“In those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong.” So said Tek Young Lin, a former teacher at the Horace Mann School to the New York Times in 2012. He was referring to his sexual relations with boys during his years at the prestigious prep school, where Lin taught English, coached cross country running and even served as school chaplain. In the wake of an article I had written about a number of teachers at Horace Mann who had sexually abused students in the 1960s and ‘70s, Lin admitted he had had sex with a few (“maybe three, I don’t know”), crossing boundaries he claimed were then as hazy as incense smoke.
There are countless variations on “that 70s excuse”–there were different social mores then; relationships were more fluid; it was a morally blurry era; young people were more adventurous, experimenting sexually the same way they inhaled pot smoke. Some form of that 70s excuse has been trotted out in defense of Bill Cosby’s drugging of dozens of women. “Quaaludes happen to be the drug that kids, young people were using to party with,” Cosby said in his 2005 deposition. It could be heard in the defense of Kim Fowley, the late music producer and co-creator of novelty hits like “Alley Oop,” who was accused of raping Jackie Fuchs, a 14 year-old member of the girl teen band The Runaways, in the 1970s. (Fowley made no secret of his interest in young girls, even advertising for “legally emancipated” minors in a 1975 underground ‘zine; a musician who used to go cruising for teens with Fowley in Westlake admitted, “We’d all be arrested now.”)
It’s true that on the surface, the 70s were different. The burgeoning women’s movement and the nascent gay rights’ struggle, along with the already popular birth control pill, played a role in changing people’s minds about sexual behavior. Pre-marital and even extra-marital sex became far more accepted, or at least discussed. Tired of protest, assassinations and riots, certain segments of society clamored for release from middle class mores and 60-style idealism alike. Evidence of changing attitudes could be found in the night clubs as well as the campuses, as the trippy sounds of the Doors gave way to thumping all-night discos where the sex and drugs flowed. If the 60s was the party, the 70s was the jaded but louche after-party. “Everybody was more wised-up than everybody else and nobody was awake to make the bagels,” P.J. O’Rourke quipped about the era.
Somehow, though, all these changes in sensibility have become conflated with the idea that some people had a valid excuse for not reporting or even identifying criminal behavior like rape or sexual abuse at the time. Should parents have been so trusting of the adults they left their children with then? Maybe, but Fowley reassured Fuchs’ mom that he had Fuch's best interests at heart and insisted that the underage rock-n-roller would have tutors and bodyguards on the road. The hustler wore her down, she later confessed; “At that point I would have signed a contract for both my kids to be slaughtered in front of me."
The truth is that spotting a sexual predator is often difficult. They groom their victims in broad daylight. Accusing a colleague of something so horrific is even more difficult since grooming behaviors are, by design, difficult to spot. Sometimes sitting in the cafeteria with a student is simply sitting in the cafeteria with a student.
Recently the Pope made headlines for meeting with people who had been sexually abused by priests on his visit to the US. But the previous pope, Benedict, said in 2010 that the curse of moral relativism had clouded the judgment of the clergy in the 70s. “Pedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children,” he said, which makes you wonder where he was hanging out at the time.
Was everyone doing Qualuudes? Did the old rules no longer apply, really? As Joyce Fitzpatrick, a former colleague of Mr. Lin’s at Horace Mann, wrote in an open letter, “I was there at school with you for part of the 70s. Do not distort what was allowed in that world in your own pathetic defense. There was no license then for a 48-year-old man to abuse a 15-year-old. That boundary was crystal clear to us then just as it was in the Roaring '20s or in any period where a child's sensibilities were recognized.”
Since the 1970s we have seen many significant changes in societal norms. Drunk drivers no longer swerve gas-guzzlers with a cigarette in hand as their unbelted children wrestle free-range in the back seat. Gay-bashing high school students are often reprimanded and even expelled for their behavior. And while it has never been easy for someone who has been molested to speak about the experience, the internet has provided a powerful tool to bring together victims and shame predators and the institutions that harbor them.
That 70s excuse can serve many functions: It cuts the perpetrator some slack, enables us to continue our real or imagined relationship with a hero, and assuages any guilt we might feel for our own inaction or apathy at the time. It also enables us to indulge ourselves in a kind of blinkered nostalgia–by imagining the times to have been wilder or freer than they really were, we can vicariously enjoy the fantasy of a freer life.
In the end, however, blaming the times serves no one but those who committed the crimes and those who won’t own up to crimes committed by and at their own institutions. That 70s excuse needs to go the way of bell-bottom jeans and the lava lamp. Some tunes just don’t sound so good the second time around.
Amos Kamil is the author, with Sean Elder, of Great Is the Truth: Secrecy, Scandal and the Quest for Justice at the Horace Mann School (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) to be published in November.