Pedophilia, Child Pornography and State Repression
Capturing the Friedmans: An American Tragedy
A Review by Burt Richardson
Reprinted from Women and Revolution pages of Workers Vanguard No. 808, 29 August 2003.
Andrew Jareckis masterful film, Capturing the Friedmans, documenting the disintegration of a family after a man and his teenage son are wrongly accused of molesting young boys, is now in wide release after winning the Grand Jury Documentary Prize at Sundance 2003. This controversial film exposes the violence and hypocrisy of the capitalist statecops, courts, lawswith its brutally honest picture of how two harmless individuals were framed up and jailed, guilty of nothing, accused of imaginary crimes, their lives and their family destroyed by an anti-sex witchhunt.
In 1987 a sting operation by the U.S. Postal Service entrapped Arnold Friedman, a high school teacher in Great Neck, Long Island, whod been purchasing gay child pornography from the Netherlands through the mail. The investigators used the fact that Arnold also taught computer and piano to neighborhood kids at his home to accuse him of child molestation, since they equated looking at child porn with child abuse and knew he must be guilty of raping his students. Within days the cops were interviewing every former student, compelling parents to conjure up signs that their kids had been abused. Soon kids were coerced into saying what the cops and parents wanted to hear; parents of kids whod denied being molested were shunned and told they were in denial. Absurd charges of impossibly frequent and sadistic molestations snowballed into a 107-count indictment against Arnold Friedman and a 245-count indictment against 19-year-old Jesse, Arnolds youngest son, who had helped him in the classroom. After enormous pressure from his wife and attorney, Arnold pleaded guilty, in hopes that it would make things easier for Jesse in his trial; he was sentenced to 10 to 30 years. Realizing that there was no way he could win a trial, Jesse Friedman felt compelled to invent a story of sexual abuse by his dad just so he could plead guilty and be able to cut a deal in which he could get out of prison before his death. Arnold committed suicide in prison in 1995, riddled with guilt over somehow being responsible for his sons imprisonment. Jesse was eventually released on parole in 2001, after serving 13 years of a 16-year sentence.
The Third Great American Witchhunt
Arnold and Jesse Friedman were victims of Americas third great witchhunt, the massive anti-sex panic that gripped the nation in the 1980s. This was a veritable witchhunt, much like the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the McCarthy anti-communist scare of the 1950s. Beginning in the late 1970s a mass panic, manipulated by the state in collusion with the religious fundamentalists and anti-sex feminists, engulfed society for well over a decade. People across the nation were led to believe that there was an epidemic of child molestations, satanic ritual abuse of children and sexual predators hiding behind every teachers desk. Hundreds of men and women ended up behind bars for crimes that never happened, when the real criminals sat comfortably in their blue uniforms and black robes.
The most infamous of those cases was the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California, which began in 1983. Day-care workers were accused of engaging in satanic sex rituals with children (the case was portrayed in the powerful HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial). During the six years of trialsduring which the state failed to uncover a single piece of credible evidencean intense hysteria rampaged through the country; many day-care centers were shut down due to child abuse allegations, and a generation of children was brought up to identify signs of child molestation, inducing kids to fear being touched by adults. From coast to coast, there was a series of vicious state prosecutions on charges of satanic sex rings; tales of inappropriate touching of genital areas and sodomy were laced with accounts of naked dancing, objects shoved up vaginas and anuses, robed figures spiriting children off in airplanes, ritual cannibalization of babies, the drinking of bloodall testimony from the mouths of children, some as young as two, who were invariably treated as unimpeachable witnesses. The accusations veered into the magical, feasting on Americans appalling embrace of superstition and religious backwardness; soon the whole country had been taught to believe and even expect such things to be happening everywhere around them.
Amidst this frenzy, a man like Arnold Friedman, who enjoyed looking at child pornography and was sexually attracted to boys, did not stand a chance once these maniacs got him in their clutches. As we at the time said in The Uses of Abuse, The violent abuse and rape of children is a terrible crime. The problem is that once the question of child abuse has become a political football, the state willfully will not tell the difference between Jack the Ripper and Lewis Carroll (Women and Revolution No. 29, Spring 1985). The bourgeois state foments these mass panics to promote obedience to its moral codes and regiment the population behind its agenda of social reaction. After the social upheaval of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and the Vietnam War, the bourgeoisie was desperate to bottle it all up again.
Documenting a Witchhunt in Real Time
Jarecki used a lot of home movie footage taken by David Friedman, Arnolds oldest son, during the events, as the media frenzy outside their cozy suburban home beat the drums to his fathers and brothers arrest. He captures the unraveling of his own family, showing almost unbearable pain and sorrow, but also a willingness by him and his brothers, Jesse and Seth, to fight against the frame-up, understanding at the very least that Arnolds proclivities did not make him a rapist. The footage also shows how his mother, Elaine, doubted Arnolds innocence on the rape charges, since she believed Arnold was at least guilty of being a pedophile and possessing child porn. Jarecki intersperses Davids footage with interviews he had with many of those involved, from cops to the judge to former students and their parents, to show eloquently how the accusations were a big web of lies engineered by the Nassau County Sex Crimes Unit to prove that this rather sweet old man was a violent sexual predator.
Arnold and Jesse were accused of engaging in forced anal sex with a plethora of kids, often in front of the whole class, using violence and verbal abuse, drawing blood and leaving them traumatized, yet the police could produce no physical evidence like bloody underwear or clothesnot even a bruise! No parents or children ever mentioned anything even remotely strange until the cops interrogated the kids about being abused. In the movie, Anthony Sgueglia, a detective with the Nassau County Sex Crimes Unit, allows that indeed there was a dearth of physical evidence. He continues, I dont even recall whether there was any physical evidence to back up the preposterous claims. And preposterous they were: many of the kids who were supposed victims of violent abuse day after day re-enrolled in the class semester after semester. Jesse tells of one example, where a 10-year-old boy attended class once a week for ten weeks and testified to being forced to have anal and oral sex 31 times. Then the next year the same boy re-enrolled in the classand for ten more classes he claimed to have had 41 sexual acts forced on him! One parent of a former student, whose child convinced him that nothing ever happened at the Friedmans, says that the police outright told his son, We know what happened to you. And in an interview not shown in the movie, one of Friedmans former piano students says that the detectives told him hed grow up gay if he didnt confess to being abused (Village Voice, 21 May).
In another series of interviews, a young man speaks of the horrors he was supposedly subjected to, seemingly corroborating the official account of the story. But then this witness gets embroiled in obvious contradictions in his testimony, until he admits that he no longer remembers any of the actual abuse, nor had he until a hypnotist made him realize he had been repressing traumatic memories. Thats what the prosecutors used as evidence!
In fact, this recovered memories fad, used especially to uncover incestuous abuse and rapes, has been scientifically debunked. Jarecki interviews Debbie Nathan, a journalist who was contacted by the Friedman family because she was following other cases of supposed sexual abuse in the country at the time, and had become convinced, through inspecting the evidence and analyzing the testimonies, that people were being convicted for no reason at all. In her book, Satans Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt (Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker [Basic Books, 1995], reviewed in Satan, the State and Anti-Sex Hysteria, W&R No. 45, Winter-Spring 1996), she talks about the many cases where people were accused of satanic ritual abuse and child molestation based on childrens fantastical testimonies that either were coerced or came after leading questioning that impressed on them what it was that the adults wanted to hear. Often parents or the cops, not satisfied with the kids inability to think up horrifying abuses, would send them to disreputable doctors whod use hypnosis to unlock the doors of their memories, as though the human brain were a molecular VCR where a simple push of the button could recover memories forgotten but never lost.
Child Porn: Obscene Is in the Eyes of the Beholder
In the press, this movie has generally received rave reviews, though the critics almost unanimously insist that viewers cannot know whether the Friedmans are guilty or innocent of the charges. Kenneth Turan, in an atypically negative review of the movie, lays this ambiguity bare: But the fact that satanic orgies did not take place in Great Neck computer classes is not the same thing as saying that absolutely nothing anyone could object to took place (Los Angeles Times, 13 June).
But Arnold Friedman committed no crime! The crime for which the state had substantiated proof was possession of child pornography. So what? Child pornography is, as is any kind of pornography, images and words intended for entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. Theres nothing wrong with getting off with visual aids, whether they portray naked women, young boys or monkeys going at it. One persons turn-on is another persons turn-offwho is going to decide what is obscene?
Until portions of the Child Pornography Control Act were recently struck down by the courts, it was illegal to show anyone who even appeared to be a minor in pornography. Currently the law defines any sexual depictions featuring at least one person whos under 18 as child pornography, irrespective of whether they have consented to having sexor whether they even had sex to begin with, since such laws also cover sexually suggestive underage nudity!
Anti-pornography laws legitimize state censorship and interference in peoples private lives. Its worth remembering that obscenity laws were used in this country for decades to ban the dissemination of birth control devices and information. And now that the war on terror is well under way, Attorney General John Ashcroft is focusing on targeted obscenity prosecutions that will deter others from producing and distributing obscene material (Los Angeles Times, 8 August). The Justice Department is charging Extreme Associates, a company that produces fantasy rape porn, with selling obscene material across state lines through the postal systema federal crime in this Orwellian hellhole. The companys executives now each face 50 years in prison and $2.5 million in fines! Drop the charges!
Pedophilia: The Ultimate Taboo
Critics like Kenneth Turan want to claim that Arnolds admission of pedophilia means that something objectionable could have happened. But outside of the fantastic recovered memories recounted in the film, no child ever accused Arnold Friedman of sexual abuse. There is no evidence that his sexually arousing experiences with boys that took place outside the classroom (not related to the charges) were not consensual. The bigots seek to stigmatize all sexual encounters between adults and younger people as wrong by definition. They certainly dont have any problem with violencethey are the ones shooting abortion practitioners and inciting murderous terror against gays and other deviants, such as Matthew Shepard and Gwen Araujo (see Transgender Youth Murdered in Brutal Attack, WV No. 791, 15 November 2002).
The only guideline that ought to exist in sexual relations is the rule of effective consent, that is, as long as both parties are at the time consenting to the act, nobody, least of all the state, has any right to tell them they cant do it. Obviously things become murkier when you have very young children with adults, and the question of whether the child has effectively consented to the act must be looked at on a case by case basis. What matters is whether someone is forcing them to do anything they dont want to do with their own bodies.
The twisted nature of age of consent laws is exactly in denying the scientific fact that young people are sexual, and many are having sweaty, gratifying, consensual sex right now, as you read this. Those laws artificially specify an age at which kidsall kidsmagically mature physically and mentally; one day youre terrified at your little boner, à la Jake Gyllenhaal in Bubble Boy; the next, youre a certified stud. But the human body is not a time-released sexual grenade. These laws are really about outlawing any sexual interaction for youth, preparing them for a life of repressed urges and unfulfilled desires. We are opposed to any such age of consent laws, a logical extension from our uncompromising opposition to any state intervention in the private realm of human relations. Down with all reactionary age of consent laws! Government out of the bedroom!
Anti-Sex Hysteria and the State
Although today news about satanic abuse no longer dominates the front pages as it did in the 1980s, many of the victims are still in jail, and the witchhunts nationwide apparatus of sex cops, prying social workers and medical quacks, bolstered with millions of dollars, prestige and power, remains firmly in place. As we said in Satan, the State and Anti-Sex Hysteria:
Much of this persecution aims to strengthen the bourgeois state in its regulation of the population and to spread panic as a diversion from the real brutality of life in this twisted, mean, bigoted, racist society. The Spartacist League has consistently opposed the outrageous intrusion of the government into private life, and demands an end to all laws against consensual crimes without victims such as prostitution, drug use and pornography.
The state has absolutely no right to set limits, regulations or judgment on the private goings-on in peoples lives. We reject the a priori criminalization of incest and have always fought against the vicious persecution of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, which defends the rights of adults and youth to mutually consensual sexual relations (see Hands off NAMBLA! Reinstate Peter Melzer! Protest Thought Crime Firing of Teacher! WV No. 807, 1 August).
Despite the propaganda that the state is there to mitigate problems in society as a neutral arbiter, as Marxists we know it exists solely to enforce the rule of one class, the bourgeoisie, over all others, especially the working class. The bourgeois state is not interested in protecting children, since it represents the system that denies them basic needs like food, shelter and education. After all, this is the same government that arrests their parents in racist war on drugs or war on terrorism campaigns, and above all enforces the class exploitation that creates the real misery in this world.
The state upholds in every way it can the inherently oppressive institution of the family, that horrible straitjacket of violence, misery, guilt and enforced moralism. But as this movie shows, of course the state does intervene all the time into the sacred family, but only to instill further fear and respect for its own authority.
Those who appeal to the bourgeois state to come to the aid of the oppressed are helping legitimize and increase its repressive powers. When seven-year-old Megan Kanka was brutally murdered in a sadistic sexual assault in 1994, calls to strengthen the states ability to go after such heinous crimes resulted in the nationwide set of so-called Megans Law, which Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996. That means that now sex offenders are required to register with local authorities, who then inform the neighborhood of where they live when theyre released from prisonforevermore. The problem is, only a small fraction of those sex offenders are actual violent criminals. Jesse Friedman himself was at one point chased out of his apartment and became homeless for weeks after his neighbors were notified that he had been convicted of child molestation. In his insightful Web site, www.freejesse.net, he speaks of having to wear electronic ankle monitors that certify he is home by eight oclock every night to abide by his curfew!
The bourgeois state will not refrain from using its armed thugs, the cops, to make sure no deviation, ideological or moral, is permitted in the private lives of citizens. The very existence of sex crimes units in police departments is a graphic reminder of that. Its enough to note that, until the Supreme Court ruling this summer that voided all anti-sodomy laws, many of these great democratic United States considered it criminal for gay adults to have sex. The government works hand in hand with the religious right wing to promote abstinence-only campaigns, seeking to ensure that teenagers who dont conform to their puritanical norm are maximally punished with unwanted pregnancies, lack of access to abortion and vulnerability to AIDS.
Today teenagers suspected of being gay are forced into therapy or boot camps to convert, while 9-year-old boys are charged with sexual assault for fondling their classmates, and juveniles are being locked up for statutory rape. Children are simply not allowed to touch one another, while any affectionate adult/child interactions are completely stigmatized. Today with the Internet a new thought police has been formed with cops luring unsuspecting pedophiles into setting up dates with imaginary teens to arrest them on child molestation chargesthink about it, now you can be charged with an imaginary crime against an imaginary victim! Talk about Minority Reportdystopia, thy name is America. And even in Hollywood such sexual persecutions continue, with Roman Polanski, the acclaimed director of The Pianist, unable to set foot in this country this past spring to accept his Academy Award because of a warrant for his arrest for statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl who consented to having sex with him 25 years ago (see Stop the Puritan Witchhunt Against Roman Polanski! WV No. 192, 10 February 1978).
Free the Victims! Overturn the Trials!
If this were just a simple movie review, Id say that this was one of the best movies of the year. But precisely because Capturing the Friedmans is not a work of fiction, but the tragic portrayal of a real familys destruction by the bourgeois states sinister forces and motives, its one of the most depressing movies you could see. If anything, its a powerful indictment of this rotten, oppressive societyand an even more powerful impetus to fight for a different world where someone like Arnold Friedman would not have felt compelled to live a miserable life, hiding and burying his most intimate desires, to fit into a pre-determined mold that does not take into account the true possibilities of human sexual expression. We can only hope that Jesse Friedman can get his life back, some peace of mind, and hopefully lots of money from Nassau County for wrongful imprisonment. But the fight is still on to free the countless others who are still in jail, rotting away for crimes they did not commit, and to defend those under attack by the never-ending searches, porn dragnets, entrapments and state harassment for consensual sexual activities. Overturn the trials! Free the victims!