Scholarship, pederasty and moral panic

Over on Reason’s Hit & Run blog (where I myself have posted occasionally), my friend Julian Sanchez writes:

WorldNetDaily is crowing about having pressured a publisher to drop a book on same-sex relationships in ancient Greece and Rome with this hysterical reaction to, as far as I can tell, nothing more than the abstract of this chapter. …. WND apparently regarded the chapter in question as propaganda for pedophiles because it suggested that hybrid lover/mentor relationships between ancient Greek adults and adolescents might not have been horrifically scarring to the latter.



Julian believes that WND is whipping up hysteria about child sex abuse in order to suppress legitimate discussion (and throw red meat to its base). I don’t particularly like publishers being intimidated into dropping books, even objectionable books. I also think WND is a right-wing hack site of the worst kind (the “makes Ann Coulter look like George Will” kind). And I agree that there’s been too much hysteria in our culture about child sexual abuse, often with disastrous consequences (from the sex-abuse witch-hunts of the 1980s to teachers being afraid to hug a crying child). But, having read the abstract of the controversial chapter, penned by Dr. Bruce Rind, I have to say that it makes me rather queasy. Here it is:

Pederasty, or sexual relations between men and adolescent boys, is condemned in our society as an unqualified evil that maims and destroys. In ancient Greece, samurai Japan, and numerous other cultures, pederasty was seen as the noblest of human relations, conducive if not essential to nurturing the adolescent’s successful intellectual and physical maturation.

Current psychological and psychiatric theorizing have pronounced and promoted the former view, while ignoring the vast array of cross-cultural data related to the latter view. Mental health opinion has also ignored a wealth of cross-species data with important parallels. Instead, this opinion is based on feminist models of rape and incest, which are backed up by clinical research on child sexual abuse.

The current article examines empirical rather than clinical data on pederasty, and supplements this with cross-cultural and cross-species perspectives. The empirical data show that pederasty is not only not predestined to injure, but can benefit the adolescent when practiced according to the ancient Greek form. Cross-cultural and cross-species data show the extensiveness of pederasty in the natural world, as well as its functional rather than pathological nature in these societies and species.

An evolutionary model that synthesizes the empirical, cross-cultural, and cross-species data is proposed as an alternative to the highly inadequate feminist and psychiatric models. The animal data suggest that the seeds for pederasty were planted at the dawn of humanity. The human data suggest that pederasty came to serve a mentoring function.

For me at least, the summary sets off certain alarm bells. I have no problem with an objective examination of man/boy relationships in ancient Greece, and I’m not saying that any such examination has to be accompanied by self-righteous hand-wringing and tongue-clucking. (A good summary of available information on the subject can be found at Wikipedia. From some of the things I’ve read, the reality was often less idyllic than the ideal; it’s also worth noting that in some societies that encouraged mentoring pederastic relationships — notably Sparta and Samurai Japan — they were a way of inducting the younger partner into an extremely militaristic, hierarchical male culture.) However, as outlined here, the article sounds like advocacy more than scholarship. (What are “cross-species data” doing in an essay on ancient Greece and Rome, anyway?)

You really don’t need to be a right-wing moralist to have misgivings about attempts to normalize sexual relations between adult men and underage boys. And I do think that Haworth Press (the publisher) used poor judgment in approving this particular essay, as outlined, for inclusion in the book.

Julian Sanchez points out that in many societies, sex between adult men and young girls was condoned too, as long as it was legalized in marriage. Quite true; but today, in civilized societies, such marriages are rightly viewed as exploitative. This shouldn’t be a gay vs straight issue: I doubt that an essay drawing on the history of marriages between adult men and nubile girls to argue that adult male/adolscent girl sex needn’t be damaging would find a very welcoming reception. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that such literature be suppressed by the government, or even by intimidation from morally outraged mobs. But better editorial judgment, it seems to me, is in order.

11 Comments

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11 responses to “Scholarship, pederasty and moral panic

  1. angry young man

    Some interesting background on this story here:

    http://www.unl.edu/rhames/courses/current/child_sex_abuse.htm

    I found it while trying to discover if Rind had a son. It would be interesting to see how he would feel if it were his boy in one of the relationships he seems to find less disturbing than others do.

  2. colagirl

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that many of the cultures that have practiced pederasty are characterized by severe sexism and repression of women…don’t recall where though.

    His attempt to appeal for an evolutionary model of pederasty is somewhat worrisome too, since it almost sounds (to me at least) as if he’s trying to justify it on the basis of “it’s natural.” A common fallacy in biological and evolutionary thinking is to assume that because a thing is “natural” that means it is good and right. For example, from an evolutionary standpoint it would be natural for stepparents to neglect and even kill stepchildren, since they take away resources that could go to the stepparent’s own biological child, and there is some data, especially from species that form one-male breeding units, to support this. Obviously this is not “good.” Likewise, even if there is some natural basis for pederasty, it doesn’t follow that it’s a “good” thing.

  3. kat

    Well, I’m a left-wing feminist, and definitely find the summary rather disturbing. Lots of people seem to regard the Ancient Greek model of the relationship between an older man and young boy as being either morally-neutral, or even humorous(probably the same ones who think that boys cannot be sexually abused). I find it quite strange how people can be so relativistic in their assessment of past cultures- what they would happily condemn as paedophilia if it occurred today, they are willing to romanticise provided it happened far enough in the past. Not to mention the fact that older men so often sought the “company” of boys due to the conception of women as being little better than animals, fit only for breeding. From what I’ve read, the relationships themselves were hardly very egalitarian, with the boys being forced into the role of the blushing, coy conquest, exchanging sex for gifts and attention while not enjoying it themselves(basically similar to the perception some people still hold about male-female sexual relationships…)

  4. Cathy Young

    Well, I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only one who was uneasy with this.

    angry young man: yes, I’m aware of Bruce Rind’s previous work arguing that sex with adults is not always damaging for adolescents.

    Now, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this information, but I remember reading that a high percentage of the people in the survey who evaluated their adolescent experiences of sex with adults as “positive” were young men who, as teenagers, had had sex with older women.

    I wonder how much of this is cultural — i.e., young men in our culture are supposed to see such experiences as something good, as something that makes you “a real man”?

    colagirl: good point about the attempt equate natural = good. Stepparent infanticide is a good example.

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that many of the cultures that have practiced pederasty are characterized by severe sexism and repression of women…don’t recall where though.

    It’s certainly true of classical Athens, where the social custom of “boy love” reached its height, and also of Samurai Japan. On the other hand, Sparta, another Greek society that strongly encouraged pederastic mentoring relationships, also had relatively egalitarian roles for women by ancient standards.

    kat, good points. Your description of the man/boy relationships in Athens rings true to what I’ve read. The boys had to navigate a very treacherous terrain: on the one hand they were expected to accept gifts from their admirers; on the other hand, if the gifts were so lavish as to brand the recipient a male courtesan, the young man was in danger of being formally reduced to second-class citizenship (e.g. stripped of the right to hold public office). A male who submitted to anal penetration was also stigmatized as “effeminate.” There was nothing “liberated” about these relationships.

  5. Dean Esmay

    Let me add another thought to the mix:

    I have a friend, a good friend, a man I am proud to call friend. In 1980, at the age of 18, at a point in his life when he was a complete loser, he went into a shopping mall parking lot, pulled a knife on a woman getting into her car, and threatened to rape her. She put up a screaching struggle, honking her horn and yelling at the top of her lungs and punching at him hard, and he dropped his knife and ran away.

    When the police caught him, within about a half hour, he confessed immediately to everything, sobbing hysterically and asking for forgiveness. He was convicted, based on his confession, of assault with intent to rape.

    He is now well into his 40s, married, with kids, and with a squeaky-clean, spotless record. You ask him about this incident now and he still about bursts into tears with shame.

    He has never had a conviction of anything serious ever since then.

    He is a Registered Sex Offender, and there are bills in place now to make him not only still have to register himself wherever he goes, but also to try to make it illegal for him to hold any job with a school, near a school, or in any way involving children, for the rest of his fucking life.

    Would somebody sane please explain to me why this is necessary? More to the point, would someone please explain to me why my children are rendered safer by this? Especially when there are probably tens of thousands of cases just like his?

    What the fuck–seriously, WHAT THE FUCK–does his case have to do with child molesters? Can someone explain that to me in simple terms?

  6. Cathy Young

    Dean, this is a bit off-topic I guess, but I’ve often wondered just who gets lumped into that “registered sex offender” category.

    I remember a story in the New York Times, several years ago, about a guy in upstate New York who had pleaded guilty to statutory rape for having sex with a 16-year-old girl (he was in his late ’40s, and the girl had gone to the police only after her attempt to blackmail him had failed). The authorities were trying to use the sex offender law to prohibit him from living within a certain distance of a school, which would have required him to sell his home — even though it was pretty clear that, while the guy’s actions were not particularly admirable, he was not a danger to children.

  7. Eric

    I have no problem with intimidation by hundreds of people yelling at such an effort.

    Moral intimidation by mobs, as you term it, is infrequently useful, but I would not toss it.

    Now actual physical violence is another thing.

    And the piece does not seem to go over another red line for me…telling someone how to commit a crime and escape, or encouraging people to commit crimes.

    I would censor those parts of NAMBLA that fall into that group of what I consider unprotected speech.

    And yes, I’m aware of how fine the line can be. I wrote a novel with the murderer cooking up poison. I did the typical authorial thing of omitting some information, but still it could be useful.

  8. Cathy Young

    According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (see my post today), Haworth Press received about 20 emails from readers after the WND article appeared.

    Not quite a screaming lynch mob, I’d say.

    Sounds to me more like the attention from WND prompted Haworth Press to review their own book, and conclude that it was wanting.

    Still don’t see why they couldn’t cut that one chapter and publish the rest of the volume, which sounds fine to me.

  9. Anonymous

    Did you really write, “In civilized societies…”? You are incredibly naive. Civilized by whose standards, the APA’s? You seem to be implying that American society is more “civilized” than classical Greek and Roman societies. Hmmm. On all counts, arts, letters, architecture, food, politics–everything I can think of–American society falls short. American and other western societies have spent centuries and untold resources trying to emulate classical cultures, and in an ignorant phrase you dismiss them as, apparently, uncivilized.

    The point is your argument is based on a dubious premise, an assumption that makes no sense if examined: that American culture is civilized and these classic cultures are not. This is the worst kind of ignorance and parochialism and has the effect of actually weakening the position against Rind’s article (actually, his abstract) because it is so ill-conceived. Fortunately, early 21st century bloggers are not the arbiters of morality, culture and scholarship as you seem to imagine.

    That this is so obviously doubtful in the case of referring to CLASSICAL Greek culture is astounding. Presumably, we civilized cheese-burger-munching, sugar-water-swilling, video-game-obsessed culturalistas wouldn’t want to even consider or examine the political system of these uncivilized, depraved societies either. Nope, let’s not inquire into the roots of democracy. After all it has it’s origins in an uncivilized society. Is it possible that a dispassionate investigation into pederastry (granted maybe not Rind’s–I haven’t read his work), it’s history, it’s dubious evolutionary origins, etc. might help us understand more fully the blight of child abuse in our own “civilized” society? Censoring discussion, leaving this human phenonon in the illicit dark seems an unlikely strategy for dealing with it. Isn’t one of the main problems with sexual abuse the secrecy and shame that surrounds it?

    Please try to get outside your ethnocentric blinders and straight jacket. Our civilized society puts adolescents to death in our legal system, but your claim is that it is trying to protect them under the banner of “civilization”. I am skeptical. Let’s protect our youth: from predatory sex, from death sentences, from poverty, from terrible educations, from exploitative work places, by all means. But let’s do it based on sound reasoning and not knee-jerk ethnocentrism.

  10. Cathy Young

    anonymous, dear:

    I have a lot of admiration for ancient Greek culture.

    However, pardon me for thinking that a society that permits slavery and treats women as chattels is less civilized than one which does not.

  11. Anonymous

    Pederasty is an institutionalized function of Ancient Greek society. It must be noted that pederasty is MORE than a sexual relationship between an adolescent male and a older male.
    The origins of pederasty is traced back to 650 BCE in Crete where the a system of pedagogical pederasty was introduced in order to control the rising birthrate. Pederasty also had its military purposes in Crete where a young mounted warrior would kidnap an aristocratic boy to love and train.
    Pedrasty in Ancient Greece, particularly Sparta rose to a certain prominence. It became essentially a rite of passage for a boy into manhood. This homoerotic relationship had more than one aspect. The older man took on the younger man to mentor him and prepare him for manhood.
    Pederasty has a set of legal and social norms that were established in Crete, thus differentiating it from homosexuality and child abuse. It must be remembered that the young man went into this relatioship willingly as a part of his passage into manhood.
    This homoerotic relationship was also evident in women for they had their own, eloquently dubbed as ‘Sapphic Love’. By the way, Sparta (part of Ancient Greece society) did not treat its women as chattels for it gave them the same liberties (Sapphic Love) as their male counterparts.

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