Persecuting Pee-wee

Richard Goldstein writes in this week’s Village Voice about the recent arrest of actor Paul Reubens on child-porn charges. It’s an interesting article that I urge you to read. If Goldstein’s sources are correct regarding the evidence against Reubens, the case, from an ethical perspective, seems pretty shaky.

Goldstein explains that Reubens collects vintage erotica–photographs and magazines, most of it gay, from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I might add here that similar materials exist in the archives of IU’s Kinsey Institute. Goldstein writes:

…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.

[Physique magazines, I learned during a visit to the NYC Museum of Sex, were published as sort of above-ground gay porn. Physique mags depicted bodybuilders posing in such a way as to show off their musculature. Buyers were predominantly gay males.]

Now, among Reubens’s collection, Goldstein writes, “is what someone close to the defense describes as ‘a few minutes of grainy footage’ featuring teenage boys masturbating or having oral sex.” Goldstein then asks whether Pee-wee knew this material was in his collection. Child-porn statutes generally require foreknowledge that material purchased violates the law. In this case, I suppose, ignorance of the law is an excuse.

Goldstein at this point draws back from Reubens to consider a larger context. He mentions archivists who purchase entire collections without stopping to first examine every piece in what might be thousands of images. Archivists, as a rule, archive. To destroy once-legal material based on today’s standards is “repugnant” to most archivists.

Goldstein then steps back farther: “Is our obsession with child porn creating a climate where kids are commonly regarded as sex objects?” He doesn’t use this example, but I will: Remember Miss Coppertone, the young girl from the Coppertone ads whose backside is exposed when a little dog pulls down her bathing suit? That image used to seem charming. Now, repeated news reports of pedophilia and child-porn arrests make that a little creepy.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to an early version of the ad:

Now glance at the updated version on the Coppertone site:

Oooooh. No more little-girl buttcrack.