“Keep Austin weird!” This eccentric battle cry of a city that is the state capital of Texas surprised me when I looked the place up, especially when I discovered that weird in this context essentially means liberal. After all, the state that gave the world George W. Bush is notorious for its right-wing hard-line anti-liberalism. But that is the point. It turns out the capital is a cultured city, an oasis of civilized values in the midst of a redneck desert – which goes a long way to explaining how it came to play host recently to a conference that included some rather radical input, albeit within a respectably sober framework of legal studies.
Held at the University of Texas School of Law, the event was called Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law? The list of sponsors and supporters impressively included the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Center for European Studies, the European Union, and the William A. Percy Foundation. The speakers included figures we might regard as somewhat conservative, but their input was balanced by the inclusion of more daring choices. The themes, too, ranged from merely liberal to boldly radical, as is hinted in the session titles:
• Same-Sex Marriage and Family
• Transgender Rights; Anti-Discrimination
• Youth Sexual Rights
• Pornography and Children
• Sex Work, Migration, And Trafficking
• Do Sex Offenders Have Human Rights?
• Therapeutic Approaches to Sex Offending
In a state where the “Kill a queer for Christ” car bumper sticker might have been invented, gay marriage no doubt still seems a dangerously liberal idea. To us heretics here, though, it is now a conservative issue, along with “traditional” campaigns to combat discrimination against gays and trans people. Likewise, therapy for sex offenders has long been fertile ground in which to plant illiberal and coercive practices. But the inclusion of youth sexual rights, “sex work” (significantly not stigmatised as prostitution in the title) and the idea of rights for sex offenders, all point to more radical possibilities.
As for drawing on inspiration from European law, forget it! Yes, many experts in European law were present, but those of us who live in Europe know it is hardly a paradise for children’s rights or those of MAPs. More inspiring by far is that some speakers were pointing to the need for more radical thinking on both sides of the Atlantic.
So, who were all these interesting contributors? Gert Hekma was one name that will be familiar to many here. A Dutch sociologist, author of Past and Present of Radical Sexual Politics (2004), he has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Homosexuality, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, GLQ, Paidika and other journals. He spoke on “Sexual rights for youngsters and the fight for their self-determination in the Netherlands since the 1950s”.
I do not yet know what he said, but I do know we will all be able to find out quite soon, because recordings from all the sessions from last month’s three-day conference are soon to be made available. I am told this should be in the next couple of weeks. I imagine there will be a link at the conference website of the Center for European Studies. There was also live video streaming. I managed to catch some of the sessions, including the final one, which culminated in a wonderful paper by Jim Hunter, who was a guest blogger here at Heretic TOC with a piece called Show me an abnormal mountain back in March. His contribution was very well received and he was also feisty and articulate in the Q&A afterwards.
One new name to me was Florian Mildenberger, from Germany, a specialist in the history of medicine. Among his many books one that particularly takes the eye is a biography of the late pedophile activist Peter Schult. Prof. Mildenberger spoke about paedophilia in Germany. The introductory notes for his paper observe that the same liberal, social democratic, green and socialist think tanks that once (believe it or not) supported paedophile emancipation today use medical and biological reasoning to condemn it – just as such thinking was once used to condemn homosexuality and female emancipation.
As for forensic criminologist William Thompson, who spoke on “Pederasts, parents, police and moral panic; the ongoing saga of child pornography”, I was delighted to hear him, clearly in great form, in the live streaming. Bill and I were on TV together as panellists ten years ago, when the BBC’s After Dark series focused on paedophilia. As the introductory notes to his presentation stated, he has conducted over 200 successful investigations into false allegation/conviction cases. He been called as an expert defence witness in numerous contested pornography cases in the UK.
William Andriette is another Bill familiar to many of us. A veteran American gay journalist, his deep-thinking articles have enriched many a debate, as did his speech this time on “Sexual politics beyond human rights”. I am particularly indebted to Bill for an article in which he observed points of similarity between racial and age divisions in society, focusing on inter-racial sexual relations in the old American Deep South. I drew on this piece extensively in a chapter of my book Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons, in which the late star’s allegedly enormous power was put into the context of the vastly greater coercive power of the state and society.
In terms of heavyweight reputation, though, Fred Berlin has to be considered the star billing whether we like him or not – and many of us do not, on account of his support for “chemical castration” in certain cases. However, I would very much urge heretics to listen carefully to his contribution titled “Understanding pedophilia and other paraphilias from a psychiatric perspective”. There was much in it that was exceedingly reasonable and humane.
Last but very definitely not least, I should mention Thomas Hubbard, the conference organiser, a distinguished professor of classics at Austin. As a Greek specialist, he has had occasion to study “Greek love” in great depth, writing extensively on a culture in which pederasty was institutionally accorded an honourable connection with mentorship and pedagogy. Much as he understands and appreciates the distant past, though, Tom is not content to live entirely in it. He is very actively engaged with contemporary issues of sexual mores and laws – courageously so, indeed, bearing in mind just how hostile Texas and the US in general can be towards those who deviate in any way from “the dominant narrative”.
The conference has inevitably loomed large in his life in recent months, but so has another major creation of his that should concern us: he and fellow classicist Beert Verstraete have co-edited Censoring Sex Research: The Debate Over Male Intergenerational Relations, a book that came out in August from Left Coast Press. I have read it and can assure everyone it is important to us for any number of reasons. Almost every one of its ten chapters is worthy of a review of its own. I hope to be saying much more about this volume in due course.