Back in 2014 I wrote a short piece on the somewhat forgotten fact that when sexual liberation was being pushed in a big way in the 60s and 70s, sex with children was part of the movement, and was supported by mainstream liberal voices — the National Council for Civil Liberties, and so forth.
The question for historians to ask about the 1970s is not, “how could respectable people have supported paedophilia back then?”, rather, it is “how did they not succeed?” My original answer was that as the rebels became the establishment, they were forced to take some small measure of responsibility for keeping society together, and withdrew from a few of their most dangerous demands. That’s no more than a hypothesis really, since I have no particular evidence for it. The truth could possibly be even more interesting.
PARIS — The French writer Gabriel Matzneff never hid the fact that he engaged in sex with girls and boys in their early teens or even younger. He wrote countless books detailing his insatiable pursuits and appeared on television boasting about them. “Under 16 Years Old,” was the title of an early book that left no ambiguity.
Still, he never spent a day in jail for his actions or suffered any repercussion. Instead, he won acclaim again and again. Much of France’s literary and journalism elite celebrated him and his work for decades. Now 83, Mr. Matzneff was awarded a major literary prize in 2013 and, just two months ago, one of France’s most prestigious publishing houses published his latest work.
As I said in 2014, the question is not how the cultural revolutionaries who overthrew much of what society had previously thought right or moral could possibly have supported this, it’s how they failed, when they succeeded in so much else. Not only did they fail, but paedophilia inspires a level of opposition and revulsion today that to me always feels a little bit deranged. I’m perfectly happy to say that it’s harmful to young people to have sexual relations with adults and should be illegal. I’m also OK with saying that at least sex with younger children — say 13-year-olds and younger — is not just harmful but perverse (though I’m not clear why that counts for anything in 2020). But I struggle with the aura of evil — and that’s most often the word that’s used — when pretty much nothing else you can think of is today considered evil.
That attitude clearly wasn’t around in the 70s. I think it really dates from the late 80s onwards.
In discussion, though, I came up with a much more boring answer. I think the explanation is that a series of very heavily reported child murders created a strong association in the popular consciousness between paedophiles and murderers, and that’s what caused attitudes to harden so dramatically.
This theory is disproved if there was repeated heavy coverage of child sex murders before the 1970s. The biggest story, in the UK, is the Moors Murders, for which Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were arrested in 1965. If that was the beginning, and I vaguely remember it being a repeating theme through the 70s and 80s, it works as an explanation. (It doesn’t matter if there actually were murders before Brady, only if they got the same kind of media treatment).
It can also be looked at internationally. The USA seems to have followed a similar pattern, of it being naughty stuff done by wild rock stars in the 60s and early 70s, and being the definition of evil from the 90s on. I don’t know the specific cases, but they have the “missing children on milk cartons” thing going, at least from the 80s.
Maybe France hasn’t had that kind of crime, or not the same kind of media treatment, and that explains the softer attitude there.
It also gives clues to the future. Over the years I’ve often seen suggestions that “they” are going to be making paedophilia mainstream next, and I’ve tended to pooh-pooh them on the grounds that “they tried that before and failed”. But if there aren’t murdered kids in the papers, maybe they have a chance. In the UK, the last big media circus was Soham, almost 10 years ago now. Maddie McCann who disappeared in 2007 is probably still higher in the public consciousness, because nobody knows what happened to her. A few more years might be enough.