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Sexual taboos are a poor substitute for justice

[CW: Milo, discussion of transphobia, homophobia, racism and sexual abuse of minors]

It’s always uncomfortable to hear about bad things that happen to bad people for stupid reasons. In this case, hearing about Milo Yiannopoulos losing his job and book deal gave me nowhere near the level of schadenfreude I was expecting. This is because his current misfortunes aren’t a consequence of any of his sexual-predator libels against trans people in public bathrooms or hilarious instructional “jokes” about reporting undocumented students to immigration authorities, but rather because of right-wing charges of “endorsing pedophilia,” charges that are at least 80 percent bullshit.

A recording made last year from a podcast charmingly titled “Drunken Peasants” basically amounts to his arguing that age of consent laws are arbitrary and “one-size-fits-all,” that particularly sexually mature teenagers might be capable of giving informed consent to adults and that it was possible for such relationships to be non-abusive or even positive.

Of course Milo’s usual supporters, the same people who basically run a cottage industry on the gays-are-sexual-predators dog whistle, took these statements in context and reacted in a way that was totally reasonable and appropriate.

No, of course they didn’t.

A reasonable response to Milo’s comments might be to say that yes, age-of-consent laws are somewhat arbitrary. There isn’t anything magical about turning 18 that makes you less susceptible to relationship abuse. Yes, they are paternalistic towards minors, treating them as less capable of making rational informed decisions concerning their own wellbeing and more vulnerable and in need of protection whether they agree or not — this is the basis of all laws concerning the legal status of children. Yes, he clearly did not consider his own relationship with a much older man when he was a minor as abusive or damaging. Yes, that may also be the case for many similar relationships.

But despite being a blunt instrument, age of consent laws are absolutely vital in protecting children from damaging sexual abuse. Despite the possibility that an adult/minor relationship could be harmless or even positive, there is still too significant a risk of real harm being done. Children, including teenagers, tend to be very naive and extremely vulnerable, particularly to abuse by adults they trust. The reason sex with minors needs to be a crime is that it carries significant risks of really damaging someone for a very long time and because abusers are great at rationalizing why what they’re doing is an okay exception to the usual rules. You don’t need to assume every case will result in significant trauma to make a law; you just need to acknowledge the severity of that risk.

So age of consent laws should be enforced by the law, and people who question those laws but don’t actually break them should be opposed by reasoned arguments and nothing else. Given the pretty much universal support that exists for age of consent laws as they are and that, aside from an offhand comment in an obscure podcast, he wasn’t actually advocating these laws be changed, it’s quite a stretch to suggest that this particular comment had even a remote chance of causing harm to anyone.

Anyway, Milo lost a book deal and a job. He didn’t lose these for just being wrong. He lost those because he questioned a taboo. A taboo is no ordinary rule or belief. One does not simply defend a taboo with arguments. One starts yelling. What one actually does is flip the mental switch that changes someone’s status from “person” to “scum.” You don’t try to explain things to scum because it won’t work, because they’re too morally depraved for an appeal to reason or morality to work, and it’s not good enough to just let them be. If they’re the question-a-taboo type of scum, you condemn them and cut them off. If they’re the violate-a-taboo kind of scum, there’s literally no punishment too severe, and not punishing violators severely enough is also a crime. In this case Milo was the former kind, so Breitbart, etc. don’t want anything to do with him, but are not actively calling for his murder.

There is obviously a lot of very entertaining irony in this. Milo built his brand on violating left-wing taboos (don’t mock or threaten vulnerable minorities) and is now being cut off by his former supporters for questioning a taboo also upheld by the right (don’t do anything that looks like exposing children to sex). He made a living out of pissing people off and laughing at how powerless they were to shut him down, and then eventually he pissed off some people who actually had power over him. Live by the sword, die by the sword. It’s ironic. It’s karmic. It’s funny.

It also totally fails to give us any reliable solution to the wider problem of harmful speech, ideas and behavior. It was pure luck that Milo pissed off the right. There are plenty of terrible bigots who don’t make flippant comments about 30-year-olds having sex with teenagers. It would be nice to have a way of stopping them that isn’t basically reliant on chance.

It’s also sad. Poetic justice is not actual justice. The way justice is supposed to work is that when people are punished or stopped or convinced to stop doing something bad, it’s as a direct consequence of the bad thing they’ve done. That’s not what happened. What’s worse is that if this had happened to someone who wasn’t a terrible troll, we’d all be saying that this was just another example of unreasonable right-wing hysteria around sexual taboos with a possible hint of homophobic dog whistle.

Milo’s fall from grace was supposed to happen via his being exposed as a fraud on the Bill Maher show or for crossing some line with his cruelty to vulnerable people that even his supporters wouldn’t stomach or through some kind of repentance after coming face to face with the damage he’d caused. That would have been justice. This wasn’t. Today, nobody learnt anything and justice was not served.

I don’t feel too sorry for Milo. He’s still rich, famous, smug and an atrocious human being. But I do feel robbed.


Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’

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