Humbert Humbert is far from a straightforward man, but he did have the decency to commit a straightforward crime. Lolita was a tender young twelve, her suitor perhaps three times that; whatever physical, metaphysical, sexual, magic or aesthetic power she may have wielded over H.H., she was a child and he was a man of immoral actions.
Pedophilia, however, has gotten considerably more sophisticated.
Now-ubiquitous camera phones allow anyone walking through a YMCA locker room to capture images of naked children. Digital video cameras enable bored and horny teenagers to tape themselves having sex; email frees these videos from their computers; YouTube and MySpace give them a limitless arena for distribution. And a sixteen-year-old can be charged with possession of child pornography—if her laptop has naked pictures of herself.
Teenage, even pre-teenage, sex is nothing new, nor is our fascination with it. Ten years ago, as today, young girls wore makeup and miniskirts to school and let their gawky boyfriends grope them behind the dumpsters. Kids of both sexes exchange gossip, develop reputations, sleep around. Though their parents may cringe, they often feel safe about such early sexual experimentation—a twelve-year-old’s world, after all, tends to be quite limited. But while such behavior is not a recent phenomenon, the remote access to it is. Whereas an attention-seeking seventh grader was once limited to flaunting her pubescent body at middle school mixers, she can now, with only her parents’ camera, expose herself to a much wider—and much more dangerous—audience. She theoretically has access to an unlimited number of predatory eyes.
And in doing so, she sets herself up for abuse, exploitation, even prosecution. Several teenage girls have been accused of the sexual victimization of children—namely, themselves—for posting their own nude or exceptionally provocative pictures online. No party profited from these pictures, and none was posted without consent; indeed, in each case, the girl had taken the pictures of herself, for her own website, presumably trying to impress her friends on MySpace. The court ruled, however, that each was guilty of both the dissemination of illicit material and an act of child abuse. They had, essentially, committed a wrong against themselves.
Perhaps harder to justify is last week’s Florida court ruling that two teens who taped themselves having sex were guilty of producing child pornography. She was sixteen, he seventeen; under state law, their sexual relationship was entirely permissible. The video existed only on their own computers and nowhere in hard copy or on the Internet. The court declared, however, that their relationship, neither “mature nor legally committed,” could not be considered a “private arena” in which to possess material that could so easily be spread. The video, it seemed, was at risk for third-party viewing. The inherent volatility of adolescent social structures rendered simple possession of such a film indicative of an intent to distribute. And so the kids were arrested, brought up on child porn charges, and convicted. The term coined was “self-pornography.”
But to what extent can one victimize oneself? Though legally minors, these teens were fully aware of their actions and the accessibility of the images. No coercion was demonstrated, no form of malicious intent. Their crime seems to be that they enabled others, potential predators, to view children engaged in sexual acts; they left the window open for lecherous eyes to peer in with ease. Of course there is something troubling, immoral, and potentially dangerous in the production of child pornography, and those adults who act to sexually exploit children, directly or indirectly, should be held accountable. When the exploitation is of oneself, however—and when the intent to distribute is only supposed—it is much harder to determine who is the victim, who the aggressor.
Meanwhile, the media keeps interest in such cases at a fever pitch, decrying the abuse of children while perpetuating its own sort of perverse voyeurism. “Girls Gone Wild!” trumpets the allegedly respectable Time Magazine, coverage of Michael Jackson’s sexual abuse charges is incessant and unavoidable, and Fox News covers every molestation or sexual abuse case—whether a conviction or suspicion—with a tinge of fanaticism.
And in the world of entertainment, it is the gray areas of pornography and pedophilia that fascinate us so, the art that pushes the limits of the permissible. Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal abuses her position of power to have sex with a minor—or, a horny teenage boy gets lucky with the hot art teacher. Venus too dances around the edges of acceptability. Peter O’Toole and his loud, vulgar paramour may be an unsettling couple—she nineteen, he four times that; and frankly, the thought of the withered, decrepit O’Toole in any amorous situation, physical or otherwise, is slightly nauseating. But both parties are consenting adults and the film remains neutral as to whether O’Toole’s ardor is somehow indecent. It is not the straightforward that fascinates us; it is the boundary—what we can condone, what we can appreciate as entertainment, what we can allow ourselves to accept.
And as we flirt with the inadmissible, we simultaneously revise our notions of the desirable. Young women have always been idealized, but today’s high fashion models evoke not adolescence so much as pre-pubescence. Girls as young as fourteen strut down runways on long fragile legs, their demeanor cold, demanding, ruthlessly adult—but unmistakably young. Older models with no breasts or hips to speak up strive for the same aesthetic, that of the de-feminized, the undeveloped. We are horrified by child pornography, but fetishize the child’s body. We condemn the voyeurism of the pedophile but become the voyeurs of those pedophiles—and, by extension, of their victims.
Sometimes, however, this sort of role reversal allows for blessedly karmic justice. An Oklahoma man, 29, was arrested in January after having posed as a preteen in order to pursue child victims. With shaved body hair, heavy pancake makeup and an affected voice, Neil Rodreick attended the seventh grade for months without attracting suspicion. Stranger still, he lived with two convicted sex offenders, 60 and 43 years of age, whom he persuaded to pose as his uncle and grandfather in order to enroll him in school—having convinced even these men that he was twelve years old.
When the situation was exposed, these two were also charged with the intent to commit lewd acts with a child. The “child” in question, of course, was not only twenty-nine years old, but a pedophile himself. According to the sheriff, the two men “were very upset when the detectives told them they had been having a sexual relationship with a 29-year-old man and not a pre-teen boy.” Pedophiles unknowingly sheltering and enabling a pedophile in child’s clothing?