On Friday, the right-wing provocateur and (former) Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was sitting pretty. Bill Maher gave him a tender massage on Real Time. Maybe, during the ministrations, his mind wandered to the fat check Simon & Schuster had cut him in advance for his forthcoming memoir Dangerous. On top of all this, he was scheduled to deliver a keynote address at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. At the start of Presidents Day weekend, Yiannopoulos was not yet tired of winning.
By late Sunday, however, old footage of Yiannopoulos was inconveniently sloshing around the internet. In it, he talks frankly about intergenerational sex among gay men and teenagers. With ambiguity about specific ages, Yiannopoulos even suggests that some cases of intergenerational sex can be pleasurable and affirming. And with that, Yiannopoulos was sunk. The book was canceled. CPAC disinvited him. He “resigned” from Breitbart. On Tuesday, Yiannopoulos capped off the spectacular descent with a grotesque apology press conference. Despite promises of a new media venture and a future focused on “entertainment,” one had the sense that this was the end for dear Milo.
So what happened? After all, Yiannopoulos’ shtick was to give voice to all manner of “un-P.C.” sentiments for the titillation of the “fuck your feelings, snowflake” crowd. But as Yiannopoulos learned, the one thing you cannot say is that intergenerational sex might be anything other than categorically abusive.
To put it bluntly, Yiannopoulos got “pedophiled.” That is, he was treated in the blunt way our culture reserves for pedophiles. By talking about intergenerational sex with ambivalence, Yiannopoulos was cast as an advocate for child abuse. For those who hate him, this is delicious comeuppance. But it also demonstrates a cold fact about American culture: For a nation lousy with sex (much of it lousy), it’s remarkably hard for us to think with nuance about sex. Yiannopoulos’ fantastic collapse proves how important it is that we continue to think, write, and talk about power and the many, sometimes contradictory, ways it can play out in a sexual relationship.
For all sorts of reasons, we do not endorse sex between 13-year-olds and adults (nor, if you listen without presumption, does Yiannopoulos). Yet once we can move beyond the disclaimer, Milo’s passion play raises two points worth examining: jurisdictional variations in age-of-consent laws and the thought-stopping effect of allegations of sexual predation. In each case, the cry of “pedophilia!” flattens how power operates in these controversies. “Pedophilia!” disables us from identifying harms of sex unexplained by age difference, and from acknowledging pleasures of sex that some teenagers enjoy.
The many ages of consent
On his day of atonement, Yiannopoulos assured a reporter that he finds Germany’s sexual age of consent, 14, to be “too young.” In Yiannopoulos’s native England, the age of consent is 16, but only in 2000 did the country equalize ages for same-sex and different-sex partners (the age of consent for man-man sex was previously 18, and before that 21). In India there is no age of consent for same-sex sex, because same-sex sex is criminal at all ages, as of this writing. In the United States, each state sets its own age of consent, but all states more or less follow the same trends of reform. Age-of-consent laws were initially codified and enforced to protect white girls aged ten and under from sexual advances (girls were seen as property of their fathers; so the crime was not so much a rights violation as a property violation), and are now gender-neutral. The age of consent in most states is 16, and the majority of states also specify that an older teenager is permitted to have sex with a younger teenager as long as the older teenager is not older by much.
Diversity across jurisdiction and time periods does not necessarily mean that that U.S. is right about age and sex now when once it was wrong, or that Germany is more right about age and sex than India. Nor are we making the facile assertion that age is a social construction that has no meaning other than the meaning we give it. Rather, the range and diversity of these statutes shore up the blurriness of age as a moral determinant for sex, a blurriness no less blurry for the brightness of age as a legal determinant for sex, which it must be. Age-of-consent laws are blunt instruments, but the benefits of protecting many minors outweigh the costs of preventing some sex. Yet, what details might also matter in courts of law and public opinion when we think about sex across age?
One detail might be the ways girls and boys are differently socialized to understand themselves as sexual beings in the world. Feminist gains notwithstanding, when it comes to sex, boys tend to learn how to be agents where girls tend to learn how to be available (or alternatively, learn to be dirtied by sex like a football player dirties sneakers). If boys are not as categorically harmed by sex with adults as girls, this may have more to do with enculturation than with biology (although boys may underreport abuse because they fear looking weak, feminized). Another is the ways young people are dependent on others, like teachers and parents: So often, the issues with sex across age difference is not age alone, but the fact that the older person leverages his (and it is usually his) position of authority to secure the sex. But of course, not all situations involve this power dynamic. And finally, we must consider homophobia and other forms of bigotry that shape young people’s life chances and possibilities for pleasure. Yiannopoulos was not wrong when he said that queer youth, facing a resolutely hostile world of peers and family, often search out older friends, mentors, and lovers. (One of us wrote a book about all this.)
We will have to part ways with Yiannopoulos that the “idea of consent” is “arbitrary and oppressive.” But neither is consent the end-all of sexual morality. All sorts of sex that is harmful and unwanted, or just boring and mediocre, is legally consented to. And surely age-of-consent laws do not, once and for all, across all of history, correctly gauge who is sexually mature and who is not. Some adults are having sex and shouldn’t be, and many more are pressured into sex, however consensual-looking. And many minors are having sex and should be, even having sex with older adults, and they are doing just fine. One need not be a conservative grifter to figure this out. (One might even be a feminist.) Gender, sexuality, relations of dependence and social constraints: All of these realities condition and complicate sex for young people beyond the seemingly simple question of consent, yes or no, or age of consent, above or below.
Predators at the end of thought
Here is another lesson we can draw from the Yiannopoulos meltdown: “child sexual abuse”—and the specter of the sex predator—may be brandished as a moral bludgeon to impugn alternative viewpoints and whole groups of people. On Real Time with Bill Maher, Yiannopoulos repeated his shopworn slander of the transgender community: He doesn’t want those people around little girls in bathrooms. Here, Yiannopoulos is drawing on the erroneous notion that trans women are child sex abusers, a trope that cashes in on other tropes—of gay men, men of color, and Jewish men as perverts. Once the little-girl-predator is conjured, the political terrain of trans rights all but collapses. Bill Maher mustered only a pathetic “that’s not unreasonable” in reply, before calling trans women “weirdos.” (Yiannopoulos went on to say that trans people are “vastly disproportionately involved in sex crimes.” This is true, but as victims, not assailants.) It is as if where the sex predator travels, there stops thought.
In fact, that could be the Cliffnotes version of Yiannopoulos’ undoing. However nuanced Yiannopoulos’s treatment of intergenerational gay sex, whatever gestures he made to homophobic social realities that encourage boys to seek solace, support, and sex from older men, all that Yiannopoulos’s conservative, ex-supporters could hear was a gay man saying something in public about sex with teenage boys that was not unilaterally condemnatory. In the homophobic imagination, which stubbornly associates gay men with pedophilia, it mattered not a whit what Yiannopoulos actually said. If you’re gay, pedophilic speech is pedophilic sex.
Yiannopoulos made a career out of speaking in bad superlatives and wrong universals. It’s the height of irony that the one time he attempted nuance he crashed and burned. That Yiannopoulos should be pilloried for these comments instead of the malicious venom he’s spewed at feminists, trans people, people of color, immigrants, and Muslims (among others) is deeply symptomatic of our culture’s selective concerns. If we let the cry of predator halt thought—with all of thought’s troubling shades and ambiguous hues—we may also wind up leaving intact the other narratives of predation Yiannopoulos glibly peddled—the trans bathroom creep, the terrorist under every hijab. These narratives of predation underwrite the Trump administration’s recently enacted policies. Surely, we would live in a far better world if we mustered as much anger about the concrete and grievous harms those policies will do to trans youth and religious minorities as we did about Yiannopoulos’s clumsy musing about the potential pleasures of intergenerational sex.
“Pedophiling” Milo feels good. We shortchange ourselves, though, if we let short-term satisfaction shut out critical thinking about sex, young people, and power.