The last conservative moral panic
'Ok, groomer' might be effective as propaganda, but paedophilia is not going to be normalised
One of the worst things my parents ever did was force me to go to the panto. It was Angela’s Ashes levels of misery memoir fodder.
What made it worse was that I was about 14; I'd almost managed to get through childhood without experiencing this strange British tradition and then, just at the age when you’re most vulnerable to cringe, I got dragged in. Anyway, I think I’m over it now.
Pantomime is one of those very British things that makes me feel a strange sense of alienation from my countrymen, like celebrating the NHS or twee. I’m glad that other people enjoy it, and that it brings a lot of work to actors and to theatres during the Christmas period. I just personally don’t get it.
For those who don’t know about the ins and outs of our island culture, panto is a sort of farcical theatre featuring lots of sexual innuendo and contemporary pop culture references; I think when I watched it there must have been one or two ex-Neighbours stars because they all finished by singing the theme tune.
A key part of this British institution is drag, with men playing the roles of Widow Twankey and the Ugly Sisters. Drag is quite an established tradition in England, such a part of popular entertainment that there is even a photograph of British soldiers in dresses fighting in the Second World War.
Pantomime is thought to have evolved from the medieval Feast of Fools, a day of the year (around the Christmas/New Year period) when social norms would be inverted; laymen would be elected bishops, lords would serve their retainers drinks, and men and women would even swap roles. Social norms could be temporarily broken, which continues today in the often risqué humour incongruously aimed at family audiences (hilariously portrayed in the Les Dennis episode of Extras.)
This kind of drag is obviously humourous, the aim being for the men to look as ridiculous as possible; think of the ungainly Bernard Bresslaw in Carry on Doctor. It is very different to the later pop culture gender fluidity pioneered by David Bowie in which males might be presented as beautifully feminine, even alluring; that was aimed at challenging and disturbing the audience, while panto is aimed at amusing and reassuring. Indeed, the whole point of spending a day inverting social norms is that, by doing so, you are implicitly accepting and defending those social norms.
This form of drag is obviously quite different to the more modern drag queen, a form of entertainment that can be far more explicit and which has in the 21st century become yet another one-of-those-talking-points, chiefly because people seem so keen on letting children watch it.
Drag Queen Story Hour seems really odd to me, but then a lot of what other people get up to strikes me as strange. Yet it obviously invokes a very strong reaction in many, and helps drive one of the most successful conservative memes of recent years: ‘OK, groomer’. This is the idea that modern sexual radicals, in particular gender activists, are really engaged in something more nefarious. That their real purpose is to either prey on children, or make paedophilia the next campaign after trans rights.
Fun as it is to see Leftists unfairly tarnished by vague associations, it feels like the reverse is happening — our sensitives about sex and age are actually getting much stricter, part of a general trend towards greater censoriousness. In fact, ‘OK groomer’ is probably a good example of a phenomenon that was otherwise once thought extinct — the conservative moral panic. In this I even agree with this hilariously one-sided Wikipedia page (‘these Right-deviationist slurs have been proven false by Comrade Stalin’, a young political officer at Pravda taps out).
Whereas pantomime and drag came out of the feast of fools, much of today’s radical sexual politics came from queer theory. Unlike with panto, the whole aim of queer theory is indeed to challenge social norms, or ‘normativity’ — the idea that some things are more common and central to the human condition, whether it’s heteronormativity or cisnormativity. It’s about defending the atypical against the average.
This school of thought emerged in a culture experiencing the later stages of a social revolution, one in which progressives have become ascendant and so have taken on the role of moral gatekeepers. As the Left has grown dominant, so – since the 1990s at least – moral panics have mainly come from the Left. Whereas they once focussed on uncontrolled female sexuality, juvenile delinquency, degenerate music or things like ritual sexual abuse, since the turn of the century moral panics have largely been about issues such as racism or other social evils that might harm vulnerable groups.
Even the student protests of the 2010, while often compared to the events of 1968, were actually the reverse, aimed not at challenging social norms but enforcing them. Recall how undergraduates at Missouri protested about rumours of the Ku Klux Klan on campus, or allegations that a swastika-shaped poo had been smeared on a bathroom wall — these weren’t young people rebelling against society, they were anxious that society wasn’t strict enough about moral norms such as anti-racism.
The Right no longer has enough social kudos or respect to engage in moral panics, but as people will reach for whatever weapon is at hand, it is still able to use the one idea as toxic as racism — paedophilia. So ‘OK, groomer’ is effective precisely because it’s untrue, because popular revulsion against paedophilia is stronger than ever.
While some on the Right mistakenly believe drag shows are preparing the ground for adding the P to LGBT, social norms are mostly moving in the opposite direction, a point recently made by Jesse Walker in Reason magazine.
Back in the wild 1970s there was far more tolerance towards the idea of paedophilia than there is now. Gore Vidal openly defended a group of men accused of statutory rape in a way that would be impossible today, and Hustler magazine published an article saying that children should be able to ‘choose their sexual partners freely (including adult partners)’, illustrating it with nude pictures of children.
‘Before you dismiss that as the fringy provocations of a porno mag,’ Walker writes: ‘consider this: Both the article and several of the pictures were reprinted from Erwin J. Haeberle's The Sex Atlas, a mainstream textbook that had crossed over to ordinary bookstores and found commercial success there too.’
Meanwhile ‘A.S. Neill's Summerhill, the 1960 book that helped inspire dozens of anti-authoritarian “free schools,” has a long section devoted to young children's sexuality, each page of it drenched in the influence of the radical psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich.’
Until the 1980s, the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) marched at pride events, something unthinkable today. In Britain the National Council for Civil Liberties, the forerunner to Liberty, supported the rights of the Paedophile Information Exchange, a campaign group who produced pamphlets filled with turgid Marxist dialectics explaining why they should be allowed to have sex with kids.
In Denmark child porn was legal from the late 1960s and not banned until 1980. As for France, various intellectuals there were — of course they were — in favour of paedophilia, the most notorious incident being the ‘1977 petition, signed by luminaries ranging from the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet to the philosopher Michel Foucault, that called on the government to not set any age of sexual majority at all.’