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
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
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
"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.
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.
rights groups also have denounced the effort.
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
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
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
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.
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
As an example, Dallam cites an organization
calling itself IPCE, a forum that discusses academic arguments for
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
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
"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
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
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
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
But adult-child sex remains a field of
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
(Mark O'Keefe can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)