The “powers-that-be no longer seem interested in drawing the boundary between ‘right’ and ‘perverse’ sex.”
by Mark Regnerus, The Public Discourse:
Two new studies use a small amount of old data to try to undermine the idea that it is abusive or damaging for adults to have sex with minors. Disturbingly, no one seems to be challenging this conclusion.
The Archives of Sexual Behavior, a journal I respect and have recently published in and reviewed for, has printed a pair of studies by Bruce Rind in the past year. The recent publication of his work marks a significant, unnoticed, and unnerving turn in the dissemination and consumption of research on sex and sexuality.
Almost twenty years ago, both houses of Congress and the American Psychological Association condemned Rind’s claims, published in the August 1998 issue of Psychological Bulletin, that the long-term damages caused by child sexual abuse are overestimated. I would have thought that nearly twenty years, a concurrent resolution of Congress, and a fair bit of social trauma would have convinced him to shift topics.
But I was wrong. His new studies are on the same theme: sex between adults and minors as young as thirteen. Rind is banking on a more amenable political and scholarly atmosphere in which to conclude comparable things. And from the sound of it—or rather, the utter lack of sound—he has gotten his wish. There has been no congressional concern, no APA scrutiny, just silence.
So what do the studies say?
Old Data and Small Sample Sizes
The first study concerns adolescent girls’ first same-sex sexual experience, and mirrors an earlier one on boys. The data Rind uses, curiously enough, are the Kinsey data, collected by the famous early student of American sexual behavior Alfred Kinsey. These are old data—most of the participants were born before 1930—but that does not mean they have no value. Rind praises Kinsey because his was not a clinical sample, studying people who are seeking help of some sort. Agreed. But Kinsey is hardly representative. I don’t believe Kinsey’s data are a good guide to understanding what behavior was normative in its time, or in ours, given his nonrandom approach to locating participants. But neither do I believe that Kinsey’s interviewees were lying.
The second study is on the “long-term adjustment and functioning” of boys who experienced their first same-sex sexual experience with adult men, using data from the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS). These data have a comparative advantage over Kinsey’s by being far more recent and population-based. Both articles seek to “test,” and purport to undermine, the child sexual abuse (CSA) framework in which “all minor-adult sexual interactions are considered abusive, traumatic, and psychologically injurious by nature.”
On average, girls in the Kinsey data set were fifteen years old at the time of their first same-sex sexual event with a woman (who was, on average, twenty-six years old). For men in the NHSLS, their mean age was fifteen and their partner was twenty-eight. In each study, fewer than half of the respondents describing such early same-sex experience currently identified as homosexual. Most of the women’s first experiences were what Rind termed “outercourse,” involving no oral sex or penetration (i.e., less invasive). The opposite was the case with boys, where oral sex was reported by 67 percent, and anal sex by 29 percent. In other words, these encounters were invasive and “severe,” Rind admits. “Despite this,” he argues, their “adjustment was not inferior to that in the comparison groups.” He makes this claim while admitting that only 19 percent of such male respondents said the sex was “wanted at the time,” well below the 54 percent who experienced first sex with age-similar peers. Sixty-seven percent “went along” and 14 percent report being forced, well above the 3 to 4 percent among other scenarios.
However, both Kinsey and the NHSLS suffer from very small sample sizes in Rind’s population of interest. We are talking about only twenty-six cases of girl-woman sexual events from a study that sought participants wherever it could find them, and twenty-one cases of boy-man sex from a population-based study. But since we are talking about very small samples, Rind is able to conclude that there is no difference among groups in having been forced into first sex. That is not how scientific literatures ought to be built, nor legal cases won. (But it is.)
Does Sex with Adults Have Negative Consequences for Minors?
The central claim of Rind’s studies, however, is that minor-adult sex tends not to be reported as a bad experience, as unwanted, or as one with longstanding negative consequences. Eighty-five percent of women who said their first same-sex sexual experience was as a minor with an adult told Kinsey interviewers they “much” enjoyed the experience. Sixty-three percent of comparable men reported “positive” reasons for participating in the act (an estimate far below that of those respondents who first had sex with a similar-age peer). Fewer than 10 percent said they knew their first (male) partner well.
Nevertheless, Rind believes the evidence vindicates him: “Men whose first postpubertal same-sex sexual experience was as a minor with an adult were as well adjusted as controls.” Such men reported to be “just as healthy, happy, sexually well adjusted, and successful in educational and career achievement.” It’s a tough conclusion to swallow. Recall, for example, the furor over atheist Richard Dawkins’s assertion about his boarding school sexual abuser, claiming that “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.” Rind concludes similarly about teen girls’ first same-sex experience. This result, he holds, “is sharply at odds with the pathology perspectives” (that is, the sexual abuse narrative). In fact, the results “showed that same-sex attracted adolescent minors were especially receptive to these relations.”
As a social scientist of sexual behavior who is surprised by very little, I’m willing to admit that it is possible for this to be the case, while holding firmly to the assertion that such events remain diabolical and an unequivocal abuse of power. Moreover, the emotional consequences of teen sex with adults are something that may never be readily accessible to “discursive consciousness,” those experiences and emotions to which humans have conscious access, can understand, and verbally express and evaluate.
Pleasure, Power, and Sexual Exploitation
I ran Rind’s studies past a friend of mine who had experienced it all—childhood molestation by an opposite-sex older relative and then a sustained relationship of same-sex “outercourse” initiated by a counselor who was eighteen years her senior. Like many in Rind’s study, she “went along” due to the counselor’s manipulation. She spoke of willingness, well short of enthusiasm, in order not to threaten the relationship. The sexual activity became mutual. And yet it was all exploitative, and deeply damaging.
At twenty years old, she was legally of age. Yet she sees obvious parallels between minor-adult relationships and therapist-client relationships: there are inherent power imbalances in both that make sexual contact of any kind wrong. Even mutual desire or initiation by the youth or the client cannot erase these power differences, as all professional and legal establishments used to understand.