"It will likely be DECADES before this society can have an honest, non-hysterical conversation about kids and sex," a pedophilia advocate who calls himself Eric Tazelaar told me earlier this month over Twitter direct message. Tazelaar claims to be a steering committee member of the North American Man-Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA, and is concerned about the organization's future.
His fears aren't unfounded. NAMBLA, once a visible advocate of pedophilia, doesn't feature heavily into what I call the online pedo-sphere these days. Membership numbers and group activities are difficult to pin down, but based on online research and conversations with alleged former members as well as opponents of the group, both appear to have dwindled to nearly nothing.
"There are only a handful of people ostensibly still involved," a self-described former NAMBLA member who called himself "Icarus" told me on the anonymous pedophile chat site Boychat.org.
Some pedophiles now call themselves "minor-attracted persons" (MAPs). MAPs have their own language in the pedo-sphere, which is divided into the "boylove," sometimes abbreviated "BL," and "girl love" communities. According to some "anti-contact" MAPs—the ones who claim they would never try and have sex with minors, and say they're devoted to a lifelong struggle against their own urges—NAMBLA would be considered a "pro-contact" group.
Reformed pro-contacter Todd Nickerson, a member of the online group Virtuous Pedophiles or "VirPed," has ventured out into the light of day, using his real name as the byline on stories he writes about his struggle not to offend. Nickerson, who dabbled in sympathy for NAMBLA before his conversion to the ways of anti-contact, says prominent pro-contacters are cult leaders. "They are the scary ones because they are fully invested in the message. They are smart and charismatic, and a lot of what they say is true, but they take it too far," Nickerson told me in an email.
"I despise what they represent, and what they want to do," said another member of Virtuous Pedophiles who goes by the pseudonym Brett Matthews. He said NAMBLA members "try to spin it so that they're fighting for children's rights," but adds, "I've never seen children taking to the streets with signs demanding their right to have sex with pedophiles."
Pedophiles who offend are as deeply loathed as ever. Last month, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane referred to a newly unearthed sex abuse cover-up in the local Catholic diocese as "heinous." That was one day after the movie Spotlight—the story of Boston Globe journalists uncovering a similar sex abuse scandal—won the Oscar for best picture. It's safe to say that America, like most countries, despises adults who have sex with kids.
That's not to say there's been a time in recent memory when the public viewed pedophiles more favorably than, say, a smelly puddle of liquid on a bus bench. But NAMBLA was extraordinary for bucking the image of pedophiles as secretive creepers in vans. At its inception in 1978, NAMBLA's pie-in-the-sky goals were visibility and social acceptance.
NAMBLA membership meant the ability to socialize with other members at activist events, and a subscription to the NAMBLA newsletter. NAMBLA's original political causes were the total abolition of any legal age of consent, and the release of child molesters from prison. As an advocacy group, NAMBLA sought to turn sex between men and boys of literally all ages into a civil rights issue, get pederasts to come out of the closet, and show North America that boy-lovers are people too. Kids, says NAMBLA, should be able to decide when and with whom they have sex.
"There was a brief time, mostly in the 1970s, when some ordinary people of good will wanted to extend the sexual revolution to kids. But obviously it was never popular with any significant number of kids," according to a Virtuous Pedophiles member who goes by the pseudonym Ethan Edwards.
And in its heyday, NAMBLA membership held a certain temptation even for pedophiles who say they truly wanted to avoid sex with kids. In the early 90s, when Brett Matthews was in his late teens and found NAMBLA, he thought it was a support group for pedophiles. "I had never spoken to another pedophile before, and when you're alone in something, human nature is to reach out to people who are like you in some way, so you won't feel so alone anymore." Matthews checked to see if they had a hotline, and in the process, he learned that they were devoted to legalizing sex with children. "I can't put enough distance between me and these guys," he remembers thinking.
Most likely, the beginning of the end for NAMBLA was the notorious 1993 documentary Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys, a film in which several NAMBLA members put their names, faces, and feelings out into the world for all to see. It was a bold move, and one that definitely didn't pan out.
The film is a glimpse into the lives of some of NAMBLA's most prominent boy-lovers, including Leyland Stevenson, who shares his longing for boy flesh, and gives a play-by-play of one of his sexual conquests in florid detail. NAMBLA members received some sympathy in the reviews for the film, but on the whole, most viewers felt that the just-let-them-talk filmmaking approach simply gave a bunch of criminals [enough rope to hang themselves](very good job of letting Leyland Stevenson (the film's central character) and his cohorts hang themselves.).
At the time, NAMBLA hung around in the outer orbit of LGBT rights groups. But NAMBLA's sudden notoriety drew attention—and disgust—that such groups definitely didn't want. The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) faced a firestorm of criticism in 1993 when it took on its prestigious role of speaking at the UN on behalf of LGBT groups all over the world. Right-wing groups slammed it for its connection to NAMBLA, and the ILGA cut its ties with the group.
Consequently, "activism dried up," Icarus told me.
NAMBLA's exile from the greater LGBT community stung, according to Nickerson. He told me he was coming of age around that time, and that while he was attracted to young girls, he briefly befriended NAMBLA members online. "The LGBT community [used] to accept pedophiles, as a sort of red-headed stepchild," he told me. But their perception is that after 1994, NAMBLA felt that the gays "threw pedophiles, including NAMBLA, under the bus when they started to gain some respectability."
Without activism, NAMBLA was mainly just a newsletter, something Icarus feels was "a good source of information and camaraderie." But around that time, he said, "members left for various internet boards where they could be mostly anonymous, compared to being in NAMBLA, where you'd have to pay annual dues and submit your real address to get the newsletter."
"Pro-pedophile groups organized themselves online under different names," said, Xavier Von Erck, director of operations at the anti-pedophile organization Perverted-Justice. These included DanPedo, BoyChat, and Annabelleigh, Von Erck told me in an email. "Those lightly organized groups—mostly communicating online—have been the largest draw."
The newsletter's prominence also became a liability. In 1995, legendary political comedian Barry Crimmins, who was also a childhood rape victim, made use of the NAMBLA newsletter in his successful effort to shine a spotlight on solicitation of minors in America Online chat rooms. "Back in '95, you had to go find their print stuff," Crimmins told VICE. The literature, he explained, helped him understand what pedophiles were up to in chat rooms. "Watching them in these rooms exchange rationales," he said, "they fortified one another with this kind of stuff, and NAMBLA's sort of the official version of that."
"They would be comical if they weren't so dangerous and horrible," Crimmins said.
But over the past two decades, the group did become a punch line. Most millennials who have heard of NAMBLA only have "that one episode of South Park" as a reference point. The episode from 2000 was called "Cartman joins NAMBLA," and the title refers to a hilarious mixup between the real NAMBLA and another "NAMBLA," the North American Marlon Brando Look-Alikes.
But by the time that episode aired, the group was beginning to seem as fictional as the show's group of Marlon Brando fans. In 2001, Boston Magazine called NAMBLA "close to extinction." By the mid 2000s, The Daily Show had begun using NAMBLA as a kind of insta-joke, where "NAMBLA" was thrown out any time an innocuous-sounding acronym was needed to fill a gap, and the joke was on anyone who didn't know what it stood for.
But NAMBLA is still hanging in there, according to Tazelaar. "It still exists, but greatly diminished in its numbers," he wrote. "This is due to law enforcement entrapments that spooked everyone a number of years ago."
"One such entrapment was the FBI's promise of a trip to Mexico," he said. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, that bust put seven NAMBLA members behind bars, including a national leader and an event organizer.
According to William Percy, a historian and pederasty advocate who told me he has never been in NAMBLA, those arrests were "the final blow" for the organization. (The FBI declined a request for comment about NAMBLA.)
That left NAMBLA hobbled. Today they do pretty much nothing. "We do not answer questions about our membership numbers. We no longer publish printed newsletters, the Bulletin, etc.," Tazelaar told me.
The site doesn't offer much else. The contact page offers a mailing address and two phone numbers, one of which appears to have been disconnected, while the other leads to the voicemail of a seemingly unrelated business. There's also an email address belonging to someone named Arnold Schoen who has answered media requests as recently as 2010. But my emails to Mr. Schoen went unanswered.
However, Tazelaar says that doesn't mean NAMBLA is dead. "We still have a number of members who diligently pay dues, primarily to help us to maintain a repository on the web of NAMBLA's current as well as historical positions to which we adhere."
According to Von Erck, his group of internet activists have lost interest in NAMBLA. "We shuttered our spin-off that was dedicated to exposing pedophile activists some years ago after a nice string of exposures, arrests, and convictions," he told me.
Even Percy, who said he wishes at least some pederasty was legal, didn't seem dismayed about the decline of NAMBLA. "They were all crazy," he told me, adding, "I always thought they should advocate an age of consent for sex at 14." He went on to say that NAMBLA "did a bad thing, because by demanding no age of consent, they facilitated the raising of the age of consent."
Another anonymous Boychat commenter named Observer also seemed to have soured on NAMBLA in retrospect. In response to my question, he wrote a kind of wistful prose poem: "One hundred years from now… how will history look back at NAMBLA? Did it help in bringing [boylove] to the public attention?" he asked. "I suspect some will feel that NAMBLA was a net negative."
Whether or not we're talking about NAMBLA, "boylove" hasn't died. "The ideology that they pushed is very much still, alive, and is pretty much everywhere," Matthews told me, and he says they don't listen to reason. "I've argued with these people for twenty years. I've gotten to the point where I know I'm just beating my head against the wall."
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