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The Problem with Consensus Morality

Bruce Rind, Ph.D., 
Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, 
Pennsylvania 19122 
(e-mail: rind3@temple.edu )


In his essay on pedophilia, Schmidt argues that adult-child sex is a problem apart from the issue of harm and damage. The problem is, he maintains, that adult-child sex violates "consensus morality" because it does not occur between equals. 

In this moral system, 

which is based on a post-1960's liberal feminist perspective that has effectively supplanted the more traditional moral system based on religious values, equality between partners in sexual relations and only equality allows 

"respect for the autonomy of the other," 
achieving intimacy based on the 
"needs, wishes, and limits of others." 

Proponents of this perspective seem to assume that it accurately reflects basic properties of human nature. 

As a proponent, Schmidt asserts that there is an inherent conflict in adult-child sex because of an "imbalance in power," which "endangers the child's capacity for sexual self-determination, threatening to overpower it completely." 

He tests this deduction first by asking: Can there be sexual consensus at all between adults and children? His conclusion is never and his evidence is a hypothetical case of a 10-year-old boy who sees a back rub as friendly assistance, whereas the man he is with sees it as a prelude to sex. Schmidt argues that the two are not "on the same page." They have different scenarios, which the man must maintain through deception to keep the plot moving. This disparity of scenarios and the essential deception, Schmidt finishes, demonstrate lack of true consent -- for this hypothetical case and for all real cases as well.

Moralists have too easy a job. 

They tap into conventional values, deduce therefrom what must be, cite a hypothetical illustration (or a carefully selected real one), and proclaim universality. Thus, socially constructed morals become immutable laws of nature. This is the problem with Schmidt's thesis. 

Consider these specific weaknesses in his argument. 

he improperly buffers his moral system with lofty, even self-congratulatory, characterizations that discourage critical examination of its tenets and claims. He describes this system as "enlightened," "democratic," and "radically pluralistic," the implication being that one must be unreasonable (unenlightened, undemocratic, radically exclusionary) to question it. 
his hypothetical case no more proves the universality of his proposition than an imaginary smart redhead proves that all real redheads are smart. 
why should one assume a priori that a power imbalance in sexual relations is by nature unacceptable or deleterious? 

Such assumptions are not made in other adult-child interactions, such as wrestling, tickling, hugging, mentoring, disciplining, or preaching, which clearly involve power imbalances. No one objects that the child's athletic, tactile, affectional, intellectual, behavioral, or religious self-determination will be overpowered. Moreover, numerous societies have


endorsed sexual relationships between men and boys precisely because of the power imbalance, seeing the relationships as serving pedagogic and growth functions 

(Ford & Beach, 1951; Herdt, 1987). 

Many primatologists have noted protective and bonding functions that appear to be operating in analogous relations in monkeys and apes 

(Ford & Beach, 1951; Vasey, 1995). 

In short, it is false to assume a priori that sexual power imbalance is by nature problematic.

The assumption of the overpowering of sexual self-determination deserves further elaboration. 

Finkelhor (1979, 1984) many years ago already articulated the positions Schmidt is currently espousing. But the weakness of his articulation is instructive, as it points to the problem of trying to be a scientist and a moralist simultaneously. 

Like Schmidt, Finkelhor argued that harm is not needed to establish the immorality and unacceptability of adult-child sex. Instead, Finkelhor continued, the unacceptability is based on the child's inability to consent, because he does not know what he is getting into and he cannot say no. 

A critic then complained that, if it is true that children cannot make judgments about sex, how can they judge among rival claims of the various religious sects 

(e.g., agree with an adult to be taken to one church rather than another or none at all)?. 

Finkelhor responded that it is different with sex, because sex is more likely to be harmful. His argument is circular: the issue falls back to harm, even though harm is claimed to be unessential to the point.

Most objectionable from a scientific and philosophy of logic perspective is Schmidt's willingness to test a universal proposition with a single confirming hypothetical case. Appropriate testing would consist of determining whether disconfirming empirical cases can be found. 

I provide such cases. 

These are based on a sampling of interviews I recently conducted on individuals who learned about me from publicity surrounding my publications and contacted me to tell their stories. 

These cases, involving five men who had sex as boys around age 10 with men, dispute Schmidt's claim that there can never be sexual consensus between prepubescents and adults. The cases are cross-national, coming from Australia, Canada, England, France, and the United States. The first three men are homosexual and the last two are heterosexual. All names have been altered to preserve confidentiality.

Case 1. 

Nathan, a 45-year-old Brit, began being intensely curious about adult male genitalia when he was 8. At this age, in attempt to satisfy this curiosity, he surreptitiously went into the room of his household's sleeping man servant and fondled him under his bed covers. 
By age 10, his curiosity had turned into sexual arousal. He unsuccessfully tried to solicit sex from men in locker rooms. 
At age 11, he met a neighbor man, whom he worked on over many visits in attempt to initiate sex. Eventually, he succeeded. 
In his many repeats with the man over the next 2 years, Nathan reported that he was the "conductor" -- he controlled the sexual interactions. While still a boy, he had several other sexual relations with men, all of which he viewed as very positive. He thinks the sex helped his sexual self-confidence: as he matured, he knew exactly what he wanted in sex, while his peers were still searching.

Case 2. 

James, a 23-year-old Canadian, first felt sexually aroused by other males at age 6 and had his first sex at 8 with a peer. 
At 11, he befriended a neighbor man, to whom he gave many signals, hoping for sex to occur. Eventually, it did, which made him feel proud and closer to the man. 
Over the next 3 years, he visited the man regularly, often secretly to avoid the possibility of his parents ending the relationship. He saw the relationship as very positive and said it built his personality (e.g., greater self-confidence) and influenced many of his tastes (e.g., an appreciation for literature). 

Case 3. 

Daniel, a 33-year-old Frenchman, was physically affectionate with his father starting at age 6. 
By 8, he became sexually attracted to him. 
At 10, he initiated sexual fondling with him, which the father accepted. 
In the sexual relationship, which lasted 4 years, Daniel always initiated the sex. In retrospect, he cherished the intimacy and described the relationship as "beautiful, pure, security, confidence, and love." He said it built his sexual self-confidence.

Case 4. 

At age 8, Dennis, a 21-year-old American, initiated sexual contact with a man friendly with his family, whom he suspected of being involved with his older brother. Sex occurred between them for the next 2 years. He said he usually initiated the encounters because he was always ready for sex. 
He described the relationship as the most positive he has ever had. He saw himself as having the upper hand, because he felt he had control over the man, who went to great lengths to fulfill his wishes. He felt that his adolescent and adult sexual relations went more smoothly because of the competence he got from these early experiences. Asked how a heterosexual male could have enjoyed homosexual relations, he answered that he was attracted to sex back then, not females or males per se.

Case 5. 

John, a 22-year-old Australian, first realized his sexual arousal to girls at age 8. 
By 9, he felt lonely and was bullied by older boys, when he met a male neighbor in his late teens. They quickly became friends, and John spent a lot of time at his house. The young man eventually initiated masturbatory sex with him. John was at first apprehensive that others would find out, but became comfortable with the sex once he felt safe from this concern. The relationship lasted 3 years. He was proud to be seen with the older male, saw him as his protector, and saw the intimacy they had as the highlight of his life. Asked if the relationship was consenting, he said yes, because he wanted it, the young man wanted it, he loved the young man, so consent meant, "Yes, do it."

These cases contradict Schmidt's claims that the scenarios between adults and prepubescents are always


different and that the adults require deception to move the relationship along. In each case, the boy was already knowledgeable about sex; in four cases, the boy actually initiated it. 

These cases contradict the claim that power imbalances by nature overpower sexual self-determination: all subjects felt they had control in their sexual interactions and felt their needs and wishes were being respected and attended to. 

Rather than impeding their development, the relationships served pedagogic and other growth functions. In this sense, they are consistent with cross-cultural and cross-species data, from which researchers have often inferred similar functions. 

Parenthetically, the very presumption that adults necessarily have greater power is questionable, as these cases illustrate. Moreover, one accusatory word from a child is currently without peer in our society in its potential to overpower completely an adult's self-determination in life, liberty, and estate, which seems to give the child enormous power. 

These cases were self-selected and occurred in cultures extremely antagonistic toward this type of relationship. Thus, they may well be anomalous perforce. Nevertheless, because reports from cultures that permit or encourage these relations (rather than investing them with guilt and enforcing sexual ignorance) indicate that positive reactions are common (Williams, 1996), these cases cannot be dismissed as flukes. 

In fact, the cross-cultural data suggest the universal potential of boys under but approaching puberty to respond "on the same page" as older males (Herdt, 1987; Williams, 1996). Schmidt's morally-derived universal proposition of invariant non-consensus fails empirically.

To be sure, sexual consensus is absent from many sexual encounters between 10-year-olds and adults in our society. The important point, however, is that there is variation (sometimes it does not occur, sometimes it does, and in varying degrees) and this variation is moderated by certain factors (e.g., individual differences, culture). 

These data-driven conclusions are not reachable from the consensus morality paradigm, which is ideological and sees for the adherent what must be rather than guiding him or her to see what is

A motto for this moral system might be "Gleichheit macht frei" (equality makes free), because this system deifies sexual equality as liberating while demonizing sexual inequality as enslaving. 

Even though a liberal system, it shares with the conservative authoritarian personality 

(Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, & Sanford, 1950) 

an all-consuming focus on power in relationships at the expense of other factors that may be more relevant. As such, consensus morality hinders scientific examination of adult-minor sex, acting like a Procrustean bed by forcing all data and interpretation to fit the contours of this ideology.

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