The Lives of Pederasts

I was surprised to find that someone uploaded their somewhat janky vhs copy of the documentary Chicken Hawk to YouTube. The film offers a decidedly rosy introduction to the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). It was shot in the early 90’s, when the group was at its most public, and was trying to glom on to the ascendant gay rights movement. It opens with interviews with several of the members taken at gay pride parade in Washington DC where the group is kind of skulking around at the periphery. It’s interesting to see how queer civil rights activists react to them with this really aggressive ambivalence. No one’s telling them they have to leave, but they certainly aren’t letting them join the party. Some years later, the LGBT community would see what a liability it is to let the NAMBLA guys hang around and would come to openly condemn them, but back then no one really knew what to do when they would just show up out of nowhere with their unconscionable agenda—that society should let them have sex with children.

Chicken Hawk is fascinating, but it could have been even more so if it hadn’t committed itself to fighting NAMBLA’s fights. We’re constantly shown footage of counter-protests in front of NAMBLA’s weird “office;” and goofy death threats recorded on answering machines, and decontextualized interview snippets with working-class types blustering about what they’d do if they caught one of ‘em. As for the pedophiles themselves, they’re mostly interested in talking about reforming age of consent laws. I have to say though, it is kind of amusing to see pederasts affirming the agency of young people by citing their own sexual encounters with them as evidence. I feel like the film overthrows its whole position when, at minute 22, one of the pedophiles starts flirting on camera with a boy outside of a deli. The kid is playing with a pay phone. The man approaches and tries to join him and his friends in the game. The interaction is superficial and awkward, as most interactions between adults and kids are, yet from this the pedophile thinks he is able to gain some kind of insight into the kid’s “psychological space” and that he has learned enough to evaluate the boy’s interest and desire for him. We hear the boy speak on camera; there are no messages being exchanged. He’s just nervous about getting caught messing with the phone company’s pay phone. The perceived interest, the playfulness: it’s all in the man’s desperate mind.

I will say, where the film succeeds and manages to show us something really unique that we can learn from and empathize with, is when it shows us the lives of the pedophiles and what they’re like as people. These are peculiar people that we meet. They live their lives alone, in dingy little apartments, watching children from afar and feeling what they feel but being more or less powerless to do anything about it. We see one man leaving messages in young adult books in the public library. Others draw pictures for themselves of pre-adolescent bodies because owning and exchanging photographic imagery would be impossible. In the handful of times in their lives when they actually do get the opportunity to be intimate with a young person, it’s such an utter breakthrough for them that they talk about it in terms of spiritual transcendence. They carry the memory with them, clear and vivid, wherever the go for the rest of their days. Of course it isn’t beautiful, but it’s genuine, and it’s sad: The grim and ghastly respite of a mangled soul.

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