Culture War

A Modern History of 'Groomer' Politics

The social changes that paved the way for gay and trans acceptance have made pedophile acceptance less likely, not more.


There was a time when a groomer was a predatory grown-up preparing to molest a kid. Then Christopher Rufo, the activist who did more than anyone else to inject the term into today's politics, redefined it as a "spectrum of behavior." Children, he tweeted in 2022, "can be groomed into a sexual identity, groomed into an ideological system, and, in some cases, yes, groomed for abuse." The rhetorical aim was clear: It was a way to raise the specter of the child molester without having to demonstrate that any specific person is a child molester.

That specter has long haunted our culture wars. Whenever a sexual minority's legal rights or social status seems to be increasing, someone is certain to raise the alarm that Pedo Power will surely be next. In 1994, as gay freedom was becoming a mainstream cause, the head of the right-leaning Rutherford Institute claimed that "the logical implication of American acceptance of homosexuality is the acceptance of pedophilia as simply another form of 'sexual orientation.'" In 2004, with gay marriage a central issue in the year's elections, the head of Liberty Counsel wrote that "Once the same-sex marriage barrier is broken, a wide range of sexual paraphilia rights are sure to follow, including, but not limited to, pedophilia." In 2015, right after the Supreme Court's Obergefell ruling struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, the prominent Texas Republican Allen West circulated an article about pedophile advocates under the header "That was FAST: Yesterday it was gay marriage; Now look who wants 'equal rights.'" (The article was actually several years old.) In 2022, with a new group in the culture-war crosshairs, The Federalist ran a feature headlined "Why Accepting Child Transgenderism Will Pave The Way For Accepting Pedophilia."

Each time someone tells this tale, it is less plausible than before. Nearly half a century ago, there actually were notable currents of radical opinion that wanted to normalize pederasty and abolish age-of-consent laws. The successes of the gay rights movement have not made such views more popular. If anything, they have become more radioactive. The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) no longer marches in pride parades, and gay papers no longer publish extended debates about whether such groups belong in the fold. Even the small handful of activists who do talk about destigmatizing pedophilia are much more likely to claim that this will make it easier for pedophiles to get psychiatric help than to suggest they're doing nothing wrong. And the rise of trans rights has not changed that at all. (That's why Rufo has to fall back on phrases like "groomed into a sexual identity"—they let him conflate two very different phenomena.) In fact, the increasingly dominant view on the left today is to oppose any large age differences in romantic or sexual relationships, even when both parties are of legal age.

That isn't simply a matter of ideological drift in the LGBT movement. There are larger sociological reasons why many people in the West were more open to tolerating genuine groomers in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, and there are larger sociological reasons why the taboo wound up getting stronger instead. To understand that, we need to revisit that moment in the 1970s and early '80s when it briefly looked like pedo lib might have a future.

Bay State Grime

On April 5, 1978, Gore Vidal stood before a judge and suggested that statutory rape laws should not exist.

The novelist was not on trial. He was delivering a speech in a crowded Boston church, and the chief justice of the state's Superior Court happened to be in the audience. The judge later insisted that he had merely been there to see a famous writer speak and that he didn't realize he'd come to a rally for a controversial cause.

Specifically, he'd come to a fundraiser to defend two dozen men charged with molesting kids in Revere, Massachusetts, a downmarket suburb that had already acquired a pretty grimy reputation before the local district attorney (D.A.) declared that a nationwide sex ring was headquartered there.

Grime seemed to be everywhere in Boston just then. First there was that alleged sex cabal in Revere, a story that eventually turned out to be somewhat overblown—the accused were not actually a "ring," and only one of them was eventually incarcerated—but for the moment had the state on edge. Then the D.A. set up an anonymous hotline for people to report suspected predators, a system that civil libertarians feared would be used to target anyone a caller thought might be gay. Then there was a series of stings at the Boston Public Library, where cops nabbed dozens of men for having sex in the first-floor men's room.

And then Chief Justice Robert Bonin showed up at that rally. The judge always insisted afterward he had no idea before the event, or even after it was underway, that it was an activist fundraiser. That may be true, though he stuck around far longer that evening than you'd expect from an official attuned to the demands of political survival. (He even asked Vidal afterward to sign his copy of Burr.) According to James Aloisi's 2012 book The Vidal Lecture, the knives had already been sharpened for Bonin, who had been enacting a court reorganization plan that many of the judicial old guard opposed. After the new scandal broke, he was forced to resign from the bench.

Looking back from 2023, his ouster isn't surprising: Even if he really didn't know what sort of event he had stumbled into, that's the sort of accident that could bring down any official, let alone one with powerful foes. What feels odder is Vidal—a bestselling author, a frequent TV commentator, a man who consorted with Kennedys—saying things like "When you think of it, should there be such a thing as statutory rape? That sounds to me like a contradiction." Even while acknowledging that some limits were appropriate ("I would say that puberty is a dividing line"), he questioned the premises of the law where those limits were enshrined.

Nor was Vidal alone. Allen Ginsberg, one of the most acclaimed writers of the day, came to Boston around the same time to read his poem "Howl." He inserted some new lines for the occasion, including one about men "busted for eye-contact in the Boston Public Library men's room when a handsome youthful policeman flashed his irish loins & winning smile." Ginsberg wasn't simply concerned about the civil liberties implications of the D.A.'s tactics: He also stopped by a local TV show and declared, "I had sex when I was 8 years old with a man in the back of my grandfather's candy store in Revere, and I turned out OK."

Vidal and Ginsberg were radical intellectuals; they took minority positions all the time. What feels truly alien today is that packed church. Let us take it for granted that not everyone in the audience that evening agreed with Vidal's views on statutory rape. No doubt there were people there who simply thought the defendants were innocent, or who feared the D.A. was gearing up to target the broader gay community, or who just wanted to see a celebrity speak. The fact remains that roughly 1,500 men and women were in the room with Vidal and Bonin that evening. Imagine that many Americans turning up at a fundraiser for a group of accused molesters today.

The Ambiguous Interval

Such ideas were never universally accepted in gay and lesbian circles. Indeed, they were fiercely contested: For as long as NAMBLA was marching in pride parades, there were vigorous efforts to kick it out. When Anita Bryant and other anti-gay activists of the era cloaked their crusades in concern for kids' welfare—"a particularly deviant-minded teacher could sexually molest children," Bryant warned in her 1977 book The Anita Bryant Story—most rank-and-file gays reacted by distancing themselves from any teacher who saw his students as potential conquests.

Such ideas were not limited to gay and lesbian circles either. You wouldn't have guessed it from Bryant's rhetoric, but most molestation cases involve men and girls, not men and boys. So it should not be surprising that "intergenerational sex," to borrow a euphemism of the day, had its heterosexual advocates too.

For an example, open the December 1977 issue of Penthouse, a magazine devised almost exclusively by and for heterosexual males. Turn to page 117. There you'll find a story by Philip Nobile headlined "Incest: The Last Taboo" and subtitled "Previously suppressed material from the original Kinsey interviews tells us that incest is prevalent and often positive." Much of the article deals with sex between siblings or cousins, but it ventures into adult-child encounters as well—most infamously with a line Nobile attributed to the future men's-movement leader Warren Farrell. He was studying incest, Farrell allegedly said, because "millions of people who are now refraining from touching, holding, and genitally caressing their children, when that is really part of a caring loving expression, are repressing the sexuality of a lot of children and themselves. Maybe this needs repressing, and maybe it doesn't."

Farrell later claimed that he had actually spoken of parents caressing kids "generally," not "genitally." If so, that's one of the most unfortunate misquotes in magazine history. But what's notable for our purposes isn't whether Farrell said the line attributed to him. It's that Penthouse printed it as an unremarkable comment by a figure the magazine was presenting sympathetically.

One expects Hustler to go further than Penthouse, so it may not be surprising that in 1978 it published a story arguing that children should be able to "choose their sexual partners freely (including adult partners)" and illustrated the article with several photos of nude kids. Before you dismiss that as the fringy provocations of a porno mag, 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.

That book was not an outlier. Ideas like these were circulating around the edges of respectable opinion; they weren't exactly popular, but they were far more common than they are now. One enormously popular bestseller—1975's The People's Almanac—included a symposium surveying various famous folks about their personal visions of utopia. The book's co-editor declared in his responses that sex education should "begin with practical experience in which older women teach young boys and older men teach young girls."

Articles like Haeberle's reflected a current of countercultural thinking that thrived throughout this period. Since young people's liberties were strictly limited—by schools, by parents, by police—there was a "children's liberation" movement that said kids should throw off their shackles and enjoy lives of full freedom. As was often the case in the 1960s and '70s, the catalog of shackles to be discarded sometimes included sexual repression.

Such ideas did not need to lead to NAMBLA-style conclusions. 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. It is by turns absurdly utopian ("No man with a good sex life could possibly torture an animal, or torture a human, or support prisons") and surprisingly atavistic (Neill declares homosexuality unhealthy). But it never suggests that children and adults should have sex together; instead it focuses on allowing kids to masturbate ("from the earliest moment the child must be completely free to touch any and every part of his body") and to engage in sexual play with their peers ("a natural, healthy act that ought not to be frowned on"). For some readers, the argument stopped there. Others decided to drag it in a…different direction.

If gay activists were still more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to talk about changing age-of-consent laws, there were historically contingent reasons for that. For one thing, some jurisdictions had a higher age of consent for gay sex than for straight sex; many people who had no larger interest in changing the age of sexual majority still wanted to end that discrimination. For another, it wasn't extremely unusual for a gay man's personal story back then to include a part like this: When I was 15, my parents kicked me out for being homosexual, so I hitched a ride to Castro Street, found a more welcoming community—and had sex with some of them. Precisely because gay relationships are more accepted now, that sort of background is much rarer; queer kids are more likely to stay home and happily, openly date people their own age.

There was also a general social tendency to group together sexual practices deemed perverse. Differentiations that seem obvious today did not always come naturally to people in the past. The most striking example: Congress did not pass a law dedicated to stopping child pornography until 1978. That didn't mean you could walk into any drugstore in 1940 and buy kiddie porn. It meant such material was restricted, on the federal level at least, by the same laws that governed porn in general. After those broader rules were liberalized, lawmakers started drawing more distinctions.

So did the people whose sexuality had been stigmatized. In her 2020 book Unspeakable, the University of Victoria historian Rachel Hope Cleves examines the life of Norman Douglas, a once-beloved but now largely forgotten British novelist who kept a private journal describing his deflowerings of thousands of boys and girls. Douglas did not hide his proclivities during his lifetime, which ended in 1952. To the extent they were known, they were regarded with the same mixture of bourgeois disapproval and bohemian tolerance that an uncloseted gay artist might have received. Borrowing the radical anthropologist Gayle Rubin's metaphor of a "charmed circle" of socially acceptable sexuality, Cleves writes: "Identity categories that are distant from one another today—like loose women, lesbians, and pederasts—were more proximate when they were all outside the charmed circle. Pederasty was less taboo before the 1950s, in effect, because so many other behaviors were disreputable as well."

With time, a new logic for the circle established itself: More and more, Americans valued consensual relationships between people of roughly equal social status. A marriage between two 30-year-old women was increasingly acceptable; a marriage between a 40-something man and his 20-year-old secretary was increasingly not. The 1970s came in that moment—call it the Ambiguous Interval—after a wave of rebellions had challenged the old order but before the emerging new rules were clear. When the rebels demanded youth liberation, did that mean kids should be liberated from puritanical restrictions on their sexual behavior, or did it mean they should be liberated from adults who wanted to prey on them sexually? The answer, it turned out, was a bit of both: The country has grown more tolerant of teens having sex with each other—but if you're older, you need to keep your hands off.

Over the Border and Across the Ocean

If this move first to accept and then to reject the NAMBLA constituency stemmed from such larger social shifts, you might expect similar developments to take place in comparable countries at roughly the same time. And sure enough, the U.S. was not alone.

In 1977, a Toronto-based LGBT outlet called The Body Politic ran a story by Gerald Hannon called "Men Loving Boys Loving Men." Many articles over the years have walked a delicate line, aiming to humanize pedophiles without endorsing pedophilia. This was not such a story. Hannon blazed past that line, writing glowingly of "sexual, loving relationships with boys"; toward the end, he described two people, one age 12 and one fully grown, giggling naked in a sleeping bag while Hannon lay nearby, listening. After the article appeared, police raided the Body Politic offices and the paper's owners were charged with transmitting "indecent, immoral or scurrilous matter" through the mail.

They were eventually acquitted. They celebrated by publishing the article again.

By that point, events in Toronto looked like an only slightly distorted reflection of events in Boston. Just as the Revere case sparked fears among people who didn't approve of pederasty but were disturbed at the district attorney's tactics, the Ontario defendants drew support from people who had no love for Hannon's article but had no sympathy for censorship either. Just as the Boston-based Gay Community News ran fierce debates over pedophiles' place in the movement, so did The Body Politic. In both Boston and Toronto, some of the strongest opposition to erasing the age of consent came from the lesbian community—to the point where Elaine Noble, Massachusetts' (and America's) first openly lesbian state legislator, endorsed the D.A.'s anonymous tip line. But both the Boston editors and the Toronto editors also found some dissenting lesbians willing to take the other side of the debate. In Gay Community News, the contrarian article ran under the headline "On 'Woman/Girl Love'—Or, Lesbians Do 'Do It.'" The Body Politic's story was dubbed "'I was fifteen, she was forty-three….'"

Toronto is only about 550 miles from Boston, so perhaps it's unsurprising that similar events would unfold in both cities. So let's turn to the United Kingdom, where the biggest difference is that events played out slightly earlier: The British counterpart to NAMBLA, the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), was founded in 1974. Just as in the U.S., parts of the gay movement condemned it and parts were sympathetic. PIE was affiliated for a few years with the National Council for Civil Liberties, the British equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union; during that period, the council urged "a change in the attitude which assumes that all cases of paedophilia result in lasting damage." There was much less room for such talk by the mid-'80s, and the council severed its ties with PIE.

The story in France has some parallels too, despite some notable differences rooted in the unusual history of that country's sex laws, a history that Scott Gunther of Wellesley College sketches in his 2009 book The Elastic Closet. Under the Ancien Régime, a Frenchman could face the death penalty for engaging in gay sex, but the revolutionary government decriminalized sodomy in 1791. After that, the only way a same-sex coupling could lead to an arrest was if it also violated a different statute, such as the laws against sex with a minor. When the pro-fascist Vichy government decided during World War II to crack down on homosexuality, it did so not by banning sodomy again but by tweaking how sex with a minor was defined: In 1942, France raised the age of consent for gay sex to 21, while the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse was fixed at 13. The latter was raised to 15 after the Vichy regime fell, but the basic setup stayed in place.

Since age-of-consent laws were at the core of how the French government regulated gay sex, they moved to the core of gay protest. (So did public indecency laws, especially after a 1960 statute doubled the penalty for public liaisons when the people involved were of the same gender.) Against that backdrop, a group of French intellectuals produced one of the most infamous documents of the 1970s: a 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.

The French lowered their age of gay consent to 18 in 1974, and in 1982 they equalized the age for gay and straight teens at 15. But they did not establish a crime of statutory rape until 2021. Sex with a minor, which carries a sentence of several months or years, is a separate crime in France from rape, which carries a much harsher penalty; before 2021, child molesters could not be convicted of rape unless prosecutors proved that they had used violence, coercion, threat, or surprise. Just a hop across the ocean from that crowded Boston church, Vidal's skylarking was already law.

Yet despite this radically different legal history, France's cultural history was not so different from the Anglosphere's. There as here, the age of consent for heterosexual intercourse used to be much lower. (Did you think there was something uniquely French about setting the age of sexual majority as low as 13? In 1885, most American states set their age of consent at 10.) There as here, there was a pre-'60s current of writing that presented pederasty as an idealized "Greek love." There as here, that mode of argument was replaced in the 1960s and '70s by arguments about youth liberation. And there as here, gays in the 1980s started doing more to distance themselves from sex with minors, and more broadly from forms of sexual expression that were unpalatable to mainstream society. They did this, Gunther notes, more through "a process of invisible, internalized control" than through the law; but they did it nonetheless. France may be distinctly French, but it still follows a broader Western pattern.

Other countries have their own local nuances and wrinkles. In West Germany, the hope to avoid a return to the Nazi past led many intellectuals to Wilhelm Reich's arguments blaming fascism on sexual repression. In his 1975 book Le Grand Bazar, the New Left leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit described his experiences working in a Reich-inspired German kindergarten; there, he wrote, sometimes "certain kids opened my fly and began to tickle me. I reacted differently according to circumstances, but their desire posed a problem to me. I asked them: 'Why don't you play together? Why have you chosen me, and not the other kids?' But if they insisted, I caressed them even so."

Cohn-Bendit later adopted a more respectable identity and became a Green member of the European Parliament. The Greens became more respectable too—elements of the party had adopted NAMBLAite positions well into the 1980s, but those days were behind it now. So there was a scandal when a journalist dredged up that old passage in 2001. Cohn-Bendit then claimed that he had made up the story and had put it in his book as a "pure provocation, designed to shock the bourgeoisie."

You can decide for yourself whether to believe that. Either way, it says something that the younger Cohn-Bendit felt that his not-so-bourgeois readers would accept it. Like that Penthouse reporter, he made assumptions about his audience that few modern writers would share.

Banishing NAMBLA

In the unstable atmosphere of the Ambiguous Interval, when the rules seemed up for grabs, even the activists who objected to sex with minors could not always agree on where to draw the line between the behavior they accepted or rejected. I don't simply mean the division between people who objected only to sex with pre-adolescent children and those who extended their opposition further into the teen years. When Rubin devised that phrase "charmed circle," far more than pederasty was being debated in gay and feminist circles. (And, yes, in libertarian circles too. The Libertarian Party held its convention in Boston a few months after Vidal came to town, and the man it tapped to give a presentation on "Gay Liberation/Human Liberation" was future NAMBLA co-founder Tom Reeves.)

Consider a 1980 resolution adopted by the National Organization for Women. After affirming the group's support for lesbian rights, it declared that "other issues" had "been mistakenly correlated with Lesbian/Gay rights by some gay organizations and by opponents of Lesbian/Gay rights who seek to confuse the issue." The document went on to reject not just pederasty but pornography ("an issue of exploitation and violence"), sadomasochism ("an issue of violence"), and public sex ("an issue of violation of the privacy rights of non-participants"). It didn't make it into the resolution, but many feminists were suspicious of transsexuality too.

These battles sparked some solidarity among some members of the contested groups. I vividly remember stumbling onto an LGBT radio show in Houston one evening in the '80s when the callers were debating whether NAMBLA should march in the annual pride parade. One listener offered this argument for letting them participate: "They were there for us, so we should be there for them."

But that wasn't the argument that ultimately carried the day. In 1986, after organizers barred the group from the Los Angeles pride parade, Mattachine Society co-founder Harry Hay decided to march with a sign that said "NAMBLA WALKS WITH ME"; another marcher tore the sign up. In San Francisco in 1987, the Eureka Theatre Company—the institution that would later premiere Tony Kushner's play Angels in America—was positioned to march directly in front of NAMBLA. One bullhorn-toting Eurekan took the opportunity to periodically yell "We're not proud of you!" and "You're disgusting!" at the chicken-hawk contingent behind them. In New York, according to the Seattle Stranger, a sadomasochist group issued a press release condemning NAMBLA's "disgusting, illegal sex which brings shame to our community."

City by city, the group was kicked out of pride events; eventually it was essentially exiled from the movement. The point of no return was probably the day Sen. Jesse Helms (R–N.C.) discovered that NAMBLA was affiliated with the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), which had recently received consultative status at the United Nations. He promptly introduced, and the Senate unanimously endorsed, an amendment to deny the U.N. any funds until the president could certify that none of its branches or affiliates "grants any official status, accreditation, or recognition to any organization which promotes, condones, or seeks the legalization of pedophilia."

The U.N. promptly expelled the ILGA, which in turn expelled NAMBLA and similar groups. The ILGA had already encouraged them to exit in 1990, by passing a resolution condemning pedophilia, but actively kicking them out required an 80 percent vote to expel. Helms' bill ensured they had the votes.

There was no turning back after that. Even figures who once had vocally supported NAMBLA became more cautious. In 1984, Rubin had predicted that "people will be embarrassed by their collaboration with this persecution [of pederasts], but it will be too late to do much good for those men who have spent their lives in prison." By 2010 she had tempered her tone, declaring that she had been referring "primarily" to men who had sex with teens, not with pre-adolescents, and that she does "not have all the answers" to "the many complex questions about children and sex." Rubin's frequent collaborator, Patrick Califia, walked back his position almost entirely. In 1980 he had written in The Advocate that age-of-consent laws "are completely arbitrary and do not take into account the varying degrees of physical and emotional maturity possessed." In 2000, not long after he transitioned to a male identity, he announced that he had been "naive about the developmental issues that make sex between adults and prepubescent children unacceptable."

The Specter of the Groomer

By the time Obergefell was decided in 2015, it was clear to anyone paying attention that trans rights were next in line. But most social conservatives were blindsided by the transgender movement, perhaps because they were focused instead on the allegedly onrushing pedo threat. With the recent explosion of warnings about "groomers," some of them have started treating trans lib as though it's pedo lib in disguise after all.

But of course it isn't. There is a world of difference between allowing kids to claim their own gender identity and allowing adults to proposition them. No doubt you can find some people who favor both, but the first does not imply the second.

The pedophile rights movement has been decimated, and there is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon. When people think they see signs of pedo lib on the horizon, they are more likely to be seeing the scattered remnants of the old pedophile movement. Or stories about child molesters who aren't actually organized into a movement. Or signs that Hollywood or Madison Avenue is sexualizing minors, which does happen but has been happening for ages, whether or not pedophiles are organizing.

Or perhaps they see people who talk about "destigmatizing" pedophilia and who insist on using the term "minor-attracted persons" instead. That last group might initially sound like a plausible sign that something is brewing, but a closer look shows something else. Their position is that we need to distinguish people who feel pedophilic urges from people who actually act on those urges, that pedophiles who want to resist those urges are less likely to ask for psychological help if there's a stigma attached, and that we therefore need a label for people who feel sexually attracted to kids but refrain from molesting anybody. In a 2014 New York Times op-ed, Margo Kaplan of Rutgers Law School took the argument even further, arguing that such people should be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so they can come clean about their inclinations without worrying about losing their jobs.

For the record, I don't find those arguments convincing. They start with a real problem—people who want this sort of therapy are indeed often stymied—but adopting the phrase "minor-attracted persons" doesn't change that; it just comes across as a creepy euphemism. And ADA protection for pedophiles sounds like a bad joke. But these positions are obviously different from the idea that there's nothing wrong with adult-child sex in the first place. Conflating them with NAMBLA is like conflating a man who has implausible ideas about treating drug addiction with a man who thinks heroin is good for you.

Progressive opinion has not just turned against the idea of sex with minors; it has been extending its concept of who counts as a minor. Even as Rufo was stretching the definition of "grooming" in one direction, some left-leaning voices were using the word to describe manipulative or exploitative relationships between older men and young adults. Jezebel, for example, reported in early 2022 that three women had accused director Cary Joji Fukunaga of attempting to groom them. One of the women was 18 at the time he allegedly started to pursue her. The other two were 20.

On that topic, mainstream opinion isn't far from progressive opinion. CNN's Harry Enten recently examined U.S. Census data to see how many weddings each year have broken the old rule of thumb that men should only pair up with partners who are at least seven years older than half their age. The total had dropped sharply, from 28 percent in 1900 to just over 10 percent in 1980 to about 3 percent in 2021. (That's 3 percent for heterosexual unions. For gay couples, it was 15 percent—higher than the hets, but still substantially lower than the standard used to be.) But the more important change he found ran deeper. It was only in the last few decades, Enten discovered, that popular culture had started offering that rule as the largest acceptable discrepancy in a couple's ages. Originally, it had been offered as the ideal age gap.

To be clear: As best as historians can tell, 19th century American women typically married in their early 20s. At the turn of the 20th century, the average age gap between husbands and wives, for their first marriages at least, was just five years—more than now, but certainly not enormous. The shift here is in what is widely seen as acceptable, not what is typical.

Still, as late as 1969 about a third of America's weddings featured teenage brides (while just 14 percent had teenage grooms). The difference between then and now is huge. And that change, in turn, reflects an even larger social transformation.

The Modern Marital Ideal

In Stanley Kramer's 1967 message-movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a white mom and dad confront their prejudices when they learn that their daughter's fiancé is black. When the film first appeared, many viewers complained that the black character was too flawless for the situation to be realistic. Kramer had an answer to those critics: He and his screenwriter had "deliberately made the situation perfect," he told the film critic Roger Ebert, because that sharpened his point: "If you take away all the other motives for not getting married, then you leave only one question. Will [the father] forbid the marriage because [the prospective husband is] a Negro? That is the only issue, and we deliberately removed all other obstacles to focus on it."

What does this have to do with our topic? Just this: That prospective husband is two decades older than his bride-to-be. That isn't the only way the pairing violates the modern marital ideal, in which husband and wife are roughly equally matched companions: He is also much smarter and more accomplished than she is, and they have not known each other long. They're both good-looking, but other than that it's hard to imagine what they might have in common. Few Americans today would object to the pairing on racial grounds, but several other objections are obvious.

Or at least they're obvious now. In the '60s, they were apparently invisible to both Kramer and his critics.

Ever since the Enlightenment, the feminist historian Stephanie Coontz has written, Western marriage has been shifting away from being a hierarchical "prefabricated institution" that was ultimately about "forging political alliances, sealing business deals, and expanding the family labor force." As late as the 1960s, "American legal codes assigned differing marital rights and obligations by gender," but since then both law and culture have kept changing, making marriage "an individually negotiated relationship between equals." From the opposite side of the political spectrum, the traditionalist writer Bryce Christensen offers a complementary take: "Once defined by religious doctrine, moral tradition, and home-centered commitments to child rearing and gender complementarity in productive labor, marriage has become a deracinated and highly individualistic and egalitarian institution."

Coontz was writing in 2012, Christensen in 2004. Both were reacting to the debate over same-sex unions, arguing that radical changes in heterosexual marriage had paved the way for gay weddings rather than the other way around. The more people accepted the idea that marriage should be a partnership between loving equals, to be negotiated and enjoyed on their own terms, the harder it became to argue against extending the institution to gay and lesbian couples. A decade after Coontz's article appeared, I'd add that something similar has happened with the trans movement. As the gender system became more flexible—as we became freer to choose among social roles that once had been rigidly "male" or "female"—it became more thinkable to extend that fluidity to gender identity itself. Changes in conventional heterosexual lifestyles made gay people and then trans people more widely accepted.

Those changes did not make age gaps more widely accepted. If anything, they made them less popular—and not just when it comes to marriage. Think of the opprobrium Leonardo DiCaprio gets for habitually dating women in their early 20s. Or the moment last year when Laura Dern and Sam Neill expressed regret for the two-decade age gap between their characters in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park.

When the age of consent in most states was just 10, that was not because Americans were reading some 19th century Summerhill and encouraging kids to experiment sexually. As the political scientist Carolyn Cocca notes in her 2004 book Jailbait, such laws were "less about the ability or lack thereof to consent to such activity on the part of the female, and more about protecting white females and their premarital chastity—a commodity—as property." At the end of Unspeakable, Cleves concludes that Douglas' molestations reflected "a norm of unequal and exploitative sexual relations that empowered privileged men to do as they pleased, and left women, children, and the poor to make the best of it."

It's telling that today's controversies about adults taking a sexual interest in younger people are as likely to involve progressives looking askance at traditionalists as they are to involve trads looking askance at progs. Take 2017's special election to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate, when three women accused Republican candidate Roy Moore of sexually assaulting them. Two of the trio said they were in their teens at the time, several more women said he had come on to them while they were teenagers, and one of Moore's former colleagues told CNN it had been "common knowledge that Roy dated high school girls." Moore denied the alleged assaults but conceded that he may have dated teens when he was in his thirties. ("I'm not going to dispute anything, but I don't remember anything like that," he told radio host Sean Hannity.)

Moore is an ultraconservative with a history of high-profile culture-war battles, so it's no surprise that progressives would attack him or that the right would rally to his side. (Not all of the right, of course. He managed to lose the Senate race, something no other Republican nominee has done in Alabama since 1992.) But there was more at work here than mere partisanship. A Moore defender in The Federalist declared that it once "was not an uncommon occurrence" for older men to date teenagers, then argued that "this practice has a long history and is not without some merit if one wants to raise a large family." In such families, the writer continued, "the wife must start having kids when she is young. The husband needs to be well-established and able to support the family, in which case he will typically need to marry when older." This traditionalist argument elicited the sort of reaction among progressives that Vidal's ruminations on statutory rape prompted among conservatives.

In that Hannity interview, Moore commented that he didn't "remember ever dating any girl without the permission of her mother." It sounded like a throwback to the days when courtship was a transaction between parent and suitor. It was as alien to modern sensibilities as Hustler's story about children choosing sexual partners. Neither is likely to reenter the charmed circle anytime soon.

Could that change? Sure. One takeaway from this history, after all, should be that sexual mores can evolve radically. Maybe the social, economic, and technological trends that have shaped the modern marital ideal will be overwhelmed by new developments, sparking another transformation. The future is unwritten. As Cleves writes in Unspeakable, "The first decades of the twenty-first century will not be the final word."

But it's clear what trajectory we're on right now, and it does not lead to a land of groomers. If anything, it's taking us further away.