Some Notes on Milo Yiannopoulos and George Takei

From the Independent:

…Milo Yiannopoulos has attacked liberal media organisations for not scrutinising comments Star Trek actor and LGBTQ activist George Takei made about his own sexual abuse.

The former alt-right hero apologised for his quotes that surfaced this week, but accused the press of a “witch hunt”, going on to post on Facebook a news story from his own website entitled: ‘Tape of George Takei joking about child molestation pops up, Jake Tapper nowhere to be found’.

Referencing the CNN anchor’s criticisms of Yiannopoulos, it draws attention to a Howard Stern appearance in which Takei recounts the story of how he was abused as a 13-year-old boy by “18 or 19-year-old” counselors [sic, although Takei actually spoke of just one counselor – RB].

It’s not clear whether Yiannopoulos’s point is that Takei has unfairly escaped censure, or that he himself was unfairly subjected to it. Perhaps it’s both: Yiannopoulos has not quite repudiated his career-destroying jocular account of underage sex with adult men, which was recorded a year ago but came to wide attention just a few days ago; instead, he has re-framed it as the “gallows humour” of a victim describing an unhappy experience, while expressing some regret for his choice of expression. This is despite having formerly explicitly rejected the idea that he was a “victim of child abuse”.

Obviously, Yiannopoulos (until this week) and Takei are not the only individuals to recall underage sexual experiences with older partners as having been harmless or even positive. Some might say that such people must be in denial about a trauma, or if not must at the very least be psychologically distorted in ways that they don’t understand; I don’t claim to know if this is so, but even if there are instances where no harm occurred, it remains the case that such people were exploited as children by predatory adults who broke laws that protect minors from harm. It is pernicious for this to be normalized.

There are, it seems to me, several reasons why Takei’s account is being treated differently from Yiannopoulos’s claims.

1. Yiannopoulos sets out to cause outrage – it’s just that this time he bit off more than he could chew.

2. The CPAC invitation meant that Yiannopoulos was poised to bring his cynical “post-truth” nihilism and performative sexual hedonism into mainstream conservatism. Conservative opponents were thus highly motivated to find and weaponize material that would show where this might lead to (although we should not overlook the possibility of simple homophobia playing a part, too). In contrast, while Takei is something of a political activist, he doesn’t present himself as a one-man brand embodying a political revolution.

3. Takei has built up a lot of social capital over the years. His acting career has brought pleasure to millions; he comes across as likeable and good-humoured; and his Spanish-language video urging Latino Americans to vote against Trump was dignified and moving. It is regrettable that he can’t see that what happened to him was wrong, but this has to balanced against his positive contributions to public life. Yiannopoulos, in contrast, is basically a troll, and as such he was brought down by the real-world equivalent of an internet “pile-on”. There was nothing to balance his comments against.

There is also some mitigation for Takei when we consider the nature of consent in California in 1950. Homosexual activity of course was illegal at any age – which meant that the law did not provide equitable guidance for homosexual liaisons and that Takei, as a willing participant, may have been regarded as a juvenile criminal under the same laws too.

Further, the heterosexual age of consent would have provided only limited guidance. The age of consent in California has been 18 since 1920, but it is possible to marry at a younger age with parental approval, and of course a lot of activity must go on between younger peers. The law’s primary purpose was to prevent unwanted pregnancy; thus as late as 1981 the Supreme Court confirmed that there was no gender bias in having a law which excluded the possibility of a female perpetrator (although age of consent laws are now gender neutral).

Here’s how consent laws were applied in California during the mid-1990s:

Over a two year period, social workers [in Orange County] persuaded fifteen teenage girls (some as young as 13) to marry the men who impregnated them (some as old as 30) in order to escape the legal consequences of their sexual activity. In each case, the marriage was authorized by a juvenile court judge. These girls, deemed too young to choose sex, were nevertheless judged mature enough to choose marriage.

According to the author of the above (1), this demonstrates that the law was seen primarily as a device to prevent welfare dependency. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any underlying philosophy of child protection and informed consent.

This context does not excuse Takei’s abuser, who breached a position of trust to prey on a child. However, it may explain Takei’s lack of moral clarity about what happened to him in 1950. It’s a subject on which Takei ought to be challenged, but with a view to raising his consciousness for the common good – not personal destruction through the mob politics of outrage.

Footnote

(1) See Kate Sutherland (2003), “From Jailbird to Jailbait: Age of Consent Law and the Construction of Teenage Sexualities“, William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law 9 (3): 313-349.

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