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Controversial Studies Push Change in Society's View of Pedophilia


c.2002 Newhouse News Service


Sex between adults and children has been a societal taboo so strong that it's considered one of our few unquestioned moral principles. But arguments have emerged in academic journals, books and online that at least some such sex should be acceptable, especially when children consent to it.

Those making the case aren't just fringe groups, such as the North American Man-Boy Love Association, but a handful of academics at mainstream universities.

Members of this school of thought stress that they don't condone coercing children into sex, and that they are not pro-pedophilia, as the term is commonly understood. But several contend that minors are capable of agreeing to and even initiating sex with adults.

These academics seek to change the language, moving away from "pedophilia," which often evokes a charged negative response, particularly in light of the priest-pedophile cases challenging the Roman Catholic Church. In its place would be more neutral terms such as "intergenerational sex" or "adult-child sex."

With more research, some scholars say, it may be only a matter of time before modern society accepts adult-child sex, just as it has learned to accept premarital sex and homosexual sex.

"Children are the last bastion of the old sexual morality," wrote one of the trailblazers for this view, Harris Mirkin, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Social conservatives aware of efforts to legitimize adult-child sex have publicly expressed horror. On his radio show broadcast to hundreds of Christian stations, psychologist and author James Dobson said the intent is to "make boys accessible" to men.

Leading gay rights groups also have denounced the effort.

"Pedophilia is something that's abhorrent, should be condemned in the strongest of terms and should have nothing to do with gay civil rights issues," said David Smith, spokesman for the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. Smith also spoke out against the North American Man-Boy Love Association, which has been trying to link adult-child sex with homosexual rights for 24 years.

The American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, but pedophilia remains there. The manual describes pedophiles as having "recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 or younger)."

An APA statement separate from the manual says an adult who engages in sexual activity with a child "is performing a criminal and immoral act" that can "never" be considered socially acceptable.

Legal definitions vary from state to state and often are under criminal codes dealing with indecent liberties with a child, sodomy and rape. Pedophilia may not be mentioned by name. Instead, the laws concern sexual contact with a child under a certain age.

The most coordinated opposition to change has come from the Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice & the Media, an organization of mental health professionals headquartered in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. The group describes its mission as protecting children "through ethical applications of psychological science." Since its inception in 1998, it has focused on debunking what it considers pro-pedophilia studies.

"What the pedophiles are looking for is some group of professionals to champion their cause," said Stephanie Dallam, a Leadership Council researcher. "Then they'll come up with a derogatory term to deride anyone who disagrees with them. Their claim will be to objective science, even though their science is sloppy and terrible."

As an example, Dallam cites an organization calling itself IPCE, a forum that discusses academic arguments for adult-child sex.

The group formed as the International Pedophile and Child Emancipation group, then shortened its name to the acronym alone, according to a newsletter posted on its Web site. The site contains an extensive library of academic papers and provides links to other pro-pedophilia Web sites, including one at which people converse -- sometimes posting pictures -- about sexual interactions with children.

In an article to be published in the spring issue of The Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Dallam writes that a major strategy in normalizing pedophilia is to limit the term "child sexual abuse" to cases in which actual harm to children is demonstrated, not just assumed.

Mirkin, whose academic specialty is the politics of sex, wrote in a 1999 article published in The Journal of Homosexuality that society perceives youths as seduced, abused victims and not "partners or initiators or willing participants" in sex with adults, "even if they are hustlers."

In an interview, Mirkin said the outrage surrounding the Roman Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal illustrates how the public views acts of intergenerational contact as "one big blur" of child abuse when it's likely "very, very mild stuff."

"We say if someone touches or molests or diddles or whatever a kid it will ruin the rest of their life. I don't believe it. I think kids are more likely to laugh at it more than anything else -- unless the whole culture says this is the most horrible thing that can happen to you."

Mirkin is not alone in questioning whether children are harmed by sexual contact with adults. The March 2002 American Psychologist devotes its entire issue to the ongoing fallout of a journal article that did just that.

The piece, in the July 1998 issue of Psychological Bulletin, was written by Bruce Rind, then an assistant professor of psychology at Temple University; Robert Bauserman, a lecturer then with the department of psychology at the University of Michigan; and Philip Tromovitch, then pursuing a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania.

The trio reviewed 59 studies of college students who, as children, had sexual interaction with significantly older people or were coerced into sexual activity with someone of their own age. They concluded that negative effects "were neither pervasive nor typically intense, and that men reacted much less negatively than women." It recommended that a child's "willing encounter with positive reactions" be called "adult-child sex" instead of "abuse."

After Dr. Laura Schlessinger denounced the article on her nationally broadcast radio program, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution rejecting the study.

Many academics came to the study's vigorous defense, citing the need for academic freedom to pursue unpopular topics. But other scholars joined the Leadership Council, Dallam's group, in lambasting the study for what they considered sloppy methodology and a refusal to look at numerous other studies suggesting significant mental, physical and behavioral harm to abused children. Rind, now a part-time instructor at Temple, did not respond to requests for an interview.

The controversy still raged in May 1999, when the American Psychological Association, which published the Rind article, passed a resolution saying that "sexual relations between children and adults are abusive, exploitive, reprehensible and properly punishable by law."

But adult-child sex remains a field of study.

While some, such as Mirkin, have argued that teen-age children can consent to adult sex, there appears to be no clear consensus among these scholars as to when a child should be considered too young.

Gilbert Herdt, director of human sexuality studies at San Francisco State University, said determining an age of consent "is very, very problematic." He stressed that there must be a point where society says it's unacceptable, and illegal, for an adult to have sex with a minor, but he would not say where the line should be.

"It's totally different in my mind to think about consent with an 18-year-old than a 10-year-old," said Herdt, who has written that sexual attraction can begin as early as 8. "So then you say, `What about a 13-year-old, is that more like a 10-year-old or an 18-year-old?' These are the types of questions that ultimately find their way into legal cases because of the imprecision of these categories."

The academic debate has begun to find its way into more popular culture.

A soon-to-be-released book, "Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex," is being advertised by its publisher, University of Minnesota Press, as challenging widespread anxieties about pedophilia.

In an interview, the book's author, journalist Judith Levine, praised the Rind study as evidence that "doesn't line up with the ideology that it's always harmful for kids to have sexual relationships with adults."

She said the pedophilia among Roman Catholic priests is complicated to analyze, because it's almost always secret, considered forbidden and involves an authority figure.

She added, however, that, "yes, conceivably, absolutely" a boy's sexual experience with a priest could be positive.

"When I was a minor, I had sex with an adult," she said. "He was one of my first lovers. My heart was broken, but my heart was broken by a lot of boys, too. I'd say on balance that it was a perfectly good experience."

(Mark O'Keefe can be contacted at