Milo Yiannopoulos was a speeding car, destined to crash. The British controversialist has spun into his biggest scandal yet, as he has been charged with excusing paedophilia. Specifically, he claimed that older men sleeping with “sexually mature 13-year-olds” might be morally if not legally permissible.
Yiannopoulos claims he was abused as an adolescent and, if this is true, he deserves sympathy. Nonetheless, the idea of a “sexually mature 13-year-old” is obscene. Obscene, that is, but far more common than we like to think.
Yiannopoulos spoke of what has been called “man/boy love”, or, in formal terms, pederasty. “Relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are.” Ancient Greeks and Romans were of course enthusiasts for intergenerational relationships. They were also common across the Middle East and Asia.
Homosexual and heterosexual men have been attracted to adolescents. Lewis Carroll was in love with Alice Liddell. Charlie Chaplin married a child actress from one of his films. Jimmy Page kept a 14-year-old groupie in his rooms.
Nonetheless, pederasty has maintained a special status in the counterculture. Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide once roamed through Algiers in search of young boys to sleep with. William Burroughs bragged, in a letter to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, about paying “60 cents to watch two Arab boys screw each other”. Ginsberg was a member of NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association.
Even as our attitudes towards sex between adolescents and adults have hardened, some continue to romanticise it. Peter Tatchell, in a letter to the Guardian, maintained that several of his friends “had sex with adults from the ages of nine to thirteen” and it “gave them great joy”. Stephen Fry wrote a cheerful little play about a teacher exploiting and then eloping with a 13-year-old. George Takei claimed that when a young counseler at a summer camp touched him it was not molestation because “well, I thought he was pretty attractive”.
This disgusts me, but one should be grown up about it. There is of course a big difference between a paedophile who is attracted to infants and an ephebophile who is attracted to teenagers. Age of consent laws differ between European countries as there is no one objective point at which children mature.
Nonetheless, I think it is an eminently good thing that we have become more sensitive to adults exploiting young people. In an age at which sex is increasingly detached from any notion of commitment, times have never been so good for sexual predators, and there should be no weakening of our opposition to them. Milo should be condemned on those grounds but also contextualised. He is not alone or ahistorical.