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by Edward Brongersma

Slightly over a century ago, a new and hitherto unknown kind of aggression began to arise: the aggression against people who love children and want to express their love for them with bodily tenderness.

For men, more than for women, the situation has always been awkward - but for other reasons. In ancient Greece, in Rome, in China and Japan, men had loved boys and were held in high esteem for this, as they are still today in high esteem with a number of peoples who live closer to nature. In other cultures, like the Arab or the Indian, they might be officially frowned upon, but their doings were considered mostly a peccadillo. Where Christians came into power, however, boy lovers were killed. But - and this is the important point to stress - not because they had chosen a partner of a low age. The boy wasn’t considered a victim (he was punished as well as the adult) for he was guilty as well of a heinous crime: homosexuality.

Circumstances were better, but not always sunny, for men who loved girls. In itself, there was nothing against having sex with a girl. But the girl was the property of her father, and this property was damaged if she wasn’t a virgin any longer. So the father could sue for compensation. Moreover, the honor of the family was at stake (if the family had any!), and the father and brothers could take revenge on the man who had seduced [their] daughter or sister. Questions of rank and social standing were of the upmost importance in Medieval society and long thereafter. Therefore, much depended on the position of the seducer. A man of lower rank than the girl - a servant or teacher - was punished or fined; a man of equal or higher class rank was left in peace - but, I must emphasize it again, whatever difficulties a man might meet after having sex with a girl, the reason never lay with the fact that she was still so young.

Women who had sex with a boy passed unnoticed, unless they were punished for adultery. No mention is made of women having sex with girls.

Children weren’t seen as a separate category. The genitals of children were openly fondled by parents, friends and nurses, as children evidently liked this. Children, indeed, were seen as sexual beings, and therefore interested in sex. Erection in small boys was an amusing spectacle. The famous humanist, Erasmus, wrote a treatise on carnal pleasure in the form of a conversation between a young man and a prostitute, and dedicated it to the six-year-old son of a friend. Medieval literature is full of allusions that boys nd girls should have sex as soon as they matured. Boys and girls married when they were eleven and had "carnal knowledge" of each other. No one took offense for Dante’s love for nine-year-old Beatrice.

The city fathers of Ulm, Germany had to make regulations to stem the flow of 12 to 14-year-old boys to the brothels. In my native town of Haarlem, the famous painter and scholar, Carel van Mander, who died in 1505, taught his pupils, boys of 12, to have sex in order to avoid a headache and to better concentrate on their study. And in England, in the same time, 13-year-old Elisabeth Ramsbotham complained officially that her eleven-year-old husband, John Bridge, had not yet deflowered her.

The idea that sex with a friend of the same age, or with an older person, in itself could harm a child was as absent from European culture as it is still absent today, according to ethnologists, in many other cultures. Penal law was therefore silent on this matter. Children were on equal footing with adults, protected against rape, violence and abuse of authority, but never against sex as such.

This was, for instance, the legal situation in the Netherlands up until 1886. Less than a century ago, consensual sex with children, boys or girls, whether heterosexual or homosexual, constituted no offense in this country. This changed in the Victorian age.

How did this change come about? How was it prepared? Historians could offer a long and necessarily complex explanation. Let me point out only two factors. First: a considerable increase in knowledge and technology, demanding broader and longer education. Second: the rise to power of an industrious bourgeoisie which was bent on accumulating riches by diligence and thrift.

The increase in science and technology automatically increased the time needed for instruction and apprenticeship. A boy of 14 could no longer be a teacher, a commander in the army, a ship’s captain, or a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, as he had been in former times. He couldn’t be a husband or a father of children because he wasn’t able to earn the wages to support a family; he had to learn. The age of majority and the mean age of marriage went up. In modern industrial society, more and more years elapsed between reaching physical maturity and being able to marry. In these years the sexuality of boys and girls was of no use - superfluous.

Every expression of sexuality became superfluous and suspicious. Sex was disturbing. It kept people from working or studying. It was crazily wasteful. Even healthy young couples, using no contraceptives, have an average of over 200 copulations to one birth, and every single time the male produces hundreds of millions of spermatozoa, just to produce one baby! What a dreadful squandering of energy! How antagonistic to the economic principles of virtuous bourgeoisie! Isn’t sex a bad, base, dirty habit below human dignity?

These two rather prosaic factors together engendered a fairy tale. Society had, as I said, no use for a child’s sexuality, so it simply declared that a child didn’t have any. And so emerged the fairy tale depicting the child as asexual, pure, and innocent: pure, because not contaminated by so dirty a thing as sex; innocent, because not sharing the guilt of adults who indulged in this sinful activity.

Woe, now, to the criminal who dared to soil this pure being, to destroy its innocence! It was impossible that any child could ever have anything to do with sex, spontaneously, out of its own free will. If something happened, only the evil adult could be at fault; the initiative could only have been his. And so we see, during the nineteenth century, one penal code after another being extended with a brand-new, hitherto unheard of provision: a section against indecent behavior with children. In the Netherlands it was not until 1886 that such a section was included, fixing the age of consent at 16. Over the Western world there is an incredible variety in the "age of consent." In one country it is twelve, in another, it is 21. This shows how clumsily and arbitrarily legislators dealt with this unfamiliar subject.

Under the impact of laws which made it criminal to show sexual tenderness and love to a child, firmly believing in the fairy tale about a child’s asexuality as it was spread by pedagogues and moralists, public opinion was incited to a frenzy of fierce hatred against paedophiles, and its natural aggression found a new outlet in claiming that these criminals should be put in jail for life, should be shot, should be castrated. "If it had been my own child that he’d touched, I could have strangled him with my own hands!", a well-known television personality exclaimed, and he was vigorously applauded. That children are battered to death by their parents, killed or maimed for life by drunken drivers, never raised fury half so strong as this.

Every contrary opinion met with savage opposition. No part of Sigmund Freud’s doctrine enraged people so much as his findings that children were full of sexual feelings and desires - his destruction of the fairy tale. Decades went by without anyone questioning the theory that children suffered frightful harm if sexually approached by an adult. It wasn’t until 1934 that a Norwegian psychiatrist, Augusta Rasmussen, began a follow-up study on the victims of rape and indecent assault. The conclusion was surprising: no evidence whatever of lasting danger. Rasmussen was followed by Landis in the U.S., by Lempp in Germany, by Burton and the Dominican Friar Ingram in England, by Bernard and Corstjens in the Netherlands, by Tindall again in the U.S. There are many others; I mention only the best-known.

Summing up the evidence of these studies, professors Schorsch and Kerscher in West Germany, Dr. Hauptmann in Austria, Professor Graven in Switzerland, and the Government Committee presided over by Judge Kjelin in Sweden agreed unanimously: that there is no proof whatsoever that children who have consensual sexual relations with adults suffer any lasting damage from the sexual experience itself. If there is any damage suffered, it is always secondary, caused by the reactions of upset parents on their discovery of the facts, caused by police examinations and the like. Storzer in West Germany mentions that among 33 such children later seen by psychiatrists, not less than 31 showed evidence of traumatization by police questioning, the effects ranging from a display of self-importance to attempted suicide.

It seems to me evident from these facts that there is only one reasonable solution to the problem. That is, to split up sexual behavior of adults toward children into three categories:

Category one. Children should be protected with the full force of the law from violence, threats, or abuse of authority.

Category two. The child is put into a position which he more or less strongly dislikes, which gives him the creeps, or which he thinks funny, odd, or queer. The child runs away shuddering with disgust or sniggering. Of course, society should try to prevent such things from happening. If they have happened nevertheless, parents or others should take care of the child and see to his problems, if any, just as if he had witnessed a nasty road accident or other horrible spectacle. But it is not in the interest of the child to make a tragedy out of it, to ram the events into his mind, to render things ~ which otherwise quickly pass by, so frightfully important things should therefore be avoided.

Category three. The child likes the adult and the sexual relationship. Penal law, with its blunt weapons, should stay out of the matter completely. Civil law should empower parents to stop the relationship effectively in the case they’re convinced that the adult in question has a morally or psychologically bad influence on their son or daughter. The judge, of course, should pay utmost attention to the opinion of the child himself.

This, as I said, would be a reasonable solution. But as soon as sexuality enters the picture, society usually doesn’t behave in a reasonable way.

May I give an example? Let’s take a nonsensical one. Suppose that there would suddenly stand up a competent and serious researcher, declaring that careful investigation has proved that the fear of radiation sickness resulting from the production of nuclear energy is completely unfounded; that people may be exposed to the strongest radiation for weeks on end without suffering the slightest harm, and that all the bad effects hitherto attributed to radiation in reality were produced by other forces, easily eliminated. Wouldn’t’ there be a rejoicing everywhere? How happy we would all be!

Of course, this is nonsense. But it is no nonsense that competent and serious researchers established the bad effects which sex supposedly had on children to be quite imaginary, and that the traumatization was only secondary, due to the reactions of upset parents and policemen. When this was published, there was no rejoicing at all! It passed by nearly unnoticed. People clung stubbornly to their former belief even when they couldn’t deny that the effects of this belief - the examinations, the criminal proceedings - were highly harmful to their cherished children.

Why? Why this unwillingness to accept the good tidings? Why do we want to stay in anguish, in perpetual panic? Why do we cling to our indignation, our aggression, our desire to punish, to castrate, to kill the malefactor? Even at the expense of the children’s well-being?

May I propose a hypothesis?

It is a well-known fact that no person shows such an intense hatred of homosexuality as the man who has a strong, repressed, maybe unconscious inclination toward his own sex. Let me quote the distinguished criminologist, Professor West of Cambridge, from his latest book:

Placed in a situation that threatens to excite their own unwanted homosexual thoughts, [such people] over-react with panic or anger. Repressed homosexuality may sometimes be the explanation why men of intelligence and judgement, who could never express themselves so crudely on other topics, indulge on wildly inaccurate and absurdly emotional pronouncements about homosexuality. In advocating castration or the gas chamber for sexual corruption of youths, they betray a need to compensate for their own inner guilt by the vigorous denunciation of others.

It is my conviction, and not only mine, but that of more qualified authors too, that there is a percentage of paedophilic tendencies in every man and every woman. We all love children, more or less - fortunately. In some, this tendency may be strong, dominating the personality, coloring its life, permeating everything; we call them "paedophiles." In other individuals, it is weaker, less conscious, and in present-day Western culture its expressions have to be repressed.

But the feeling is there, nevertheless. Wilhelm Stekel, one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, wrote in 1922:

According to my experience, paedophilia constitutes a nearly normal component of the sexual impulse. Nearly everybody may, at times, detect such thoughts in himself. But they will be rejected, disclaimed, and condemned with all the emotionality of moral indignation. Many people of high intellectual standing admitted to me that sinful thoughts had surprised them when they were looking at children. We fail to appreciate the immense degree to which paedophilia is prevalent among women and men.

Nearly 60 years later, Professor Sigusch wrote that adult people who did not desire to have tender sexual relations with a child, to his eyes, were "problematical personalities."

But our present-day culture doesn’t tolerate this. It has put a big taboo on sex with children. Such feelings have to be suppressed, and the difficulties caused by this repression in their innermost being make individuals so violent in their rejection of pedophiles, so suspiciously emotional, so strongly clinging to their prejudices.

It would take hours and hours to give a complete analysis of the discussion as it goes on and on. Allow me to summarize it in a "boutade" which I wrote for the Tijdschrift voor Seksuologie (Journal of Sexology) and which will be published in its next issue. It runs as follows:

Once upon a time, long, long ago, it was customary for men to sleep with boys and girls and have sexual relations with them. All the men did this, but the real paedophiles among them did it with even greater joy than the others.

Then the Christians appeared on the scene and told everyone that it was a very great sin to sleep with boys. And from that moment on, whenever people managed to get hold of them, boy-lovers were burned alive, strangled, drowned or beheaded.

That went on until the French Revolution when a new breed of philosopher began to say that penal law should be used only to protect society and prevent individuals from being harmed, not to enforce morality.

The boy-lovers began to take heart; they started sleeping with their young friends again and weren’t disturbed.

But soon some people began to preach that this was enormously harmful; for children were pure, innocent creatures who knew nothing about such a dirty phenomenon as sex. Once again boy-lovers and other paedophiles were hunted down, and when the authorities got hold of them they perished in prison.

Then came Freud and his followers, who affirmed that children weren’t asexual creatures at all; he even went so far as to call them "polymorphously perverse."

The paedophiles, who had known this for centuries, again began to take heart.

But along came the medical doctors, the same ones who had been busily telling everyone that masturbation caused horrible illness and brought on premature death. Now they said that any boy who had sex with men would invariably be turned into a homophile himself and would remain one for the rest of his life. legislators listened to these expert opinions and they made the laws much tougher; now men were sent to prison for having sex with adolescents and even young men.

Then came some psychiatrists - among them Professor Zeegers - who demonstrated that this was all nonsense and gave rise only to misery and injustice. In several countries, the old harsh laws were repealed.

But now came another group of scientists, maintaining that it may very well be that children were sexual beings from head to toe, and it may be quite healthy for them to have sexual play among themselves, but this by no means proved that they wanted to play in the same way with adults. Children had not matured enough for that. So the paedophiles whom the police had managed to catch stayed in their prison cells. Moreover, as the aggression of society grew stronger, and science progressed, they were now subjected to torture by brain surgery and aversion therapy.

Now a group of researchers came forward with many examples of children who wanted to establish intimate relationships with adults, because adults could give them a feeling of security and protection which friends their own age simply couldn’t. Once again the paedophiles began to take heart.

But the traditional psychiatrists and psychologists raised the objection that in this kind of relationship the partners weren’t equal; the adults dominated the children. There was, of course, nothing wrong with dominating children when it was used to teach them their lessons, to make them go to church, to discipline them and bring them up properly, but where sex was involved it was absolutely impermissible. So the paedophiles caught by the authorities continued to go to prison.

Then one psychologist came up with the crazy idea than even this concept of the paedophile dominating the child in all love/sex relations needed to be investigated. He studied in detail a number of such relationships and how the balance of power actually was held. And in none of these did he find any evidence that the paedophile dominated the child. On the contrary, in several instances it was the child that dominated the man! In each case the child was whole-heartedly agreed to the relationship, including all the sexual aspects. Paedophiles once again began to take heart.

But then a traditional psychiatrist explained that when children in such relationships say "yes", they really mean to say "no".

"And when they say ‘no’?" the paedophile asked hopefully.

"Then they also mean ‘no’! ", replied the psychiatrist.

So when the police managed to catch paedophiles they still went to prison, and stayed there for a long, long time. And the universities began to enlarge their medical facilities enormously, for wasn’t it evident that, in the future, every child had to be provided with his own psychiatrist? Otherwise who could tell his parents, teachers and pedagogues what he really meant when he said "yes" and what he really meant when he said "no"?

But now a group of scientists came along, doing follow-up reports on individuals who, as children, had consented to sexual activity with adults. These researchers agreed that they could find no trace, even after fifteen years, of damage resulting from their youthful sexual experiences.

Once again the paedophiles began to take heart, but almost immediately the psychiatrists answered that the lasting damage done by early sex with adults might well show up more than fifteen years later.

The paedophiles shrugged their shoulders and asked for proof. And lo and behold, along came a physician who shouted triumphantly, "It’s not up to us to prove there is damage; it’s up to you to prove there isn’t!"

Now this threw the paedophiles into considerable confusion. No researcher had ever been able to prove that sexual relations with a child were harmless, nor had it ever been satisfactorily established that sexual relations with anyone were harmless, nor, for that matter, that travelling in a train was harmless, nor the eating of green peas. And we all know that under penal law every man is guilty until acquitted, that in this world everything is forbidden unless one’s government specifically permits it.

The situation became even more confused when another psychiatrist suggested that one should totally disregard every piece of data and all arguments developed by people who recognized within themselves an element of paedophile response. The principle in itself seemed sound. Only bachelors should be allowed to write treatises on marriage; all sexological books should be compiled by scholars utterly devoid of sexual feeling. Never listen to the man with personal experience; never listen to the man who comes to the defense of something you don’t like, for isn’t that the essence of mental health?

The problem with this proposal, however, was that sexologists had long ago established that there was a bit, and sometimes more than a bit, of paedophilia in every human adult; thus all discussion of child-love would have to cease immediately. How, then, could you send paedophiles to prison if you couldn’t even talk about what they did? So this idea ultimately gained little acceptance.

For a brief moment, paedophiles thought they again saw a bit of light at the end of the tunnel when a few psychiatrists declared that any kind of sex in which a child willingly engaged was in itself completely benign, but then their hopes were dashed when these men of science added, "Such activity, however, brings the child into conflict with the standards of the environment and the society in which he lives, and that is most harmful."

So the paedophiles, half-crushed already, surrendered. They were well aware of how powerful the standards of society were. In Hitler’s Third Reich a Jewish girl was in deep trouble if an Aryan became enamoured of her; in South Africa a black youth is lost if a white woman takes him as a lover. So the paedophiles ran weeping to the psychiatrists, begging for help, for it isn’t only in the Soviet Union that psychiatrists are called upon to adapt people to the standards of society.

But the children didn’t give in. They continued to seduce adults and called those who reproached them for this "silly fools." For in the meantime they had learned a bit about psychoanalysis. They said, "For every objection they were forced to abandon, these funny ladies and gentlemen immediately produced another. Could it be that they were really only unconsciously hiding the secrets of their own inner souls? Isn’t it just that they are a little bit afraid of sex itself?

But nobody bothered to listen to what they said, for how could truth ever be heard from the mouths of children?


This article was selected from The NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 4, No. 2 (March, 1983), Pg. 1-9.

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