Gawker Book Club: American Voyeur by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Today in the Gawker Book Club: Benoit Denizet-Lewis will be taking your questions on sex addiction, Tiger Woods, the sexual revolution, creepy NAMBLA members, and why the hell he lives in Boston.

Benoit has written a slew of New York Times Magazine stories about subcultures ranging from gay middle-schoolers to living on the Down Low to his own sex addiction. His new book American Voyeur is a collection of stories he's written for the NYTM and others over the last decade, including:

  • A summer camp for pro-life teenagers.
  • A Boston social group for lipstick lesbians.
  • A middle school where a girl secretly lives as a boy.
  • A New Hampshire town where two popular young brothers committed suicide.
  • A secret subculture for men on The Down Low.
  • A fraternity facing the daunting prospect of sobriety.
  • A high school where dating is out and "hooking up" is in.
  • A San Francisco neighborhood where homeless teens have made a home.
  • A controversial clothing company, Abercombie & Fitch, which has made over the world in the image of its eccentric founder.
  • A rural Ohio road where residents changed the name of their street from "Gay Road" to "Green Apple Road."

This excerpt, based on a piece he originally wrote for Boston Magazine in 2001, was a rather sympathetic look at the members of the National Man/Boy Love Association as an offshoot of the 1960s gay rights movement and sexual revolution that had gone horribly astray, pulled in part by the cultural conservatives who needed a bogeyman to condemn. He'll be hanging out in comments. Ask him anything!

Two "boy-lovers," as they call themselves, sit at a small table in a Boston coffee shop. "Everyone's telling me not to talk to you," says one, a gray-haired, 62-year-old NAMBLA founder who goes by the pseudonym, Socrates. "I mean, really, what's the point? It may be naive to think that an article that is really honest about NAMBLA can be published in any major magazine in America. We are the poison group. This is the poison story."

It's a story that began unremarkably enough. In 1978, NAMBLA was just another oddball sexual group proposing another oddball, radical philosophy: Kids should have more rights, particularly the right to have sex with whomever they please, and age-of-consent laws should be repealed. It was a more permissive time, a time before AIDS, and during NAMBLA's infancy in Boston (it would later move its headquarters to New York), the group enjoyed the support of a vocal minority in the gay community, who believed that attacks on boy-lovers were veiled attacks on all homosexuals. To NAMBLA's greater surprise, it found that even many straight people were willing to discuss adult-youth relationships without resorting to name calling and finger wagging.

"The '70s were an incredible time," says Socrates. "We were at a time when things were changing, when our voices could be heard. We began to believe the rhetoric that the revolution was coming, that we were going to create a free society."

They could not have been more wrong. More than a quarter century after forming in the Community Church of Boston, NAMBLA finds itself close to extinction. It has achieved nothing except brand recognition. Its members live in fear, victims in their own minds, captives of their political blunders, their misreading of popular sentiment, and a sustained, multi-pronged attack from right-wingers, feminists, homophobes, gays, abuse survivors, police, politicians, and the media.

"Today, we are seen as worse than murderers," says long-time NAMBLA member Bill Andriette, who sits, unshaven and shoulders hunched, across the table from Socrates. Andriette joined NAMBLA in 1981, when he was 15. "But if I was 15 today, I don't think I would join NAMBLA. NAMBLA itself has become pretty irrelevant, except as a symbol invoked by its enemies."

Could NAMBLA's founders have had any idea that they would become America's symbol of organized depravity? That a group founded mostly by eccentric, boy-loving leftists would come to be considered Public Enemy Number One in the nation's battle against child sexual abuse?

"Never mind the fact that NAMBLA has never been a very large or influential organization," says Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. "But it fit our need then, and still does today, to think of child molesters as being part of an immense, vast, powerful conspiracy that moves in elite circles. NAMBLA has become the acceptable symbol to blame for a lot of what has gone wrong morally in America over the last twenty years."

For its part, the organization has tried to point out the hypocrisy of its critics. NAMBLA argues that Americans go to remarkable lengths to pretend that kids aren't sexual, even as we promote youth sexuality in music, films, beauty pageants, and advertising. Still, if NAMBLA had any chance at even counterculture legitimacy, it wasn't going to achieve it by convincing Americans of their supposed hypocrisy.

It would succeed only as a passenger on the bandwagon of gay liberation, which long tolerated (and, in fact, celebrated) the inclusion of outcasts and deviants. While NAMBLA's founders never expected the mainstream gay movement to be as radical as they were, they also never expected gay culture to shed its pre-AIDS sexual radicalism and ditch boy-lovers in the name of mainstream legitimacy.

Meanwhile, NAMBLA and its members made a series of perplexing, misguided, irrational political choices. Theirs is the story of a small group of unapologetic radicals who badly overestimated both the inclusiveness of gay liberation and the breadth of the sexual revolution.

These days, NAMBLA's face fronts for little more than a publishing collective and several hundred scared, paranoid members. There are no more annual conventions, no more public appearances, no more city chapters, no more NAMBLA contingents in gay-pride marches, no more eager new recruits. Times are so bad, in fact, that most members would just as soon not talk about them. Of the fifty members (or suspected members) I contacted by phone, mail, or e-mail, only a handful agreed to talk. Others wrote responses like these:

"I got your letter today. ... I would imagine we will want to use encryption to e-mail each other as it is easy for someone to read our e-mail. I do not know how to use encryption. You will have to instruct me."

Encryption? The need for silence and pseudonyms is particularly agonizing to NAMBLA's founders, who have historically been open about their attraction to boys. "What's so sad is that it didn't used to be this way. We used to celebrate our lives," says "Steve," a NAMBLA member.

That was before the organization began its baffling pattern of self-destruction. Somehow unaware, or unconcerned, that police might want to infiltrate its meetings, NAMBLA unwittingly voted undercover law-enforcement officials to its steering committee.

The group also failed, for the most part, to attract boys to its cause. While an occasional voice seconds the group's outrage over age-of-consent laws ("They are just one of the countless ways we discriminate against gay people," says Mike Glatze, an editor at Young Gay America, an Internet magazine for young gay men and women), the question is clear: Just where is the army of boys backing NAMBLA and fighting for the rights of teens to have sex with whomever they wish? The short answer is that there is no army. The North American Man/Boy Love Association is, and always has been, remarkably short on boys.

Now, ask away!

You can buy American Voyeur, at Amazon and read more about Benoit, including his previous book American Anonymous, at his site. If you're an author or a book publicist and you want to participate in the Gawker Book Club, send me an email.