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A new call to think critically

Book review by Chris, The Netherlands

Taken from Koinos # 31 (2001 # 3; see http://w3.to/koinos/ ), with one paragraph added

In April 2001, the Dutch psychiatrist Frank van Ree published the book Pedofilie; een controversiële kwestie. Analyse van een maatschappelijk vraagstuk (Pedophilia: a controversial issue. Analysis of a social problem).

Van Ree starts out by asserting that the media present a one-sided picture of "sex with children and young persons", and moreover, that they are poorly informed about the terminology used in these matters. I must confess that I myself had never heard of the term then mentioned in the book: parthenophilia (a preference for sexually maturing girls). Many sexological terms, such as ephebophilia (a preference for sexually maturing boys), have always remained obscure, while others, such as pederasty, have been abandoned to make place for the omnipresent term pedophilia, meaning everything and, consequently, nothing.

Van Ree defines pedophilia as a preference for children who do not yet show signs of maturation. He writes, "When a man or a woman makes sexual advances to a young person of for instance fifteen or sixteen – that is to say a person who is physically maturing – it is nonetheless often called pedophilia. When a person kills a child in panic after a sexual contact, it is not seldom called a sex murder committed for pleasure, even though the offender took no pleasure whatsoever in the killing." This calls to mind Van Ree’s 1984 study De man die een kind doodde (The man who killed a child); this man’s case is recalled further on in the new book.

Van Ree also discusses the phenomenon of older persons’ attraction to teenagers. His decision to call the book Pedofilie (Pedophilia) despite this broader consideration may be explained by the fact that the rest of the world knows only the term pedophilia, and means everything by it. Van Ree made a wise decision in first pointing out linguistic pitfalls. This is not a Foucaldian game or semantic nitpicking. If one thing can be rightly said to be subject to abuse, it is language.

Van Ree characterizes the separation between body and mind, and in the same spirit the separation between sexuality and eroticism, as "Cartesian dualism". Next, he does distinguish between pedophilia (the erotic attraction) and pedosexuality (the sexual act).

In itself, this is clear enough, but I see two complicating factors. Firstly, the same definitions are not applied to homophilia (a term more common in Dutch than in English) and homosexuality, respectively. Secondly, there is the danger of radicalization, which so frequently results from dualistic thinking. There is a chance that the term pedophilia will be Platonized and that the term pedosexuality will acquire a connotation of shabby, carnal, loveless lust (a dualism found, for instance, with the Belgian victimologist Carine Hutsebaut).

Another tricky issue is that Van Ree writes about pedophilia, ephebophilia and parthenophilia. He thus only differentiates between an attraction to males and an attraction to females among those attracted to teenagers. This can evoke the misconception that pedophiles are commonly attracted more or less to boys as well as girls, which in turn can strengthen the notion that their sexual identity is unstructured and therefore likely to be the result of a disorder. The internet discussion forums GirlChat and BoyChat in fact give the impression of two different cultures.

In Van Rees discussion of the international hype surrounding the issue of sex with children, more attention should have been paid to the episode of accusations of impossibly widespread ritual abuse, ritual murder and incest; and the international, devastating belief in such accusations. I get the impression that many people know absolutely nothing of these recent, very specific international witch hunts, which were often fueled by false "recovered memories". Let alone that people would be aware of the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, which are nonetheless quite subject to analysis. The remarkable ignorance or forgetfulness concerning these witch hunts is seen, for instance, in the Dutch Protestant Christian publication Geschonden lichaam; Pastorale gids voor gemeenten die geconfronteerd worden met seksueel geweld (The violated body; Pastoral guide for communities confronted with sexual violence, published by Boekencentrum, 1999) – a guide for the "mainstream" churches. It broaches "satanistic ritual abuse" in a brief and roundabout manner, but the authors have apparently never heard of McMartin or Oude Pekela.

Van Ree looks at the Western European world from the Christian era onward, and gleans many insights from the Belgian sexologist, ethicist and historian Jos van Ussel (1918-1976). Explaining "the antisexual syndrome", Van Ussel emphasized the prevalent work ethic of recent centuries, which pushed pleasure to the background. He also pointed at the widening of the gap between the young and the old, which among other things caused the pedagogical infantilization of the young.

Further, Van Ussel pointed out that five hundred years ago, people used to sleep in the same room naked and without separation based on gender or age. When people slept together after a festivity such as a country wedding, the seeds for a future wedding were frequently sown. Scenes portraying these aspects of daily life have reputedly been preserved. Also, there are reputedly "many depictions" from which it can be deduced that caressing young persons and children – without shunning the genitals – used to be quite normal.

Van Ree inquired into these assertions at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (Netherlands Institute for Art History) in The Hague. These institutions turned out not to be aware of the kind of depictions referred to by Van Ussel. Van Ree describes this strange situation in his book, but leaves it at that. He should have pursued the matter further, because he relies on Van Ussel for a sizeable portion of his information. Moreover, the reader is left with the impression that the famous sexologist Van Ussel was a charlatan.

After some informal inquiries of my own, I suspect – and I hope someone can shed more light on this – that first of all there may not be as many visual sources as Van Ussel suggested there were (or these sources must be rather unknown), and secondly, apart from visual sources it takes non-visual materials as well, such as writings, in order to draw the sort of conclusions Van Ussel drew. For although the depictions in question do exist (I happened upon a woodcut from 1511 by Hans Baldung Grien in which Mary’s mother Anna fondles baby Jesus’s penis), it is incorrect to use only artistic expressions in order to draw conclusions about what was considered normal in daily life.

In his discussion of (alleged) sexual violence of women against children and adolescents, Van Ree perceives a recent trend to map "female offenders". Marjan Sax and Sjuul Deckwitz, who published the balanced Op een oude fiets moet je het leren; Erotische en seksuele relaties tussen vrouwen en jonge meisjes en jongens (On an old bicycle; Erotic and sexual relations between women and young girls and boys) in 1992, will no doubt be grinding their teeth: society’s revulsion against intergenerational relations has grown so intense that, just like men, adult women in such relations are automatically seen as violent.

This development indicates that the revulsion is now leading a life of its own (or always has); the original (apparent) foundations for it having fallen away. After all, one of the historical pillars of the prolonged campaign against intergenerational intimacy is the radical feminist notion that men, being rulers within the patriarchy, are abusers of defenseless women and children. This radical feminist argument loses its significance now that the campaigners turn out to be putting women on a par with men as far as their erotic interactions with young persons. But the foundations can safely drop from a dogma which turns everything on its head. And fake arguments never run out.

Van Ree’s data on recent developments in Dutch morals law are not entirely correct. According to Van Ree, the "requirement of complaint" (sex between 12 and 16 is not to be prosecuted unless a complaint is lodged by the young person, the parents, or child welfare) existed "until the end of 1999" (p. 70). However, at the time of writing this review, in the spring of 2001, the requirement of complaint is still in force. The Dutch parliament still has to decide about the cabinet’s proposal to do away with it. Van Ree also writes: "In 1999, the House Justice Committee approved a bill concerning the legal protection of minors. It lowers the age of consent from 16 to 14. A boy or a girl would be allowed to have sexual relations between the ages of 14 and 16 under the condition that their partner be no more than five years their senior. At the beginning of 2000, this law was not yet ratified." However, the government’s latest plan is to fix the absolute age of consent at 16.

It is commendable that Van Ree points out in passing that appropriate, respectful sex in a friendship between a prepubescent boy and an older person can be pleasant and harmless: the sort of thing Sandfort showed twenty years ago (see, for instance, page 87). A homosexual man told Van Ree about the physical contact he had at the age of ten with an older friend: "He played around with me and made out with me. He usually caressed and kissed me, which I enjoyed. Sometimes he masturbated me. I enjoyed that too. But at that age I did not feel the desire to play with his member. He didn’t ask me to. He masturbated on his own and caught his sperm in a hankie. It never troubled me at all." Such empirical material is important, because in the end it is more convincing and clarifying than an entire theoretical-philosophical treatise could ever be. And the bulk of Van Ree’s book can be classified as just such a treatise.

Van Ree goes into the opinions about harm. A relevant remark: "The positive or negative effects a sexual contact may have are determined by a multiplicity of conditions. Today, there is too much reliance on research that establishes just the simple correlation between the presence or absence of a sexual contact and the presence or absence of demonstrable harm." A bit further on, when Van Ree presents the (dualist) idea of two "groups", the anti-peds and the pro-peds, who challenge "each other’s points of view and methods" time and again, he would have done well to point out that the conflict is not between people who believe that nothing should be allowed and people who believe that everything should be allowed. Rather, one can distinguish between radicals (whose suppositions were recently refuted by Rind, Bauserman and Tromovitch) and critical thinkers (who, basing their conclusions on the available evidence, do not believe in automatic harm in all cases).

A description coming from Van Ree’s own psychiatric practice (p. 106) of a suicidal woman who, as a girl, was forced to have sex with her grandfather, shows clearly how destructive sexual contacts between young persons and older persons can be under certain conditions, such as coercion and obligatory secrecy.

The chapter about prostitution is not a coherent argument. Van Ree’s conclusion "that child prostitution and commercial child pornography must be suppressed" is in itself a valid opinion, but it is arrived at abruptly, and seems radical after a number of careful, sophisticated considerations. The matter deserves a more thorough analysis. I have one anecdote for readers to consider, without implying an unambiguous conclusion. I used to know a boy of fifteen who felt attracted to men and who had the unconcealed ambition to make money from sexual contacts, which he spoke about lightly and pursued for sheer pleasure as well. At sixteen, he bought a cell phone in order to arrange for such contacts.

Since Van Ree treats "pedophilia" mainly as a problem in Western society, the emphasis is unavoidably on sex. In the second-to-last paragraph he sums up the options for those whose natural sexual expression is prohibited, and he mentions the option of sublimation: "for instance by helping to rear and educate kids, without having direct physical contact". Van Ree could have presented a more complete picture by indicating that exactly such non-sexual interactions are naturally part of the emotional desires of most persons who are attracted to children and adolescents.

There are quite a few typographical errors and related inaccuracies in the book. Almost in a Freudian way (although he himself is certainly not attracted to children), Van Ree writes about Brongersma’s two-volume study Loving Boys; A multidisciplinary study of sexual relations between adult and minor lovers, whereas it should be ‘adult and minor males’. A conscientious corrector could have taken care of all mistakes in one afternoon.

Frank van Ree
Pedofilie; een controversiële kwestie. Analyse van een maatschappelijk vraagstuk
Swets & Zeitlinger, Lisse, 2001. ISBN 90 265 1688 6


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