Sexual hysteria - Then and now

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By: Hubert Kennedy

Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological, and Legal Perspectives. Theo Sandfort, Edward Brongersma, and Alex van Naerssen, editors. The Haworth Press, 1991, 325 pages. Published as a stand-alone volume and as an issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, John DeCecco, editor. Publication made possible in part by a generous grant from the Kalos Kagathos Foundation of Laguna Beach, California.

In 1869 a committee of health experts was formed in Berlin to advise the Prussian Minister of Justice on whether the Prussian anti-homosexual law should be retained in the legal code for the new North German Confederation. (In fact, this law, numbered 175 in the formation of the German Empire, remains on the books in Germany, though Minister of Justice Klaus Kinkel has announced his intention to remove it.) Noting that the High Court had decided that cases of mutual masturbation did not fall under the current law, the committee remarked: With reference to health, only onanism can be considered important, whereas an act imitating coitus between male persons, apart from some local injury that may come about, is essentially just like ordinary coitus in that only through an excess can it be harmful. [1] But this opinion, as the German ethnosociologist Gisela Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg pointed out in 1978, "although it clears out some old prejudices, it quickly replaces this with the new one of the dreadful harmfulness of onanism (without, of course, giving any proof whatever of it)." [2]

Eight years later Dr. Kellogg, the cornflake maker, of Battle Creek, Michigan, produced the book Plain Facts About Sexual Life in which over 100 of its 350 pages were devoted to the "Solitary Vice," which he called "the most dangerous of all sexual abuses." [3] Doctors in general simply defined it as a disease, for which they had many treatments. One popular treatment of the time, for men, was electricity applied to the genitals by either inserting electrodes into the rectum and urethra or between the thighs and on the penis. As one physician said, this makes "very powerful local impressions." [4]

This 19th century prejudice against masturbation has been cleared up, just as the danger of anal intercourse was cleared up earlier, but, like the latter, has been replaced in the late 20th century by a new one, "child sexual abuse." The parallels are compelling; for one taking a longer historical view, nothing resembles the current hysteria over "child molestation" so much as what has been called the 19th century "masturbatory insanity." (Not least among the parallels is the continued use of electricity, now in the treatment of the "disease" pedophilia.)

Male Intergenerational Intimacy is one of a very few academic publications to approach the subject of man/boy love - and it does so very cautiously. Rather than asserting the non-harmfulness of contacts between men and boys, many of the authors here call for further empirical study. The three co-editors and several of the authors are Dutch, in part reflecting the fact that empirical study is possible to some extent in the Netherlands - and nearly impossible in the United States, where qualified researchers cannot promise anonymity, but rather are required by law to report any suspicion of sexual contact that might be illegal.

The large number of articles in this volume precludes discussing them in detail, but a brief description of each of them should give an idea of their contents. Following the introduction by the co-editors, Gisela Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg traces the study of institutionalized pederasty in primitive societies. Then Edward Brongersma argues (against Kenneth Dover) that an ancient Greek inscription - "By the (Apollo) Delphinios, Krimon had sex here with a boy, the brother of Bathykles" - was testimony of a sacred ritual act and not vulgar graffiti. These two articles appear to suggest that man/boy sexual relations are diverse and occur cross-culturally and across time. A brief note by Martin Killias traces "The Historic Origins of Penal Statutes Concerning Sexual Activities Involving Children and Adolescents." The remaining articles refer to the 19th and 20th centuries.

Two articles on the boy in art give a wider dimension to the volume. Will Ogrinc avoids the earlier Freudian interpretation of the paintings of his son by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler by viewing them in the light of the painter's Rosicrucian beliefs. Tariq Rahman sees the eccentric books written and illustrated by the Englishman Ralph Chubb as creating an exonerative myth to reconcile his sexual interest in boys with his desire for spiritual fulfillment.

Chin-Keung Li presents samples of taped conversations with 27 men in England who "had sexual contact with children" to illustrate how they, as individuals, experienced their sexual feeling for children.

Four Dutch authors follow. Edward Brongersma gives anecdotal evidence to correct distorted research on the influence on boys of boy-lovers, culled from his recent two-volume work Loving Boys. Although Brongersma is occasionally a historical, his vast erudition and the extent of his evidence are compelling. Later in this volume there is the inevitable article on the social construction of sexualities, this time by Ken Plummer, a leading exponent of this view. It is very convincing and furnishes a partial corrective to Brongersma.

Alex van Naerssen reports his clinical experiences with 36 males who "felt an enduring sexual attraction for boys." He comments: "counseling and psychotherapy with pedophiles are severely restricted by society's legal and moral views that positive relationships between men and boys are not possible." And he adds: "One can only hope that in the course of time emotional relationships between adults and children become socially acceptable." Gertjan van Zessen reports on counseling support groups of pedophiles, where "goals are defined in terms of enlarging the autonomy of the men and terms of regulating socially unacceptable or illegal behavior." He notes that, "sexual contacts with boys 15 years old and under are illegal in The Netherlands," but "there is no law in The Netherlands forcing therapists or counselors to report sexual acts with minors to the authorities." This and an excellent historical article on the Dutch experience of toleration of sexual minorities by Jan Schuijer point up several cultural differences. The Dutch experience is very different from the American for various reasons, among them the freedom to express opinion - the Dutch are much more tolerant than we are - and the fact that their penal system "has traditionally been liberal... Grassroot sentiments do not easily creep into the criminal procedure: judges and prosecutors are not elected and juries do not exist."

Speaking more directly to the interests of American readers is David Thorstad's excellent summary of the history of "Man/Boy Love and the American Gay Movement." A former president of New York's Gay Activists Alliance and a founding member of NAMBLA, Thorstad is uniquely qualified to write on this topic. If one wishes that several articles had been expanded, it is especially so of this article, for Thorstad carefully documents the shifts of political opinion, especially regarding NAMBLA, both within the gay movement and in the larger society. We are given a fascinating, if all too brief, glimpse of the machinations of the FBI in their often highly illegal attacks on NAMBLA. Thorstad also points out the role of the recent "child sexual abuse" hysteria in serving "to soften up public opinion for right-wing attacks on civil liberties and 'vice.'" (The existence of this hysteria in the gay community is illustrated by a letter in the San Francisco Sentinel in March 1991 protesting the publication of an article on tennis great Bill Tilden: "I don't believe a gay publication should include a pedophile in its volumes of personality profiles without drawing distinctions between homosexuality and the criminal rape of minors." Tilden, it may be noted, was convicted of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor," although it is clear that the boy in question had no objection to the relationship.)

The final article by Gerald P. Jones further discusses the rhetoric of the "child abuse industry," noting the lack of scientific evidence and the suppression of research, and suggests some directions for the future study of intergenerational intimacy.

One of the obstacles to a rational discussion of this topic is the widely held moral prejudice that a sexual relationship between a man and a boy is always harmful to the boy. Hence the importance of a study of 25 boys published in 1981 by co-editor Theo Sandfort, who concluded: "For virtually all the boys ... the sexual contact itself was experienced positively and had no negative effect on how the youngster felt in general." [5] His findings were criticized by several American researchers. In a concluding section of this volume Robert Bauserman comments on the views of three critics, pointing out their moral prejudices and lack of scientific justification. There are brief and rather lame replies from two of them, David Finkelhor and David A. Mrazek.

On the whole Male Intergenerational Intimacy is a good antidote to the hysteria of the moment. No doubt this hysteria will recede, but before it does, like the masturbatory insanity of the 19th century, it will have robbed countless individuals of the joy of living, cruelly forced children into a crippling conformity, and restricted the civil liberties of us all. For the thoughtful reader, one with a longer historical perspective, this book can lead to an appreciation of the sanity expressed by Gunter Schmidt in the preface: A person's age, or the difference in age between the partners, says too little about the nature and quality of their relationship to justify making laws against such partnerships merely on the strength of this information... Each individual case must he looked upon on its own merits and, for this reason, the threat to make all pedophile acts punishable by law can barely be labeled civilized; on the contrary, it is unjust, for it implies that discrimination and persecution of a minority and should he abolished.

1. Gutachten der wissenschaftlichen Deputation fur das Medicinalwesen in Preussen vom 24. Marz 1869. Quoted in Magnus Hirshchfeld [Hirschfeld], Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (Berlin, 1914), pp. 961-963.
2. Gisela Bleibtreu-Ehrenberg, Tabu Homosexualität: Die Geschichte eines Vorurteils (Frankfurt am Main, 1978), p. 339.
3. J.H. Kellogg, Plain Facts About Sexual Life (Battle Creek, Michigan, 1877), p. 233.
4. Gail Pat Parsons, "Equal Treatment for All: American Medical Remedies for Male Sexual Problems: 1850-1900," Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 32 (1977): 65.
5. Theo Sandfort, The Sexual Aspect of Pedophile Relations (Amsterdam, 1982), p. 85.

source: Book review 'Sexual Hysteria - Then and Now' by Hubert Kennedy; NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 12, No. 7; September 1991; Reprinted from OurStories, the newsletter of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California, Volume 6, Numbers 3-4; [Spring/Summer] 1991