This is the final post in our online symposium on Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality, Rachel Hope Cleves‘s history of intergenerational sex as revealed by the sexual activities of the once well-known British writer Norman Douglas (1868–1952). As Cleves explains in the introduction, “political disincentives,” “visceral discomfort,” “cultural taboos,” and “the limitation of sources” have long “stymied research into adult-child sex.” In Unspeakable, Cleves insists that we must push through these barriers if we are to understand contemporary sexual politics. “Pedophilia is the third rail of contemporary culture,” Cleves observes. “There is no way to understand the third rail without grabbing hold of it.”
We cannot not talk about child sexual abuse and sex predators.
The sentence above is lifted from Joseph Fischel’s book Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent, published in 2016. Six years later, as I sit down to write my response to Fischel’s generous reflections on my book Unspeakable, about the writer and pederast Norman Douglas, his words come back to me, reverberating through my mind with even greater force than when I first read them.
We cannot not talk about child sexual abuse and sex predators. I can barely stand to read the news these days, because people won’t stop talking pedophiles. It’s not that the topic upsets my delicate sensibilities. Clearly. I wrote a whole damn book about pederasty. I can’t stand to read the news because the vast majority of all the shouting about pedophiles and groomers is bullshit, vicious fantasies vomited up by reactionaries to attack queer and trans people, without the least concern for the damage their speech poses to actual children.
A story circulated on Twitter recently. A gay couple took a spring break train trip with their two young, adopted children. Another passenger, enraged at the sight of this queer family, harassed the couple’s six-year-old son in the bathroom, calling his fathers pedophiles. The enraged passenger then approached the whole family in their seats and screamed that the fathers were kidnappers, rapists, and abominations, terrifying the sobbing children.
We talk about child sexual abuse and sex predators ceaselessly, and so much of what we say is not just wrong, it’s harmful to the very children we profess to care about so deeply. When Fischel wrote that we cannot not talk about child sexual abuse, he didn’t mean that we have to overcome our reserve in order to speak about this matter, he meant that our culture is caught up in a compulsive narratological episode. We are overcome by the need to endlessly tell the same bad story.
Why then did I call my book about pederasty Unspeakable? Because I was trying to tell a different story, not about monsters but men. My story was unspeakable because it was about the ordinariness of adult sexual exploitation of children. Trying to tell this alternative story almost made my book unpublishable. If I had written a monster narrative – Norman Douglas could easily fill that role – my book would have been an easier sell. But I opted to tell a more unsettling story, about why Douglas’s sexual encounters with children didn’t seem monstrous to his readers, his friends, and even the children themselves. Short answer: a society that structures sex by hierarchies, of men over women, rich over poor, and whites over non-whites, might also tolerate adults over children. That’s what makes today’s pedophile hysteria, which aims to buttress conventional gender and sex hierarchies and deprive children of access to self-knowledge, so infuriating. These reactionary remedies generate exactly those harms they are purporting to prevent. Note the crying children on the train.
Fortunately, my book was published, but my arguments remain unspeakable. I’ve never written anything before which generated so many private emails of appreciation, and simultaneously so little public reaction. Suffice to say, it is with extreme gratitude that I write this response to the online symposium on NOTCHES, to which Joseph Fischel, Alessio Ponzio, and Jana Funke contributed.
Each of these scholars reads Unspeakable through the lens of their own deep expertise. Fischel is a gender and sexuality studies and legal scholar who has written with great thoughtfulness about issues of childhood, sex, and consent. Funke is a historian who has written about shifting attitudes towards intergenerational sex within queer culture during the turn of the twentieth century. Fischel’s and Funke’s works both shaped my own analysis, and Unspeakable would not be the same book without their scholarship. Ponzio is an Italian historian whose work on intergenerational sex work in post-Fascist Italy didn’t come out until after I published Unspeakable, but I’ve learned enormously from what I’ve read by him since then.
At least I’m not the only one screaming into the void every time I read the newest political attacks on groomers and pedophiles. I’m sure Joseph Fischel is right there with me. Fischel’s work interrogates the discursive effects of hysteria about pedophiles and finds it more harmful than helpful, to children as well as adults. While popular understandings of what’s wrong with sex between adults and children focus on the inability of children to give consent, Fischel argues that consent is not enough as a basis for a “democratically hedonic sexual culture.” We must move beyond a concept of sex as an act that is done by one person on another (and is, thereby, only saved from being rape by the issuance of consent). In his post on Unspeakable, Fischel urges me to go beyond the arguments I make about why consent is an inadequate standard for assessing the history of intergenerational sexuality. I argued that present day notions of consent predicated on the relatively equal distribution of power between two individuals cannot be meaningfully applied to the past when inequality was the norm, and such norms would exclude any adult heterosexual relations in the past from being “consensual.” Fischel introduces the issue of moral agency, asking “can an adult engage in sexual contact with a child and respect her or him as a moral agent”? The answer today is NO, but Fischel asks whether it was possible during Douglas’s time. It’s brave of Fischel to ask this question, and to posit that the answer might be yes, an unspeakable hypothesis. And maybe that was the case in some distant past. But to get back to Douglas, he was so solipsistic I’m not sure he saw anyone as his moral equal, adult or child. I am left with the conclusion that the main way Douglas’s era differed from our own was the extent to which it tolerated unfettered male privilege. Contrary to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s absurd tweets, if we really cared about children, we’d advocate for their sexual autonomy and we’d restrict the relative social power of men
Not so fast, Jana Funke’s contribution reminds us. All this talk of male privilege erases an important theme of Unspeakable, which Funke expands upon in her review: the role of women and non-binary people as participants within the robust culture of adult-child sexual relations during Douglas’s lifetime. One of the puzzles that transfixed my research was how so many radical and queer women and people assigned female at birth could have adored Douglas while they were perfectly aware of his sexual pursuit of boys. It’s out of keeping with present expectations, to put it mildly. But Funke’s review reminds us that women and non-binary people, like the modernist writer Bryher, often modeled themselves as “boys” within the context of their same-sex intimacies. One of the founders of lesbian history, Martha Vicinus, wrote about the centrality of the boy figure within fin-de-siècle lesbian culture. Although I was aware that Bryher identified as a boy (thanks in part to Funke’s scholarship), I didn’t really think through the possibility that Douglas and Bryher’s relationship itself had a pederastic dynamic. I appreciate Funke’s post for opening my eyes, and for asking new questions about the “complex traditions of age-differential desire between people assigned female at birth.” Those traditions are not identical to the traditions of sex between men and boys, or men and girls, but they bear a kinship that demands further consideration.
Alessio Ponzio’s post opens a third avenue for further consideration, asking how did sexual relations between men and boys in Italy change after Douglas’s death? I argue in Unspeakable that Douglas’s biography offers a perfect opportunity for assessing the social history of pederasty because his lifespan, from 1868 to 1952, maps onto the rise and fall of this neo-Hellenic construction, before it was succeeded by pedophile discourse. Douglas spent much of life living in Italy, and particularly former Greek colonies in Italy, like Naples and Capri, because not only was sex between males decriminalized there, but the setting appealed to his neo-Hellenic pederastic fantasies. The rise of fascism forced Douglas to flee Italy in 1937, to avoid arrest on charges of raping a girl, but he returned after the war to live out his final years in Capri. Ponzio picks up the story from there, researching why the post-Fascist Italian state and popular media became obsessively concerned with monitoring boys’ sexuality and same-sex encounters. “Media and writers, speaking the unspeakable, exposed the pederastic system to the eyes of the Italian population,” Ponzio writes. “The ‘active non-knowing’ of a few, who knew about the child sex market and glossed over it, became the outraged awareness of many who asked to protect the children.” Ponzio’s story is unexpected. The Fascists, as it turned out, were less concerned about sexual encounters between boys and men than the governments that followed. His story is also instructive, as examining the political purposes of pedophile discourse in 1950s Italy might shed light on the political purposes to which that discourse is being put within the Anglosphere today. I would hesitate, however, from simplifying the shift in norms in post-Fascist Italy as moving from “unspeakability” to “speakability.” Regimes of speech may have changed, but no doubt some words demanded constant repetition (we cannot not talk about child sexual abuse) while others couldn’t be heard at all.
Any historian would be grateful to have their work be well received across geographic and disciplinary fields, like Unspeakable has been by Fischel, Funke, and Ponzio. I feel this at a very personal level, because I know myself to be an interloper into this history. Trained as an early Americanist, I’ve written a book about British and Italian history set predominately in the twentieth century. On top of that, I am a mostly straight-ish woman writing about a topic that has often been twisted for the purpose of harming queer men, taking the risk of exposing unpleasant facts about the past for the sake of providing an honest and accurate rendering of the history of sexuality. I worried a lot about the book’s reception while I was writing it, which makes these sensitive and enthusiastic engagements a source of deep satisfaction.
At the same time, I cannot not talk about my frustration at the failure of my book to be heard as even the tiniest squeak of protest above the cacophony of people calling for the murder of pedophiles. People who respond to right-wing vitriol by pointing out the monster pedophiles in the GOP midst (Gaetzgate, etc.) are missing the point. Pedophiles aren’t monsters. Sexual systems structured by inequality will tolerate adults sexually exploiting children and youth. The more autonomy that young people have, the better off they’ll be. People who profess to care about children should advocate for all children to have stable housing, adequate food, health care and education. Advocating for the return to heteropatriarchy won’t help kids, it will help men, giving them more privilege to fuck who they want, regardless of consent or moral equality.
Rachel Hope Cleves is professor of history at the University of Victoria and a member of the college of the Royal Society of Canada. She is the author of three books, The Reign of Terror in America (2009), Charity and Sylvia (2014), and Unspeakable (2020). Her first novel, co-authored with her brother, will be published in 2023. She is presently at work on a history of food and sex, tentatively titled Perverted Appetites.
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