Like many, the recent social media explosion erroneously linking Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump to the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) gave me more than a little pause.[i] Given what I research, I’d heard of NAMBLA but was under the impression that they had disbanded. A quick perusal of the organization’s website and Wikipedia page confirmed that it is still active although on a very marginal scale.[ii]
One thing that did jump out at me in this reading was a listing for a 1994 documentary entitled Chicken Hawk: Men Who Love Boys. Immediately, the title was what caught my eye, as “chicken hawk” is an outdated term that was once actively used within the queer community to describe an older man who pursues a much younger man.[iii] That it would be used in this context to describe pedophilia was disturbing to me on a variety of levels and so I set out to watch it for myself (it’s readily available on YouTube).
Part of me really wishes that I hadn’t.
When people ask me what is the most horrific film I’ve ever watched, I usually point to another documentary, Titicut Follies (1967), which I review here. The experience of revulsion and disgust are intimately tied to the horror viewing experience. And while there are cases of audiences publicly vomiting upon watching The Exorcist (1973)[iv] or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)[v], I don’t tend to be triggered by fictional narratives. Non-fiction narratives, however, are a whole different story, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more repulsive premise than Chicken Hawk.
Billed as an inside look at NAMBLA, the film starts by providing an overview of sorts as to the philosophy of the organization which is that children are naturally curious sexually and that they possess the ability to consent to sexual relationships. That these relationships often involve men decades older than the children goes without saying. And while the members profiled argue that NAMBLA is an educational and political organization, the comments made by the interview subjects are about the foulest advocacy of pedophilia I’ve ever seen committed to film. It’s difficult to know what the organization hoped to accomplish by participating in this documentary but the end result is a gut-wrenching look at how pedophiles justify their destructive perversions.
Technically, the documentary reflects its extreme independent roots. Its director, Adi Sideman, was an NYU sophomore at the time of filming, but his ability to let the characters of his film direct the narrative suggests the deft touch of a more seasoned director. Instead of constructing an argument-centered narrative via creative editing and sound bytes, Sideman instead allows his subjects free reign in extolling their controversial views. And the results are more horrifying then anything that could be imagined in a (fictional) horror film.
One of the reasons this film is so difficult to view is how shockingly cavalier these men are in their descriptions of abuse. The film mainly follows Leyland Stevenson as he goes about his daily chores waxing poetic about his love of young boys. In one gripping sequence, he is interviewed about a car ride he gave to two prepubescent boys. In Stevenson’s version, the boys were openly flirting with him, but his story is juxtaposed against that told by the boys themselves, who admit to being very uncomfortable in Stevenson’s presence, thus making clear the utter disconnect from reality that exists within the mind of a pedophile. But the worst is yet to come. While we watch Stevenson be caring and attentive to his elderly neighbor, he recounts his rape of a child while on a camping trip. Stevenson happily claims that the sexual encounter was instigated by the child and supports this allegation by saying, “no lubrication was required…or desired.”
If you haven’t vomited a little bit in your mouth from that, you clearly have a stronger stomach than I do.
We also get to hear from a number of other NAMBLA supporters, including Allen Ginsberg, yes that Allen Ginsberg, who reads an ode to boy love at a public rally, as well as a handful of members who are attending the same public event. By letting these men describe their perversions in their own words, the film gives NAMBLA just enough rope with which to hang itself.
Yet, despite the clear perversity of its central characters, the documentary does offer up some interesting moral quandaries. In one scenario, a Bronx Science High School teacher has his affiliation with the organization brought to light. He is immediately terminated even though there is no indication that he has ever acted on his pedophilic inclinations. We then see one of his former pupils ask the question, “How can anyone in the United States be convicted for just the thoughts in their head?” Philosophically, it’s a fair question, but who wants to engage in hypotheticals when children are at risk?
Another issue that arises in the film is the linkage between the Gay Rights Movement and NAMBLA. The documentary shows how disgusted some attendees of a Gay Pride March are at the NAMBLA contingent, whose members argue that they are similarly oppressed by the dominant culture, but I personally didn’t see enough of a distinction being made in the film between the two groups. In fact, most of the comments made against NAMBLA were tepid at best, with a few exceptions. Certainly the time period of filming plays a role. As recent as 1994 might feel to some of us, public perception of Gay Rights has shifted dramatically since then. Even more telling, 1994 was the year that the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) formally rebuked NAMBLA and its mission.
To say that this is disturbing viewing is a vast understatement. And so I have thought long and hard about whether to recommend this documentary as essential viewing. Obviously people need to be aware of and sensitive to their own triggers, but ultimately I do think that it is important for people to push past their level of comfort and watch Chicken Hawk. It has been screened by numerous advocacy agencies, such as Straight Kids USA, and by law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, because there IS value in understanding how depravity functions within society.
For the past year and a half I have been researching the ways popular culture—from fan fiction to horror films to pornography—markets perverse sexuality, along with the overlap between those genres. I am often asked why I would subject myself to material I find so upsetting, and the reason is the same as the reason I think watching this documentary is important: the real monsters of which we should be afraid are not ax-wielding maniacs but those who hide under the cloak of normalcy. These monstrosities exist and are only given power by our willful refusal to acknowledge them. If horror teaches us anything, it’s that the only thing to be afraid of is what’s hidden in the dark. Once a monster is brought into the open, it loses all power.
For better or worse, Chicken Hawk brings those monsters into the light.
[i] Snopes gives a good account of the background and reason behind this false rumor: http://www.snopes.com/trump-did-not-donate-to-nambla/
[ii] This is likely due to the advent of the Internet, which likely means that pedophiles no longer have to supply their names to a mailing list in order to find others of their ilk.
[iii] Usage of this term historically was used to signify a particular relationship of an older man, a ‘chickenhawk” and a much younger man, a “twink.” While the assumption was that the “twink” would be barely legal, it is important to note that the term initially referred to a relationship in which both parties were of age. However, as early as 1975, public news outlets were using the term to convey a predatory undercurrent. See “The Sexes: Crossing Signals,” Time Magazine, September 8, 1975.
[iv] Paul, William. 1994. Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. New York: Columbia University Press, p.481.
[v] Staiger, Janet. 2000. Perverse Spectators: The Practices of Film Reception. New York: New York University Press, p. 181.