Sunday, January 20, 2013

43. Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo




         When our friend John came to visit Bob and me recently, he asked an interesting question:  “Have you ever held a strong opinion about something and then, in the course of time, come to hold the opposite opinion?  In other words, regarding something significant, have you ever changed your mind?”  The three of us pondered but came up with nothing.  But I had a sort of answer (“sort of” because my first opinion was not a firm, well-settled one): I once had a mild, rather passive opinion and later came to a distinctly strong opposite opinion.  The subject: man/boy love.  Which brings us to this post, a departure for three reasons: (1) it is not specific to New York; (2) it may seem like advocacy, though I mean only to relate my own change of opinion on the subject; (3) the subject being controversial, it may raise a few hackles.

         I myself have never experienced man/boy love, neither as the younger partner nor the older one, or felt any urge to do so.  When, long ago, I would at times  encountered a gay teenager who was obviously eager to connect, he was always too immature to interest me.  So my attitude toward such relationships was vague, casual, and rather orthodox: if the boy was under the age of consent and therefore "jail bait," such a relationship was dangerous, probably dubious, and best avoided.  Yet man/boy love has been documented and even illustrated in many cultures, so graphically, in fact, that I wouldn't dare show some scenes from Pompeii, or certain Japanese and Chinese works, lest my blog be labeled a porn site.  And in classical myth Zeus became so enamored of the beautiful young Trojan boy Ganymede that he whisked him off to Olympus to be the cupbearer of the gods.  (How Hera felt about this is not recorded.)  But for me such love was even more remote than Olympus, so I didn’t think much about it.


File:Sheikh and boy partying in a garden - Mohammad Ali - Moraqqa’ - 1530 - Reza Abbasi Museum.jpg
A sheikh and a youth partying in a garden: a Persian painting of 1530.  Does this suggest man/boy love?  Viewers can decide for themselves.
        What changed?  In July 2000, having heard of his case on Grandpa
Al Lewis’s WBAI program (see post #19), I wrote to an inmate in North Carolina named Joe and initiated a pen pal correspondence that continues to this day.  Joe, I learned, was serving 25 years in prison on 25 counts each of indecent liberties with a child and crime against nature, and could hope to be released sometime in 2014.  “Crime against nature” – the very term angered me.  Against what nature, whose nature, etc.?  But be that as it may, Joe at my request gave me a streamlined account of his consensual three-year relationship with a young teenager named Allen (a fictional name) and how it led to his arrest.


File:Shah Abbas and Wine Boy.jpg
Another Persian work: Shah Abbas and a wine boy.  Shah Abbas ruled Persia 1587-1629.  This one is even more suggestive.  What 
was going on in ancient Persia?

         Fascinated by Joe’s story, I urged him to write his memoir, telling in detail the entire story from beginning to end.  (Not that it has an end; it is still ongoing.)  Though he had never written anything before, with my help he set out and over many months, sending me periodic installments, told his story in three sections: My Life before Allen, My Life with Allen, Locked Up.  Because of his remarkable memory for detail and his skill in description, it reads like a novel: a gripping and very moving novel.  He will self-publish it when released, so as to give his version of the story, totally at odds with the statements of the prosecutor at his sentencing hearing.  (With great effort I obtained the official court record of the proceedings, so I know exactly what misstatements and falsehoods were uttered.)  Clearly, this three-year man/boy relationship was doing no harm to anyone until other parties interfered, and the heavy-handed criminal justice system brought trouble to all concerned. 



File:Ganimede Ganymede - Zeus.jpg

Zeus embracing Ganymede, an engraving by the Italian artist Cherubino Alberti 
(1553-1615), based on a work by Polidoro da Caravaggio (not to be confused
with the famous Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio).  Some versions 
describe what Ganymede is holding in his right hand as a purse, suggesting
prostitution, but Ganymede didn't need money; closer inspection reveals it to 
be the male genitals! 





























          A story within a story:  In his memoir Joe tells how, when working as a counselor in a boys' camp, one of the boys -- we'll call him Jim -- told him an interesting story.  A man moved into his neighborhood who started having consensual sex with the local underage boys.  Word got around; the boys flocked.  Jim himself had sex with the man, as did his younger brother.  But one day the police came calling: word had reached them too, and they wanted Jim to testify against the man, so this predator could be locked up.  Jim didn't want to, but under great pressure he agreed.  In court he saw the man, now in custody, and realized that the whole case against him depended on Jim's testimony.  But Jim reflected: he liked the man, liked the sex, and didn't think the man would harm anyone.  So when he took the stand, he testified  that he and the man had never had sex.  Pandemonium erupted, as the prosecutor and a social worker upbraided him, and the judge pounded his gavel for order.  The session was suspended, so the social worker could talk to Jim in private, with only his father present.  The social worker again described the man as a monster and said it was Jim's duty to testify against him so he could be locked up. "Lady," said Jim, "right now I'm more scared of you than I am of him!"  Her jar dropped, and Jim's father intervened: "If you don't mind, I'm taking my son home."  For the next few days his father kept a close eye on Jim, lest he see the man again, but the man soon moved away.  This story taught me something useful:  It isn't enough to just tell the truth; you must tell it for the right reasons.  Jim lied in his testimony, but to have told the truth would have gone counter to his own perceptions of the situation and betrayed a man who he felt had done him no harm.  Few teenagers would have had the courage to do this; I applaud him.


         Obviously, it was Joe’s story that caused me to reconsider my attitude toward man/boy relationships and the notion of the pedophile and pedophilia, terms that are used – and misused – much too freely.  Webster’s New Collegiate defines pedophilia as “sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual object.”  In this context I take “children” to mean young persons who have not yet reached puberty.  In the recent scandals regarding priests in the Catholic Church, the perpetrators were invariably referred to as pedophiles, though most of the cases involved teenagers.  We lack a term for sexual attraction to adolescents – “ephebophilia” exists but has 
not passed into the general language – hence the misuse of “pedophile” and “pedophilia.”  Joe was 26 and Allen was 13 when they met, but at 13 Allen was tall, rather broad-shouldered, and well past puberty, so for me this story does not involve pedophilia. 

File:Kiss Briseis Painter Louvre G278 n3.jpg
Man/Boy love in ancient Greece.  An Attic vase of the 5th
Century BCE, now in the Louvre.  Ah, those Greeks!  In
pre-Christian times they got away with a lot,
incorporating ephebophilia into their societies, on

 condition that the partners in time marry and beget
offspring, so as to assure the future of the city state.
Marie-Lan Nguyen
         My interest in Joe’s story led me to two books treating the subject of man/boy relationships, one studying the problem in Denmark and the other in Holland, but both now available in English.  The Danish one, originally published in 1986, offers interviews with a defense attorney, a judge, admitted pedophiles, and above all a number of boys involved in consensual relationships.  One boy, who says he isn’t exclusively gay, asserts that it would be boring to be purely heterosexual.  A boy of ten (the youngest of those interviewed), when asked how old a person should be before having sex, replies, “Zero years”; his mother, aware of the relationship and her son’s love for his older friend, refuses to interfere, and regrets that the relationship has to be hidden from the outside world.  Another boy describes himself as bisexual, deriving great pleasure from sex with girls, though he says his best experiences were with his stepfather, when he could just surrender and let the stepfather take the lead.  Finally, a boy of 16, now interested in girls, says of the older friend whom he started having sex with at age 13, “He understands me better than my own mother”; he expects that, even without sex, they will remain friends indefinitely.  The aim of the study, the authors say, is to induce parents, teachers, and the various authorities to listen to what the boys say, and to understand their joy in the relationships and their need of an older friend.  Significantly, just as the boys reach 15 or 16, their older friends lose interest in them sexually, and the boys usually begin having sex with girls.  Significantly too, the English translation’s title is Crime Without Victims.

          First published in 1981, Theo Sandfort’s Dutch study was based on a government-funded report examining the stories of twenty-five boys currently involved in a consensual man/boy relationship, all but one of whom considered the relationship a decidedly positive experience.  When, before the AIDS epidemic appeared, a limited English edition reached these enlightened shores, it was reviewed by a pediatric psychiatrist in Contemporary Psychology (vol. 30, no. 1, 1985), who dismissed it as the rationalizing of a criminal activity, tainted both because it avoided the usual labels of "victims" and "perpetrators," and because it was sponsored in part by an organized group of pedophiles (which was news to the Dutch government!).  Circulating here at the same time was the accusation (never substantiated) that a tidal wave of "kiddie porn" was flowing across the Atlantic from Amsterdam; those permissive Dutch were trying to corrupt our youth and undermine the moral fabric of the nation!  There were other negative reviews of Sandfort’s work as well, all but dooming the boys and their partners to fire and brimstone, and Sandfort, the voyeuristic author, to a new persona as a pillar of salt.  Obviously, even with an influx of porn, the relatively tolerant attitude toward sex that prevails in secular Holland has not corrupted our fair land.  (A side thought:  When it comes to fire and brimstone, wouldn't free-living San Francisco be Sodom, and turpitudinous New York Gomorrah?  So maybe, by implication, this post does relate a bit to the Apple.)

         And what of the 25 boys themselves, age 10 to 16, of whom 11 were clearly beyond puberty?  When interviewed, they usually said that they met their older partner through family or friends; certainly they were not stalked.  And after the first encounter, which rarely involved sex, it was the boys who sought to renew contact and develop a friendship.  The ensuing friendship did involve pleasurable sex, but even more important were shared activities like swimming, movies, or visits to an amusement park.  At their partner’s home the boys were more relaxed and enjoyed more freedom than at their own home, even when the boys had good relations with their parents.  Trust and loyalty developed, and the ability to talk freely about anything: as an American teenager in a similar relationship once said to Oprah, "I can tell him anything and not feel judged!"  While the parents usually knew about these friendships, they didn’t know about the sex, which they would think “really bad” or “not nice” or “dirty” – attitudes that the boys considered old-fashioned and stupid.  A common thread in these stories was the boys’ determination to live their own lives, regardless of the opinions of others.  The study concluded that, for boys in pedophile relationships, the present laws in Holland posed far more of a threat than a protection, and urged the passage of more enlightened legislation.

         In the light of such studies, which reinforce the lessons of Joe’s story, I revised my attitude toward consensual man/boy relationships.  Of course child molestation exists: three friends of mine were molested as children and bear the resulting emotional scars to this day, but these were nonconsensual encounters.  I now view consensual man/boy relationships as legitimate and constructive, if the boy is past puberty and able to give knowing consent.  This does not mean that I go along wholeheartedly with the arguments of the North American Man/Boy Love association (NAMBLA),

The On-Line Voice of NAMBLA: The North American Man/Boy Love Associationwhich beats the drums for complete tolerance of these friendships, regardless of the age of the boy.  Certainly I agree with their plea for greater tolerance and understanding, and their wish to free all men imprisoned for having had consensual sexual relationships with minors.  But they want no age of consent at all, which at this point I find questionable; arbitrary as it is, the age of consent -- 15 or 16 in most states, but 17 in New York -- should be lowered but not abolished.  Yet even here I confess that NAMBLA's arguments against any age of consent at all are powerful, since such stipulations are not only arbitrary but subject to prosecutorial abuse.          NAMBLA's is a lonely path, shunned and even condemned by mainstream gay organizations, who don’t want their campaign for gay rights to be contaminated with anything that might be construed as child molestation.  Pedophiles are only a tiny minority of the gay population and suffer prejudice and misunderstanding accordingly.  I am not of them, but I can sympathize.  Which puts me in a strange middle place, tolerant, yet tolerant with a few reservations.  But since when was life not complicated?









         So ends this digression from my New York-based stories.  Next week I return to the Big Apple and the Robber Barons of Yore, whose shenanigans are wild, colorful, and entertaining, provided you are immune to the consequences of their deeds and misdeeds, as their contemporaries often were not.


Source note:  The two books mentioned earlier are:  

Crime Without Victims, ed. the "Trobriands" collective of authors, trans. E. Brongersma, Amsterdam: Global Academic Publishers, 1993.

Theo Sandfort, Boys on Their Contacts with Men, Elmhurst, NY: Global Academic Publishers, 1987.

I queried NAMBLA by e-mail, asking permission to use a photo from their home page, but got no response.  So I've done without the photo and have included no link to their website.  I would still welcome feedback from them on this issue.


Thought for the day #1:  Desire is holy.  (Yes, a repeat from earlier, but relevant.  Please note: I didn't say "wise" or "prudent" or "legal," just "holy," which viewers will interpret as they wish.)

Thought for the day #2:  Humankind cannot bear very much reality. -- T.S. Eliot.  Indeed, we live immersed in illusions and surface only occasionally to glimpse what is really real.

P.S.  I finally heard from NAMBLA; their e-mail follows.  They also made an interesting comment: see Comments.  I won't reproduce the photo of a painting, since  by itself it could be misinterpreted.  


Hello, Mr. Browder,

Thanks for your message, and for your interest in our organization.   It has taken me too long to respond, and I must apologize.  

The picture you asked about could be seen as too narrow a focus on younger boys, although it is a famous work by a first-rate American painter.  And, while that simply wouldn't be an accurate portrait of NAMBLA, it was legally unobjectionable.  I couldn't know the context, nor could I guess what use you might make of this image, so I asked for the opinions of our editorial crew.  And, as usual, that is a slow process.

The responses were, generally, "Okay".  But people asked me -- to ask you -- that you wouldn't misrepresent us (as others have done, too often). 

Once I read your blog, my doubts were gone.  You are a shrewd and generous commentator on our society and its foibles.  Thanks for writing on this subject!  And, feel free to use anything on our website as you see fit.

Sincerely,

Arnold Schoen


(c)  2013  Clifford Browder


6 comments:

  1. A very interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

    I think it is unquestionable that there is a good deal of paranoia associated with man/boy love, and therefore more emotion than logic or common sense.

    The bottom line is that it happens, and it is more often consensual than exploitative. Moreover, youths often benefit from the erastes-eromenos relationship.

    Another great tragedy associated with the topic is that logical discussion is discouraged by the hysteria involved. It is indeed the love that dare not speak its name.

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  2. I agree with Mr. Burnie and understand your own conclusion, shift, or whatever we should call it. Growing up in Denmark, in a household that neither condemned nor embraced religion, I suppose I took free thought for granted.

    I recall how my friends and I, as teenagers and young adults, laughed at American movies that showed chaperones and referred to pregnant young ladies as being "in trouble." We also found the mere idea of "panty raids" on college campuses ludicrous beyond belief. It all added up to an impression of Americans as uneducated and naïve. Having spent a couple of years in the states during WWII, attending PS 101 in Forest Hills, I could vouch for low standard of education, at least in elementary school. It was appalling—I learned not a thing other than English, and that was something I absorbed in the schoolyard and through listening to Captain Midnight, Suspense, etc.

    Thank you for another interesting article.

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  3. Thanks for the comment, Chris. Coming from a Dane, your comment is especially interesting, since one of the books mentioned deals with these relationships over there. I think we're making slow but (I hope) steady progress here, except in fundamentalist circles. But you're a better judge of that than I am.

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  4. My, Clifford, but you're a brave man to post such an article. But, for a woman brought up strict Catholic, I found it very thought-provoking. You've certainly given me something to ponder...

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    1. You're keeping an open mind -- bravo! The emphasis, of course, is on consensual relationships. The main thing now, I think, is: LISTEN TO THE BOYS. Adults have so often failed to do that. But this will be debated forever. Better debated than ignored. Thanks for the comment.

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  5. Dear Mr. Browder,
    It appears that NAMBLA owes you an apology for its delay in responding to your request for permission to use a photo from our Web site. It is not that we ignored you but that our system of consultation is rather slow. Our need to deliberate carefully is informed by the too many who seek only to misrepresent us. Your essay was indeed a refreshing departure.
    As for the photo you requested, I had communicated misgivings on its use to our steering committee. We tend to rotate images so as to give a broader view of our organization but do not always have the manpower to update our Web site.
    Your remark on our position on age of consent is interesting in that you immediately follow it by recognizing one of our reasons for this stand. Another point in defense of this position is that human sexuality is no different from other aspects of development. For example, human beings are capable of absorbing knowledge from the earliest years. Yet no one would suggest that even a one-year-old Einstein would have been able to digest differential calculus.
    Consensuality has been our guiding principle from the beginning, and it goes without saying that we have always condemned subterfuge and force. These would indeed be greatly reduced if through peer pressure and transparency the acceptance you promote were to become actual.
    I am writing this to you as an individual member of the MAMBLA steering committee and without having consulted with it.
    Peter Herman

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