A Modern History of ‘Groomer’ Politics
There was a time when a groomer was a predatory grown-up preparing to molest a kid. Then Christopher Rufo, the activist who did more than anyone else to inject the term into today’s politics, redefined it as a “spectrum of behavior.” Children, he tweeted in 2022, “can be groomed into a sexual identity, groomed into an ideological system, and, in some cases, yes, groomed for abuse.” The rhetorical aim was clear: It was a way to raise the specter of the child molester without having to demonstrate that any specific person is a child molester.
That specter has long haunted our culture wars. Whenever a sexual minority’s legal rights or social status seems to be increasing, someone is certain to raise the alarm that Pedo Power will surely be next. In 1994, as gay freedom was becoming a mainstream cause, the head of the right-leaning Rutherford Institute claimed that “the logical implication of American acceptance of homosexuality is the acceptance of pedophilia as simply another form of ‘sexual orientation.'” In 2004, with gay marriage a central issue in the year’s elections, the head of Liberty Counsel wrote that “Once the same-sex marriage barrier is broken, a wide range of sexual paraphilia rights are sure to follow, including, but not limited to, pedophilia.” In 2015, right after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, the prominent Texas Republican Allen West circulated an article about pedophile advocates under the header “That was FAST: Yesterday it was gay marriage; Now look who wants ‘equal rights.'” (The article was actually several years old.) In 2022, with a new group in the culture-war crosshairs, The Federalist ran a feature headlined “Why Accepting Child Transgenderism Will Pave The Way For Accepting Pedophilia.”
Each time someone tells this tale, it is less plausible than before. Nearly half a century ago, there actually were notable currents of radical opinion that wanted to normalize pederasty and abolish age-of-consent laws. The successes of the gay rights movement have not made such views more popular. If anything, they have become more radioactive. The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) no longer marches in pride parades, and gay papers no longer publish extended debates about whether such groups belong in the fold. Even the small handful of activists who do talk about destigmatizing pedophilia are much more likely to claim that this will make it easier for pedophiles to get psychiatric help than to suggest they’re doing nothing wrong. And the rise of trans rights has not changed that at all. (That’s why Rufo has to fall back on phrases like “groomed into a sexual identity”—they let him conflate two very different phenomena.) In fact, the increasingly dominant view on the left today is to oppose any large age differences in romantic or sexual relationships, even when both parties are of legal age.
That isn’t simply a matter of ideological drift in the LGBT movement. There are larger sociological reasons why many people in the West were more open to tolerating genuine groomers in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, and there are larger sociological reasons why the taboo wound up getting stronger instead. To understand that, we need to revisit that moment in the 1970s and early ’80s when it briefly looked like pedo lib might have a future.
Bay State Grime
On April 5, 1978, Gore Vidal stood before a judge and suggested that statutory rape laws should not exist.
The novelist was not on trial. He was delivering a speech in a crowded Boston church, and the chief justice of the state’s Superior Court happened to be in the audience. The judge later insisted that he had merely been there to see a famous writer speak and that he didn’t realize he’d come to a rally for a controversial cause.
Specifically, he’d come to a fundraiser to defend two dozen men charged with molesting kids in Revere, Massachusetts, a downmarket suburb that had already acquired a pretty grimy reputation before the local district attorney (D.A.) declared that a nationwide sex ring was headquartered there.
Grime seemed to be everywhere in Boston just then. First there was that alleged sex cabal in Revere, a story that eventually turned out to be somewhat overblown—the accused were not actually a “ring,” and only one of them was eventually incarcerated—but for the moment had the state on edge. Then the D.A. set up an anonymous hotline for people to report suspected predators, a system that civil libertarians feared would be used to target anyone a caller thought might be gay. Then there was a series of stings at the Boston Public Library, where cops nabbed dozens of men for having sex in the first-floor men’s room.
And then Chief Justice Robert Bonin showed up at that rally. The judge always insisted afterward he had no idea before the event, or even after it was underway, that it was an activist fundraiser. That may be true, though he stuck around far longer that evening than you’d expect from an official attuned to the demands of political survival. (He even asked Vidal afterward to sign his copy of Burr.) According to James Aloisi’s 2012 book The Vidal Lecture, the knives had already been sharpened for Bonin, who had been enacting a court reorganization plan that many of the judicial old guard opposed. After the new scandal broke, he was forced to resign from the bench.
Looking back from 2023, his ouster isn’t surprising: Even if he really didn’t know what sort of event he had stumbled into, that’s the sort of accident that could bring down any official, let alone one with powerful foes. What feels odder is Vidal—a bestselling author, a frequent TV commentator, a man who consorted with Kennedys—saying things like “When you think of it, should there be such a thing as statutory rape? That sounds to me like a contradiction.” Even while acknowledging that some limits were appropriate (“I would say that puberty is a dividing line”), he questioned the premises of the law where those limits were enshrined.
Nor was Vidal alone. Allen Ginsberg, one of the most acclaimed writers of the day, came to Boston around the same time to read his poem “Howl.” He inserted some new lines for the occasion, including one about men “busted for eye-contact in the Boston Public Library men’s room when a handsome youthful policeman flashed his irish loins & winning smile.” Ginsberg wasn’t simply concerned about the civil liberties implications of the D.A.’s tactics: He also stopped by a local TV show and declared, “I had sex when I was 8 years old with a man in the back of my grandfather’s candy store in Revere, and I turned out OK.”
Vidal and Ginsberg were radical intellectuals; they took minority positions all the time. What feels truly alien today is that packed church. Let us take it for granted that not everyone in the audience that evening agreed with Vidal’s views on statutory rape. No doubt there were people there who simply thought the defendants were innocent, or who feared the D.A. was gearing up to target the broader gay community, or who just wanted to see a celebrity speak. The fact remains that roughly 1,500 men and women were in the room with Vidal and Bonin that evening. Imagine that many Americans turning up at a fundraiser for a group of accused molesters today.
The Ambiguous Interval
Such ideas were never universally accepted in gay and lesbian circles. Indeed, they were fiercely contested: For as long as NAMBLA was marching in pride parades, there were vigorous efforts to kick it out. When Anita Bryant and other anti-gay activists of the era cloaked their crusades in concern for kids’ welfare—”a particularly deviant-minded teacher could sexually molest children,” Bryant warned in her 1977 book The Anita Bryant Story—most rank-and-file gays reacted by distancing themselves from any teacher who saw his students as potential conquests.
Such ideas were not limited to gay and lesbian circles either. You wouldn’t have guessed it from Bryant’s rhetoric, but most molestation cases involve men and girls, not men and boys. So it should not be surprising that “intergenerational sex,” to borrow a euphemism of the day, had its heterosexual advocates too.
For an example, open the December 1977 issue of Penthouse, a magazine devised almost exclusively by and for heterosexual males. Turn to page 117. There you’ll find a story by Philip Nobile headlined “Incest: The Last Taboo” and subtitled “Previously suppressed material from the original Kinsey interviews tells us that incest is prevalent and often positive.” Much of the article deals with sex between siblings or cousins, but it ventures into adult-child encounters as well—most infamously with a line Nobile attributed to the future men’s-movement leader Warren Farrell. He was studying incest, Farrell allegedly said, because “millions of people who are now refraining from touching, holding, and genitally caressing their children, when that is really part of a caring loving expression, are repressing the sexuality of a lot of children and themselves. Maybe this needs repressing, and maybe it doesn’t.”
Farrell later claimed that he had actually spoken of parents caressing kids “generally,” not “genitally.” If so, that’s one of the most unfortunate misquotes in magazine history. But what’s notable for our purposes isn’t whether Farrell said the line attributed to him. It’s that Penthouse printed it as an unremarkable comment by a figure the magazine was presenting sympathetically.
One expects Hustler to go further than Penthouse, so it may not be surprising that in 1978 it published a story arguing that children should be able to “choose their sexual partners freely (including adult partners)” and illustrated the article with several photos of nude kids. Before you dismiss that as the fringy provocations of a porno mag, consider this: Both the article and several of the pictures were reprinted from Erwin J. Haeberle’s The Sex Atlas, a mainstream textbook that had crossed over to ordinary bookstores and found commercial success there too.
That book was not an outlier. Ideas like these were circulating around the edges of respectable opinion; they weren’t exactly popular, but they were far more common than they are now. One enormously popular bestseller—1975’s The People’s Almanac—included a symposium surveying various famous folks about their personal visions of utopia. The book’s co-editor declared in his responses that sex education should “begin with practical experience in which older women teach young boys and older men teach young girls.”
Articles like Haeberle’s reflected a current of countercultural thinking that thrived throughout this period. Since young people’s liberties were strictly limited—by schools, by p
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