear of losing control of the sexual domain — in other words they are a manifestation of patriarchal power.
So, sexual expression is good and takes diverse forms. But there are limits: there must be no sex with children, and it must be, unlike much of what has been happening in recent times, consensual. Having sexual contact with 13-year-olds, as Cardinal Pell is alleged to have done, let alone 7- and 10-year-olds, as Michael Jackson evidently did, is completely wrong, and criminal.
Except when it isn’t. Well before “Leaving Neverland”, it was no secret that Jackson cultivated the company of young boys and took them to bed with him. Their mothers knew. Starting in 1993 there have been several lawsuits and prosecutions, even the showpiece 2005 trial, relating to his behaviour with boys. Now we hear from two men in their 30s, who defended him in their 20s, that they were abused by their idol for years on end, Wade Robson from the age of 7, and James Safechuck when he was 10.
For 26 years, even after Robson and Safechuck filed lawsuits against his estate, in 2013 and 2014 respectively, no one could make an allegation of sexual abuse stick to Jackson, who died in 2009, and no one seemed to care very much – Robson’s and Safechuck’s suits were both thrown out by judges. Now a four-hour documentary film about them and their mothers has changed everything – at least for some of his fans. The word “monster” keeps cropping up in journalistic pieces, by people who agonise over what to do about his art. New York Times music critic Wesley Morris writes:
“For so long, so much about Michael won our awe, our pity, our bewilderment, our identification, our belief that he was a metaphor, an allegory, a beacon, a caveat – for, of, about America. You need to do a lot of looking at him to feel this way. You also need to do a lot of looking the other way.”
Yes, there has been a lot of looking away from the mischief of the sex revolution. Sometimes, as in the case of Michael Jackson, it takes the death of the perpetrator to bring out the victims’ stories, or to get a receptive audience for them.
And yes, this scenario includes the Church. But other institutions have their own scandals.
Following the death of British television celebrity Jimmy Saville in 2011 it emerged that, throughout his 50-year career, he had perpetrated sexual abuse “on an unprecedented scale,” to quote the results of a police investigation. There had been allegations during his lifetime, but they were dismissed and accusers ignored or disbelieved; Saville took legal action against some accusers. The BBC, for which he hosted two long-running shows and on whose premises some of the abuse may have happened, denied all knowledge of it.
Interviewed for a 2012 article about the culture of abuse at the BBC in the Saville years, well-known TV presenter at the time, Joan Bakewell, excused it:
“You can’t re-create the mood of an era. You just can’t get into the culture of what it was like, transfer our sensibilities backwards from today. It would be like asking Victorian factory owners to explain why they sent children up chimneys. It’s the same with the BBC that I first entered. It had habits and values that we just can’t understand from the point of view of where we are now. What we now find unacceptable was just accepted back then by many people.”
Another example: in 1978 the North American Man Boy Love Association was founded to advocate the recognition of paedophilia and pederasty as legitimate expressions of sexuality. It appears to have thrived until 2001, when two men, one of them influenced by NAMBLA literature (“to become aware of my own sexuality and acceptance of it,” wrote Charles Jaynes in his diary), were convicted of the 1997 rape and murder of a 10-year-old boy named Jeffrey Curley. His parents lost a wrongful death suit against NAMBLA, which was defended by the ACLU. This happened in Boston, just before The Boston Globe began its expose of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.
But NAMBLA still exists, it has a website. Why isn’t an organisation that advocates for paedophiles banned? One answer: because the idea that sexual relationships between men and boys – or women and girls — should be legitimate is far from dead. Perhaps it is just waiting for us all to get over our problem with paedophilia, which could easily happen.
In 2017 sociologist Mark Regnerus wrote about two studies by Bruce Rind recently published in The Archives of Sexual Behaviour, a respectable journal, about the first same-sex sexual experiences of boys and girls (average age 15). “Both articles seek to ‘test,’ and purport to undermine, the child sexual abuse (CSA) framework in which ‘all minor-adult sexual interactions are considered abusive, traumatic, and psychologically injurious by nature’,” Regnerus noted.
Rind found that his hypothesis fitted the data. (He drew similar conclusions from a 2014 study with boys and girls under 14.) The latest studies passed without comment from the American Psychological Association, which, 20 years ago, along with Congress, condemned Rind’s views. Regnerus concludes:
“As I argue in my new book Cheap Sex (Oxford, 2017), consent as a legal shield from sexual harm is a rather lonely standard. With Rind’s work published to little critique, the age of consent is faltering—now aided by multiple peer-reviewed publications. Such laws were meant to protect the innocent and shield the vulnerable, but instead of these longstanding concerns, values like sexual exploration and autonomy have begun to emerge as linchpins of a “healthier” sexuality at the same time as the language of public health and social science have come to dominate discourse in this domain. Bruce Rind seems to be a pathfinder whose task is to discern just how fertile the soil is for yet more socio-sexual change.”
That soil is being assiduously cultivated in schools, to varying degrees, under various pretexts: responding to college “rape culture” and #MeToo by educating young people in the rules of consent; recognising sexual diversity; and countering the “bad sex” of mainstream porn with explorations of “good sex”. It is always assumed that they may be “having sex” or may at any moment choose to do so.
“Porn literacy” for high school kids, in which female pleasure and masturbation loom large, has become an excuse for giving up the effort to shut down mainstream porn. In fact, there are academics who oppose porn censorship and defend it as necessary to young people’s “safety”.
Sexual diversity – the gender and sexual attraction “spectrum” now mainstream in sex education – draws on unofficial sources like Australian sites Minus18 and o-school. The latter advertises itself thus: “We work with a community of Pleasure Professionals that includes gynecologists, dating coaches, sex educators and therapists who cover a wide range of topics including health, consent, gender, sexuality, dating, sex after trauma, sex and disability, and more. We offer free live stream sessions where you can ask anything you want anonymously.”
Despite reports that young people are more interested in their phones and videogames, every effort is being made to get children and young people to focus on their sexuality, discover by experimentation where on the made-up spectrum it falls, and how to get pleasure from it. Paedophilia will fit in very nicely here when its time comes. As society looks away from what this sexual indoctrination is, child abuse, the abusers of the future are being nurtured.
The new sexual morality is incoherent because it is simply reactive to groups of victims, whether the women of #MeToo or the men abused by Michael Jackson in their childhood. Underneath, nothing has changed since the 1960s. Sexual pleasure is still an end in itself; gender has been introduced to add interest, but young people are as lost as ever about what it all means.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.