Priests and Boys


Philip Jenkins was a fairly obscure historian until 1996, when reactionary Catholics made him an improbable star. He began his career as a professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania State University, specializing in the debunking of alleged “crime waves.” For criminological journals he wrote four articles on what he considered the unjustified fear of serial murderers in England.1 In his 1992 book, Intimate Enemies: Moral Panics in Contemporary Great Britain, he broadened his analysis of “constructed” social fears to cover “witch hunts” over Satanism, rape, incest, pedophilia, child pornography, homosexuality, and drugs. In each case an “imaginary menace” is manufactured by “moral entrepreneurs” as a form of “symbolic politics.”

These panics, he argued, are often interconnected: “There is a natural tendency for activists who have been successful in exploiting one fruitful issue to employ similar rhetoric and examples in related causes.” Jenkins calls this phenomenon “problem convergence.” Feminists, for instance, exploit the issues of rape, serial murder, child abuse, and pornography to promote their agenda. The state is often brought in to control these nonexistent threats, creating its own real threat of repression based on hysteria. The British pedophile scare, for instance, involved “a more or less covert assault on homosexual rights.” When the pedophilia involved Anglican choirboys, fears drew upon “a powerful image of anticlericalism.”

After Jenkins had established his libertarian and permissive standards, he made one exception to it in his 2001 book, Beyond Tolerance. Despite his criticism of panic over child pornography, he found one form of real exploitation on the Internet, filmed sexual acts with real prepubescent children. Even this he did not want to outlaw, since bringing in the state is an invitation to repression—current porn- ography laws, for instance, pose a threat to legitimate portrayals of adolescent sexuality like Lolita or American Beauty. Only China and Burma have suppressed child pornography—by suppressing freedom.

Jenkins thinks that much of the panic over child abuse is derived from a confusion of two different things, each going under the same name: pedophilia. For him, real pedophilia (child-love) concerns only prepubescents. He disapproves of this, but says that restraining it may threaten quite different sex acts with postpubescents, which he calls ephebophilia (boy-love). He holds that statutory rape laws should not outlaw such youth-love, since there is nothing in nature (as opposed to local custom) to deny the power of consent to even very young teenagers: in America “the age of consent for girls stood at ten years from colonial times until the 1880s.” Pornography involving teenagers is difficult to distinguish from Gap ads, and therefore from Internet pornography in general, on whose beneficial effects Jenkins is positively lyrical, contrasting it with the false prettiness of mainline pornography:

We can, in fact, argue that the highly democratic and easily accessible nature of sex on the Internet creates a social benefit by so frequently depicting real people, with all their visible flaws and imperfections, rather than the distorted and overidealized imagery that so long characterized X-rated…

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