Boys and Harlots Beware

Sid Davis was a producer of educational films for children in the 1950’s and ’60’s. All the ones I’ve seen were painful to watch, but one of them managed to achieve infamy: Boys Beware (1961), which warns children and parents of the dangers presented by homosexuals.

As you’d expect from that description, it’s vile crap that conflates homosexuality with predatory pedophilia. Yet it doesn’t make me angry. I can see that it portrays gay men in a hateful and degrading way, but in style and substance it seems like a thing out of time and space, disconnected from our way of understanding the world. It doesn’t connect with me enough evoke the visceral anger that it should. I mean, it features a homosexual man who prowls the streets trying to seduce young boys by — I’m not making this up — taking them fishing at the duck pond. I guess gays hadn’t invented dance clubs and ecstasy yet.

(Sid Davis’s social guidance films inspire a certain creepy fascination. In Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970, Ken Smith describes them as having “a trancelike style, stripped of anything even remotely approaching drama or human emotion.” Despite that, they were quite alarming for their time, including situations in which children could be seriously injured, raped, or killed. Probably the most bizarre is Live and Learn from 1951, which includes several unpleasant injuries, including a young lady tripping while running with scissors!)

Boys Beware actually tells four short stories, but it’s the first one that everybody remembers. I’ll be talking about it below, and I’m going to recap it, but if you’re in a place where you can watch some vintage homophobia without embarrassment or a complaint to Human Resources, you might want to check it out. It’s just the first five minutes.

I want to talk about this story because it contains a certain type of misunderstanding about gay people that also arises in other social contexts.

It’s about a young man named Jimmy Barnes who needs to get home after playing in the park, so he thumbs a ride from a stranger named Ralph who seems friendly enough. They chat on the ride, and he drops Jimmy off at home. The next day, he meets Jimmy at the park and takes to a drive-in and treats him to a Coke. He tells a few off-color jokes. The following Saturday they go fishing at the duck pond, and Jimmy has a lot of fun. After fishing, they have lunch, and Ralph shows Jimmy some pornographic pictures.

And now the narrator reveals the shocking truth:

What Jimmy didn’t know is that Ralph was sick. A sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious — a sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual: A person who demands an intimate relationship with members of their own sex.

But by now Jimmy felt a fondness for Ralph, and they continued to go places together. Ralph was generous and took Jimmy many interesting places and did many nice things for him. He bought presents, and even gave him money. But payments were expected in return.

You see, Jimmy hadn’t recognized Ralph’s approach soon enough. When Ralph first asked Jimmy to go fishing alone, he should have discussed it with his parents or teacher.

The film then shows Jimmy and Ralph going into a hotel room, presumably to have sex. Later Jimmy confesses everything to his parents and Ralph is arrested. So is Jimmy, but he’s released on probation. And that’s where the story of Jimmy and Ralph ends.

One thing the film never really addresses is why exactly Jimmy Barnes goes into that hotel room with Ralph. It’s not like Ralph had a weapon or made any threats. Yet in the frame established by Boys Beware, Ralph the sick homosexual somehow manipulates Jimmy into having sex with him. It’s almost like he casts some sort of mysterious spell.

The filmmakers have of course stacked the deck — making Ralph kinda creepy, and portraying Jimmy as almost child-like (much younger than the actor who plays him) — but they clearly intend this to be a “typical story” of the dangers of encountering homosexuals. So how exactly do typical homosexuals like Ralph get boys like Jimmy to go along with them? How do they manipulate young men into joining them in their perversions? The filmmakers leave that unexplained.

However, from our vantage point in the more open and tolerant future, it’s really not so mysterious, and the answer seems kind of obvious: Jimmy Barnes is gay.

So with just a little bit of re-framing, we can tell the story of Jimmy and Ralph a little differently: As he goes through adolescence, Jimmy no doubt realizes his sexuality is different from other boys, but he’s probably struggling to understand what it means. Gays are still mostly in the closet — the first Gay Pride parade won’t happen for about a decade — so Jimmy’s probably feeling confused and lonely. Then he meets Ralph, an older and more confident gay man. They spend time together, going out on dates — the drive-in diner, the local duck pond fishing hole, hunting (in the park, from the look of it), and even miniature golf — until they eventually get a hotel room and have sex.

In other words, it’s a fairly routine story of a young person losing his virginity to a more experienced partner. Or maybe I’m being too dramatic. Maybe Jimmy’s been getting laid all the time, and Ralph was just the first guy his parents found out about.

But the thing is, regardless of whatever really happened between our hypothetical Jimmy and Ralph, given the prevailing attitudes about homosexuality at the time, Mr. and Mrs. Barnes probably view it as happening a lot like the way Boys Beware shows it. After all, they don’t realize their son is gay — most people at the time would have had very little accurate information about homosexuality — and they know they raised their Jimmy to be a good boy. So if he’s doing something sinful and perverted, it must be because of the evil influence of this Ralph person. There’s only one logical conclusion: Their nice straight son met a homosexual man, and somehow he turned their son into a homosexual!

(Just to be clear, I’m not saying that pedophilia, or even Boys Beware‘s story of creepy old Ralph having sex with young Jimmy, is ordinary gay dating behavior. What I’m saying is that ordinary gay dating behavior is re-told and re-interpreted by others as Boys Beware style stories of creepy older guys like Ralph who want to have sex with young boys like Jimmy.)

Parents and other people who care about children probably make this kind of logical mistake about other things besides homosexuality. Think, for example, about the mythology of the “pusher.”

I remember when I was a kid, getting lectures from teachers and other adults, warning me about drug pushers who would try to get me to use drugs. Even today, it conjures up images of a creepy guy who skulks around the neighborhood trying to talk kids into using drugs. I wouldn’t have wanted to run into any pushers in school.

Fortunately, I never did. Not a one. But I did have a number of friends who used drugs, and when we were at a party together, they were usually polite enough to offer me some of whatever they were smoking. I always politely declined (really). Although if I had started smoking pot, I probably would have been expected to pay for it. But anyway, I had friends who offered me drugs and would have been willing to sell them to me, but I never met anyone who pushed them, whatever that means.

I assume this is another example of Boys Beware-style thinking. Parents don’t want to believe their kids might decide to try illegal drugs all by themselves, so they assumed it had to be some mysterious individual — the pusher — who got their kids to try drugs. Young Jimmy is a good boy. It can’t be that he wanted to smoke pot. He would never have tried it if it weren’t for that awful pothead Ralph…

I was reminded of Boys Beware and the kinds of logical errors behind it, after reading one of Maggie McNeill‘s many posts about the myths behind how women get into sex work. I think there’s a lot of the same kind of faulty thinking going on with the people who believe those myths.

Most people don’t know a lot about how sex workers live their lives, and for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think people tend to overestimate the hardship involved. This makes it difficult for them to believe that women enter the profession voluntarily, so they tend to assume there must be a lot of coercion involved. They conclude that every young girl working the street must have been “turned out” by a pimp, and that any woman who travels to take a sex-related job must be trafficked.

So I’m sure that someone has produced fictional cautionary tales about Ralph the pimp, who treats young Jane real nice until he puts her out on the street to sell herself, or Ralph the human trafficker, who brings young Jelena to America by promising her work as a dancer only to force her to work in a brothel.

To be sure, there is sometimes coercion involved in sex work, just as there are some people who trick others into taking drugs by slipping them into drinks, and just as some adult men like Ralph will force themselves on young boys like Jimmy. But when people are unable to believe that anyone would willingly participate in sex work, when they are unwilling to believe that kids would be curious about drugs on their own, and when they refuse to admit that their children could ever be gay, then they are prone to overestimating the amount of coercion, and conjuring up demons where none exist.

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