From Gay Community News (Boston), December, 1983, Book Review pp. 1-8
Two Sane Perspectives on Man-Boy Love
Reviewed by Mark McHarry
The name of the newspaper is Truth, which right away gives you pause. Its headline for Sept. 29, 1979, catches your breath: "Sex Monster's 2000 Boy-Victims—Police Seize Truckloads of Pictures, Films, Tapes." Tucked neatly under the huge black letters is the photo of a smiling man in a flowered shirt. In between announcements of an "Expovin Contest—Great Prizes for You" and a teaser for an article about "The Crazy Kennedy Kids" we learn that Clarence Osborne, a senior Australian public servant, committed suicide after police uncovered secret sex files going back 20 years, covering his relationships with more than 2000 boys. Police quotes describe the case as "Australia's most horrifying example of perversion."
Surely gays picking up Truth or the more stately Brisbane Sunday Mail and reading its equally sensationalistic lead story felt what we in the Northeastern U.S. did last December upon seeing the front page photos of the missing Etan Patz and the headlines which asked, "Did Sex Club Trap This Boy?" As it turned out, the "sex club," which is how police and much of the media referred to the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), did not, while Clarence Osborne's files did attest to the fact that he had had sex with boys, 90 percent of whom were 13 to 20.
Gays on both continents who otherwise may be indifferent to man-boy love no doubt wondered where the scandals might lead. Knowing the propensity of the right to smear homosexuals as "child molesters," it would be little wonder that mainstream gays would want to put as much distance as possible between Clarence Osborne or NAMBLA and themselves.
For the most part, they didn't. The gay press on both parts of the globe, while not endorsing Osborne or NAMBLA, recognized the sensationalism as gay baiting and denounced it accordingly. The scandals soon fizzled: Osborne, dead, was an unavailable target and police statements about Etan Patz were disproved by NAMBLA at a press conference.
It is well that the gay communities kept their cool, for the two books reviewed here give ample evidence of just how far wrong the news accounts were. Not only do they refute many of the stereotypes about man-boy love so vociferously put forth by society's moral guardians, they even support some of the radical assertions groups like NAMBLA have made. The two are among the first studies in the social science literature to legitimatize man-boy love. As such they are landmark works. The question that lingers after reading them is not how good they are, but how much good they will do a sex-negative culture such as ours.
Riddled with minor inaccuracies and plagued by a sloppy style, Paul Wilson's The Man They Called a Monster nonetheless charts a careful course over the events that lead to the suicide and subsequent media expose of the 61-year-old Brisbane court reporter, Clarence Osborne. Wilson, a sociologist at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, is non-pedophile and apparently straight. He undertook the book because he had met Osborne, interviewed 12 of his partners and realized when the scandal broke that the facts of the man's life were being bludgeoned beyond recognition.
Though Wilson is at times backhanded in his support of boy-lovers—without any empirical evidence he paints them as social misfits—he is more than fair in his treatment of Osborne, ruthlessly critical of the press' uncritical reportage of police assertions and, in the end, sufficiently cognizant of the way the rights of Osborne and his young partners were abused by the scandal-making process to call to call for abolishing age-of-consent laws altogether.
Clarence Osborne does not come across as a particularly likeable fellow. Described as a misogynist and a man who dumps a boy when he becomes "sick of him," Osborne used concealed microphones in his home and car to tape conversations with youths. He sent photos of them to overseas pedophile magazines (it's unclear whether Wilson means that the magazines were also pornographic), apparently without the boys' permission. He lied to the youths about the nature of his activity, not denying, when asked, that he was doing "research." Boys who expressed doubts about their heterosexuality were reassured they weren't gay.
To be sure, Wilson's many other inaccuracies make you wonder about his descriptions of Osborne. Despite the fuzzy glimpses we get of him — probably due to the author's ambivalence — Osborne is not a person I'd care to meet. But the boys with whom Osborne formed relationships liked him:
Wilson is unclear as to why so many teenage boys would want to have sex with a man like Osborne. He moves only slightly beyond the stereotypes presented by police and social welfare agencies who say young victims come from economically and spiritually poor families:
This "push" is due in large measure, Wilson believes, to an increasing androgynization of adolescence. Male youths:
Aside from the rather faint endorsement of people like Osborne here, Wilson's vagueness about this trend toward androgyny is unsatisfying. One has the feeling that, like straights who have sought to explain why homosexuality exists, Wilson is in water over his head. The police were even more baffled: "In the words of a senior investigating officer, Sergeant Dan Reay, 'The most amazing aspect of it all is that not one boy complained to his parents or to anyone over the years.'"
The sergeant must have been more amazed after reading all the hype about the sex monster. Wilson does a valuable job of documenting how the news media distorted the facts of the case. He is at his best in defining why:
Those who have read Mitzel's The Boston Sex Scandal or followed closely the Etan Patz scam of last December will recognize striking similarities with the events Down Under: sex acts with minors are blown up to include child pornography and prostitution; the age range of the children is given as several years lower than it is in reality (the media made much of the fact Osborne had a photo of a 14-week-old baby in his home); the adults are said to use force, trickery and money; the police hint at yet darker secrets, possibly murder; contradictory evidence is ignored; and even establishment newspapers, which under their own tenets of "objective journalism" should know better, print emotional and inaccurate police statements without rebuttal or critical comment.
Why does society go to such extremes to vilify man-boy love? Wilson attempts an answer but again steps in over his head. He ascribes hostility in one place to ignorance, in another to general sex negativity, and in yet a third to the concept of children as property. All, to be sure, are factors, but they're elements in a much more complex equation.
Wilson scores a good point in his contention that people considered dangerous are often not those who represent a physical threat to anyone, but rather those who threaten the prevailing morality. The fact that boy-lovers commonly receive far longer prison sentences than rapists bears this out, as does the year-and-a-half confinement of England's Tom O'Carroll for the elusive crime of "corrupting public morals." Still Wilson's meanderings in his search for the grail of sex repression grate on the intellect. In fairness, one shouldn't be expected to scale the heights attempted by Freud and Reich in a book of this scope, but then one should have the humility not to try.
Wilson is good toward the end, when he examines the scientific literature to see whether the effects of adult-child sexual interaction are so harmful as to justify the treatment Osborne received:
From my own reading I'd have to agree. Much as the psychiatric establishment would like to show harm, its literature, based as it is on negative relationships, has failed to show that adult-child sex is intrinsically bad, only that nonconsensual experiences can be harmful.
Also important is Wilson's conclusion, again based on several studies, that it is "relatively common" for male youths to have had a sexual relationship with an older man, particularly if it's as high as the 35 percent he claims.
Wilson is on much shakier ground when, in order to show that pedophiles are nonviolent people, he contends that the great majority of heterosexual men's approaches to girls consist merely of "sexplay...looking, showing, fondling and being fondled." Wilson and others argue that because the use of force is a "very rare phenomenon," such acts should have minimal importance.
The fact is, as a radical feminist, herself a boy-lover, points out in the current NAMBLA Journal, any act, however innocuous, is forceful if it is unwanted and is performed against the recipient's will. Its importance—particularly to children and women, who have forever been the object of assaults—must never be minimized.
Boys are brought up in our culture very differently than girls. Adolescent boys, particularly teenagers, are allowed access to many more cultural privileges—and hence empowerment—than are prepubescent males. Wilson might have done well to have considered this in his section on power and consent in sexual relationships.
Then again, the empowerment of children and youth—and ultimately their liberation—is still in a nascent state in the pederast/pedophile movement. The NAMBLA Bulletin is at best extremely spotty in its coverage of youth issues. An avuncular column called "Boys in the Media" regularly tells readers of the latest doings of prepubescent television stars while developments of far greater importance (e.g., the establishment of the Indianerkommune in Nürnberg) are scarcely mentioned. PIE's publication Magpie has been only somewhat better. To be sure, youth liberation is ignored elsewhere, including, to its disgrace, the gay community, except for tenuous support for all-too-few politically conscious gay youth groups. Wilson, relying as he does on secondary sources, does not advance the debate. He at least cites the London-based Gay Left's contributions (No. 7, 1978/79) and Tom O'Carroll's excellent book Paedophilia in his conclusion that no one conclusion about power abuse is possible: every relationship should be examined in its own merits.
Wilson recognizes that the key to the eventual legitimization of adult-child sex is children's rights. He enumerates roughly half-a-dozen areas in which he believes young people of all ages should have more power: self-determination of ethical, religious and sexual beliefs; alternatives to parental authority, including shelters and employment opportunities; equitable education, including the right to collaborate over the curriculum; increased economic and political power; the right to justice under law, including full civil liberties (which are denied to minors in the U.S.: witness the existence of curfew laws and other status offenses); and sexual freedom.
Unfortunately, Wilson's discussion of these points is cursory in the extreme In his one-paragraph analysis of economic and political power, he notes that "children are disenfranchised...[they] do not have the right to work to acquire and manage money...nor do they learn what a binding contract means because children do not have the right to enter into such contracts." Would Wilson have 10-year-olds filling for bankruptcy? Presumably not, but it would be nice for him to say so. He at least gives people a chance to ponder these points; it's more than the publications from the major English-speaking boy-love and pro-child sex groups have done.
More useful still would have been a consideration of how children's liberation might be achieved in an unliberated world. Until children are fully empowered—as nebulous a concept as this is—how do we ensure that they are not abused if we relax age-of-consent laws? To my mind this argument has more that it share of the "if we give blacks, women, et al. the vote, how will we know they'll use it responsibly" mentality, but it's a point brought up often enough by the critics of man-boy love.
In the end, despite Wilson's ambivalence toward boy-lovers (my favorite is his naming Atascadero State Hospital, of aversion therapy fame, as a "more constructive alternative" for pedophiles than prison) and despite the lackadaisical editing (there are misuses of words, misspellings, wrong names and conclusions without premises), his book is an honest effort. It is a good opportunity to get overviews of the arguments pro and con around the issue. Sloppy as Wilson is, he knocks down a lot of myths. Perhaps we should be grateful, but I wonder how much use the book will be. My guess is that professionals in the social services field who ought to read it won't, and we who are sympathetic who do may not learn a lot that's useful.
Theo Sandfort's study, The Sexual Aspect of Paedophile Relations, is in many ways the opposite of Wilson's. It's probably more important because it will be noticed by psychologists and social scientists. Sandfort's scope is a circumscribed as Wilson's is vast, yet in seeking an answer to a single narrowly defined research question, Sandfort covers much the same ground.
In 1980, the Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Legislation Concerning Morality in the Netherlands recommended against any change in that country's age-of-consent law. Its reason was that "The objectionable element [of pedophilia] lies in the mental and the situational dissimilarity between the perpetrator and the victim; how use was made of this is secondary." The report by the influential committee was a blow to Dutch boy-lovers, who have long lobbied to have the age of consent lowered (from 16) or abolished.
Sandfort, a social psychologist at the State University of Utrecht, believes that previous research on adult-child sexual interaction (research that lay behind the Committee's report) assumed "a priori that in every paedosexual contact the adult misuses his superiority and that the contact is an unpleasant experience for the child." Thus Sandfort set out to answer simply, "Can a sexual contact with an adult be a positive experience for the child?"
Sandfort chose to study boys who were involved in currently sexually-expressed relationships with an adult. Age was critical:
The boys and men were found, for the most part, through various workgroups of the NVSH (The Netherlands Society for Sexual Reform). Its National Pedophile Workgroup has chapters in major Dutch cities.
The sample differs in many ways from what one would expect in a less sex-tolerant society. Membership in the NVSH is one. To Sandfort it means that the older partners "had acquired some necessary experience which can influence the quality of the relationship"; to me it means that the boys and men could be much more open than they could be here. Fully seven of the boy's families accepted the sexual aspects of their children's friendships with older men (and three even helped gain their children's confidence to participate in the study).
The 25 boys ranged in age from 10.9 to 16.1 (mean 13.4); eight were prepubescent, six pubescent and 11 postpubescent. The 20 men were 26 to 66 years old (mean 39). Twenty-three boys live at home with one or both parents; 16 with both parents.
Central to the work is its interviewing method. Rather than pose an arbitrary set of questions, Sandfort chose a technique called the self-confrontation method (SCM) a collaborative process which purports to allow the subject to formulate jointly with the interviewer value areas the subject believes important.
Some of the findings are what one would have expected. For instance, the sex acts consist mostly of mutual masturbation and fellatio, as they do with adult male homosexuals. The man was usually the initiator of the first sexual act, especially if they boy never had sex with anyone previously. The boy and the man would equally initiate the subsequent sex acts, in contrast to the clinical literature, which, Sandfort points, out, implicitly assumes that the man always takes the initiative.
The key findings are in the boy's emotions toward the sexual parts of their relationships. Good feelings (in descending order of frequency: nice, happy, free, safe, satisfied, proud, strong) outweighed the negative ones (naughty, afraid, dislike, shy, angry, sad, lonely) by almost 6:1. The most mentioned negative feeling, in fact, occurred less often than the least mentioned positive one. Correlations with the way in which the boys would like to experience the emotions surrounding sex (i.e., their ideal experience) were positive and large (mean 0.79)
Nine of the 17 negative aspects formulated by the boys, such as "anger," were directed not at the sex, but at laws which forbid it. Six of the negative aspects concerned the older partner: these ran the gamut from the man doing things during sex the boy didn't want or "keeping on about it" after the boy said "no" (each mentioned once), to not having sex often enough and the man not shaving more often (brought up by two boys) or even telling dumb jobs during sex.
Crucial is how the power differences were experienced by the boys. We've already noted that the power issue was central to the Advisory Committees' recommendations. Sandfort's own data also points out economic difference between the boys' families and the generally wealthier boy-lovers. Sandfort examined this by asking the boys how they experienced the men's behavior toward them in the sexual contacts.
In 21 of the 25 cases, the boys said that they experienced only positive behavior and no negative behavior on the part of the men whatsoever. The terms "paying attention to, making allowances for, collaborating with, giving a chance to, helping, consulting and encouraging" received a total of 645 by all the boys. This compared to four boys whose mentions of negative behavior ("leaving in the lurch, coercing, making fun of, domineering") totaled 11. None of the negative forms of behavior played an important role: the highest frequency of negative behavior ascribed to any man was two occurrences.
How the boys integrated the sex with their older partners into the rest of their lives is also illuminating. Sandfort found that the sexual contact with the man varied widely from boy to boy in its degree as a positive element in their relationship and in the boy's overall life experience. Even so, "to the extent it made a contribution [it] exerted a positive influence on the boy's well being."
As careful and as rigorous as Sandfort is, the absence of women who have had relations with young people is sorely felt (at one point he makes the chauvinistic assumption that women are less genitally-oriented in their sexual experience and behavior). The studies he has read undoubtedly contributed to this weakness, as most of his citations are Dutch works. The lamentable state of the English literature may have had as much to do with this as his apparent reluctance to read outside his own language.
What I missed most was any sense of how a gay consciousness or identity on the part of the boys or men fit into their lives. The ethics of homosexual relations—what it means to be different, how boys and boy-lovers (even if both are straight-identified) adjust to a society all to ready to label them "flikkers" or "poots"—would have been fascinating and instructive reading.
* * * * *
Taken together, Wilson's and Sandfort's studies undermine many anti-man/boy love stereotypes. They even support certain assertions by boy-lovers.
One claim that Tom O'Carroll makes in Paedophilia, echoed by groups like NAMBLA, is that man-boy love is not a heavy experience, a miniature version of adult heterosexual romantic love. Sandfort bears this out, noting that "the sexual nature of the relationship can be experienced by the boy in a less explicit, less emotional manner than is the case with adults." Twenty-two of the boys referred to pleasant emotions in their formulation of the positive value of their sexual contacts. Only eight named intimacy and love.
Another is that most man-boy relations do not involve very young children. Again, Sandfort supports this, noting that the age range of the boys in his study (10 to 16) pretty well duplicates those he met through the NVSH.
A third is the rather radical contention that man-boy relations are more empowering than the nonconsensual relations young people have with their parents and teachers. In evaluating their experience of men's behavior toward them, the boys in Sandfort's study began to approach this, spontaneously commenting on the stronger position of parents and teachers vis-à-vis their older lovers. All of the boys cited value areas where they experienced more negative emotions than occurred in their friendships with the men—among them, parents, homework and teachers.
Sandfort even goes so far as to speak of the "liberating character" of the sexual contact: "The younger partner himself decided how far he wanted to go...the older partner was letting him be free in it and making no demands." His data also debunks nations that boys in a man-boy relationship might be isolated from their peers or that sexual development is interfered with. Wilson believes Osborne was teaching boys to be comfortable with their sexuality: "[He] was able to convey to nearly all boys he interacted with a comforting message about their genital development and heterosexual intercourse."
Both authors condemn society's harsh reaction to man-boy love, noting this as the most likely reason for a negative outcome to a man-boy relationship.
Sandfort sums up his findings this way:
Will these two books have an impact on such legislation? Here in the U.S., not anytime soon. The federal government is instead moving to toughen existing laws. Congress is considering a bill—almost certain to pass—to ban all sexually explicit material, pornographic or not, depicting people under 18. The high age limit is remarkable, as the age of consent in most states is 16. Insofar as Sandfort's and Wilson's books assert the possibility of beneficial man-boy relations, they do not answer claims that most may not be good. Pedophilia — unlike homosexuality — is still considered a disorder by the psychiatric establishment in the Western world, and child sex of any kind, beyond, perhaps masturbation, is still considered harmful. Psychiatrists testify regularly at hearings to support bills like the one mentioned. We should not underestimate their importance in upholding the repressive status quo.
Moreover, a study like Sandfort's has never been attempted in this country. It would likely be difficult to do, given laws in many states which require social service professionals to report all instances of adult-child sex to the police. (Studies can—and have—been done with anonymous respondents. Getting funding is another matter.)
Whatever their impact, both books are a significant step forward,. My guess is Sandfort's will likely be read by many psychologists /sexologists; at the very least it will have to be taken into account by those seeking to pass judgment on man-boy love. It has already been praised by this country's leading expert on gender identity, medical psychologist John Money, as "one of the most valuable works of research on the topic of pedophilia that has ever appeared in print."
Both books show the harm in the current blanket ban on any adult-child relation involving sex. Whether society will come to see this as worse than man-boy relations themselves will probably depend on whether pederasts/pedophiles — and young people — are able to organize and right for their rights.