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Sexual Liberation's last frontier

By Julia A. Ericksen, in: Society 37(4), 05-01-2000


Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Baserman are among the few who have begun to question the supposed long-term effects of child-adult sexual activity on the children involved. It is appropriate to undertake such research if only to wrest the terms of the debate from conservatives who have used pedophilia as a way to silence all attempts at sexual tolerance.

In 1938, Alfred Kinsey began interviewing 20,000 Americans about numerous aspects of their sexual behavior. Describing this monumental undertaking in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, he saw himself as a disinterested scientist whose sole purpose was to uncover the facts about "what people do sexually, and what factors account for differences in sexual behavior among individuals, and among the various segments of the population:' Trained as an etymologist, Kinsey had spent the first half of his career collecting gall wasps. Interviewing people about their sexual histories seemed to be just another kind of collecting, and he sought the widest variety of histories just as he had sought the widest variety of wasps. "Modern taxonomy," Kinsey pontificated, "is the product of an increasing awareness among biologists of the uniqueness of individuals, and of the wide range of variation which may occur in any population of individuals." Thus Kinsey interviewed numerous persons whose sexual tastes differed from the average.

In presenting himself this way, Kinsey was able to dismiss those who thought his interests in sexual variety prurient. He specifically castigated those, who suggested that he should not undertake this work, as standing in the way of scientific progress. Yet, as many who have written about Kinsey have noted, one does not have to be a reactionary moralist to understand that he had an agenda in addition to the desire to know. As his co-researcher Paul Gebhard told me several years ago: "He [Kinsey] was brought up by a very puritanical family. They wouldn't even let him play the piano on Sunday. During his adolescence, he was sure he was going to burn in hellfire because he masturbated. There was no one to talk to about it, but he knew it was evil and dreaded he'd go to the insane asylum and all the rest. Later, as a scientist, he could see what an unfortunate situation this was. He once said to me. `I decided I didn't want any young people going through the nonsense I went through.' The more interviewing he did the more sad cases he would encounter, which reinforced his liberal drive. He was smart enough to realize that he shouldn't show it too openly, or people would devalue the work and say he was biased. He really did his best to avoid being pro-sexual, but it showed in spots."

This does not mean that Kinsey was dishonest or in some way duplicitous in covering up his social agenda with science. The reason for starting with Kinsey in an essay on a different set of authors is to make the point that science is never just a neutral endeavor. Scientists participate in the creation of culture, and they do so from a perspective that rests on their social locations and their educations as well as their ability to see things differently than those who came before. In putting forth their ideas, they are themselves changing the culture they study. Kinsey was influenced by his restrictive upbringing, by his class and gender, and by his education as a taxonomist. Yet, he also realized that sexual behavior could be subjected to the same kinds of measuring techniques as other human actions. His work had a profound impact on the very behavior he studied. Kinsey changed the sexual culture of America forever. His hook told young women, for example, that sex before marriage did not mean the end of their chance of marital happiness, as they had been warned. And those who found themselves erotically attracted to persons of the same sex, learned that this attraction was not uncommon, that it had a name, and that it was not pathological.

One of the more controversial aspects of Kinsey's work, which the media ignored at the time but which has continued to haunt him, was his writing on child-adult sexual contacts. Using data supplied by "older subjects who have had sexual contacts with younger boys" Kinsey argued that very young children were capable of orgasms. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, he further argued that child-adult sexual contact was in itself not nearly so harmful as the shame induced by outraged adults in girls who were found to have engaged in such activity.

Kinsey was not alone in his liberationist ideology. In fact, the prevailing view of sexuality by sexologists in the twentieth century-and the one to which Kinsey subscribed-has been that sex is a natural force that has been repressed by society, particularly in the West, with deleterious consequences for individual happiness. Kinsey was unusual however in condoning such a range of sexual "outlets:' Most sexologists have been nervous of appearing too sexually radical, fearing dangerous consequences to themselves and their careers. As a result, most have been careful to confine themselves to "normal" sex and have ignored or been hostile to same-sex sexual activity, for example. And while a few brave souls like Mary Calderone have condoned sexual exploration among children, sexual contact between adults and children has been almost universally abhorred.

In recent years, these attitudes have begun to change. Gay liberation activists have targeted the homophobia of sexologists, along with other professionals. This has brought about a more accepting viewpoint, which is perhaps best illustrated by the proliferation of gay and lesbian caucuses among the professional organizations-such as the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality or the International Academy of Sex Research-to which sexologists belong.

There are no child-adult sexual liberation caucuses in these organizations. This remains a forbidden frontier. Most writers on child-adult sex use emotionally laden terms like "pedophilia" or "child sexual abuse," and most of their research attempts to measure the harm brought about by such activity. Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Baserman are among the few who have begun to question the supposed long-term effects of such activity on the children involved.

It is appropriate to undertake such research if only to wrest the terms of the debate from conservatives who have used pedophilia as a way to silence all attempts at sexual tolerance. Thus, in 1992, when Jesse Helms introduced his amendment to forbid the federal government from funding two national surveys of sexual behavior, which had been designed to document whether or not AIDS was likely to spread widely in American society, he understood how to strike fear into his colleagues. Dismissing the researchers and their supporters as "homophiles, pedophiles, and the sexual liberation crowd," he was able to get the majority of senators to vote to ban the surveys even though nothing in their proposed questionnaires could be construed as an apology for child-adult sex.

It is easy to dismiss the sexual views of Senator Helms as not representative of most Americans. And, indeed, sexuality has long been a favorite target of the far right. An offshoot of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee vilified Kinsey, and he continues to be attacked by right-wingers like Judith Reisman and Pat Buchanan. It is more difficult to ignore the votes of all the other senators who went along with Helms in forbidding the national surveys of sexual behavior. This is why sexologists have been so careful not to taint themselves by appearing to approve of "deviant" sex.

Yet surely we now live in a sexually tolerant society whose members are willing to live and let live. Isn't this the lesson to be learned from the failed presidential impeachment proceedings of the past year? Even same-sex marriages are beginning to make headway unimaginable a few years ago. But one idea remains sacrosanct. In all public discourse, agreement exists that children are to be kept innocent of the sexual interests of adults, because they will be inevitably and irreparably damaged if exposed to them. One can argue that this is mixed message with a subtext where little girls are eroticized as baby beauty queens, but punitive and arguably ineffective "Meghan's laws" passed in state after state with great alacrity. Not one congressperson or senator voted against passing a similar law nationally in spite of the double jeopardy and the infringement of liberty involved. Childadult sex is a forbidden sexual activity in the public landscape of America. The controversy over Rind and his associates for questioning the prevailing assumption tells us how deeply embedded it is.

Privately it is a different issue. Literature abounds with examples of children as objects of sexual desire. And the data on incidence show that childadult sexual contact is not a rare event. These data are almost certainly underestimates, since it is likely that persons who have had this experience will deny it given the stigma associated with it. Even so, in 1992 about 12% of men and 17% of women reported that, before they reached puberty, they had been sexually touched by someone who was aged 14 or over. These figures come from the most reliable national survey, the National Health and Social Life Survey, which was based on a probability sample of almost 3,500 American adults. So on the one hand we have the deviant and vilified pedophile who finds children sexually irresistible, and who must be separated from society. And on the other we have the fairly large proportion of Americans who experienced this as children. Their very numbers belie the rarity of the offense. And they were not usually assailed by furtive strangers but by loved family members and friends. As with the sodomite in the nineteenth century, so in the twentieth century the pedophile's punishments are so severe that most people guilty of the offense remain unpunished, protected by families which rightly fear the consequences of exposure.

In view of the above discussion, it is not surprising that few researchers dare to raise questions about the trauma resulting from child-adult sexual activity. And while Rind and his associates have had the courage to break these taboos, they have been careful to echo Kinsey in their commitment to science. Kinsey assured readers that any applications to policy or practice, of the facts he was presenting, would have to be left to others. Likewise, Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman end their long and detailed analysis with the caveat that "the findings of the current review do not imply that moral or legal definitions or views on behaviors currently classified as CSA [child sexual abuse] should be abandoned or even altered."

To the reader, this is a hollow reassurance. Like Kinsey, Rind and his colleagues have a liberationist agenda. They wish to release child-adult sexual activity from the closet to which it is confined. In doing so, they too are influenced by their own social position, their education, and their ability to see things differently than previous writers.

Since they are taking on a dangerous and controversial topic to which the existence of this symposium testifies, Rind and associates go to great lengths to present their work as disinterested science. Their training as psychologists makes this a comfortable position for them. Psychology, alone among the social sciences, continues to resist the social constructionist/post-modern influences, which have swept disciplines like sociology, anthropology, and history. Thus it is to be expected that psychologists would view the facts about the effects of sexual activity between children and adults as separate from the culture in which these children and adults exist. After Gilbert Herdt's writing on the Sambia, no anthropologist, for example, would take such a position.

In doing science, Rind and colleagues use many of the techniques familiar to psychologists. They use scales to measure psychological adjustment. They reduce the explicit "child sexual abuse" to the abbreviation "CSA." And they use complicated statistical analyses, which rely on tests of significance to make their points rather than discussing the substantive meaning of their results. Their technique of choice is meta-analysis. This involves combining the results of numerous small studies to produce findings, which are believed to be more robust than those of the studies that comprise them. The analysis under discussion here is detailed, complex, and very long for a journal article. At times it is not clear what they actually did. In the discussion that follows, I use examples of their points rather than providing a comprehensive review.

In preparing the reader for their analysis, the authors raise original and important points about previous research in the field. They note that other writers do indeed feel obliged to accept that sexual activity between adults and children must have severe, widespread, and long-term detrimental consequences to the children involved. As a result, researchers use the emotionally laden term "child sexual abuse" (a term the Rind group continues to use in order to stay within the confines of the relevant literature) instead of the more neutral "childadult sex." They note that definitions of childhood, of sex, and of abuse vary greatly from study to study and are all-inclusive. For example, most, but not all, researchers use age 16 or 17 for defining the end of childhood, in spite of the fact that almost all American children go through puberty at an age much younger than this. In defining sexual abuse, some researchers limit themselves to unwanted sex while others include all sex.

Finally, while most researchers define "sex" to include both that which involves contact, such as fondling, and that which does not, such as exhibitionism, some only include the former. And where most authors believe there are no gender differences in the effects of sexual contact between adults and children, Rind and associates argue that women report being far more disturbed by their experiences and appear to suffer more negative effects. This is not a new finding. It appears in the 1993 National Health and Social Life Survey undertaken by Edward Laumann and colleagues at the University of Chicago. In these data, 45% of the men and 70% of the women who reported childhood sexual contact with an adolescent or adult also reported that this had affected their lives and in most instances negatively.

The training of the three authors is apparent in the way they present their data. Having noted that the studies they examine use different definitions of the problem, they nonetheless feel comfortable pooling a large number of studies-59 in all-into one meta-analysis. And like many psychologists, they tell the reader almost nothing about the data collection procedures used in these studies. What they do say is worrying. For example, most of these studies measure adjustment problems by using a variety of scales such as the MMPI. Rind and colleagues coded 18 different adjustment problems, such as alcohol problems, anxiety, depression, and dissociation. Each problem was measured differently in different studies. Depression, for example, seems to have been measured using at least 11 different scales from study to study. Yet there is no discussion of the differences in the scores produced by the different scales.

With such great variations in measurement, it is not surprising that some studies show greater deleterious effects than others do. When this happens, the authors remove all outliers from their findings and run their analysis again. This may be appropriate when variables are measured in a consistent manner, but it seems likely that in this meta-analysis, differences in measurement would be the obvious explanation for outliers. We are not told either how the remaining studies measured their variables or how the outliers measured theirs. The assumption prevails that regardless of measurement differences, all studies were measuring the same thing. Survey research experts show that even small differences in wording produce different results. An additional complication lies in the sampling techniques used in many of the studies. While a minority used random or quasi-random sampling, most did not. Instead they used various types of convenience or volunteer samples, in spite of considerable evidence that volunteer samples provide distorted results, especially with emotionally laden subjects like the one at issue here. Thus since significance tests assume randomness, their use is not really appropriate.

In the end, what do the authors conclude about the effects of CSA? This is where their personal agendas are most apparent. On finding that in spite of removing outliers, "college students with a history of CSA were, on average, slightly less well adjusted than college students without," they immediately look for an alternative explanation. CSA, they state, may not really be harmful; it is merely associated with other harmful things. In particular, children are more likely to experience CSA if they come from a problematic family environment. They categorize family environment into six factors. These are abuse and neglect; adaptability; conflict or pathology; family structure; support or bonding; and traditionalism. They do not tell us how they measure these variables or indeed what they actually mean. For example is a "traditional" family good or bad? They report that each of these factors is associated with poor adjustment in college students. Since, on average, the effects of these factors is higher than the effects of CSA, then CSA does not really cause poor adjustment, it is simply a problem of confounding variables. This is a curious defense. If they are correct-and given the issues of measurement discussed above it is difficult to be sure they are correct-that CSA is more common in families with high levels of pathology, then it seems that CSA should be considered part of that pattern of pathology. Furthermore, it is difficult to separate the effects of highly correlated variables because of issues of multicollinearity. This distorts the relative sizes of effects and means that one cannot be sure which variables are confounding and which measure real relationships.

The authors' agenda is also apparent in their recommendations. They compare the history of child sexual abuse to that of masturbation. Masturbation used to be called self-abuse and was assumed to cause a variety of serious problems. Now we know better and do not use such a pejorative label. Rind and colleagues argue that it is time for a new set of definitions instead of the umbrella term "child sexual abuse." For example, they argue that the term "children" should no longer be applied to adolescents, since adolescents can reasonably be expected to have sexual interests. However, they go on to argue that "willing encounters with positive reactions" should no longer be called childsexual abuse but simply "child-adult sex:' They would confine the term "abuse" to those contacts between adults and children where the child reported that she did not freely participate in the encounter or had negative reactions to it. I think it is reasonable to always use the term child-adult sex for sexual encounters involving both adults and children because emotionally laden terms make issues more difficult to talk about. I do not think it reasonable to divide incidents in the way the authors suggest. First, what happens when a child does not resist but at a later date-as an adult for example-comes to feel coerced and harmed? In addition, their distinction implies that children in this culture can in fact give free consent to sexual activity with adults, an idea with which I have difficulty. In our society adults, especially parents and other close relatives, hold great sway over children. As a result, fathers, for example, can persuade their daughters to "consent" to sexual activities which the daughters later regret.

There is a related issue with consent, which the authors do not discuss but which is implied by their recommendation of separating adolescents from children in analyses. What should be the appropriate age at which young people can legally consent to sexual activity? Currently, it varies greatly from state to state and receives very little discussion. Even more egregious is the difference in the legal age of consent for heterosexual acts as compared to homosexual acts. For example in Pennsylvania, the age of consent is 14 except for same-sex sexual relations where it is 18. This causes great harm to gay teenagers who are treated as innocent children only because of their sexual object choice.

Rind, Tromovitch, and Bauserman raise important issues, which need discussion. However, this is a topic that cannot be understood in the absence of an awareness of the culture in which it occurs. It is time to move beyond the view of sexuality as a natural force which needs liberation from a repressive society. Sexuality is itself a social creation. We learn to be sexual in culture, and our sexuality is not unrelated to other aspects of our culture. In the West, children remain dependent on their parents and on adult society in general for a very long time. In such a society, children need protection from adult abuse. Child-adult sex cannot therefore be an activity to which both parties equally and freely consent. The most fruitful lines of inquiry about child-adult sexual activity in this culture must start with a discussion of the differences in power between adults and children.


Calderone, Mary S. `Above and Beyond Politics: The Sexual Socialization of Children." In Carole S. Vance, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Pandora Press, 1989.

Fass, Paula S. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kincaid, James R. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child in Victorian Literature. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Laumann, Edward O., John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels. The Social Organization of Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Julia A. Ericksen teaches sociology at Temple University. Her most recent book, Kiss and Tell: Surveying Sex in the Twentieth Century was published in 1999.

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