Increased sensitivity regarding sexual relations between adults and minors means that the 1981 movie Private Lessons probably could not be produced today – at least as a light, upbeat comedy. Yet the willingness to accept the “normal urges” of the adolescent boy as irrepressible means that this particular sexual initiation narrative will sneak back into popular culture anyway – by way of the subplot, the jokey aside, the unrealized fantasy.
The film would never have been done with the gender roles reversed or equalized – imagine the movie poster girl/man, boy/man, girl/woman – and even the most anodyne treatment of these permutations, teenage girl harmlessly infatuated with grown-up man, requires special handling: In a piece of popular episodic TV that I recently caught, one supporting character got a righteous punch to the jaw merely for being the unwilling recipient of a kiss from the main character’s precocious daughter. On the other hand, the upcoming Showtime series Shameless appears to promise a sub-plot in which a possibly underage boy pursues an affair with an older, married man. Maybe gender equality, non-discrimination, and even real life… or the total breakdown of moral standards… or all of the above are blurring the most recently drawn bright lines on what is and is not permissible.
Such blurring or re-blurring may not, however, be happening fast enough for Alex Knepper, a 20-year-old conservative writer with a not yet fully developed internal censor, who ran into trouble earlier this year at David Horowitz’s NewsRealBlog. Knepper had seemed to have found a home at FrumForum – only to be publicly humiliated and declared unfit for conservative consumption. The material that implicated him, all of it uncovered and made public by hostile NRB’ers, included the indecorously enthusiastic submissions he made under the moniker “lostpainting (Imperialist Warmonger)” at a gay teen chat forum, on the subject of “CHILFs.” If you click on that forum link with your audio enabled, you’ll get a noisy welcome aimed at visitors finding their way to the discussion via NewsRealBlog. As for “CHILF,” if you don’t know what it stands for… Congratulations! I mean it – though, if you continue reading, there or here, the honorable scales will be lifted from your eyes.
Just a week or two earlier Knepper had been taking hits from the left: “Tintin,” at the popular humor blog Sadly, No!, had invited him to “do the world a favor by setting [himself] on fire.” This suggestion headlined the response to an op-ed in which Knepper had spoken the obvious too soon and too harshly: That a recent teen suicide apparently prompted by sexual embarrassment should be treated as an extreme overreaction. This aspect of Tyler Clementi’s sad tale, as of the pitiful stories of other humiliation victims, tends to be suppressed. No one, or hardly anyone, wants to minimize bullying or encourage a laissez-faire attitude among teenagers regarding sexually explicit personal materials. No one wants to compound the agonies of family members or draw the wrath of sympathizers. Most of all, no one wishes to pile a last humiliation on the victim.
Except possibly for Alex Knepper. Some may conclude that he tempted fate, and is paying the price: Now, he can find out how he likes public shame. As the very righteous and right-thinking protectors of everything right at NewsRealBlog revealed, in great and exhaustively hyper-linked detail, Knepper/lostpainting’s interest in questions of child sexuality may have gone too far beyond libertarian theory, and even beyond exhibitionism. He expressed a thing for pop singer Justin Bieber. He approvingly posted an arty photo of two naked boys embracing. He wrote lyrics for a “12 Days of Pedophilic Christmas.” He repeatedly and self-indulgently confessed to other forbidden turn-ons.
Such things go quite beyond the acceptable in 2010 America, and not just among conservatives. Today, every single one of us who wants to be one of us agrees that being sexually aroused by the idea of sex with “children” is always and everywhere wrong – that is, justifies your being drawn, quartered, and defenestrated in pieces, or maybe bullied into self-destruction. Still, I suspect we almost all hope that Knepper follows his own advice, not Tintin’s, and neither leaps off a bridge nor sets himself on fire. We also owe it to him or at least to the truth to underline that referring to someone like the sixteen-year-old Bieber as a “child,” when in numerous states he would be past the age of consent, may mainly reflect a self-consciously risqué context, not sexual-criminal intent. NRB editor David Swindle’s self-serving claims notwithstanding, no one has produced any evidence that Knepper ever posed a real threat to children.
…which brings me, at last, to my own wrong argument: Getting sexually aroused by gazing upon images of Justin Bieber, or even by gazing upon certain notorious and very Not-Safe-For-Work-And-Other-Places images of the pre-pubescent Brooke “Pretty Baby” Shields, is clearly not bizarre. It may not be the predominant reaction of a majority of observers, but it reflects a fixation among a significant number of people – one of those “unnatural” inclinations whose ineradicability suggests it may even be genetic – i.e., “natural.” A likely much larger number of gazers – including, say, the consumers of widely popular “barely legal” pornography, and the many purchasers of certain books of art photography – should have little difficulty imagining if not necessarily experiencing or acknowledging arousal. Yet another overlapping group might report mere interest or appreciation – beauty of the human form and all that… Finally, it must also be said that some number of those who respond violently on the subject frequently enough turn out to have belonged to the first group all along.
We remain reluctant to accept these other facts of life, and instead seek to enforce firm if inherently arbitrary rules and distinctions with escalating punishment, amidst episodes of self-justifying panic. We all know that in some great part the famous silence about sexual abuse, and the pathetic overreactions of the bullied and abused, stem from rightful fear of our retribution as much as any abuser’s, just as we know that the pervert who murders his victim usually does so with us in mind (if for his own sake). We demand and ensure that the boy suffer further for the man’s sin against him, or the teenager for the cruelty of her friends – our (mostly) lower-grade version of honor killing and other pitiless treatments of “ruined” virtue. Our seemingly obligatory cruelty reflects the same conundrum of shame visible in the pundit reaction to bullying and the conservative reaction to Knepper: How do we unreservedly condemn bullying without reinforcing the terror, the terror of us, that makes sexual blackmail and humiliation possible, and gives defiance its thrill? And how do we unreservedly condemn pedophilia, as a form of de-humanization in the act, without actively de-humanizing the real criminals as well as mere fellow travelers, a group which, by process of extension, sooner or later includes us all?
For some individuals those moral distinctions create insuperable conflicts between natural-for-them and acceptable-for-us. This axis of conflict, which pits different conceptions of nature and morality against each other, also ties ephemeral news headlines and blogospherical turbulence to Sophocles: Antigone and Oedipus, their only fault needing to belong to a society that could only despise them; Creon, surrounded by such sorrow he does not know “where to look”; but especially the chorus, you and me with our useless thoughts and impotent sentiments. We are far from having worked this matter out even after 3,000 years of intensive labor, and far from knowing where they will lead, other than, from time to time, to tragedy.