… some musings on moral panics, projection, and patriarchy.
I won’t be the first or the last person to point out a staggering disconnect between the strident Bible-thumping and “save the children from groomers” rhetoric of the Far White theofascist fringe in North America and around the world, and the well-documented prevalence of child sexual abuse within the ranks of various churches and right-wing political formations. But let’s review the realm of discourse here — just a refresher, in case you haven’t been paying close attention.
In both the US and Canada a small but determined and vocal minority of far-right religious zealots is trying very hard to demonise drag queens, gay people, and trans rights activists as “groomers” and child molesters. This libel is not new: it revives periodically during outbreaks of extreme rightwing religious fervour (also known as “moral panics”). In some states the zealots have successfully taken over school boards and banned from the classroom and library any book that represents a gay character positively (or at all). Some have passed laws strictly limiting or attempting to ban drag performances, regardless of explicit sexual content (or lack thereof). In each case, a slogan like “Protect Our Children” or “No More Grooming” is usually displayed.
Meanwhile, in the real world, a steady trickle of arrests, convictions, and lawsuits confirms that in fact, large numbers of child sexual abusers are right-wing and/or religious, and definitely not gay or drag queens. The hypocrisy is flagrant enough that “not a drag queen” has become a stock sarcastic response to each new headline about an arrested youth pastor, priest, Republican politician, police officer, etc. [While I was writing this, an organiser of the far-right gay-bashing group Moms For Liberty was exposed as a sex offender.].
While the Catholic Church has long been notorious for its “paedophile priests” (and its devious coverups of their misbehaviour) it’s clear that the problem is far from limited to one denomination. From quirky cults to major religions, sex abuse scandals (including those with underage victims) abound within both “faith groups” and conservative circles.
We’d certainly be unwise and naive to assume that people with progressive principles — Democratic voters and donors, for example, or social justice activists — never commit sexual offences against minors. But if the far-right protesters and preachers were correct in their beliefs, almost all child sexual abuse should be committed by irreligious, immoral Democrats and liberals… especially gay men, trans people, and drag queens. That is, documentably, not the case.
I actually think a case can be made that we should reasonably expect more of this predatory sexual misbehaviour (slightly more, or perhaps significantly more? hard to say) on the far right of the political spectrum among “straight” males — that it should not really shock us as each new MAGA politician, policeman, priest, evangelical pastor, or Republican politician is outed for sex with minors. I suggest it should be seen as a logical extension of their underlying belief system — what in another essay I’ve called the Bronze Age Backlash.
Let’s start by admitting a hard historical truth. Sexual exploitation of children and adolescents, as well as grown women, has been accepted practise in patriarchal societies through much of human history. Where male supremacy is the core organising principle of a society, male sexuality (the penis, its erection, and the pleasurable release of orgasm) is given priority over other people’s human rights — if the concept of human rights can even be said to exist in that place and time.
Coercive prostitution (the renting out of devalued women to service men’s penises) has been an institution of every “advanced” patriarchal society on record. So has the jealous guarding of “precious” women (the breeding stock for legitimate sons) against the sexual predation of other males, and the close control of those women’s sexuality… up to and including life imprisonment and repeated crude surgeries to prevent sexual pleasure and adulterous behaviour. In archaic patriarchal societies, women’s bodies are seen as a resource of one kind or the other — either for verifiable replication of the dominant male’s DNA, or for his entertainment and status display.
Archaic, brutal patriarchy places a high commodity value on very young women — partly, one might conjecture, because being “first” to inseminate a female barely of breeding age guarantees paternity and legitimacy of the offspring. A predilection for teenage girls and young women runs seamlessly through patriarchal art and literature to this present day; and from Bronze Age times to the present, men with ample power and wealth often express that power and wealth by surrounding themselves with beautiful teenage (or younger) sexual servants and slaves.
In light of this history, we should perhaps not be surprised that there are still a handful of US states in which there is no minimum legal age for marriage. Girls as young as 12 can and have (rarely) been married to adult men, with the consent of their parents — in 21st century America. The fact that this is now rare is reassuring; the fact that it still happens at all, is not. The Republican legislature of the state of West Virginia recently voted down a minimum age law regulating marriage. Archaic patriarchy is alive and well; despite all the advances in human rights theory and democracy over the last couple of centuries, men with conservative, Bronze Age values still feel they have the right to marry and impregnate girls as young as possible.
Consider the coarse and brutal language commonly used by men who share this appetite: “If they’re big enough they’re old enough,” “If her age is on the clock, then she’s too young for the cock,” “If there’s grass on the field then you can play ball,” “If she’s old enough to bleed, she’s old enough to breed,” etc. These “jokes” — like most offensive humour — reveal a coherent underlying belief system: girls should be considered fair game for sexual (ab)use as soon as they menstruate, grow any body hair, or reach the age of 13 (no longer “on the clock”).
These “jokes” are not really an obscure, fringe phenomenon. They are fairly widely shared and considered funny in male-only company (relatively few men would repeat them “with ladies present”). Some of these men would not, themselves, personally, seek sex with a barely-teen girl; but the jokes illustrate their admission and acceptance of the under-acknowledged fact that many men do want to have sex with girls who, today, we legally recognise as children… just as men did in the Bronze Age, when there was no legal protection for the rights or wellbeing of children, and girls were not uncommonly married at 13 and pregnant by 14.
The sexualisation of young girls I think should be seen as a survival of premodern patriarchal norms, not a bizarre deviation of sexual desire in certain abnormal individuals. Men who subscribe to patriarchal and premodern (right-wing) values generally, should — in theory — be more likely to be attracted to (and possibly marry) extremely young women and girls, or to use their position of power and wealth to prostitute or exploit extremely young women and girls. [Once again, we should never assume that just because a man expresses some progressive or left political views, his attitudes towards women and sex are not patriarchal and premodern; there’s no guarantee that any human being will be morally or ideologically consistent.]
What about boys though? Surely antique patriarchal norms prohibit homosexuality and forbid same-sex attraction and sexual contact regardless of age?
It’s a little more complicated than that.
Modern day Afghanistan for example, is far from a liberal democratic open society. Governance is largely in the hands of religious zealots, and Islam frowns heavily on gayness. Nevertheless, a longstanding practise continues: the maintenance of prostituted young boys as sex toys for adult men. These so-called “dancing boys” are an established tradition in the region.
This kind of thing was not uncommon in patriarchal antiquity; and clearly much of Afghanistan has not yet entered modernity. But this is not an isolated instance; “toy boys” who service adult men’s penises are not specific to Afghanistan or to the Muslim world (no matter how much some Islamophobes might like them to be).
In several patriarchal “warrior tough guy = alpha male = boss man” cultures worldwide, there’s traditional social provision for men to have sex with boys. In many cases — in some parts of the South Pacific, for example — it’s a ‘stage’ that boys go through on their way to becoming men, i.e. it has coming-of-age ritual significance and the boys “graduate” from it.
Sambian boys’ initiation rites are one example from Papua New Guinea, in which young boys were traditionally taught that performing fellatio on adult men was a necessary step for “nourishing” them into adulthood. There’s a strong tradition in this patriarchal tribe that women are unclean and can weaken a man or pollute his warrior virtue; so it’s important to separate young boys from their mothers early on, and “make them into men.” [It’s a remarkable variation on this ancient theme, that the male elders literally substitute semen for mother’s milk as part of this process.]
The Fore people also of Papua New Guinea (PNG) became famous for the prion disease “kuru”. They traditionally followed similar “initiation” customs — which got western scientist and paedophile Daniel Gadjusek into serious trouble when he was doing research there. [It’s an interesting story, the spectacular self-inflicted career crash of an original researcher who helped to lay the foundations of our understanding of prion disease.]
Most people know something about the antique Greek custom of pederasty — older/younger male homosexual relationships. Greeks at the time did not consider this abnormal, because the older men also married and fathered children just as in PNG. Here again, teenage boys were expected to pass through this phase of sexual servitude, like an apprenticeship, and “graduate” to full manhood with age. The older male partner was expected to educate & mentor his underage lover, and further his career. [This did not apply to enslaved boys and young men, of course, who were fair game and did not usually graduate to citizenship and manhood.]
In Edo Japan (again an elite warrior culture) it was pretty common for samurai to have affairs or lasting romances with underage boys. In a pattern remarkably similar to the Greek and PNG model, the older man served as teacher and mentor, instructing his apprentice/lover in the samurai skill set and ethos; the boy would grow up and “graduate” to being a full-fledged male warrior, often remaining friendly or allied to his ex-teacher-lover.
In Africa we can find an instance of the same pattern: the Zande warrior tribe followed an extremely similar tradition, with an “apprentice/lover” role for boys; warriors would formally woo a boy and request his hand in marriage, and enter into a lasting domestic/romantic partnership.
It’s interesting that in three out of four of these non-Islamic instances of the warrior-paedophile pattern, there’s no anal penetration of boys by adult men — which is what the average Westerner automatically assumes and fears. Japan is the exception here; in the other three cases there’s a curious consistency across widely divergent cultures of avoiding sodomy, two relying on intercrural sex and one on fellatio. The acceptable age range for young male lovers also varies; Greek pederasty was focussed more on adolescents than children.
I could go on at greater length — because this is an interesting and (thanks to Victorian prudery) relatively understudied facet of antique patriarchy — but the common themes definitely leap out:
- a macho warrior culture, so macho that women are considered significantly inferior to men, unclean, possibly even debilitating to have sex with (though fathering children is still seen as a duty of adulthood);
- instead, the warrior male elite turns to boys and young men, who have the same “junior” or “second class citizen” status as women — hence, this is still not sex with an equal, but sex with a dependent or inferior… just not as awfully inferior as women!
- the most prevalent pattern is that the boy will age, grow up, and in turn become an adult male (presumably choosing a junior lover of his own at some point) so the whole process is something of an initiation ritual into warrior culture as well.
In the Afghani case we seem to have a particularly nasty variant of this globally distributed, fairly consistent patriarchal social pattern. The “dancing boys” are not apprentices; they do not “graduate;” they do not remain friends with their abusers after maturing; they are seen not as spouses or lovers or partners but as slaves or property; and they are permanently stigmatised by their period of youthful sexual slavery — reduced in status to being “like women.”
It is a very toxic instance of the warrior-paedophile pattern. The rest of the recipe however is bog-standard: the macho, swaggering warrior culture, male supremacy, misogyny. Rather than considering bacha bazi a unique instance of decadence or evil, I believe we should try to put this pernicious practise in its historical context, as one instance of many, part of a recognisable pattern of patriarchal warrior cultures in antiquity; it has survived into the modern day because Afghanistan has not yet become a modern nation and is still, to a large extent, living in a Bronze Age warrior-patriarchy.
Human rights theory has definitely not arrived there yet (the status of women tells you all you need to know about that) and the old-school, barbarous warrior-dickhead standard of masculinity is still embraced. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Afghanistan is running several centuries behind other parts of the world when it comes to human rights and gender equality — and still openly doing stuff whose acceptability in other places is literally “ancient history.”
But the future isn’t evenly distributed anywhere. The brains and hearts of a lot of individual men — or whole political demographics — even in more modern and liberal societies, are also running a couple of centuries behind. And some of them still try to get away with the same old Bronze Age assumption of absolute sexual entitlement for propertied adult males — particularly those in positions of authority or power over younger people.
The dominant religious factions in the Western World are all offshoots of one Abrahamic tree: Islam, Judaism, Christianity. At their roots, they are founded on Bronze Age texts written by an archaic patriarchal-warrior culture. While the three faiths have tried to humanise and modernise their dogma over the years with layer upon layer of reinterpretation, there remains an irreducible textual kernel of male supremacy and antique patriarchy at the heart of all three; the raw material for oppressive beliefs and actions can be mined pretty easily from foundational texts, and religious fundamentalists excel in doing exactly that.
It’s my suspicion that the more extremely right-wing a contemporary North American man is, the closer his values and instincts will be to the Bronze Age (I discuss this at great length in another essay, if you would like to review the reasoning behind this bold and sweeping statement). This will be true regardless of whether he is devoutly Abrahamic, or a “free thinking” white supremacist who adores the pagan Roman Empire. The mindset is still one of nostalgia for a pre-modern era in which propertied adult male power was absolute.
The more any given man believes in male supremacy and female inferiority, in male authority over or ownership of women and children, and in a “warrior” or violence-positive ideal of manhood… the more we should expect him to prioritise his own “right” to sexual satisfaction over the human rights of “inferiors” such as women, youths, and children. We should therefore not be shocked when we see recurring headlines revealing the paedophile and hebophile offences of conservative politicians, police officers, pastors, priests, youth counselors, sports coaches, teachers and the like — almost all of them cis-het males with no history of gayness or cross dressing, almost all of them men in positions of grand or petty power over others, almost all of them believers in archaic patriarchal, phallocratic, propertarian theories of rights and ethics.
It’s a cliché by now that “every accusation is a confession” from the “moral majority” bloc on the far right. Their intense hatred of gay and trans people, feminism, birth control, and abortion I think stems from pre-rational, even pre-human anxieties which I have discussed elsewhere. Their rabid obsession with other people allegedly “sexualising children” however, to my mind whiffs more than slightly of projection; I suspect that conservative churches and families know very well (while trying hard not to know) what fathers, uncles, pastors, coaches and their ilk get up to with underage teens and children. Perhaps they are in desperate denial, seeking a hated external Other on whom they can project the blame and guilt?
From child beauty pageants to purity balls, the Far Right consistently and creepily sexualises underage girls and emphasises parental ownership rights in children — a worrisome combination. Their attempts to evade investigation, examination, and critique of these practises should be seen as just that — smoke and mirrors, scapegoating. Their strident attempts to project all predatory sexual practises onto hated Others — and claim the moral high ground exclusively for their own political/religious faction — indeed deserve mockery (and closer scrutiny). Their underlying values are so very close to those of the Bronze Age warrior-patriarchs who routinely expected sexual services from juveniles of both sexes, that it shouldn’t be surprising if — however guiltily, however secretively — they would do the same today.
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