A History of the Paedophile Activism

Willemen, Noemi; Oct 13 2013
Type of WorkLecture

[... In The Netherlands & Belgium]

Willemen, Noemi; Oct 13 2013
Conference Location    Belgium
Type of Work    Lecture


I would like to start by thanking the organisers for putting together this lovely conference and for being as gracious as to include me and to welcome the topic I brought along.

I am a [Belgian] historian, working on a PhD project on the scientific history of today’s ultimate sexual other: the paedophile. Today I would like to talk to you about a particularly interesting aspect of paedophile history, namely the chapter on paedophile activism [in Belgium and The Netherlands] on which I will present a brief overview and discourse analysis. I’m on a sidetrack of my PhD research here, so you will notice this is work in progress and I do welcome all constructive criticism.

A few years ago I came across some written sources of several little Belgian [and Dutch] paedophile movements. They had and still have a will-o’-the-wisp-effect on me and I have started to collect them, for not only do they give voice to a group that is very silent today. They also belong to a time one might label “before the paedophile” or “before sexual abuse”.

Philip Jenkins [*] and more recently Steven Angelides [**] have argued convincingly that the sexual paria we know today as the paedophile came into being some 30 years ago.

    [* < https://www.ipce.info/library_3/files/rev_jen_son.htm > - Ipce]
    [** < https://www.ipce.info/library_3/files/angelides_frame.htm > - Ipce]

The 1970s

I pulled an advertisement for soap from an old French women’s magazine. The picture illustrates nicely how the 1970s saw the rise of a new ideal of a more involved and physically affective fatherhood within a carefree family that was no longer enchained by the prudishness of past generations, freed by some sort of sexual revolution. It also highlights how today’s mighty paradigm on sexual abuse prescribes a sort of “paedophile gaze” to look at a picture of a naked child. In today’s Western countries sexual abuse has a cultural and ideological significance it did not acquire until the late 1970s.

The construction of the paedophile as a separate category of sexual deviant was in part the doing of gay activists, who in a bid to normalise homosexuality, underlined that homosexuals had nothing to do with childlovers.


Gert Hekma [*] traced the first calls for paedophile emancipation down to the 1950s, when some voices within the Dutch gay organisation C.O.C. started to speak up. Pioneers were Edward Brongersma [**], a lawyer, and Frits Bernard [***], a psychologist who left the C.O.C. in the early 1960s, adopted pseudonyms and started writing about the specificities of boy-love, thus laying the foundations for an autonomous paedophile movement.

    [* < https://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library/reg_h.htm > Scroll to "Hekma" - Ipce]
    [** < https://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library/reg_b.htm > Scroll to "Brongersma" - Ipce]
    [*** < https://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library/reg_b.htm > Scroll to "Bernard" - Ipce]

The end of the 1960s ...

... in the West saw an up-rise against the patriarchal structures of society that seemed to unite student movements, far left political activists, feminists and gay groups. Surfing on this wave, paedophiles came out of the closet.

In the 1970s, ...

... many Western countries saw the emergence of small paedophile factions within or often closely linked to gay movements and sexual liberationist groups.

It’s important to note that these groups, while there appears to have been frequent international contact between their founding members, operated within specific national contexts that differed greatly. They all were small and rather marginalized, though some gained considerably more notoriety and/or support than others. It may be fair to say that the backlash that ended the debate followed a quite similar pattern in most countries, but temporalities differed greatly with regard to public attention to the paedophile cause and the waves of sympathy or outrage they inspired.

The Netherlands ...

... were considered the Mecca for those fighting for paedophile rights. The Dutch National Work Group on Paedophilia was formed in 1972 as a subgroup of the once very influential NVSH, the Dutch Society for Sexual Reform [*]. In its glory years in the 1960s, this movement counted more than 200.000 members, but later the society became mostly a shelter for sexual minorities.

    [* < https://www.nvsh.nl > - Ipce]

Apart from a national taskforce, local paedophile groups were founded in Amsterdam, Den Haag, Nijmegen, Roermond and others. [*] 

  • [* The last of those groups that is still active and accessible is the group JON, which name refers to the East of the Netherlands, but nowadays there is also a group "West", actually working in and for the whole country. This group has abandonned the aim of 'changing society and law'. Its aim is being a self-help group, "for people that have the ability to fall in love with children, but who do not want to activate those feelings into sexual acts with children." Thus, the group has quite strict ethics.

In Flanders, ...

... the first paedophile group outside of the Netherlands was founded in 1973 in Hasselt. Later, branches in Antwerp and Ghent would follow.

In the beginning, the Dutch work group ...

... operated mostly as an interest group for paedophiles, mirroring the strategies of the gay movement. The general idea was that paedophilia may be a deviant sexual behavior but only with regard to societal norms. Their primary goal was to provide a support system and bring isolated paedophiles together for a chance to speak to someone who shared the same feelings. Some local organisations offered small-scale legal and psychiatric support to convicted paedophiles.

Furthermore the work groups wanted to educate the public about paedophilia, and a third goal was to promote the integration of paedophilia in society by fighting for

  •     decriminalisation,
  •     the lowering or abolishing of the ages of consent and
  •     changes to the penal code that would make sexual interactions between children and adults criminal only in case of a complaint.

The first groups definitely started out as interest groups for paedophiles, but it’s interesting how, very soon, a strategy very different from that of most gay activists was adopted. Many internal reports on meetings of the Dutch national movement detail extensive discussions on the main goals of the organisation.

Within a few years, it was decided the focus should be on the emancipation of children and childhood sexuality, on changing society, rather than on the securing the paedophile’s little place in the sun.

Moreover, defending children’s rights offered a much more acceptable political position that met the needs of the different members, who were male and female, some identified as paedophiles, others just as sexual reformers, some were parents, some were not.

The liaison between the paedophile movements and parents was a tricky one. This explicit shift towards the liberation of the child and its sexuality waged a war on the family, which the activists considered to be an integral part of the enemy patriarchal heteronormative bourgeois system. They protested against the social, financial and material dependence of the young and against parents who regarded their children as their possession.

However alternatives for the family remained marginal, so even though the family had lost many of its functions, it still was the sluice trough which one enters society. Activists considered free time away from the parents essential for children to develop the counter-values necessary to break from their chains.

On the other hand, most publications of the paedophile organisations refused to “other” adult sexual attraction to children. In an international press release dating from 1975, it is stated that adults who partake in these relationships and contacts are no different group: many parents, teachers, youth leaders can discover these possibilities for themselves and deepen their relationships with “their” children.

In presenting children as sexual beings, who are fully capable of experiencing lust and engaging in erotic play, adult sexual attraction to these children is implicitly normalised. Also, by giving up any distinction between childhood and adult sexuality, it was made clear that only free will and the mutual pleasure of partners would determine the progress of the relationship or the form of contact.

I had expected to find reactions from the paedophile movement to the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders in 1975, but calls for depathologisation are very rare. The explicit choice not to play the minority card was probably also due to the fact that there was little scientific literature to fight against.

Instead, to build their case for the sexual liberation of children, many of the activist publications quoted long lists of scientific references to back up their arguments. The main arguments were that childhood is a sexual time in life and children are sexual creatures from birth. Childhood sexuality must be liberated, for repression only lead to distortions.

The normalcy of childhood sexuality

This main argument on the normalcy of childhood sexuality was then linked to other claims.

  • Firstly, intergenerational sexuality is statistically normal. The prevalence of sexual interactions between adults and children is shown in research from different disciplines, like anthropology, history and biology. Moreover, the fact that primates seemed to engage in paedophilic behavior provided a biological argument.
  • Secondly, there was evidence that children benefit from paedophile interactions. Here the Greek love paradigm and its ideal of "eros pedagogica" were evoked. Activists mention research results that show that intergenerational sexuality mostly has neutral or favorable effects.

Some publications quote research that stated paedophile sexual contact involved mostly gentle caressing and kissing and oral sex, but rarely intercourse. Maybe the most quoted argument stated that children suffer mostly from society's reaction to their experiences with an adult and from the forced separation from their grown lover.

Even if many of these arguments were shared among Dutch-speaking paedophile movements, it’s essential to point out the sometimes bitter disputes between and within the different organisations about goals, strategies and choice of words.

Belgium, feminists

For instance, a strong critique to many of the said arguments was formulated by some far left members of Rooie Vlinder in Belgium, a socialist gay movement. They deplored many of the movements’s focus on boylovers, which they considered sexist, the idea of paedophiles liberating children from their parents was paternalistic and the use of scientific theories could only mean that one relied on a bourgeois enemy framework. Also, some feminists engaged in the battle for sexual liberation expressed their own concerns about the validity of universal claims on the positive effects of sexual experiences in childhood.

However, in the first half of ...
... the 1970s the Dutch Paedophile work groups ...

...could count on a vast network of allies and sympathizing organisations. They underheld good contacts with the vice section of police departments, with whom they “collaborated to assure that arrests would be dealt with in a more pleasant way”.

The head of the vice police department in Amsterdam gave a talk at one of the groups conferences about how police could help in finding solutions for the demonisation of childlovers.

In 1976, the work group announced collaboration with probation office to advance expertise about and assistance to incarcerated paedophiles. In the Netherlands, the groups had contacts with psychiatrists at the National Council for Public Mental Health.

There were fruitful contacts with experts in the field and university scholars, from the faculties of sociology, psychology and the educational sciences.

Steven De Baetselier, professor of criminology in Leuven, worked with his students on paedophilia in a seminar on decriminalisation. Other professors supervised master theses and dissertations on the plight of paedophiles and sent psychology students off to do internships at the paedophile movement.

The Dutch national work group had a myriad of contacts with other organisations who fought for change in society, like the Critical Teachers, the Coornhert-League for legal reform, several political parties, the Catholic youth council, church pastors, radio hosts.

When in 1979 a comittee called KINDERVUIST ['Children's Fist'] was founded, that was lead by children, who were guided by adults to talk about the position and problems of minors in society, the national work group on paedophilia sought and underheld intense contact.

The end of the 1970s marked the absolute glory days of the paedophile movement in the Netherlands. In 1978, Edward Brongersma was invited to speak on Het Groot Uur U, a discussion program on national television, in which he and others informed the public that sexual violence no more determines paedophilia than rape characterises married love.

The National work group enthusiastically debated the possibility of a dating service, a national day for the liberation of intergenerational sexuality and action to change the still negative discussions of the word paedophile in dictionaries.

In 1979 the Paedophile Workgroup in Delft teamed up with a local comedy group and with financial funds from the Ministry of culture, recreation and social work, produced a musical called Snoepjes, Dutch for candy. This production, which involved both children and adult actors, told a story of hunted childlovers hiding in a forest and attracted an audience of some 10.000 people.

Some years later, in a birthday edition of the movements newsletter, the musical organisers admitted to having had people pose as a group of concerned parents called The Parent’s League against Paedophila and Children’s Sexuality and hand out fake leaflets to the audience, just to spur some debate.

However, when the Belgian Rooie Vlinders invited the Dutch musical group to perform in Ghent, this caused a scandal in the media.

By the beginning of the 1980s,

... the Dutch paedophile movements found themselves in hot water also. The national work group complained in its reports of chronic understaffing. Many of the people who seriously wanted to discuss the child’s position in society had abandoned ship and those who stayed only did so out of paedophile self interest. The national work group insisted these people should go elsewhere for their input harmed the face of the movement and the discussions within the group.

New groups arose who explicitly positioned themselves as paedophile interest groups. In 1982 Martijn was formed, a group that exists to this day. [*]

    [* The Dutch High Court dissolved the Association Martijn in June 2014 - Ipce]

In 1983, a Ghent-based group Stiekum (Dutch for “hush-hush”) was founded. These organisations opted for a more radical approach.

Around the middle of the 1980s ...

... the paedophile movements had to deal with the first heavily mediatised scandals of child sexual abuse. In the years that followed the Dutch national work group lamented the wave of negative incest stories and the hunt for child nudity, now called child porn. Internal reports show the resolve to focus on protesting the harshened police action and new legislation on child pornography and age limits.

The national and local groups had drastically shrunk by this time but swore that while coming out of the closet was riskier than ever, they would not be governed by fear.

However, the focus was laid more and more on safety measures. Paedophiles who wanted to out them selves had to be careful to do it personally, do not write anything down, explain that sexual interactions are not just about fucking, remind people that everyone suffers from these moral codes. Paedophiles were given the advice to face gossip, show their environment how they treat children and to not lock themselves up, for children will protect their neighbourhood paedophile. If necessary they had to talk to police about protection.

The problem they explained was the dominance of the hetero bourgeois culture, in which the family is safe, the good citizen is compliant and permanent surveillance by parents is necessary. Local groups were told to no longer reach out to national media.

Paedophile activists now looked for support from fellow sexual minorities. However in times of AIDS crisis and renewed sexual conservatism many gay activists worried that the liaisons between the gay and paedophile movements were strategically dangerous.

The sexual revolution that had disentangled pleasure from reproduction had brought along normative consent as the new frontier between acceptable and unacceptable sex. This argument worked for the gay movement, but caused a great problem for the position of the paedophile for the public opinion and experts did not consider children capable of consent.

By mid 1990s ...

... the age of sexual abuse had dawned. Where the 1980s were showed a preoccupation with incest or intimate danger, now, the notion of stranger danger dominated the public discourse, and it came with very strong imagery. In line with dominant discourses, the national work group notes that the distinction they make between the children’s lover and the sexual abuser does not exclude the possibility of a grey area in between.

For the first time, the topic of going too far was explicitly discussed. Adult partners were cautioned not to use feelings of frustration as an excuse to cross the line - instead they must read critical literature, think about their own upbringing, start therapy and remember a bourgeois education is hard to overcome so to let the child lead them.

Mirroring hot topics in the mainstream media, questions were raised like how to deal with blackmail, with image collections and what criteria should be used to evaluate sexual experiences between child and adults. [*]

    [* See < https://www.ipce.info/library/keyword/124 > and
    < https://www.ipce.info/ipceweb/Library/reg_subj_ethics.htm > - Ipce]

By the mid 1990s, the national work group seemed to be operating as an interest group again. They announced a name change to JORis, a letterword that refers to relationships between young and older people, intimacy and sexuality. The word paedophile was dropped, they wrote, for it refers to a recognisable group of abnormals, who are easy to isolate and suppress. Moreover this is a fictive group, for there is no one group that contains both rapist and childlover.

In a mission statement the notion of sexual identity, which was adopted as a powerful strategy by many LGB movements, was renounced. Those labels isolate one from society, when you use paedophile as a label, you isolate one piece of a personality and block someone’s development as a person.

In 1996, the infamous Dutroux affair in Belgium shattered the last legitimacy of advocates for the paedophile cause in the eyes of the public opinion.

By the mid 1990s most paedophile movements had gone underground or on the Internet.

The fight for paedophile rights are a page in the history of sexual minorities that most people and especially LGBT movements have been eager to forget. Today the paedophile debate belongs to the past, the arguments of the movements are dismissed for being excruciatingly naive at best, monstrous at worst. In academic circles also, the topic is seldom discussed.

  • Is the paedophile too queer to queer? 
  • Or does he offer a nice distraction from the real bête noir of the sexual field: the child?

 I wonder. And I thank you for your attention.