Social Issues

NAMBLA's Meaning Today

by David Miller (From Bulletin 20.2 - 2003)
Why Be a Part of NAMBLA?

When I first joined NAMBLA, it was with a sense of outrage. Outrage at my early experiences of severe emotional oppression, since my first sexual “awareness” at age twelve, alternating between despair at the thought I would probably never achieve the kinds of simple satisfactions that my peers in high school already took for granted, and despair at the thought that if I ever did achieve the satisfaction of a mutually loving, intimate relationship with an attractive partner, it would probably end with a long prison term or some equally unjust social sanction. Of course, in hindsight, I see that I was far more cautious and worried than was entirely necessary during my youth, and cost myself some much-needed experience; but now, that same caution is not misplaced at all for someone my age, and perhaps not for someone younger as well.

Beyond these strong feelings about my personal situation, I also was outraged at the treatment of others with whom I could in some way identify: As a teen, I had read of two men in their thirties being imprisoned for sexual involvement with teenaged boys. Having already, quite precociously, internalized much of the “medical model” of human sexuality (I was exploring labels for my sexual feelings, and defining myself in terms of them), I suspected I would someday find myself choosing between a risk of prison or a risk of severe loneliness, a decision I guessed these two men might have faced. But as a teen myself, I knew that most teenaged boys love sex, and some prefer men. I knew a fundamental injustice had likely been done — to the men, to the boys, and to the society — and the feeling that knowledge gave me has never stopped gnawing at my soul.

Shortly before joining NAMBLA, I encountered a new source of outrage: I heard a report on National Public Radio describing an explosion in the growth of “treatment centers” for so-called “juvenile sex offenders” in Texas. In these centers, teenaged and pre-teen boys are told that any non-normative sexual desires (i.e. anything not approved by the shrinks) on their part are signs of fundamental flaws in their constitution — that they are, deep down inside, damaged people, who must fight their evil impulses eternally, but who will never win the fight against their inborn demons. The sound of an incarcerated sixteen-year-old describing his own natural erotic feelings as if they were proof of guilt and an inherent defect moved me in a way I cannot describe in words. That this sixteen-year-old was now convinced that his feelings gave license for his emotional torture at the hands of sadistic Nazi-esque doctors (using powerful techniques for which there was and is no evidence of either efficacy or safety), brings me to the point of outrage whenever I think about it. But the announcer optimistically reported that while there had been “only” 40 such centers in Texas a few years before, there were now hundreds, and if only the funding were approved, there would soon be many hundreds more like them, using the best of those supposedly sophisticated techniques.

There is one more level at which I was outraged when I joined NAMBLA. I have this naïve idea that a democracy is a good thing, and to be taken seriously. To do so requires an expectation of truthfulness on the part of public servants and organs of public information, because sound information, available to all, is a prerequisite, and perhaps the very first prerequisite, of democracy. But the injustices I have described were all facilitated by another, overarching injustice, and that is the systematic and largely deliberate construction of a false mythology, a demonology, featuring sexual deviance in general, and man/boy sexuality in particular, as a major threat to all children — domestic counterparts to the threat of “world communism.” From the 1930’s through the 1960’s, for example, the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover served as the nation’s political police, running roughshod over political opponents, and waging all-out war on groups advocating any significant change in the political or economic status quo (with a level of success that has surely shaped, dramatically, and undemocratically, the nation we now live in). In the process, they systematically violated a variety of laws and fundamentally undermined the whole notion of human and civil rights. They were corrupted to the point that they became a cover for very-large-scale organized crime. As their own cover, they fomented an ongoing series of crime panics, feeding true, half-true, and fabricated stories to sympathetic reporters and columnists, and threatening others into silence. As a part of this process, they deliberately and painstakingly generated an image of the “child molester” and “stranger danger” that would build their own image as a benevolent force and help divert public attention from their actions and their political relationships (including, for example, Hoover’s own very close relationships with major Mafia figures). This is a general pattern that has held, in different iterations and historical periods, for many “law enforcement” agencies across the country, and later for specialized agencies such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children — all playing off the same set of fears — so that over time, the mythology and the demonology have become firmly entrenched in the public mind, and virtually unassailable in the public discourse, lest the critic unleash a hail of shrill counter-attacks from the well-connected and the well indoctrinated. It has taken some time and study for me to begin to fathom the depths of the system by which the “child-molester” myth has been generated. But I’ve known all along it was a myth. The fact that it is repeated uncritically by those who should know better, that it has gone virtually unchallenged now for 20 years in its latest evolving incarnation, and that it is used to help divert attention from the most egregious corruptions, and the most grievous injuries to hidden victims around the world, outrages me to no end. The sexually orthodox U.S. is now so powerful that its pernicious sexual mythology and its ideology of age represent hazards to virtually every person on earth, both through their direct effects and by their role as diversions from important issues.

It was with a deep and abiding sense of outrage at these injustices (not only as a “boy-lover,” but as a citizen), and a determination to do something about them, that I joined NAMBLA. And it was with great enthusiasm that I read the NAMBLA Constitution and Position Papers, where I saw for the first time what appeared to be the work of an organized group of people who shared my take on the world. NAMBLA’s Position Papers explicitly recognize that the rationale for imprisoning boy-lovers is not only bogus, but positively harmful to children and youth. They recognize that the oppression of boy-lovers and boys is veiled behind a rhetoric of protecting boys from harm, even as the ideology of “protection” from “power imbalance” obscures from view infinitely more harm and inequity than it effectively addresses, such that the rhetoric itself is a public hazard. Furthermore, the Position Papers recognize implicitly that a) this issue is important to all people. b) those who seek to redress it face a rhetorical task of convincing others of the threat, and c) that this necessarily entails taking up conversation on how young people are best protected from harm.

The Way Forward

The first page of the NAMBLA Constitution contains the following passage:

NAMBLA’s goal is to end the long-standing oppression of men and boys involved in any mutually consensual relationship by:
1) building a support network for such men and boys; [note: for, not of]
2) educating the public on the benevolent nature of man/boy love;
3) cooperating with the lesbian, gay, and other movements for sexual liberation;
4) supporting the liberation of persons of all ages from sexual prejudice and oppression.

The founders of NAMBLA did not conceive it as a group composed of “boy-lovers” (that expression does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or Position Papers), or even “man/boy lovers,” as they were called in the early Bulletins. They viewed NAMBLA as a group organized around the issue of oppression: specifically, the oppression of men and boys involved in mutually consensual relationships — what I call the oppression of man/boy love, arising from oppressive laws, popular prejudices, misunderstandings, police and media opportunism, etc. They were not addressing the “oppression” (or rather, exacerbation) of some forlorn soul’s erotic desire, but the oppression of human relationships between real people (representing an important and sorely missed part of the social fabric); and their aim was not to substitute fiction for reality, it was to change the reality, as so many movements had done over the previous twenty years. For many years, the group had visible, active members who were neither men nor boys, nor “boy-lovers.” In 1983, at least one “straight” man wrote in to say he was joining because he was so moved by the arguments of David Thorstad on ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel. Other prominent gay and “straight” men and women spoke at our conferences over the years. As recently as the mid-1990’s NAMBLA was still getting letters from lesbian members who joined the group because they supported our aims. In 1992, I attended a public forum on NAMBLA and the gay community. Among the many blatantly false and grossly misleading statements made by a certain speaker, the one to which NAMBLA co-founder Tom Reeves objected most vehemently was the false assertion that “NAMBLA is a ‘pedophile’ organization.” It took me some years to fully understand why this particular statement was so offensive (and it was clearly not because of any hair-splitting — pardon the expression — over ages of boys): One needn’t be a victim to recognize injustice. And one needn’t be directly affected to recognize the indirect effects of insidious societal injustices on larger communities. And, furthermore, broad attacks on civil liberties and on civil society, when thinly veiled as attacks on a single stigmatized group or social problem, needn’t be spelled out by the attacker to be recognized by the targets for what they are. This is a lesson that cyber-activists have taught us well in their defenses against proposed internet censorship based on fallacious, even facetious, arguments about the need to “protect” children against information. But there is so much more to do. NAMBLA cannot serve merely as a refuge for needy lovers and would-be lovers of boys, it must also serve as a catalyst for change.

We are in the midst of a ferocious and bloody war. Not only for the rights of man/boy lovers to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and freedom of association, but also for the shape of the civil society of our respective nations. This is a war in which everyone has a stake. The vast majority has a vested interest in the rectification of current social injustices — and these include more than just the injustices against man/boy lovers. The role of the anti-man/boy love ideology is both 1) to keep boys — and, secondarily, “boy-lovers” — in line, and 2) to serve as one of a collection of ready-at-hand diversionary tactics, to be used by politicians whenever unwelcome economic or political questions are raised, or by police to bolster their image and raise funds, or by journalists looking for something to titillate the consumer. Everyone who has a stake in good government, civilian oversight of the police, and sane, balanced and accurate news reporting and entertainment programming also has a direct stake in our efforts to deconstruct the myth of the boy-lover-as-predatory sex offender.

Of course, while the war affects everyone, the reason NAMBLA exists is because man/boy love is one of the main battlegrounds. To illustrate, I will summarize here a very few of the developments that have happened in California over the last few years, but which have been under-reported here in the Bulletin:

Blatantly false statements about recidivism rates of sex offenders were used to rationalize passage of a chemical castration measure in 1996. The measure requires Depo-Provera injections for parolees having two or more sex offenses against victims or “victims” under 13. The ease with which this was done, and particularly the ease with which blatant falsehoods on straightforward empirical questions were passed off alerted some of us to the need for a better network for sharing basic factual information among NAMBLA activists, and more organization among members geared toward informing public debate. It is entirely possible that a few well-timed press releases reporting the relevant facts would have stopped that Nazi-esque bill in its tracks — indeed, lazy liberal pundits had laughed at the bill when they first heard of it, assuming it was unpassable. As it stands, those who initiated the bill have paid a price in terms of a turnover of power in the legislative and executive branches.

The kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas by a previously convicted rapist of women was used as an excuse for the Sexually Violent Predators (SVP) act (providing for lifetime civil commitment of sex offenders, with an emphasis on the types of sex “offenses” least likely to involve violence or coercion), and then again as a rationale to justify the state’s notorious three strikes law, which has come to epitomize bad law, and is a perfect example of how the entire civil society is adversely affected by the manipulative use of sexual ideologies. Here again, the gubernatorial candidate who touted himself as the strongest supporter of this law was trounced at the polls last November, but far too late for many petty criminals, drug-war and sex-war casualties, and their families, whose lives have been massively disrupted for the benefit of a few politicians and their prison-industrial support networks. The worst thing about this law is that false and misleading statements about the scope of the law were used to get it passed by voters as an initiative, meaning that it can only be repealed by initiative or court challenge. This is another case where activists on criminal justice issues could easily have made a big difference, if only they had been more organized.

Men, and especially youth, who become involved sexually with boys under 14 have become prime targets of the SVP law, as prosecutors have come to rely in court on studies of recidivism purporting to show that young offenders against unrelated males pose the highest “risk” of reoffending. This approach, using a law that has effectively created a sex/morals-offender concentration camp of lifetime prisoners at Atascadero State Hospital, amounts to the penultimate attack on male sexuality. The prosecutors do not note that recidivism rates among sex offenders are so much lower than those for non-sexual offenders that even the “highest risk” category is still a low “risk” compared to most prisoners. They also do not note (and probably do not know) that all the available sound science indicates that most of the sex that goes on between men and boys, and especially that between young men and boys (according to the data from published studies), is absolutely harmless. The SVP law is full to the brim with references to “harm” and “danger” and “injury.” But it defines sexual contacts with those under 14, including masturbation, as “violence” at the very outset, short- circuiting any appeal to common sense or sound science. My personal sense of this law is that it is begging for constitutional challenge as a form of punishment that does not fit the (uncommitted) crime, and as a misleading attempt to “protect” the public from harmless acts which merely offend public morals. It is tantamount to a modern-day medico-legal lynching for age-miscegenation. Challenging the law from these legal grounds is necessary because the Supreme Court has ruled, in effect, that where there is danger, preventive detention, but not redundant punishment, is ok.

It is perhaps bold, or even rash, of me to say, but I believe that all it will take is someone to be a Rosa Parks (no small task, of course), and a few dozen skilled and motivated people to serve as a very modest form of SCLC and NAACP on this subject to force the issue (when the time is right, which will probably be sooner than any of us expect). In my humble opinion, these are the kind of institutions and activists that a more organized NAMBLA could help bring into being. Since SVP, community notification, and “chemical castration” laws are being implemented all over the country, now is the time to start looking at our options — and one option may indeed be to begin cultivating the ready-made organizing/mailing lists now being provided by community notification programs in several states, as imperfect as they surely are. I can say that the science is there, in forms that I believe will be credible in court, to show that man/boy love is harmless, or at the very least, to thoroughly debunk claims that it causes harm (see my article in Bulletin 19.3, reviewing a small portion of that literature). Of course, more needs to be done, and is being done. But, as the sex police get increasingly rabid and piss off more and more people — and as people become increasingly aware of the misuses of sexual ideologies — it is quite easy to imagine that a carefully timed, well organized, and well targeted effort by even a few active people could blunt the blows of the system enough to have a catalytic effect on oppressed groups, and, in turn, on people of conscience. And if ever there were an organ suited for the spread of information relevant to this kind of necessary and inevitable effort, it is, or rather, should be, the NAMBLA Bulletin.

From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol.  20, No. 2, 2003.
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2010


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