The Condemnation of Sex Involving Minors

In this academic presentation, I propose to discuss how sex offender laws have created a criminal underclass of “bad” homosexuals in an age otherwise characterized by the expansion of gay rights.

In the third week of March 1978, gay activists noticed an extraordinary increase in police activity in the men’s room on the first floor of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. Police records indicated that nearly fifty men had been arrested there over a five-day period on various charges ranging from “open and gross lewdness” to prostitution. Officer Angelo Toricci made most of the arrests, an “attractive, young” plainclothes officer who, according to some of the men he arrested, stood close to the urinals “masturbating himself to encourage sexual advances.” The crackdown at the library came on the heels of another campaign the year before against adult gay men accused of having sex with teenage boys in the working-class suburb of Revere. In that case, the Suffolk County District Attorney Garrett Byrne had indicted 24 men for over 100 felonies in what he erroneously called a “boy-sex ring.” The police, it seemed, were conducting a veritable war on gay men whose intimacy violated widely accepted boundaries of propriety and decency.

The crackdown on gay men in Boston was part of a larger reformation of gay people’s relationship to sex offender laws in the late twentieth century. My larger dissertation project, entitled “The Invention of Bad Gay Sex,” examines how sex offender laws created a new, criminal underclass, consisting of “bad” homosexuals. Between 1968 and 1994, gay activists and their progressive allies, along with feminists and conservatives, created a range of new sex offender laws that have had the effect of criminalizing a subclass of gay people for consensual but stigmatized sexual behavior. The progressive gay-liberal coalition carved out new legal protections for certain kinds of “good” gay sex—sex practiced by consenting adults in private and intimate behavior in civic spaces like gay bars. At the same time, a broad coalition of liberals, conservatives, and feminists created new sex offender laws now punishing a residual category of bad sex—sex involving AIDS, minors, pay, or public space—in some cases more harshly than ever.

The presentation will focus specifically on the criminalization of gay sex involving minors. In the 1950s and 60s, the widespread cultural myth that homosexuals were dangerous to children underpinned myriad forms of antigay repression from police crackdowns on gay bars to the exclusion of gay people from public employment. The myth of the gay child molester experienced a renaissance in the 1970s particularly in Boston, where the police launched an all-out war on gay men after the discovery of the alleged “boy sex ring” in Revere. At first, local gay activists organized a successful challenge to the crackdown. The sex on which the police were cracking down, activists argued, was consensual, and the police were subjecting both the men and boys to legal harassment.

Soon, however, the child sexual abuse issue became too much of a political hot potato for the mainstream gay movement to touch. Gay rights organizations arrived at a détente with the state by settling on a new policing regime that made a distinction between gay people who did have sex with minors and ones who did not. Thus, in the 1980s onward, police crackdowns on sex between gay adults and minors proceeded, this time unhindered by political protest because the crackdown did not implicate the gay community as a whole.

Most popular accounts, and many academic ones, of the rise of gay rights take an overly optimistic view of the extent to which lesbians and gay men as a class are now, or will soon be, free from legal oppression. This is because most people consider only “good” homosexuals and neglect the extent to which sex offender laws continue to subject many other gay people to unjust state repression for engaging in a range of disapproved sexual behaviors. The presentation will engage the conference theme by drawing attention to how, in the wake of the achievement of gay marriage, the American state continues to construct inequality along the lines of sexuality, normalizing or tolerating certain behaviors while marginalizing, stigmatizing, and punishing others. For many bad homosexuals, the struggle for equal citizenship is far from over.


Part of panel Policing Sex
October 1, 2016, 11:15–13:00