The appearance of a new book that credibly documents 118 cases of child-adult sexual relationships remembered in adulthood by the child as having been a positive experience ought to be the occasion of great rejoicing. Personally, I will do my best to celebrate following the publication last month of Positive Memories, by T. Rivas, and I hope all heretics here will do likewise.

So, if you have a bottle of champagne handy, now is as good a time as any to crack it open and be of good cheer. Or it would be, but for the lamentably unavoidable fact that the overwhelmingly “dominant discourse” is so loud right now, especially here in the UK, that our celebration will be like two or three cultured friends trying to have a sensible conversation in a restaurant while a stag party full of noisy, rowdy drunks at the next table is drowning out everything you are trying to say. On a day when  yet another British TV celebrity bit the dust over child sex offences, any sort of celebration feels unreal – both insensitive to others’ pain and an exaggeration of what a single new book can be expected to achieve, no matter how good it is. Incidentally, the current atmosphere in Britain is nailed superbly by sociologist Frank Furedi in a recent article, “After Savile: policing as entertainment”.

But, hell, let’s give that book some space. Let’s shout over the background noise. The author’s name will be familiar to a good many here, thanks to his association with Ipce, under whose auspices the paperback now appears, and which made his collection available online a while ago as a free PDF download. Those who possess portable document readers will thus already have been able to read the book’s contents from the comfort of their armchairs, but old troopers like me will prefer to have the print edition in their hands.

Rivas has trawled the published academic literature for relevant case descriptions, plus other material from relatively reliable sources such as published biographies. In addition there are accounts represented as factual on websites and internet discussion forums. All information is fully sourced except for some websites that are no longer accessible. Accounts from all four gender combinations are represented: Boy-Man, Boy-Woman, Girl-Man, Girl-Woman. I know of no other work that brings together such a range of cases into a single handy reference book such as this. In addition to the 118 “relationships”, there are also additional cases: these include positively experienced “loose” contacts, which were sexual but without the commitment of a love relationship, plus some examples of platonic relationships, which were loving but without any sex.

The author, who is available to answer questions by email (ipcetrivas@gmail.com) discusses ethics, the role of parents/carers, and more.

Now, for the scholarly types here (a goodly proportion, I would guess), there is a bonus. In addition to announcing Positive Memories here, I can tell you about what may have been the first debate about it on a research-oriented online forum, i.e. Sexnet, after I had introduced it there. A representative from Virtuous Pedophiles (boo, hiss!) responded with a couple of highly sceptical questions clearly designed to expose the book’s supposed shortcomings. That’s fine, all research should be put to the test of close scrutiny. In order to answer these questions I consulted the author, who came up with excellent answers: his book passed the test. Needless to say, this ruffled the feathers of our sanctimonious (sorry, virtuous) colleague, who lashed out against me personally as a convenient alternative target.

I won’t dwell on that. Such squabbles are boring. I hope heretics will be interested, though, in a question the VP asked just before his desperate final resort to mud-slinging. This was after Rivas has answered the initial questions. The VP (Nick Devin) then wrote: “The anecdotal evidence that you have produced of long-term benefit to children is presumably intended to serve as a response to the anecdotal evidence of harm.”

Devin’s presumption was wrong. Unlike the academic researchers who make up a high proportion of Sexnet’s membership, he has no understanding of science and is only a member by virtue (if you’ll forgive the pun) of being a specimen paedophile – same as me, really, but at least I’ve done my homework. What follows is the answer I gave him. I have given it a title just to set it apart. Enjoy!

Anecdotal evidence: its use and abuse

No, this is a complete misunderstanding; but it is a very useful one because the differences between the two ends of the spectrum of anecdotal evidence on harm/benefit, or rather the different uses to which they are being put, is of fundamental importance, and you have given me an opportunity to clarify the position. If I get anything wrong I am sure there are scientists here who will be pleased to correct me.

It is important to understand that evidence in scientific issues will vary in its significance according to the present state of knowledge or belief, as illustrated by the classic example of the black swan. White swans are common and at one time it was believed there were no black swans. In these circumstances it requires the discovery of only one black swan in the world to disprove the theory that there are no black swans. In other words, you do not require a huge set of observations of many swans. One example will suffice, provided it is well described and credibly attested, otherwise there will rightly be scepticism over its status as a real black swan. Even in the absence of a reliable observation, though, the dubious traveller’s tale, or mere anecdote, will have some scientific interest, because it could very usefully prompt more formal scientific investigation.

This is roughly the position we are in with regard to adult-child sexual contacts sometimes being beneficial. Theo Sandfort, back in the 1980s, set out to examine formally whether there were any black swans in this field, in terms of positively experienced man-boy sexual contacts. He only needed a very small data set (even a single rock solid example would have sufficed) to prove the existence of his black swan. In fact, his data comprised 25 positively experienced man-boy relationships, which were very credibly attested, in a high-quality study. So, voilà, we had some black swans!

Or did we? Could it be that the swans were actually white but had just got caught in an oil slick? That’s what some suggested, on the basis that there had been no follow-up. The boys had been asked what benefits they felt from the relationships at the time, but would they feel differently 10 or 20 years later? It was a reasonable question, especially in light of the tremendous propaganda against such relationships to which teenagers and young adults are subjected these days.

This brings us to Rivas’s new book. It is less scientific than Sandfort’s work in some ways e.g. Rivas is not a trained scientist so far as I am aware. But it is more so in others e.g. his data set is much bigger (n=118, compared to Sandfort’s n=25) and, crucially, his data have been gleaned from retrospective accounts which are not open to the objection levelled against Sandfort’s work: Rivas takes account of the younger participant’s long-term assessment, whereas Sandfort does not. Note also the answer Rivas gave to Nick’s sceptical question as to how many of his sample later became paedophiles: answer, none, because Rivas had anticipated the objection and excluded such cases.

Bearing these points in mind it would be grossly unscientific, I suggest, to brush aside Rivas’s work as mere anecdote. This is a systematic and careful study which amounts to far more than just a “traveller’s tale”. Neither mere anecdote nor the Rivas study (which is much better than that but not fully scientific) can prove the existence of the black swan. However, taking Sandfort and Rivas together, they provide powerful evidence as to its likely existence, and therefore they provide a very sound – unanswerable, I would say – rationale for conducting research of a more compelling kind.

Now, let’s turn to the other end of the spectrum: anecdotal evidence of harm, rather than benefit. Why do we need it? Here we are talking about white swans. Nobody doubts their existence. Numerous formal scientific studies, including meta-analyses, have been undertaken which copiously demonstrate long-term harm in some cases, especially coerced encounters.

In these circumstances anecdotal evidence is not used legitimately, as it is in black swan cases, to direct the attention of science towards interesting possibilities. Quite the opposite: it is used by lobby groups to whip up emotion that actually obscures and denies existing scientific findings. Notoriously, horror story anecdotes are routinely preferred in public discourse to the solid evidence presented by Rind et al. showing that “CSA” (even when coerced cases are included) does not typically lead to severe harm. Indeed, Nick, you have been criticised on this very forum yourself for privileging anecdotes that accord with your beliefs over science that does not. Judging by the following, you do not appear to have paid any attention:

In terms of my view of whether sexual relations between children and adults are harmful, I understand from my time on sexnet that the data is thin.  There is, however, a great deal of anecdotal evidence of harm, even where no force is involved.  Some of these cases are detailed in The Trauma Myth by Susan Clancy, as well as in other places. 

Your one saving grace here is that you have referenced Clancy, whose work is not properly characterised as merely anecdotal. She carried out interviews with more than 200 adults over 10 years in a methodical and careful study. However, like Rivas’s accounts, her selection cannot be taken as representative. In Clancy’s case recruitment was from among people who pre-defined themselves as having been “abused”, many of whom were already in therapy. That does not mean her work is useless (it is very persuasive on iatrogenic sources of harm), but it does mean it cannot be used to refute Rind et al.