From the April, 2002 issue of Touchstone

Dare We Get Real About Sex? by Carson Holloway

Dare We Get Real About Sex?

“Pedophilia Chic” & the Challenge to Conservatism

by Carson Holloway

Cultural conservatives, horrified by the precipitous decline in public decency over the last generation, must ask with an even greater dread: What comes next? Mary Eberstadt, writing in The Weekly Standard, provides an unsettling answer in her two articles, “Pedophilia Chic” (June 17, 1996) and “Pedophilia Chic Reconsidered” (January 1, 2001). “The social consensus against the sexual exploitation of children and adolescents . . . is apparently eroding,” she notes, documenting her claim with a disturbing survey of recent literature, science, and social commentary arguing for or insinuating the normality of adult sexual contact with teenagers and even prepubescent children.

Eberstadt’s concern is more specifically with the homosexual exploitation of boys, the legitimization of which, she contends, is toyed with more and more openly in some sectors of elite opinion. Nevertheless, as others have noted, there is also reason to fear a growing tolerance of the heterosexual exploitation of girls. While the cultural acceptance of man-boy sex has been suggested by some intellectuals, such suggestions reach only a rather narrow audience, for example, the readers of anthologies of gay literature or of such magazines as Vanity Fair or The New Republic. On the other hand, experimental ventures in underage heterosexual erotica, while less explicitly sexual, can be seen on television. Witness, for example, the far from innocent presentation of teenage pop stars such as Britney Spears in recent years.1

Eberstadt’s aim in revealing these troubling developments is to encourage resistance against them. Yet, to be effective, such resistance must be thoughtful. To counter them, we must understand their origins.

We must ask why it now seems reasonable, among some people at least, to permit sexual relations between adults and children. Such an investigation, I contend, indicates that the repugnant trends Eberstadt ably illuminates and rightly condemns are more deeply rooted in our culture than her treatment suggests.

Insofar as she emphasizes the still overwhelming public disapproval of pedophilia, in both its man-boy and man-girl manifestations, Eberstadt’s argument implies that the problem can be easily corrected, that it is simply a matter of awakening ordinary, decent people to the dangerous speculations of morally corrupt intellectual elites. Indeed, she concludes “Pedophilia Chic Reconsidered” by confidently asserting that “it is not and will not be the case” that the tolerance now commonly extended to homosexuals “can be parlayed into support for predators.”

In contrast, I argue that the current trend in the direction of the normalization of pedophilia is just the latest manifestation of a problematic understanding of human sexuality that has come to be more widely and deeply held over the last 30 years. Moreover, by both its prevalence and its dangerousness, this understanding poses a serious challenge to contemporary cultural conservatism, which, I conclude, can hope successfully to address these issues only by returning to its roots and rendering plausible once again the Christian understanding of human sexuality. Nothing else will do.

American Sexual Morality

Writing over a century and a half ago, Alexis de Tocqueville claimed to have found in America the country in which sexual standards were stricter than in any other. He attributed this severity in part, and rather obviously, to the Americans’ religion, and in part, and not so obviously, to the influence of democracy itself. Aristocracy’s emphasis on both class differences and parental authority, he noted, limits one’s choice of partner and, by thus divorcing personal inclination from marital commitment, leads naturally to the prevalence of and sympathy for sexual irregularity. On the other hand, in a democracy, where one can marry according to one’s choice, promiscuity and infidelity have no such excuse.

Whatever its causes, the strictness of American sexual morality continued well into the twentieth century, arguably well into the 1960s. Of course, this strictness was never universally accepted. One could always find libertines, especially among the wealthy and famous, who possessed the means and the leisure to indulge a sexually free-wheeling lifestyle. But the severity Tocqueville marked was always general, that is, embraced by dominant, not to say overwhelming, social opinion.

Sexual morality may well still be stricter in America than in any other developed nation. Thus, while many European nations seem to treat adultery with a wink and a nod, Americans, as studies continue to demonstrate, seriously disapprove of it. On the other hand, to say that Americans are morally more serious about sex than their European counterparts is not, admittedly, saying much. Things may be better here than elsewhere, but they are definitely not what they used to be. One need only watch an evening of prime-time network television—with its frequent and approving depictions not only of extra-marital sex but even of extra-emotional, that is to say casual, sex—to see that our culture has undergone a radical transformation in its understanding of what is permitted sexually, that a great gulf now separates pre-1960s Tocquevillian America from the present sexually liberationist ethos.

Consent & Liberation

This change was brought about by the sexual liberationists’ constant rhetorical emphasis on the autonomy of “consenting adults,” by the promotion and ultimate triumph of the notion that anything sexual is morally permissible, so long as it takes place between “consenting adults.” The older sexual culture placed all kinds of restrictions on what grown-up people could do with themselves, but the new liberationism rejected all that. Why, after all, can’t two (or for that matter, three or four) adults do what they want, so long as no one is coerced? What “consenting adults” do together is no one else’s business.

Of course, the old understanding, like the new, condemned nonconsensual sex. Yet the old view went deeper and implied a very different notion of human sexuality from the modern notion that consent is the only important issue. That old understanding held that there is, so to speak, an objective moral structure to sex, that there are right and wrong ways to use it, regardless of whether the parties making use of it were consenting adults or not. Thus, acts of fornication, or sex between unmarried persons, though accomplished according to the will of both parties, were thought wrong. Similarly, what Rousseau termed “the solitary vice,” masturbation, was condemned even though it could only be done willingly. Hence, the now seemingly quaint expression, “self-abuse.”

In addition to positing a moral nature of sex that permits judgments regarding its proper or improper use, the old understanding also stressed the great seriousness of that moral nature. Violations of that nature were viewed not as immoral in the sense of a failing like gluttony or gossip but rather as egregiously wrong. Hence, the willingness of Americans operating under the old understanding not only to make such judgments but also to act on them. Those who disrespected the culture’s understanding of the morality of sex were stigmatized.

The sexual liberationists’ rhetoric of “consenting adults,” however, implies a new view of what sex is. By insisting that there can be nothing objectionable about any sexual act that takes place between consenting adults, it denies that there is a moral structure to sex in light of which some consensual acts can be judged wrong. That is, it denies that there is a moral nature of sex as such that has to be respected. Only the will of the participants has to be respected.

Americans have gradually come to accept this understanding and, slowly discarding old prejudices, its wider, and therefore more consistent, application. Thus, first contraception for married couples gained cultural credibility, then pre-marital sex, and, most recently, homosexuality. The acceptance of the full implications had to be gradual, since if most Americans had discerned the practical consequences at the outset, they might have rejected the theory. But once they accepted the premise, the consequences would inevitably follow in theory, and for them to follow in practice, all that was necessary was for the proponents of sexual liberation to take each new step slowly, allowing the majority to get used to the change, so as not to outrage its (now theoretically groundless but still unreflectively felt) sexual sensibilities.

Liberationism, then, is the reigning sexual ideology of our time. Its cultural dominance is not, moreover, seriously qualified by certain welcome and wholesome contemporary trends. One might be tempted, for example, to point to the aforementioned continuing disapproval of adultery as an indication that sexual liberation’s triumph is less than complete. Americans’ condemnation of adultery, however, is based less on respect for the moral nature of sex itself than, again, on a concern with consent. Adultery, after all, is a violation of consent, not in the sense of violence but in the sense of fraud. As a version of promise-breaking, it violates the consent of the spouse to whom one pledged fidelity.

The apparent rebirth of respect for virginity until marriage among at least some teenagers and young adults could be presented as evidence of the erosion of the liberationist ethic, yet even it falls short. In the first place, it is not yet clear that this trend is sufficiently widespread to constitute a cultural shift. Furthermore, even if it were to capture the minds of a substantial portion of the coming generation, this embrace of chastity would not exactly amount to a repudiation of sexual liberation. The recent interest in virginity, it seems, takes the form of a choice that is approved as best for oneself rather than viewed as obligatory for all. After all, who today, even among those who disapprove of pre-marital sex, think that it ought to be punished by burdensome signs of social disapproval? Hardly anyone. Thus, even the embrace of virginity is compatible with liberationism, insofar as it is experienced and justified as just another manifestation of one’s sexual freedom rather than as a requirement of the publicly authoritative morality of sex.

From Liberation to Exploitation

This returns us to the present difficulty: the disturbing possibility that sexual relations between adults and children might become accepted behavior. Despite the openness of some gays to pedophilia, Eberstadt hopes that the mainstream homosexual rights movement will join a coalition against the practice, noting rightly that “many, many leaders and members of that movement draw a firm line at consenting adults.” The problem, however, is that the liberationist rhetoric that stresses the fundamental importance of only the “consent” of “adults” implicitly destroys any firm basis on which one could condemn sex between adults and children. I hasten to add that these dire consequences arise not from any unique immorality of homosexuality or the common rhetorical defenses of it but instead from the rise of the ideology of sexual liberation itself, which is accepted not only by gays but by the culture at large.

Let us be clear. No one that Eberstadt mentions, and as far as I know, no even marginally respectable American anywhere, has suggested the legitimization of coercive sex between anyone, adults or adults and children. On the contrary, as Eberstadt’s account indicates, the defense of pedophilia is repeatedly made on the basis that the relations can be voluntary. The young, we are told, are capable of demonstrating their reluctance if sexual advances are unwelcome, and are in fact so much more worldly wise about these matters than we think that they can in some cases be the instigators of intergenerational sexual activity.

Eberstadt, like most Americans, senses that such activities, whether the minor is willing or not, are still somehow wrong, that they are abusive or predatory. But why? Here it is useful to turn to the distinction, explicated in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, between voluntary action, on the one hand, and choice, on the other. Voluntary action, Aristotle contends, is that which has its origins in the actor. That is, it is merely uncoerced. Actions that result from choice, however, while they are all voluntary in this sense, are also something more: They originate from within the actor, but they are undertaken as a result of deliberation in light of his knowledge of moral principles.

On this understanding, animals are capable of voluntary action, insofar as their actions arise from instinct or drives internal to them, but not choice, insofar as they lack the capacity for moral reasoning. Similarly, children, though capable of acting voluntarily, cannot, on Aristotle’s understanding, choose. Here the deficiency is not that they are utterly unaware of moral principles but that their knowledge and habituation are not yet complete, so that they are governed entirely or primarily by their passions or desires.

This moral psychology, it seems to me, is implied by and underlies the traditional prohibitions of sexual activity between adults and children. On this view, sex with a minor was considered to be a kind of rape even when force was not used because minors lack a full understanding of the moral nature of sex and its gravity. That is, for them, even willing or voluntary sex must be understood as nonconsensual precisely because children are incapable of true consent or choice, of deciding in light of moral principles.

Yet that sex has such a moral nature, that there are such moral principles that apply to sex, is precisely what sexual liberation, as we have seen, implicitly denies. Liberationists speak of freedom of “choice” and the innocence of any actions between “consenting adults,” yet their argument implicitly denies the objects in relation to which “choice” or “consent” can take place. Thus, it would be more accurate, if one were to remain faithful to Aristotle’s terminology, for them to speak of sex between volunteering adults. But children can act voluntarily as well as adults. Thus, the effect of their argument is to remove sex from the realm of things that only an adult may properly enjoy because only an adult can fully understand.

Let us examine the situation from a slightly different angle. In the absence of public belief in some objective and normative purpose of sex that must be respected, the lowest common denominator will surely assert itself. That is, when the morality of sex is no longer grasped by the reason, then all that remains is the blatantly obvious: Sex is pleasant. But again, if that is all we can publicly acknowledge, then it is no longer clear why minors should not partake of it, with each other or, if they like, with adults. After all, children no less than adults can distinguish the pleasant from the unpleasant.

According to the traditional understanding, sex between adults and children is wrong because children can act only on desire and not on desire guided by principles apprehended by reason. But on the liberationist position, there is nothing to sex but desire, and thus nothing about it to justify placing it off limits to children once they are physically mature enough to do it. Indeed, the game is given away by the implicit acceptance (and promotion) of sex between 14-year-olds.

In sum, if sex is impermissible for children because they cannot make the distinction between what is proper and improper, then on what grounds can it be held impermissible for them once the distinction between the proper and the improper has been abandoned in order to liberate adults from all restraint? Thus, we see that the sexual liberation of adults leads inevitably, if unintentionally, to the sexual exploitation of children.

A Matter of Nature or Taste?

This situation poses a serious challenge to cultural conservatism. As we have seen, only some culturally authoritative notion of the moral nature of sex as more than just a source of physical pleasure can sustain the condemnation of adult-child intercourse. But the mere assertion that sex has such a nature cannot simply stand on its own. It raises the question: What precisely is the moral nature, meaning, or purpose of sex that both forbids pedophilia and limits its proper use among adults?

This is a profound philosophical question, one that touches on the question of the very nature of our humanity itself. As such, it poses a challenge to conservatism, which tends to be averse to addressing such questions and even to admitting their relevance to our common life. Traditional conservatism almost prides itself on being non-theoretical, on its refusal, in Edmund Burke’s terms, to judge social life in light of “metaphysical” principles. Instead, it prefers to appeal to tradition, to (and again in Burke’s terms) prejudice, in the sense of the unreflectively held moral opinions of the community. Thus, for example, cultural conservatives have typically defended the two-parent family as “traditional” rather than as “natural,” since to invoke nature is implicitly to invoke philosophy, and thus implicitly to admit the authority of reason, which conservatism is reluctant to do.

This conventionally conservative approach seems to have been adopted by Eberstadt, who repeatedly appeals to the moral conviction of most Americans that pedophilia is wrong and who concludes “Pedophilia Chic Reconsidered” by insisting that, as regards “pedophilia, there remains one and only one proposition that commands public assent,” namely, that “if the sexual abuse of minors isn’t wrong, then nothing is” (her emphasis).

The efficacy of such an approach to this problem is, however, very questionable. After all, as Tocqueville reminds us, appeals to tradition have almost no rhetorical force in a culture shaped by democracy, and certainly nothing like the power of appeals to “progress.” While the democratic belief in equality tends to destroy the presumptive value of the opinions of the past, the democratic experience of freedom—of one’s ability to make of oneself what one will, to rise on one’s own merits, unrestrained by one’s origins—impresses citizens with a sense of man’s almost indefinite perfectibility and creates an expectation of change understood as improvement.

“Progress,” then, is precious to Americans, and they well understand that much of it has been achieved precisely by abandoning the opinions of past generations. No doubt the promoters of pedophilia will do their utmost to exploit this mindset, pointing out, for example, that at one time it was thought obvious that interracial intimacy was wrong, thus reminding the public of how suspect tradition can be, especially given its past role in supporting the victimization of misunderstood minorities. At this point, cultural conservatives will have to advance an argument, based on some account of the nature of human sexuality, explaining why adult-child sex is wrong or risk losing the fight against pedophilia.

Alternatively, conservatives might try to avoid theory by fighting pedophilia by appealing not to public opinion but to public sensibilities, that is, by invoking not the majority’s moral convictions but its feelings, and specifically its feeling of disgust at the thought of adult-child sex. In other words, they might invoke what I once heard called “the yuck factor.”

This approach, however, would likely be no more useful than the previous one. I first heard of “the yuck factor” as a possible basis on which conservatives could resist the cultural legitimization of homosexual conduct without having to advance some general theory of the meaning of human sexuality. Yet it seems not to have worked, since acceptance of homosexuality is, if not yet here, at least right around the corner. And if most Americans do not find the thought of sex between, say, twenty-year-old men disgusting enough to reject, then why would they feel any differently about sex between a twenty-year-old male and a sixteen-year-old one? With regard to the heterosexual exploitation of girls, would the average American man find the thought of intercourse with a sixteen-year-old female physically disgusting? To think so is to give too much credit to human nature. Of course, a morally decent man would find the thought morally abhorrent, but that sense rests not on physical disgust but on some vestiges of a notion of the meaning of sex that is, as already indicated, no longer widely held or deeply rooted in the culture.

Moreover, even if the yuck factor were widely and strongly experienced, it is not clear that it would have any salutary effect. Appealing to feelings is an unprincipled way to argue, and in the context of our society it is not only logically fallacious but also rhetorically unpersuasive. Something is not morally wrong just because it is disgusting to most people, and Americans, who seem to understand little of moral reasoning, clearly understand at least this. We have been instructed ad nauseum in the importance of tolerance, and the lesson has been well learned: That you may not impose your mere tastes on others is elementary moral knowledge to modern Americans.

Is Resistance Futile?

We are returned, then, to the necessity of advancing some argument about the moral nature of human sexuality if pedophilia is to be credibly resisted. But even if conservatism is able to overcome its aversion to theory and begin to explore this question, the project is fraught with difficulty. There is, in the first place, of course, the theoretical difficulty of the question of sex’s moral significance, which, if the history of thought is any indication, cannot easily be resolved by reason alone, unassisted by revelation. No less daunting, however, are the practical difficulties involved in such an exploration. If, as I have argued, there is a connection between the liberation of adults and the exploitation of children, if one cannot condemn the latter without in some measure condemning the former, then cultural conservatism is indeed in a delicate position. Given the apparent popularity of sexual liberation, it is not clear what conservatives can say about the moral nature of sex that would not antagonize public opinion to such an extent as to impede the very cultural renewal conservatives should seek.

Consider the following possible arguments. Conservatives could try to reintroduce and defend the traditional Christian understanding of sex. On that understanding, sexual intimacy is ordained for very lofty purposes, insofar as it represents both a cooperation with God in the creation of new human life and an affirmation of the love of the spouses as an image of Christ’s permanent, generous, self-sacrificial love for his Church. This understanding intimately unites sex with serious moral responsibilities that children are clearly unprepared to undertake, and it thus provides a convincing basis on which to forbid pedophilia. On the other hand, this understanding condemns not only pedophilia but also the use of sexual pleasure made by the overwhelming majority of Americans, most conservatives, and many Christians. Thus, even if it could be rendered plausible to conservatives themselves, to advance such an understanding publicly would require a kind of heroic courage in the face of likely rejection and ridicule.

In order to avoid so offending public opinion by morally condemning most Americans, conservatism might opt to avoid reference to the procreative purpose of sex and instead to emphasize a secularized version of its unitive purpose. Sex, they might say, is right only within marriage understood as a permanent commitment of two people to each other, a commitment of such gravity as minors are incompetent to undertake. Here again, however, the practical problems are not inconsiderable. Given the prevalence of divorce and premarital sex, even this seemingly popularized understanding would still condemn the sexual activity of many Americans of this liberationist era.

Again, then, one might seek further to relax the moral requirements of sex. Rather than a sign of unconditional and permanent commitment, of two people’s deliberate will to remain together, perhaps we should say only that sex should reflect a less momentous but still profound emotional attachment. Here at last is a moral understanding of sex that is not so demanding as automatically to offend most Americans. On the other hand, by moving the significance of sex into the realm of mere emotion, it seriously weakens the case for withholding such pleasure from children, and hence the case against pedophilia. After all, children are capable of profound affection and lasting, if not permanent, emotional attachments.

In sum, as these examples illustrate, it is very difficult to find an understanding of the moral significance of sex that is both serious enough to forbid pedophilia and slack enough not to brand most Americans with one scarlet letter or another, whether it is A for adultery, F for fornication, or C for contraception. And this practical problem, in turn, is a result of the theoretical difficulty of disentangling the justification for sexual liberation from an implicit approval of pedophilia.

Confronted with these difficulties, conservatives might try to fight the looming approval of pedophilia on the basis of other principles. For example, they could contend that sex is not fitting for the young because of its possible physical consequences, such as pregnancy or disease. Invoking these dangers is certainly less controversial than the more strictly moral arguments sketched above, but at the same time, it offers scant grounds on which to bar minors from sexual activity. After all, and as Aristotle points out, it is in point of moral reasoning, not worldly calculation, that the young are incomplete. Thus, they can understand the physical consequences of sex as readily as the perils of crossing the street. Moreover, even if minors were unable to grasp the physical consequences of sex, the possibility of those consequences would justify condemnation only of such sexual activity as exposed minors to such risks, and not pedophilia per se. Thus, to invoke such dangers is simply to invite a bizarre (but, sadly, given recent history, not unimaginable) call for “responsible” support for “safe” pedophilia.

Alternatively, one might seek to condemn pedophilia on the basis of the right of parents to raise their children as they see fit. Such an argument, however, is no less problematic. We might note in the first place the utter lack of protection it affords children who might, God forbid, suffer sexual exploitation at the hands of a parent. Even if we dismiss this possibility as rare, however, there are other difficulties. It is not clear that such a notion would justify punishing a non-parent’s sexual contact with a child prior to the parent’s discovery and forbidding of it. After all, we would regard it as improper for some adult to offer a child an ice cream cone at the playground once the parent had clearly communicated disapproval, but it would be thought at most an almost harmless liberty for someone to do so when the parent’s will had not been expressed. Of course, sex and ice cream are not the same, but the distinction between them depends, again, on some notion of the moral significance of sex. Thus, the attempt to condemn pedophilia on the basis of parental rights implicitly raises all the difficulties that accompany the attempt to posit some culturally authoritative notion of the moral meaning of sex, because it assumes that sex is somehow a serious concern in the moral formation of children.

Resistance or Restoration?

Cultural conservatives evidently have some serious thinking to do about what sex means, what that meaning’s implications are for sexual liberation, and how to persuade our culture to accept that meaning and those implications. Such an enterprise is a problematic necessity for conservatism: problematic because of the difficulties discussed, and necessary because of the utter uselessness of a cultural conservatism that cannot credibly resist such a serious degradation of culture as the legitimization of pedophilia.

Conservatism emerged, in the thought of Burke, not, as many believe, simply as a rejection of the excesses of the French Revolution, but as an attempt to conserve Christian civilization and the moral imagination on which it is based. Yet, possessing a sober, Burkean appreciation of both the limits of reason and the imperfection of our nature, conservatism tends to be cautious or timid in both theory and practice. Thus, it would prefer to fight rearguard actions, to preserve whatever decency still exists, rather than to seek first principles and attempt to transform culture in light of them. Therefore, over time, as the Christian imagination has dimmed under the repeated assaults of modernity and as our civilization has consequently become less and less Christian, conservatism has grown less and less ambitious, aiming not to preserve Christian culture but only to preserve its most minimal moral standards, to prevent its complete defeat and transformation into a kind of neo-paganism.

The problem of pedophilia chic, suggests, however, that conservatism cannot credibly pursue even these very humble aims without returning to its original and more comprehensive aspirations. For the complete degradation of our culture’s understanding of human sexuality represented by the prospective legitimization of pedophilia cannot be resisted without a restoration of the Christian moral imagination, which itself cannot condone even the less complete sexual degradation we have already suffered.  


1. See Stanley Kurtz’s account of the controversy over Eberstadt’s argument: “The Problem of Equivalence: ‘Pedophilia Chic’ Defended,” National Review Online, January 26, 2001.

Carson Holloway is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of a book on Darwinism and political theory from Spence Publishing.

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