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 Jarecki’s 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 state—cops, courts, laws—with 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, who’d 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 who’d 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, Arnold’s 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 son’s 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 America’s 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 teacher’s 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 trials—during which the state failed to uncover a single piece of credible evidence—an 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 blood—all 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, Arnold’s oldest son, during the events, as the media frenzy outside their cozy suburban home beat the drums to his father’s and brother’s 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 Arnold’s proclivities did not make him a rapist. The footage also shows how his mother, Elaine, doubted Arnold’s innocence on the rape charges, since she believed Arnold was at least “guilty” of being a pedophile and possessing child porn. Jarecki intersperses David’s 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 clothes—not 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 don’t 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 class—and 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 Friedman’s former piano students says that the detectives told him he’d grow up gay if he didn’t 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. That’s 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, Satan’s 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 children’s 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” who’d 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. There’s nothing wrong with getting off with visual aids, whether they portray naked women, young boys or monkeys going at it. One person’s turn-on is another person’s turn-off—who 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 who’s under 18 as child pornography, irrespective of whether they have consented to having sex—or 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 people’s private lives. It’s 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 system—a federal crime in this Orwellian hellhole. The company’s 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 Arnold’s 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 don’t have any problem with violence—they 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 kids—all kids—magically mature physically and mentally; one day you’re terrified at your little boner, à la Jake Gyllenhaal in Bubble Boy; the next, you’re 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 witchhunt’s 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 people’s 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 state’s ability to go after such heinous crimes resulted in the nationwide set of so-called “Megan’s 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 they’re released from prison—forevermore. 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,, he speaks of having to wear electronic ankle monitors that certify he is home by eight o’clock 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. It’s 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 don’t 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” charges—think about it, now you can be charged with an imaginary crime against an imaginary victim! Talk about Minority Report—dystopia, 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, I’d 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 family’s destruction by the bourgeois state’s sinister forces and motives, it’s one of the most depressing movies you could see. If anything, it’s a powerful indictment of this rotten, oppressive society—and 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!

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