Keywords: History, Paedophilia, PIE

Paedophilia Examined

Type of WorkEssay
  • This is a chapter from Tsang's Book "Age Taboo"
  • With a Response of Tom O'Carroll

Happy Families?

The Challenge

It is striking that over the past two or three years conservative moral anxiety throughout the advance capitalist countries has switched from homosexuality in general to sexual relationships between adults and young people.

  • In America Anita Bryant's anti-homosexual campaign began as a crusade to 'Save Our Children'; 
  • the Body Politic in Canada was raided following an issue on paedophilia;
  • in France as in this country a moral panic has been stirred up over the issue of child pornography and "exploitation". And
  • in Britain this has lead to the rapid passage through Parliament of a restrictive Child Pornography Bill which received no proper scrutiny and very little principled libertarian opposition from MPs.

Even the recent Gay News trial had as a significant undercurrent the issue of paedophilia, a topic and stigma with which the prosecution made strenuous efforts to tar Gay News. The attacks on lesbian parenthood are obviously related to similar questions, while those organisations which counsel young homosexuals and help them to meet one another seem to be coming under increased surveillance.

There has, it seems, been a clear extension of concern, from adult male homosexual behaviour, which dominated debates of the fifties and sixties following the Wolfenden Report, to the question of paedophilia and childhood.

  • In 1952 the Sunday Pictorial published a series of articles on adult homosexuality called "Evil Men".
  • By 1975 "The Vilest Men in Britain" (Sunday People 25th May 1975) were members of the Paedophile Action for Liberation (PAL) and
  • the News of the World in 1978 (11th June) enjoined the members of PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) to "Keep Your Hands Off Our Children: We expose the truth about this pack of perverts." "Child Molesters" and"exploiters of children" are the new social monsters.

Why is this so?

Firstly it seems clear enough that few moral conservatives are prepared publicly to campaign for making male homosexuality illegal again, or for that matter proscribing lesbian relationships.

  • There might be police raids on clubs and saunas and harassment in pubs;
  • chief constables will campaign against pornography (and some weak-kneed liberals might support, them);
  • Ian Paisley might try to Save Ulster from Sodomy;
  • Mary Whitehouse might recommend us to pray and exercise restraint; and
  • Leo Abse might prefer us to "come out but not freak out", but as this latter phrase suggests it is not so much private, consensual adult homosexual behaviour which is of primary concern, but so-called public decency, and the related question of "corruption of minors".

Realistically, the moral right wing cannot get much support out of campaigning against homosexuality as such. But they can hope to build up a new moral consensus around the issue of protecting childhood, particularly in the context of the current political emphasis on the family.

Adult homosexuals can be dismissed as unfortunate historical deviations to be pittied, with all efforts being put into preventing anymore children 'falling' into such a way of life. Here they can build out from their traditional evangelical core, which rejects all sex outside marriage, building a coalition with various people from disillusioned libertarians to confused progressives.

Moral reactionaries can serve their cause better by building alliances on easy issues such as the protection of childhood. Their success in pushing through the Child Pornography Act is proof of this. At the same time gay opposition is minimised because of the wish to dissociate ourselves from the traditional public image of being "dirty old men".

A moral panic can be drummed up over childhood because it is an area of such easy controversy. If the child is the father (sic) of the man as bourgeois morality informs us, then it is of major concern to a conservative stratum that children are protected, cossetted and channelled in the right direction — towards heterosexual familial patterns. We have all been brought up from infancy in such patterns, and know the scars we suffer in endeavouring to emerge with our own gay identities. Childhood is a battlefield that gay militants have to be concerned with. And to that degree the moral right is correct. Homosexuals are a threat; we can, in their language, "corrupt". Gay socialists cannot afford to avoid these issues.

Paedophiles, Parents and Power

The question of paedophilia raises a multitude of issues, from those of simple civil rights to matters of sexual theory. Associalists we can join with other libertarians in defending the right of organisations such as PIE to put forward their point of view without harassment from press and police, or violence from the National Front. Socialists and gay groups must support the freedom of speech and the right of paedophiles to associate and organise to raise social awareness about the issue.

The Gay Left Collective, like many others in the gay movement, has had many discussions about paedophilia. We do not feel it would be a justified position to discuss adult-child sexual relationships simply on libertarian grounds. It is no good merely to say, people feel like that, feeling is valid, let it all happen, right on. We know that feelings are socially constructed and we must view all feelings with great suspicion and scrutiny.

There is an argument that has been developed from some quarters of the gay movement and the left which suggests that children are sexual beings like adults and that since they are oppressed by parents, teachers etc and no paedophile experience could be any more harmful, therefore paedophilic relationships are alright.

This is a false and idealist arguement. It likens childhood sexuality to the experiences of adult sexuality, an equation that cannot be made as children cannot be read back as small adults. Paedophile relationships raise the question of power too sharply for us to treat them glibly.

A radical approach to the question can only come through the interrogation of two areas:

  • a) the question of the dominance in our culture of certain categories of sexuality, of which 'homosexuality' and 'paedophilia' are examples. 
    • Is it, in other words, valid to think through the questions of sexuality as if these are pregiven, determined and firm?
    • Do they clearly enough embrace the varieties of behaviours which they seek to pull together within rigid definitions?
  • b) the question of childhood sexuality specifically, the real focus of the debate, and the key to the issue.

Conservative thought dismisses any idea of childhood sexual feelings and experiences and much public opinion is reticent in acknowledging their existence. At the other extreme are those who see childhood sexual feelings as being identical to adult ones.

Both are wrong. We began our own discussion of this area with Freud's essays on children's sexuality. Whatever the limitations of Freudian categories, they are valuable in indicating the existence and diversity of childhood sexuality. But our present limited knowledge of children's sexual development still makes discussion of paedophile relations very difficult.

What is Paedophilia?

One definition would embrace all sexual activities between 'adults' and those under the age of consent. In countries like ours, however, where the age of consent for male homosexuals is so high (21), such a definition would be meaningless. An age of consent, in theory at least, would seem to be meaningful only in the context of an entry into social and sexual maturity, which in turn suggests a relationship to puberty.

The problem is that puberty is a process rather than a particular age, occurring roughly between the ages of 11 and 14, though individuals differ greatly in their physical and emotional development at this time. Together with the sexual development of the body it implies a growing awareness of the social world, particularly through greater contact with peers and older children as sources of education and experience. Most of the Gay Left Collective recognise that puberty is a useful framework.

For convenience we define a paedophile as someone who is emotionally and sexually attracted towards children, that is towards pre-pubertal people.

In their pamphlet Paedophilia: Some Questions and Answers PIE define it as "sexual love directed towards children" and they refer to "children" "both in pre-puberty and early adolescence." In practice, they state that the age group that attracts paedophiles is "usually somewhere in the 8-15 range".

From our definition it is clear that we find this equation of adolescence and childhood confusing.

Another issue with which we have to deal is that sexual/emotional relations between adults and children need not be between members of the same sex. In fact the majority of such relationships are heterosexual, and in practice between heterosexual men and young girls, usually in the context of the family. But it is also true that the (relatively tiny) number of people who have identified themselves as paedophiles are usually male and boy lovers. The vast majority of members of paedophile organisations seem to fall into this area.

This already suggests the complexity of the issue: a yawning distinction between behaviour and identity immediately appears. But once we recognise the very different context in which heterosexual and homosexual sexual relations take place, and the traditional invisibility of female sexuality, the 'yawning distinction' becomes yet another example of the inequalities of conventional roles and relationships. The collective feels that male heterosexual and homosexual paedophilia raise different questions.

The whole imagery of adult/child relationships is fraught with contradictions which reveal the symbolic differentiations between men and women, adults and children in our society. Whereas a male homosexual is invariably seen as a potential child molester, and a lesbian paedophile identity is socially non-existent because it presupposes an autonomous female sexual identity, the image of an older woman initiating youths fits in with traditional male fantasies of woman. At the same time the deflowering of the young virgin has a special place in male mythology.

Given these factors and conditions it is not surprising that the less common forms of adult-child relationships, involving homosexuality, receives wider publicity and hostility than the much more common heterosexual pattern. And it is for this reason that a distinct male paedophile identity emerges within the range of homosexualities.

Paedophilia centrally touches on the question of homosexuality precisely because of the question of "corruption". The terror of homosexuals corrupting minors into their way of life has been a sub-text of opposition to adult homosexuality at least since the 19th century, and behind it of course has been the terror of homosexuality.

In certain ways homosexuality greatly overlaps with the heterosexual norm; i.e. loving relations of "equals" living types of relationships different but not alien to heterosexual. Children have been seen as needing protection from going down the homosexual road because of the potent challenge it poses to the family,and to protect them a whole battery of ideological devices have been employed.

The major one has been the notion of corruption; of forcibly diverting the innocent child from the paths of righteousness to those of deviance. The use of this imputation has been an important method of control of adult homosexuality. We can already see that the campaigns such as those of Anita Bryant and Mary Whitehouse, ostensibly for the protection of children, become vehicles for assaults on all lesbians and gay men.

The Homosexual Category

The category of the "homosexual" is, as we have argued before, a historical creation, a cultural attempt to describe and control a variety of sexual behaviours between members of the same sex.

The emergence of love or sexual desire by one person for another is pretty near universal. The attempts to describe this within rigid categories is relatively new, and did not take off dramatically until the late 19th century.

The definitions of homosexuality have varied during the past 100 years;

  • its origins variously described (genetic, environmental, "corruption");
  • its manifestations outlined (abnormal sized bottoms, wide hips, inability to whistle);
  • its likely effect delineated (unhappiness, suicide).

But those thus defined have fought back. We have created our own sense of identity or identities; we have begun to assert and impose our own sense of ourselves, our own definitions ("gay"). The gay movements throughout the West, the great sub-cultural expansions, are all part of this process of self-definition. But even today a high proportion of those who engage in some forms of homosexual activity (e.g. in public lavatories) do not define themselves as gay. And many would fall into the cultural category of "heterosexual" by their usual patterns of behaviour (marriage etc).

These cultural categories are, in other words, arbitrary, only partially describing what they are supposed to, and are artificial divisions of sexual desire. They have a reality because they have social institutions backing them (the family, the law, medicine, psychiatry) and because they set the parameters within which we set out to live our various lives. But even for those of us who define ourselves as gay there is no essential identity, no single identifying pattern of behaviour.

There is not a single "homosexuality" but various "homosexualities". It is politically vital for gay people to organise to defend our right to our own sexualities,but we should be clear that a radical perspective does not mean defending a gay ethnicity (the equivalent of a national or racial identity). It means defending the validity of homosexuality and beyond that the many facetted nature of sexuality in general. It is not so much an oppressed minority that the gay movement is about as an oppressed sexuality. Freedom for gay people will not come simply when we have better facilities, freedom to marry or inherit property; it will develop as rigid cultural categories are broken down. It is a paradox that the only way for this to happen is through using these categories, organising within them and bursting their bonds.

The Paedophilke Category

Paedophilia, like homosexual behaviour, has existed universally, and has been variously treated in different societies. 'Boy Love' particularly has often played an important and even socially approved role in some cultures — e.g. pedagogic relationships in Ancient Greece; in puberty rites in various societies. In the 19th century, even in Britain, it was possible to have sentimental and even physical contact with children without social disapproval.

During the past century the category of the corruptor emerged, so that today almost any non-familial contact between adult and child can become suspect. Partly as a defensive measure, paedophiles themselves have in recent years begun to assert their identity, a few openly in organisations such as PIE and other equivalents in Europe and America. But just as for adult homosexuality there is little uniformity of behaviour, so with paedophilia.

Paedophilia in many cases is a matter of identity rather than actual sexual activity, and many of those adults who have sexual experiences with children would not in fact identify themselves as paedophiles. For instance a German survey suggested that among 200 cases of men sentenced for indecent assault on children "there was not even a single one preferring children to adult partners". (Quoted in Childhood Rights Vol 1 No2, published by PIE).

Just as assault or rape by a man on a woman cannot be defended so no paedophile would defend assault or rape of children, or any alleviation of laws relating to these. Nor would they approve of the conscious use of power to'persuade' children. (PIE for instance apparently disapproves of parent/child incest.) The issue then comes down to the question of an affectionate relationship between a child and an adult which involves sex.

Three issues immediately emerge:

  • 1. the legitimacy of childhood sexuality;
  • 2. the adult fetishisation of a particular age group;
  • 3. the changing meaning and significances given to different parts of the body throughout an individual's life.

The problem in discussing paedophile sexual relationships revolves around the prioritisation of certain parts of the body along adult lines in relations with pre-pubertal children who may not have such priorities. Can paedophile relationships ever be justified and what should the attitude of socialists and feminists be towards them?

Some issues seem fairly clear. It seems unlikely that youthful sexual activity rigidly determines later orientation, (object choice and emotional structuring seem to take place much earlier in life) and we see a homosexual choice as equally valid as a heterosexual one. We must reject the dominant idea that it is an issue whether a child is influenced into a homosexual rather than a heterosexual life.

We must demystify sex. The notion that sex is the great secret, the ultimate mystery, is at the root of the worship of childhood innocence. It is the puritans who elevate sex into the embodiement of holiness. We should argue for sex as pleasure not sacrament. If it is pleasurable on what grounds can we deny it. We must also recognise that it is often the young person who initiates sexual activity. It is the intrusion of the law or panic stricken parents which often causes misery and guilt in the child in a caring paedophile relationship rather than the relationship itself.

But of course there are difficulties. There are practical questions such as potential early pregnancy in girls, and the problems connected with VD. A more rational attitude in society towards contraception, a realistic attitude to VD and better sex education would help. But it still leaves the question as to whether children have the emotional resources to deal with paedophile relationships and the emotional crises that can happen.

It is important to stress that the paedophile issue is not one of molestation. No-one can defend sexual violence in any situation where one party is unwilling. It is in a crucial sense an issue of consent — an appallingly difficult concept to define in this particular context.

This raises two related issues.

  • In the first place, 'consent' has different meanings for children and adults and takes different forms.
  • And secondly - specific sexual acts have different meanings, and a specific sexual act will have a different meaning for the adult and the young person.

In this context what does it mean for a 'child' to 'consent' to 'sex' with an 'adult'?

Fundamentally these are issues of disparity of experience, needs, desires, physical potentialities, emotional resources, sense of responsibility, awareness of the consequences of ones actions, and above all power between adults and children. This is the crux of most opposition by feminists and gay socialists to paedophilia.


We must recognise that 'childhood' is itself a historical category, and like other cultural categories we have mentioned, is a fairly recent one (its evolution is traced in Centuries of Childhood by Philippe Aries, Peregrine Books). Only since the 18th Century have we reified the position of young people into our particular embodiements of 'innocence'.

The intervention by the State to 'protect' children often flowed from economic and political pressures which led to Acts controlling child labour and extending the period of schooling for example. But it was also tied to concern with the family and so laws controlling prostitution and homosexuality contained age of consent regulations.

This all aided the construction of the longer period of 'childhood' we know today. Emotional relationships have been largely confined within the family and the independence of the young has been seen as a threat.

Only since the last century have we so paradoxically both denied the existence of childhood sexuality and been preoccupied with curbing its manifestations, such as in childhood masturbation and sexual games. Even today, while our moralists rush to protect children, the capitalist system they support constantly incites sexuality, (including childhood sexuality) at all levels to sell its wares. But people will say that there is a difference between a child having sexual experiences with someone of the same age and having them with a more experienced, potentially exploitative adult.

There probably is, but how is this difference to be recognised. Should a line be drawn and if it is how should it be enforced? A legal age of consent is an arbitrary fiction. Emotional ages vary and someone of 10 might be more able to 'consent' than someone of 16. An age of consent in law does not prevent the sexual activity taking place and serves to perpetuate the myth that most, if not all adults can and always do 'consent'.

Sexual expression between adults and children need not be harmful and so cannot be condemned just because it takes place. But it is problematical because it raises issues of disparities of power. How can we safeguard the child's right to consent?

PIE answers this in four ways: (From Some Questions and Answers pt 27)

  • a) by suggesting that we overdramatise the question of moral choice involved in accepting a pleasurable act. "All that matters is whether the act is pleasurable."
  • b) the child is quite capable, from infancy, of showing reluctance. "If the child seems puzzled and hesitant, rather than relaxed and cheerful, he (the adult) should assume that he hasn't (the child's consent)."
  • c) the best way to encourage choice is by encouraging different attitudes to sex. "A healthier attitude would make it easier for the child to speak up, without feeling embarrassed about it."
  • d) if the adult persists and enforces his will on the child "The adult should then be liable to legal action and social condemnation."

It seems to us that (a) and (b) are vague and circular. Enjoyment is not necessarily a sign of having consented (an arguement often used against raped women) and is not a justification in itself for accepting a particular act. One may be hesitant but consenting. An adult can manipulate consental most unconsciously.

Points (c) and (d) are the keys but they need to be closely defined. This means two strategies which need to be developed and discussed in the gay movement. Firstly we need to be clearer about the implications of using legal action. We need to find means of protecting young people's rights which do not patronise, introduce the arbitrariness of an age of consent, or destroy with a blunderbuss.

At present we have a situation where adults have supreme power over children — economic, physical, intellectual and emotional. So it is at least problematical whether in this situation relationships of some equality can be formed which involve sexual expression. In an ideal situation where such relationships took place in the context of mutual agreement and without major social consequences for both parties this may be possible. But some paedophiles stress that the sort of relationships they want with children can take place in the existing framework.

However, we have to take account of the real social situation in which we live, with the vulnerability of children and the relatively effortless way in which an adult could manipulate the situation in pursuing their desires to the point of ignoring the interests, wishes and feelings of the child.

Children may not be equipped, either experientally or physically for adult-defined sexuality. Children are very sensual and enjoy physical contact, but they may not have the same conceptual categories as adults about sex. With such a low level of children's autonomy and awareness, their inability to say no should not necessarily be taken for agreement. For this reason it would seem that paedophile relationships are likely to be unequal, though in this they only parallel other adult-child relationships in our society.

To sum up this point, it would appear that the criteria exist for recognising the validity of relationships when there is some approximation of meaning. This does not imply identity of age or interest, but it does imply an ability on the part of the child to recognise some of the significance in social and sexual terms of her/his actions. We are inclined to believe that this does not usually happen before puberty. The problem becomes, then, how do we socially recognise this?

In the present climate some members of the collective support proposals that the 'age of consent' should be reduced to 14 as the only realistic possibility and that this age should be enforced outside of criminal law in special children's courts which would deal with all sorts of children's rights outside the bureaucratic disaster of present legal interventions in this area.

Other members of the collective, believing that any age of consent is unjust and unworkable, want the repeal of all legislation relating to the age of consent in the field of sexuality. Offences would be considered on the basis of the use of violence, force or pressure rather than an arbitrary age. The concept of consent would have to be used on a pragmatic basis, each case being judged on its particular circumstances rather than the straightjacket of present legislation. This would mean removing criminal sanctions from nonviolent sexual activity but providing the maximum social means for protecting the child. In this situation the responsibility of paedophiles would have a major part to play.

Care and Control

As a long term issue we have to debate the whole question of changing attitudes to sexuality. We can all agree that we need better sex education, advice on contraception, VD etc, but how do we fundamentally transform social mores? How in the end do we ensure that the young person is allowed to grow at his or her own pace, untrammelled by over-rigid categorisation of childhood, protected from abuses of power,and yet able to grow in caring relationships with other (perhaps older) people?

Part of the difficulty is in the way we have defined and constructed the problems. If we ask "How can we safeguard the child's right to consent?" we are already relegating to second place, if not totally ignoring, the ability of the child to safeguard that right for him or herself.

At present we find ourselves as third parties entering into a dialogue between unequal sides. The dialogue is one-sided because the children involved or potentially involved are not seen or felt capable of presenting their own case. Moral crusaders, and even people like ourselves, in intervening may serve not to decrease the power imbalance but to perpetuate it by totally excluding children from the debate.

An essential part of adult responsibility is the recognition of the limitations of children's ability to be responsible for themselves and to act accordingly. But children still need to gain more autonomy within new social relations in which adult reponsibility is not synonymous with parental authority.

An important step towards this would be the strengthening of organisations such as the National Union of School Students and School Kids Against the Nazis. It is there, as well as in the sphere of adult life, that issues such as children's sexuality and their rights should be discussed and fostered.

It is paradoxical that it is in the area of sexuality that there is so much uproar about the power imbalance between adults and children. Where is the debate around the gross economic differences between adults and children, the intellectual and physical advantages adults have, all of which can and are used to exploit and 'corrupt' children.

It is paradoxical because it is in the sphere of sexual/physical pleasure that children could have the relatively least disadvantage. It is the one currency of social relationships that children are best versed in — we operate on the 'pleasure principle' from birth. We do not deny that even on this level there are difficulties, but it is crucial that the debate has centred on child sexuality to the exclusion of other aspects of adult/child relations. What we must avoid is a totally 'adult-centred' solution.

Gay Left Editorial on Paedophilia: A Primairy Response

Tom O'Carroll, chairperson, PIE, has sent the following response.

Gay Left's considered view on paedophilia may strike some as an exercise in fence-sitting, but insofar as questions are left open, I believe there has been a welcome acceptance that there is a real case for the admissibility of child-adult sex, as well as one against. That, to my mind, is progress, and I feel GL is to be congratulated on taking the public discussion of paedophilia to a higher plane of debate than hitherto. I agree with many of the points made and also welcome the fact that views with which I fundamentally disagree have been put so clearly — I hope that in my reply in the next issue I will be able to reject them with equal clarity!

The essence of my reply will lie in four points:

  • (a) GL's thoughts on child sexuality started with Freud, sensibly enough, but unfortunately they appear to have finished with him too;
  • (b) analysis of our conceptualisation of 'homosexuality' and 'paedophilia' as categories was useful, and even more useful would have been to challenge our conceptualisation of 'consent';
  • c) the key issues of power and inequality have more positive implications than those which have been put;
  • (d) it is an illusion that opposition by feminists and gay socialists to paedophilia is based on these issues of power and inequality — important as they are, the paramount importance attached to them solely in a sexual context requires explanation, and this is the key to the paradox outlined in GL's final paragraph.