figures from the sacred men’s house, Sepik region, New Guinea.
work tirelessly to prevent gays and lesbians from having access to
children. Many of us withdraw voluntarily from the children who could be
in our lives. We shrink from the accusation that is always ready-to-hand
– pedophilia! Scientific
research proves decisively that there is no association between
homosexuality and the sexual abuse of children. The authors of a recent
study conclude that “a child’s risk of being molested by his or her
[mother’s] heterosexual partner is over 100 times greater than by
someone who might be identified as being homosexual, lesbian or
In fact, children may be safer around gays and lesbians. Gay and lesbian
parents are less likely to
physically or sexually abuse their children.[ii]
A survey of child molesters found that none
of them were homosexual.[iii]
But queer has an association with pedophilia that resists the evidence
of science. Over half of respondents to recent opinion surveys believe
that gays and lesbians should be prohibited from adopting or even from
teaching young children.[iv]
The media, remaining silent on subject of child neglect, seizes avidly
on each detail of the drama when a priest, coach or teacher is accused
of same-sex sexual abuse. The spectre
of the evil, predatory homosexual looms large in the cultural
imagination. We are their worst nightmare. Without their constant
vigilance, we might swoop down and abduct every innocent child. Perhaps
we can learn to use these vast powers they invest in us.
Ancient Greece, man with young boy, painted pottery
We might as well
admit that pedophilia has a long pedigree within the history of male
same-sex passion – much longer and more exalted than the reciprocal,
companionate relationships that are typical in contemporary Western
queer communities. In other cultures, pederastic relationships are
pedagogical. This was true in Ancient Greece. Will Roscoe writes of
Japanese samurai warriors who followed wakshuto,
the way of loving boys, and the Sambian people of New Guinea. In Greek
and Roman mythology, the myth of Ganymede exemplifies the archetype.
Zeus, king of the gods, was inflamed by a passion for the boy, Ganymede.
Zeus transformed into an eagle and abducted the child, carrying him off
to Mount Olympus. Once there, Ganymede became immortal, and he serves as
cupbearer to the gods. “The myth of Zeus and Ganymede became an
important wellspring for images of homosexuality in Western culture,”
comments Will Roscoe.
In the Middle Ages, same-sex lovers called themselves Ganymedes.
Historian John Boswell calls the period 1050-1150 “The Triumph of
Ganymede,” noting the emergence of a “gay subculture” all over
Europe wherein Ganymede appears in many guises, usually as a “representative
of gay people in general.” “In several debates of the period he is a
spokesperson for the gay side. . . .”[vi]
Correggio, The Rape of Ganymede, 1532
The notion of a
powerful stranger (for eagle, read chicken-hawk) abducting a child who
gladly serves him evokes automatic indignation today. “The child”
imagined and created by contemporary Western culture is innocent, empty,
helpless and sexless. Legally and morally, children are dependent on
adult protection. Sex with children is posed as the ultimate taboo. Yet
evidence of child molestation is uncovered everywhere. Child sexual
abuse seems almost to be a characterizing trait of every cultural
institution, from church through family. Child molesters lurk behind
every tree, and might be there inside the secret heart of every loving
teacher or parent. James Kincaid describes this as a “culture of child
molestation,” in which children are eroticized and the erotic is
infantalized. Every adult-child relationship is scrutinized for a
punishable offense. No wonder then, children are unwelcome everywhere.
People want movies, dances, apartment blocks, and even whole cities
The protection of
children has become a protection racket. Children are increasingly
guarded, preserved from work and from contact with strangers, and kept
close inside the confines of the nuclear family – where they are so much more likely to be abused than
anywhere else. The sexual exploitation of children is only possible when
they are trapped, abject and dependent. Families ensure children’s
vulnerability and enforce their compliance. In contemporary industrial
society, children have no autonomy. Parents are established as a child’s
only source of food, shelter, measured affection and brutal punishment.
Mothers and fathers are left isolated and without support. Shere Hite
comments that the authoritarian, patriarchal structure of the family is
designed to teach “that power and might are the most ‘real’ and
important thing in the world.”
Becoming queer despite our
families of origin, we refuse this lesson. We escape the paradigm and
prove the alternative. The African proverb “It takes a whole village
to raise a single child” is the moral of every gay and lesbian life
story. We are nourished and sustained by nature, books, friends and
fabulous strangers as well as – or in spite of – our family of
origin. We predict a society released from the tyrannies and oppressions
that create child victims when we defy the patriarchal nuclear family
with our resilience.
As queers we are
called to solidarity with other refused and stigmatized sexualities. In
the early years of gay liberation, this meant advocating with young
people for age of consent laws to be abolished. It meant support for “Men
Loving Boys Loving Men.”[ix]
Lesbian-feminists intervened on behalf of children. They pointed out
that sex with children must be exploitative and profoundly damaging in a
society where children are silenced and deprived of choice. Gay
liberation lost its willingness to speak on child sexuality and
pedophilia. We have been content to claim our distance and difference
from these issues. In the culture around us, hysterical denunciation of
child molesters grows shriller. Castration is advocated and practiced on
offenders (as it was on homosexuals in the 1950’s). In B.C. in 2002 a
man was hounded, vilified, arrested and prosecuted for his creative
writing involving fictional characters described as minors.[x]
A society that has become hypervigilant towards the rare incidence of
the sexual abuse of children by strangers is willfully blind to the
relatively common incidence of physical abuse and neglect by parents.
Those who watch waiting to pounce on a hidden pedophile seem content to
ignore the all-too-evident children who are hungry, homeless, without
clean water, education, or medical care. If gay and lesbian liberation
is to move us anywhere outside the predictable parameters of
acceptability, we need to advocate for the empowerment of children.
archetype of initiation exemplified by the myth of Ganymede, boys become
men by having sex with them. In contrast, contemporary Western culture
has it that manhood is produced in boys precisely through their repudiation of homosexuality. Being a man means becoming stiff and
impenetrable. Little boys are taught to close up their orifices and
close down their vulnerable emotions. They are pulled away from their
mothers and the world of women. The world of men seduces them –
bloodlessly – to an ideal of masculinity, and a realm of power which
they can access by approximating the ideal. And it scares them. Torture,
rape, bashing, murder, social ostracism, psychiatric mistreatment,
poverty and marginalization are among the punishments meted out to boys
who refuse to assume the masks and postures of masculinity. In the
construction of gender, the erotic component of man-boy relationships is
forced underground, made into a terrible secret. When pleasure between
boys and men is impermissible, the assumption of manhood is made
problematic, provisional and disturbed.
have been leaders in fighting against the sexual exploitation of
children and breaking the silence that surrounds it. Yet we have not
flinched from acknowledging the erotic aspects of a mother’s
relationship with her daughters, of “female friendship and comradeship”
and of “the sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or
intellectual” (Audre Lorde).
Being and becoming a woman has little to do with relations between
women. Girls are “made” into women by submission to heterosexual
“Woman” names a relationship with men and heterosexuality. And
precisely because relations between girls and women take place at the
margins of society, without language or consequence, they retain an
erotic capacity. “The interplay of desire among women’s bodies,
sexes and speech is inconceivable in the dominant socio-cultural
economy,” Luce Irigaray writes.
This interplay of desire exists, nevertheless, and not only in the
behavior and relationships named homosexual. “The lesbian continuum,”
as described by Adrienne Rich, implicates all women –
“from the infant suckling at her mother’s breast, to the grown woman
experiencing orgasmic sensations while suckling her own child . . . to
two women . . . who share a laboratory, to the woman dying at ninety,
touched and handled by women . . . .”
Caresses across surfaces –
be they of lab or labia –
free exchange, pleasure without possession, intergenerational bonding:
the lesbian continuum evokes the possibility of a “pedophilia”
through which we might re-imagine childhood.
Rajasthan, late 18th C, 9” x 7”, woman anointed with oil
Lorde writes, “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives
can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather
than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
We can acknowledge a range of erotic feelings in adult-child
relationships that is neither criminal nor harmful, but is another
aspect of our multiple connections to one another. We can learn to love
children enough to safeguard them from actual, verifiable dangers, and
still allow them adventure, pleasure, and play. So long as children have
no autonomy, perhaps we can preserve them from sex, but without
resorting to a hysterical invocation of monsters and victims. We can
dare to care for one another outside the nuclear family, which ensures
the vulnerability of the children it supervises. Perhaps we might even
forgo the bifurcation of humanity that separates needy, endangered
children from protective, dangerous adults, and instead envision a
continuum of human need that includes the dependence of both young and
old, but also the radical independence of youth and mid-life. Perhaps we
might start talking, with Shulamith Firestone, “not about sparing
children for a few years from the horrors of adult life, but about
eliminating those horrors. In a society free from exploitation, children
could be like adults (with no exploitation implied) and adults could be
like children (with no exploitation implied).”
Historically, the erotic quality of intergenerational relationships is a
profound source of information, energy and joy for gay and lesbian
people. With this legacy, we may illuminate a way out from the circuit
of fear, denial, guilt and punishment that is the contemporary discourse
on children and sex. ▼
18th C, affectionate women, detail of miniature painting
Carole Jenny et. al., 1994.
Patterson, C. J. “Children of lesbian and gay parents.” Child
Development 1992; 63:1025-42.18.
A. Nicolas Groth and H. Jean Birnbaum, 1978, “Adult Sexual
Orientation and Attraction to underage persons,” Archives of
Sexual Behavior, 7 (3), (175-181).
Canadian Adoption Attitudes Survey, 2002, by Charlene Miall,
McMaster University and Karen March, Carleton University; General
Social Survey, 1999, by the National Opinion Research Centre,
University of Chicago.
Will Roscoe, 1995, (232).
John Boswell, 1980, (250-251).
Children’s sexual play and experimentation is happily
accepted in other cultures (See C. S. Ford and F. A. Beach, 1951).
Even here, where child sexuality is not supposed to happen, Alfred
Kinsey reports 57% of adults he interviewed admitted engaging in
some form of pre-adolescent sex play. In most recent representations
of children, their interest in sex is denied, punished, and taken as
proof of abuse. Typically, a parents’ guide to harassment and
abuse in sports cautions that “sexualized behavior in children is
the result of sexual abuse.” (What
Parents Can Do About Harassment
and Abuse in Sport, compiled by Marg McGregor, Executive
Director, Canadian Association for Women and Sport and Physical
Activity, available on the internet.) But to say that children can
be sexual is not to say that pedophilia is tolerable. See, on the
following page, that I believe adult-child sexual contact is always
exploitative in a society where children are silenced and deprived
The title of an article in The
Body Politic, a Toronto magazine, which led to police raids on
the publication, 1980.
The recent Supreme Court decision in the Robin Sharpe case allowed
his writing, though he was sentenced for possession of photographs
(taken by himself) of children engaged in sex with one another and
with adults. Sharpe’s acquittal on the grounds of artistic merit
provoked wide public outrage, leading the federal government to
consider new legislation removing the artistic merit defense in
child pornography cases.
Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,”
Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,”
As Marjorie Garber points out, 1992.
Luce Irigaray, in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, Eds.,
Adrienne Rich, 1986, (54).
Audre Lorde, 1978, (59).