Persecuting Pee-wee


Paul Reubens is no stranger to the sex police. In 1991, he was busted in a Sarasota porn theater and charged with the ultimate victimless crime: whacking off during a showing of Nancy Nurse. Reubens pleaded no contest, and the case became a tabloid sensation. “I was leading the news,” he later told Vanity Fair, “followed by Dahmer eating people, boring holes into their heads, and turning them into zombies.”

Jack-off jokes were only part of the penalty Reubens paid. To a generation raised in the Reagan years, he was Pee-wee Herman, presiding over the fabled playhouse that ruled children’s TV. But with a “sex crime” on his rap sheet, the name he had borrowed from a favorite harmonica was mud. Pee-wee dolls were yanked from toy stores all over America, and Reubens retreated to the limbo of scandalized clowns.

He made a comeback as a weed-fiending hairdresser in the 2001 film Blow. But his career is still haunted by the world he created as Pee-wee, where all sorts of deviations from the macho norm were on display. To millions of adult fans, Pee-wee was one of the most subversive comic creations of the ’80s, Howdy Doody with a sense of camp—and a libido. Lately Reubens has been talking up a movie that would darkly deconstruct his childlike persona. It could be quite a saga now that the once and future Pee-wee has been charged with possessing child porn.

This is no ordinary tale of celebrity justice. It raises major questions about censorship and criminal intent. Because the Reubens case dramatically expands the parameters of what is considered child pornography, it should trouble us all.

Pee-wee’s latest adventure began in 2001 when Los Angeles police received a complaint from a teenager about Reubens and a friend, the actor Jeffrey Jones. The complaint was dismissed, but not before detectives searched the homes of both men. Jones now stands accused of taking pornographic pictures of a juvenile, a felony. Reubens faces a lesser charge: possession. Both have pleaded not guilty.

According to friends, Reubens’s house is a kitsch-crammed Shangri-la, featuring collections of “classic food,” E.T. memorabilia, and of course the world’s largest Pee-wee reliquary. True to his puckish persona, Reubens also collects vintage erotica, most of it gay. He’s especially drawn to the pre-XXX physique magazines that flourished in the post-war decades. Detectives carted off 30,000 items, leaving some 70,000 behind. They spent a year scrutinizing every image in this vast archive, and in the end the district attorney concluded that there was no case.

Enter Rocky Delgadillo, the L.A. city attorney. Since his election last year, he’s focused on child abuse, creating a special unit to deal with it. As useful as that may be, in the hands of an unscrupulous prosecutor it can become an instrument of persecution—especially when aimed at a star with a prior sex rap. Sources say that when the D.A. rejected the Reubens case, officers involved in the investigation brought it to Delgadillo. (The D.A.’s office says the case was transferred because it involved a misdemeanor.) With just a day to spare before the one-year statute of limitations expired, Delgadillo issued a warrant for Reubens’s arrest. If convicted, he could spend a year in prison, but even if acquitted he will probably suffer professionally. For an androgynous former star of children’s TV, two strokes and you’re out.

If only Reubens had been caught boffing girls, as Rob Lowe was, it might have added to his mystique. But the closest he came to that manly transgression was owning a copy of the infamous home movie made from Lowe’s one-night stand. Police reportedly first planned to charge Reubens for possessing that tape, since one of Lowe’s lovelies was underage. Still, this footage is in wide circulation, and Lowe never faced child-porn charges even though he made the tape. A prosecutor who based his case against Reubens on that piece of evidence might get run off the freeway.

There was no smoking image like the one that got rocker Pete Townsend arrested last Monday “on suspicion” of possessing, making, and “incit[ing] to distribute” indecent images of children. (Townsend says he merely visited a child-porn site to research a book about his experience as an abused boy.) Reubens has no such problem; his computer was squeaky clean.

Still, there were other images for Delgadillo to choose from. Most of Reubens’s collection would be considered softcore by current standards, but nestled among the many portraits of naked bronco busters and javelin throwers in posing straps—typical of the types that graced the pages of physique magazines—were a few dozen photos that could be contraband today, though they were quite legal when they first appeared.

During the ’50s and ’60s, no one was concerned that some models were underage, since they weren’t shown having sex or even engaging in what tea-room graffiti of that era called “showing hard.” Today these same images would qualify as child porn under a standard that has expanded so that it now includes not just hardcore images but photos of anyone under 18 displaying “sexual coyness” or a “lascivious” intent. As a collector of physique pictorials, Reubens could well possess such photos, because they were part of the mix. Boys with big smiles and pert buns began appearing in muscle mags with increasing frequency during the early ’60s, when things were just beginning to loosen up—and as the editors of such publications surely knew, one man’s nature boy is another’s free-range chicken.

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.”

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.”

Consider the photo of a beaming, bare-bottomed 12-year-old boy holding a pole that appeared in the July 1963 issue of Manorama. Back then, it would have seemed charming to many viewers and arousing to a few. Today this same image would make most people faintly nauseous. An image that once seemed tender, since its sexual meaning was repressed, is now terrifying because it reads as explicitly erotic. The process of sensitizing us to child porn also forces us to eroticize children. Whether we intend to or not, we begin to see the world from a pedophile’s perspective.

In a climate where the definition of a child can be so ambiguous that prosecutors have to call in pediatricians to decide whether a model is underage, and where cops pore over thousands of images looking for evidence of a sex crime without ever considering intent, the concept of sexual abuse is transformed into something else. It becomes a tool for policing all sorts of desire. Adolescents are governed by it, since they are all children under the law. Gay men are implicated by it, since they are all subject to the stereotype that homos are child molesters. Everyone is prone to worry about what might lurk in the recesses of the imagination. And what of the girl who grows up with the constant message that she’s a sex object for adults? “As we expand our gaze and bend it to the will of child pornography law,” writes Adler, “we transform the world into a pornographic place.”

The virtue of vintage erotica is that it leaves an ambiguous space between the image and its meaning. It could be perverse; it could be manly display. This is also the secret of Pee-wee’s appeal. He straddled the boundary between man and boy, straight and gay, sexual and innocent. By setting his queer comedy in a children’s show he aroused all sorts of adult anxieties. What if this childlike man is actually a pervert? How can he not be?

“I think he’s very vulnerable,” says Debbie Nathan, co-author of Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt. “People who speak to kids while doing all this subversive stuff have a hard time when it comes down on them. You get the feeling that he doesn’t know how to politicize what’s going on. And the gay movement has evolved to the point where it won’t address this stuff.” For that matter, Reubens has never said he’s gay. Like the erotica he collects, he prefers to be ambiguous. But as an emblem of an older, anarchic queerness, he’s as significant as any vintage treasure.

In a just world, Reubens could respond to the charges against him in Pee-wee’s immortal words: “I know you are, but what am I?” In America today, we have to say that for him.

Research assistance: Rebecca Winsor