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The Last Taboo
Trampling the Last Taboo
Pedophilia, politicians, and academic freedom
by Morris Sullivan
In photos, Harris Mirkin looks vaguely Einsteinian with Ivy League overtones. His halo of gray-white hair floats around the collar protruding from his casual crew-neck sweater. A former student once wrote about his habit of looking skyward as he lectures while walking backward until he bumps into a trash can.
On the phone, the affable political science professor seems slightly bemused, only occasionally stepping onto a soapbox when he talks about the media and political maelstrom into which he stumbled in April, when a legislator stormed the Missouri House of Representatives demanding his hide.
The state representative, Mark Wright, R-Dist 137, was outraged over Mirkin's writings on the topic of sexual politics. In the legislator's eyes, Mirkin had committed an unpardonable sin: he had researched an uncomfortable topic, analyzed it, then questioned our society's views about it. By the time the dust had settled, Missouri's legislature had agreed to "fine" the University of Missouri-Kansas City an amount it assumed equal to Mirkin's salary.
The hubbub centered around an article Mirkin wrote three years ago for the academic Journal of Homosexuality. In his essay, "The Pattern of Sexual Politics: Feminism, Homosexuality, and Pedophilia," Mirkin analyzed the political processes undergone by feminism and homosexuality, ultimately comparing their history of sexual policy debates and political battles to current and future attitudes toward pedophilia. Mirkin wrote in his introduction: "This article will develop a model of sexual politics by discussing the struggles over feminism and homosexuality, and then use the model to clarify the current political situation of pedophiles."
"The truth is, the article isn't all that controversial," said Mirkin. "You look at the article and think, 'How did this cause all that big fuss?'"
The answer to that question is puzzling. The article is hardly a sizzling tribute to pedophilia. In fact, the 10,000-word, 12-page-plus essay is a straightforward analysis of a political and social phenomenon in which he outlines the history of feminism and gay rights then compares them to pedophilia.
"The Pattern of Sexual Politics" is thought-provoking, fairly dry and academic; it was clearly meant to provoke discussion among poli-sci profs and their students, not as a rallying-cry for predatory pedophiles. The most incendiary comments Mirkin wrote have to do with the relativity of sexual mores, as when he points out that other cultures have been more accepting of sexual relations between adults and young people, or when he points out that Nordic cultures have been relatively accepting of homosexuality and adult/boy relationships while resisting feminism. By extension, he suggests, Americans might become more flexible in their definitions and condemnations of pedophiles, and probably will eventually distinguish between nonconsensual sex between an adult and a small child and consensual sex between an adult and, for example, a 17-year-old hustler.
He also points out the extremes to which Americans have applied the taboo of children's sexuality. For example, he said, "If you go from the Greek period through the Renaissance and Baroque period up to now, until about 50 years ago, you would have seen nude kids." Paintings like those of art deco artist Maxfield Parrish often depicted nude or seminude teenagers poised at that brilliant instant where childhood becomes adulthood.
Today, such art would likely be banned. "You can't do that any more," said Mirkin. "It used to be that a nude kid was a symbol of innocence. But now, you see a nude kid and you see sexuality." Parrish, he thinks, "would probably be accused of child pornography."
The controversy about academics and child sexuality predates the Mirkin controversy. The issue began to kindle with a legislative assault on the University of Minnesota after the state legislature threatened the University's funding because it printed a book by Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors: The Peril of Protecting Children from Sex. The book "essentially argues that children have sexual feelings," Mirkin said.
Various highly conservative groups "made a big fuss" about the book before it was published. "They don't want anything in the area [of child sexuality] even published," Mirkin said. As the controversy began to boil, an article appeared claiming that a group of academics are trying to legitimize pedophilia, "and that there was an organized group and I was its head."
The media, Mirkin thinks, helped create the controversy with less-than-accurate coverage, and most reporters clearly had not read the article.
"I think most have gotten their information from an online search," he said, adding that several "very conservative groups" have posted critiques of the article. "So they pull three or four quotes out of context," which news media has relied upon for its understanding of Mirkin's detailed analysis of sexual politics.
There is no such organized group and Mirkin isn't the head of any movement. Nevertheless, newspapers in Missouri picked up on the controversy and brought it home to Kansas City, where the Star ran a story about Mirkin's views. When the story broke, a radio personality from KLIK radio called Rep. Wright to tip him off about the allegedly pedophile-supporting professor at the University of Missouri.
"When I heard it, I thought this just can't be true; this has got to be an April fools joke," Wright told the House. When he called the radio station, however, he was told it was no joke. "It's the god's honest truth,' said the radio guy according to Wright, "and people in this area and around this state are outraged" that someone supported by the state dime could write about such an inflammatory topic.
"I read his essays and his quotes about the Catholic church scandal, and they were disturbing," said Wright in a May phone interview. When the house convened, he said, "I was pretty well organized: I had the essay and some articles, with direct quotes. I took excerpts from his essay and laid it out for the house members. I was pretty clear on what his thought processes are."
Wright presented an amendment to the education appropriations bill that would cut funding to the University by $100,000, an amount he felt would probably equal Mirkin's salary. The "message" was clear, he felt: the state should refuse to fund such freethinking professors.
"I think almost no one had actually read the article," said Mirkin. In fact, most had probably just heard of it for the first time. "Someone who defended me had at least read the first three pages, I know, because they mentioned I'd written that pedophilia had existed in Greece."
The opinions of Wright and a rabid radio talk-jockey, however, were enough for most of the show-me state's legislators, who felt the topic was unfit for discussion, even in a one-academic-to-another forum like the Journal. "One of them said, 'This is Missouri--not Berkeley,'" said Mirkin, adding that another commented simply, "We don't talk about those things here."
At least one Representative had read the article, and felt Mirkin was getting a bum rap. Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Dist. 25, said she had read his article. "It is not as it has been portrayed," she said. Further, she added, Mirkin's comments on pedophilia are "in a writing. They're not being taught" in the classroom, and Mirkin's work "is not in support of pedophilia, as it has been portrayed."
Two different schools of thought seem to run through state government, Mirkin said. "One says we know some things are evil, and we don't want to talk about them. Another group says we should talk about things before we decide issues."
While the debate raged in the state legislature, the dialogue seemed to be summed up in Mirkin's encounter with hyper-conservative Kansas City radio personality and Rush Limbaugh wanna-be, Bill O'Reilly. "O'Reilly said, 'We know it's evil, so there are no issues in this area. Any sex with children is horrible,'" Mirkin said.
Finally, more than three-fourths of the house voted in favor of financially censuring the university. When it reached the state Senate, said Wright, the "fine" went through a series of restorations and removals, until the final cut removed $50,000 from the school's overall budget.
To its credit, the University backed Mirkin. In a statement prepared for the faculty, Chancellor Martha W. Gilliland, Ph.D. wrote, "Our professors have a right to conduct research, publish their findings and exercise free speech." Colleges and universities are obliged to defend those rights, even when the views expressed are unpopular, she said, adding, "The integrity of our educational system and our democracy depend on it."
Further, she noted, studying a topic does not equal condoning it. "We have persons on this campus who study fascism," she wrote. "That does not mean that they are fascists."
Michelle Hopkins, director of media relations for the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the budget cut would be absorbed along with a massive reduction in state appropriations. Because of reduced state income tax revenues, the Missouri legislature reduced or eliminated funding for many programs, including the University of Missouri System, which includes four campuses. The overall budget "has been cut $41.2 million for the remainder of the year," she said. The money the legislature eliminated to de-fund Mirkin's position "pales in comparison to everything we had cut."
"All together, the university system got hit pretty hard because of the budget," Wright admitted. That's okay with him, though. "It wasn't about the dollar figure--it was about the message," he said. "It was about how we feel about the university employing someone that is undermining the work we're trying to do to protect the children in this state."
Wright is unhappy with the Chancellor's commitment to absorb the cut and keep Mirkin on the faculty. "There has been a lot of controversy" about that decision, Wright said. "We think he's promoting illegal conduct and would like to see him dismissed."
In an astounding display of arrogance and disregard for both academic freedom and the university's right to govern itself, "A letter has been sent to the University's board of curators" expressing displeasure with the outcome, Wright said. "Thirty or forty representatives signed the letter," which asks the board of curators to go over the Chancellor's head and force the issue.
The politicians, with their demagoguery, "are out of step," Mirkin said. "This little tiny group is setting the public agenda, so everyone assumes that's the way everyone feels."
"There are a whole pile of people that don't want certain issues--things they're uncomfortable about--to be discussed," he added. "It's like the Ashcroft mindset, when he said that anyone [criticizing the US government] is aiding the terrorist."
Mirkin used a personal anecdote to describe the conflict between the official public viewpoint and the personal, private views of most individuals. "I'm Jewish, and when my son was little, I didn't want 5,000 years of religion to end with me," he said. "So I sent him to a Hebrew day school."
The other parents, he felt, were similarly moderate in their religious beliefs. "But a few were really religious, and they set the tone for the whole school. Everyone else assumed they were moral people who know what's going on."
"That seems to me to be the experience in the US. People don't believe in this morality that's expressed publicly." He uses pornography as an example: the industry is huge, which implies a large number of consumers. "Yet there's no public defense of pornography."
"We've become a public in which debate is dominated by hypocrites," Mirkin said.
Wright, on the other hand, thinks the legislature "sent a strong message" to the liberals and academics. "I think we made a lot of citizens aware" of their attitude toward such open dialogue, said Wright. The press in and around Missouri "gave it a lot of coverage, and we even had international coverage--the BBC called, and I did a big interview with them. And I know thousands of people in our state have contacted the university."
However, the Chancellor has received a lot of mail in his support, Mirkin said. His own mail has been "overwhelmingly in favor of me."
"There's something going on in the country," Mirkin said. "I thought I'd get more hate mail than anything, but it was only about five percent. People are saying, 'I'm so glad you've opened up the topic.'"
There is a weird irony contained therein: by attempting to stifle Mirkin and by sending such a strong message to the university, Wright probably did far more to further rational discussion of pedophilia than "The Pattern of Sexual Politics" would ever have accomplished had it lain quietly in the archives of an obscure academic journal.
Morris Sullivan is a freelance journalist living in DeLand, Florida, and the author of the infamous "nude Macbeth" play, Femmes Fatale.
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