Persecuting Pee-wee

A Child-Porn Case That Threatens Us All

Softcore photos are not the only evidence, a police source insists. Reubens also had 6500 hours of videotape, including many transfers of vintage 8mm gay films. These stag-to-stag movies had been illegal because they showed homosex, yet most of them look tame today. However, nestled amid the vanilla is what someone close to the defense describes as "a few minutes of grainy footage" featuring teenage boys masturbating or having oral sex. These explicit images could be the hard nut of the case.

Did Reubens know what he had? The question is far from academic, since most child-porn statutes contain the word "knowingly" so folks who buy a book about cherubs that is deemed lascivious won't get busted. But what about collectors of vintage erotica, who often buy in bulk? How can they be expected to examine every image?

One California dealer of vintage magazines, who has sold to Reubens, says "there's no way" he could have known the content of each page in the publications he bought. As for the incriminating films, "Most people don't watch videos before they buy them—especially the compilations," says this dealer. He recalls Reubens asking for "physique magazines, vintage '60s material, but not things featuring kids."

photo: Sylvia Plachy

Reubens is 50 now, so the 1960s would have been the decade of his adolescence, an age when erotic imagery takes on a magic that can resonate through life. For a gay man of Reubens's generation, to collect physique memorabilia is to reach back to one's first homoerotic stirrings. Certainly these were cherished objects to the people who originally bought and hoarded them. Teens exploring what was then considered an unspeakable desire, closet cases who led double lives, older gents with a passion they couldn't realize: These are major sources of physique collections. When a devotee dies, his survivors may bring his private stash to market—and there's now a real demand for erotic imagery from the age of homo latency. Ebay is a prime purveyor, and young people are a big part of the market, drawn to an aesthetic that seems simultaneously innocent, absurd, and highly charged—so different from the cunning mood of smut today.

Then there are the archivists. Vintage gay erotica, some of it going back a century, is taken very seriously by scholars who regard such pieces as artifacts of homosexual history. These images show the continuity of queer desire, and that's important to a community whose past is a story long suppressed. Dozens of gay archives have opened in the past decade, and the thought that they might be subject to police surveillance raises a fearsome specter. Several archivists, speaking off the record because they were terrified of drawing attention from the police, admitted that they had never examined each image in their files. Cleansing a historic collection by destroying images that are now provocative is repugnant to these scholars.

"The nature of an archive is that you don't know the future value of something," says Stuart Timmons, board president of the California-based One Institute & Archives, the world's largest collection of LGBT historical material. "Yesterday's witches are today's gay people," he notes. The evidence of desires that may seem loathsome now could contain "something that is not well understood yet, and that could be the basis for reform." Certainly these vintage images of teenage boys arouse all the complexity that surrounds the issue of child porn.

Can a picture that was once legal be the basis of a prosecution today? Where should the line between innocence and indecency be drawn? Perhaps the most disturbing question relates to the way these pictures look today as opposed to when they were made. Would they seem pornographic if they weren't forbidden?

The sexual exploitation of children became a major cause in the '70s—appropriately, to say the least. But the focus soon shifted from sex acts to erotic imagery. In 1982, the Supreme Court declared child pornography unprotected by the First Amendment. Redeeming social value was no defense, and the contraband didn't have to be obscene. Even clothed images of children could be porn if they seemed arousing. And the courts defined a child as anyone under 18.

In this environment, an FBI unit code-named Innocent Images began to concentrate on consumers, and arrests tripled over the '90s. Many pedophiles were nabbed, along with artists and even parents who made photos of their naked kids. The Internet was well suited to entrapment, since hard drives archive e-mailed images even if they're unwanted and promptly deleted. Sweeping laws have led to bizarre and tragic cases, but it's also true that incidents of child abuse have dropped sharply (the priesthood notwithstanding). Yet the fixation on erotic images as opposed to criminal behavior may have unintended consequences.

Is our obsession with child porn creating a climate where kids are commonly regarded as sex objects? Amy Adler, a professor at New York University Law School, suspects so. "The legal tool that we designed to liberate children from sexual abuse," she wrote in the Columbia Law Review, "threatens to enslave us all by constructing a world in which we are enthralled—anguished, enticed, bombarded—by the spectacle of the sexual child."

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