Harris Mirkin never pretended he was not being provocative when he called for a reassessment of public attitudes to paedophilia in an academic journal three years ago.
What he did not realise at the time, however, was he had stepped on the socio-political equivalent of a land mine – one that has pitted him against a band of right-wing Christian fundamentalists who believe he should be silenced permanently.
Until his adversaries caught up with his writings on paedophilia, Professor Mirkin was held in high esteem as a political scientist of 30 years' standing at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
In the past few weeks, though, people have been leaving messages on his answering machine calling him a monster who deserves to die. One incensed state legislator has lobbied to have him fired and successfully persuaded colleagues in the Missouri House of Representatives to cast a vote docking $100,000 (£70,000) – the equivalent of his salary – from the state university budget.
Professor Mirkin's mistake, if that is what it was, was to break the last big taboo in American mores and suggest paedophilia should not be regarded as a monolithic phenomenon but rather as a social and political construct subject to the changing attitudes of different eras.
Raping a child, he argued, should not be put in the same category as sex between a consenting teenager and an adult; art works that refer to the sexuality of children should not be dismissed out of hand as pornography – just think of Donatello's David.
His article, which appeared in the Journal of Homosexuality, went entirely unnoticed until a group called Concerned Women For America discovered it on the internet.
Professor Mirkin told The Independent: "I don't defend hurting anyone. I'm a peacenik. Anyone who hurts a kid should go to jail for a good long time." But that has made little impression on the campaigners, who admit they have not read his work.
Professor Mirkin said he detected a new, and alarming, strategy by the Christian right towards views it does not like. "As opposed to the traditional practice of waiting for publication and then having a public discussion," he said, "what we are seeing is a very rabid group engaging in prior censorship and intimidation."Reuse content