It seems that former Breitbart editor and alt-right propagandist Milo Yiannopoulos loves to be hated. He has penned incendiary anti-feminist articles opining that women experiencing online harassment should simply stop using the internet, that birth control makes women “unattractive and crazy,” and that women are underrepresented in tech because they “suck at interviews.” He was kicked off of Twitter—no mean feat on the abuse-plagued platform—for coordinating a harassment campaign against actress Leslie Jones. On a college speaking tour, he has singled out a transgender student in the audience for harassment. Elsewhere, he has made remarks many have construed as anti-Semitic or racist.
To his fans, he’s a hero of free speech. (It is certainly true that in the United States, one is and should be free to say despicable things without fear of government reprisal.) To his detractors, he never should have been given the broad platforms for the nasty things he has said. And yet, as his notoriety grew, his star rose. Audiences that find “P.C. culture” to be a graver threat to society than racism, misogyny, or transphobia loved him, and other audiences became aware of him whether they wanted to be or not.
He’s made a career on seeing how far over the line he can go. Yesterday, it appears he may have found out.
After a video surfaced in which Yiannopoulos, in his own words, advocated for the idea of sex between “13-year-olds” and “older men,” flippantly describing his own experience as gaining beneficial sexual experience when he was molested by a priest as a teenager, the consequences are coming down. In the last 48 hours, Milo lost his book deal with Simon & Schuster, had his speech at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) cancelled, and resigned from his technology editor role at the alt-right website Breitbart, losing perhaps his greatest platform.
“I am cheered to know that in 2017, American society still finds defending the rape of children beyond the realm of acceptable discourse.”
In part, I am cheered to know that in 2017, American society still finds defending the rape of children beyond the realm of acceptable discourse. But fascinating as it is to recount Milo’s many other transgressions, his gut-churning comments about child sexual abuse reveal a vile and all-too-common myth: that children can somehow consent to sex with adults. They can’t. Full stop.
I’m not interested in parsing what the word “pedophilia” means, and whether Yiannopoulos was advocating it or not. I am interested in discussing child sexual abuse, which his remarks clearly described, and I am interested in talking about consent, which children cannot legally or meaningfully give to adults for sex under any circumstance. Milo himself has called consent an “arbitrary and oppressive idea.” In the video, he called himself at 14 a “predator” and said he was “aggressively seeking out sexual company of adults.” The fact is that at such a young age, while children may be experiencing the development of normal sexual behavior, they are not adults and are not capable—legally or developmentally—of choosing sex with an adult. They are, however, quite capable of being exploited by adults who use this myth of consent to their benefit. The unfavorable power dynamic between adults and children, and children’s poor impulse control and limited understanding of the physical and emotional consequences of sex, make it tragically common for adult predators to attempt to cover rape with a veneer of consent: manipulating children and adolescents into believing they had some ability to stop the abuse.
“It’s heartbreaking to see an admitted child sexual abuse victim like Milo attempt to minimize his trauma by insisting that he chose it.”
It’s heartbreaking to see an admitted child sexual abuse victim like Milo attempt to minimize his trauma by insisting that he chose it. In the world of Children’s Advocacy Centers, where we coordinate the investigation of child abuse and provide services to heal the trauma it causes, we hear it over and over—from the incest victim who has been told by her father that she “came on” to him to the child abused by his coach that truly thought that the person who exploited him loved him. We know all too well the complicated emotions and dynamics when older children are sexually abused by adults. While the sexual abuse of a younger child demands a public outcry for swift, retributive justice, when it comes to older children, the poisonous idea that a child can’t be raped because he or she is “promiscuous,” or engages in risk-taking behaviors, can protect abusers from facing justice. Tragically and to the contrary, it is often sexual abuse that leads to risky and developmentally inappropriate sexual behavior. Abuse so often creates its own silence.
But my moment of sympathy for Milo was short-lived. Late in the video, without using names (for the protection of the guilty), Milo glibly described parties in Hollywood he had attended where he saw “very young boys” “taking drugs and having sex with older men.” “Some of the things I have seen,” he noted, “beggar belief.” As a veteran in the child abuse intervention field, I say to Milo: what is as shocking as childhood sexual abuse is the broad platform you were given to spread the devastating myth that children are authors of their own abuse. Thankfully, that platform is shrinking by the hour.
As an advocate for children, I am hopeful that this appalling moment in the national conversation will give those of us who would defend childhood the impetus to forever destroy the deeply harmful myth that children can consent to their own violation at the hands of a sexual predator. And, every American has the moral responsibility to use their own voice and platform—whether large or small—to that end.