Why Do We "Background" It (De-emphasize it)?

An Exit Interview by Gerald Jones, Ph.D.
University of Southern California, 1964-2007:
Student, Lecturer, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Statistics, Staff (Retired)

In order to have any rational discussion about relationships, especially close, intimate contact, between men and boys, discussion of the subject of explicit sexual contact must be minimized. This was a difficult issue for researchers and serious writers 25 years ago, but in the intervening years the hysteria surrounding the topic has grown to the point that no progress can be made toward understanding anything if sexual contact is part of the discussion.

  • (I was going to use the phrase, "on the table" in place of "part of the discussion", but decided the double meaning might be a bit distracting.)

One of the sleaziest uses of sex-abuse hysteria is the suppression of serious research. (Discouraging any search for knowledge and understanding, in fact, is reprehensible.) Bullough ( Feierman, 1990) [*] and Sonenschein (1998) [**] each have discussed this problem in depth, and I (Jones, 1991) have also noted the chill that the huge machine of the Child-Abuse-Industry (CAI) has cast over all attempts to learn more about intergenerational intimacy.

This doesn't mean that those who oppose sexual contact between adults and minors necessarily are wrong in that opposition. It does indicate, however, that the CAI operates at a high level of fear. Whether it is a generalized fear of the unknown, or a specific fear that they know the truth and don't want it revealed, is not clear. While others in the academic research community tend to operate from constructive motivations, the CAI and much of the general public seem to be defensively motivated.

  • (The dichotomy of constructive vs defensive motivation is derived from the brilliant conceptual work of Cronbach and Snow, 1977/1981.)

This necessity to consider sexuality separately and to "background" (de-emphasize) the sexual questions is unfortunate, not least because we just don't know yet how the whole picture fits together.

  • Some say men who are attracted to adolescents or boys are loveless psychopaths with only selfish motives.
  • Others say that this type of sexual attraction can co-exist with real feelings of love and concern.
  • Some believe that even those man/boy relationships that do not include sexual contact still are motivated by sexual attraction.
  • And still others claim they are sure that all people who love other people do so because of sexual attraction at some level, including parents, mentors, teachers and caregivers.
  • What if we were going to develop a full discussion of sexual contact between adults and minors?
  • What issues would we look at?
  • What questions would be important to ask?

Perhaps a short list here might help others now or in the future who want to tackle this Goliath.

Can sex be considered on its own?

It is difficult to imagine that any sexual contact that is not painful and does not cause physical injury can possibly be, in and of itself, harmful. On the other hand, it is also impossible, at least for me, to imagine that any sexual contact could occur today that is not immediately surrounded by the culture, so to speak.

Said differently, if a human being is conscious and has what we would call sexual contact with another person, that experience is inevitably subject to psychological and emotional reactions, many of which are generated by the culture which has provided the person's developmental context. There is no such thing as a culture-free sexual experience. This dilemma is rather like the question of whether a sound is made when a tree falls in the forest and no-one is there to hear it.

Is sex, per se, good or bad?

Most people today think that at least some sexual contact is a good thing. Immediately, however, the conditions start piling on. Sex is good for adults, but not children. Are adolescents children? OK, sex is good for adolescents when it's with other adolescents (and it's responsible, protected sex). What about same-sex contacts between adolescents? Welllll, ummmmmm, ahhhhhh . . . What about masturbation? Is orgasm good or bad? Yes for adolescents and adults, no for children. What about children who discover orgasm completely on their own? Are they doomed to depravity?

Of course we will not attempt to answer these questions, and they are not on any fast track to solution anywhere in the Western world that I know of. Still, it seems to me that it would help us understand the issue better if we simply forced an agreement one way or the other.

Personally, I would urge us to take the position that sex, in and of itself before any discussion of the influence of culture and psychology, is a good thing. It is, after all, a built-in feature like the digestive system, the respiratory system, the circulatory system and other functions that keep us working.

If we agree it is a good thing, we can then look at the various ways it's used and experienced with more precision and clarity. There is no contradiction to the position that sex per se is a good thing and certain kinds of sexual experience are a bad thing. We then can be clear that it is not the sex that makes it bad, but the other elements of the experience, such as

  • the beliefs of the culture;
  • elements of force or trickery that are psychological, not sexual;
  • ulterior motivations such as prestige, jealousy, obsession;
  • and so forth.

How do we determine the source of harm?

If sexual contact between adults and minors is harmful, which many believe based on evidence they trust, and many more believe simply because they feel intuitively that it is, then what actually causes the harm? Is it the differential of power?

Some say that minor males who have sexual contact with adults actually feel more powerful than they otherwise feel in their lives, that the relationship is mutual and they are an equal partner. Others, of course, feel totally dominated and overwhelmed.

Is it the disapproval of society? It is entirely conceivable that boys could engage in sexual activity because it feels good (I don't think anyone is out-of-touch enough to question that) and continue feeling good about it for some time before society-inspired doubt and guilt come into the picture. The fiction literature is full of such references -- are they only the writers' fantasies?

Anecdotal accounts, moreover, including newspaper stories, commonly believe coercion and force claims when they offer reports such as "the victim was assaulted repeatedly by the adult over a period of four years". This doesn't mean that such behavior should be allowed or condoned. It just means that it is absurd to believe that during the time of the contact the younger partner wasn't enjoying any part of the experience, unless you believe he was hypnotized, or kidnapped every other weekend by the perpetrator.

Is the harm, then, rooted in the younger person's shame that he made some seriously wrong decisions? Some will say that the fact that bad things happened are not the younger person's fault. I tend to agree with that. But I am also skeptical when adults involved in this way are pilloried and demonized like witches in Salem.

Age of consent.

Currently, if everyone voted on these issues, the general consensus would probably be that for pre-adults sexual experiences are not recommended, and for adults they are fine. The obvious question, then, is where do you draw the line?

Physiologically, the line is drawn at puberty (which actually begins about a year before the secondary signs such as axillary hair, voice change and growth spurt). Once ova (in girls) and sperm (in boys) begin flowing, as it were, biological childhood is over. Some believe this is a good demarcation line for beginning to allow sexual behavior, but most believe it is way too early. The reasons for the latter position range from religious to economic (e.g., delayed entry into the workforce, hence delayed status as a full-fledged adult) to people's memories, perhaps flawed, of their own adolescence.

Socially, the line between pre-adult and adult is a highly movable target.

  • For drinking in the United States, the prohibition falls at age 21.
  • For dying in war, or otherwise joining the military, it's age 18.
  • For driving a car, in many states it's 16, sometimes with certain conditions.
  • For doing a full-time job and making a million dollars a year it's, well, there is no age limit.
  • Child actors do it all the time, although again with certain conditions.

Sexually, the age when "adulthood" starts is also quite variable.

  • In England, consent to sexual contact is legal at 16, as it is in some States and in the District of Columbia.
  • In other States of the U.S., the age is 18, though under some circumstances a few states and
  • Canada allow people 14 and older to have sexual experiences of their choosing.

Consider this example regarding the age of consent. Let's say a youth lives in a state where he can initiate and/or say "yes" to a sexual advance involving an adult man or woman when he is 18. Legally speaking, this makes perfect sense. If a line has to be drawn, setting an age by law is the most practical way to do it. The line could not be set by physiological developmental stage: how would that be determined? Height? Amount of body hair? The line could not be set by some measure of how ready or unready the youth is, because that, also, could not be measured.

Now, enter the real world.

  • Scenario 1: The boy is three days shy of his 18th birthday, graduated from high school, and spending the night at the home of an adult man he has known for several years. Both agree they want to have explicit sexual contact. While this is taking place, the man's next-door neighbor walks in, intending to borrow a ski parka. The activity is reported, and the adult involved is branded as a child-molester and goes to prison.
  • Scenario 2: The boy is three days past his 18th birthday . . .


At this point, for the reasons explained here, we'll leave further discussion of sexual behavior to other venues, and other people. The problem is just too all-consuming in a society like ours that is at once sex-crazed (turn on your television at any time of the day or night), and obsessed with the control of available sexual content (turn on your television at any time of the day or night).

And the control of sexual content is not only intended for the "protection" of children, though that claim is often made.