I promised (or threatened !) more about the Cambridge conference on DSM-5. Groan ye not, though, dear heretics, as this week’s despatch will be a tad less arcane.

Turning to the poster presentations, in particular, several of these were lively sessions, with subject matter of wider potential interest than the knotty diagnostic concerns that constituted the main business of the event. Three stand out: Noëmi Willemen, from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, speaking on “Liberating the paedophile: a discursive analysis”; Diederik Janssen, editor of Culture, Society & Masculinities, on “Specification of the perverted: anthropologizing bad sex”, and Philip Tromovitch, of Doshisha University, Japan, on “The prevalence of pedophilia: What little we know”.

Liberating the paedophile! Wow, we don’t hear that kind of talk much these days. Unfortunately, interesting though it was, Willemen’s poster was an analysis of the rhetoric of paedophile liberation in the Olden Days several decades ago, rather than a rousing call for liberation right now. Janssen’s work, by contrast, is far more radical than his use of expressions like “perverted” and “bad sex” might suggest. For colourful, provocative mischief, though, I must hand the palm on this occasion to Tromovitch, and thus will focus on his contribution.

But first, a fanfare is in order. Tromovitch will be revered by many here as part of a team, Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, whose valorous deeds set them among the immortals of heresy over a decade ago.  Their work had the temerity to challenge the term “child sexual abuse” (CSA) as unscientific, and demonstrated through careful statistical analysis that the psychological harm thought to be caused by child-adult sexual contacts is instead far more strongly associated with non-sexual factors such a poor family background, including issues such as violence and neglect. Their meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin in 1998 was so powerful, so high-profile, and so threatening to the entrenched interests of the abuse industry that it was condemned in a resolution passed by both house of the United States Congress – the first and only time any academic paper has been thus attacked in the nation’s history, in a move many have compared to the Pope having Galileo tried for heresy in the 17th century based on his “heretical” view that the earth orbits the sun.

After more than three hundred years the Catholic Church finally admitted that Galileo was right. While it is to be doubted that the US Congress will ever rescind its vote against Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, even in a thousand years, the tremendous trio, a veritable holy trinity of heresy, can at least take satisfaction from the fact that in the academic world, at least, their work has earned lasting respect and is widely cited.

There is a price to be paid for heresy, though. Work in cancer research, say, or particle physics, of a similar quality to Rind et al.’s contribution, might lead to a Nobel prize, or at the very least a top professorship in a world famous university. The careers of Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, by contrast, have all suffered, and getting further work published has been a struggle. So it should not have come as a surprise to me that Tromovitch’s role at Cambridge was relatively modest. Presenting a poster is a fairly humble task, whereas he might have been invited to give the keynote speech in more favourable political circumstances.

Never mind, the modest status of the presentation was more than made up for by the punch it packed: in its way, the claim put forward was just as shocking and sensational as the paper denounced by Congress. Put it this way: What proportion of the male population do you think are paedophiles? One percent? Five? Surely it has to be less than the number of adult-orientated gays, right, a figure variously estimated at between five and ten percent?

Well, no, it ain’t necessarily so. According to Tromovitch – and I quote directly from his poster – “the majority of men are probably pedophiles and hebephiles”. Of course, much depends on precisely how those terms are defined, but it has certainly long been known that when so-called normal men are used as control group subjects in laboratory research they will typically show arousal (usually measured by increase in penis volume) when exposed to sexual stimuli featuring children, such as erotic pictures or stories. Startlingly, as Tromovitch points out, “89% of community males exhibited some sexual arousal while viewing slides of female children” (Hall et al., 1995).

Whether a small degree of arousal to children is significant is open to doubt, but Tromovitch’s presentation brought together a range of research data which together introduced startling evidence that around 20-25% of men actually test as paedophiles, by which he appears to mean significantly or preferentially so, although this would need further elaboration. What is more, these figures are supported by self-report studies, of which Tromovitch cites a good few, including these:  22% of male students reported that they were sometimes attracted to little children (Briere et al., 1996); 19% of male students reported unwanted, personally unacceptable, sexually intrusive thoughts involving sexual acts with a child or minor (Byers et al., 1998). Perhaps most strikingly, based on a number of studies, Tromovitch reveals that “Approximately 10% of normal men report that they would have sex with a child if no one would know and there would be no punishment”.

All this, says Tromovitch, need not surprise us if we think about the characteristics of different age categories and their likelihood of either eliciting or inhibiting sexual arousal in adult men. Older children (pubescent, 8-12), he points out, and young biological adults (adolescent 11-15) are the only groups in seven age categories, from infants to the elderly, whose characteristics comprise no factors usually regarded as off-putting (such as sagging breasts and blemished skin) along with the positive presence of factors usually regarded as sexy (arousing body shape, high libido, not too hairy).

Is he right? Well, you can check out the details of his poster, Page 1 and Page 2, and decide for yourself. I would just note that in his authoritative book Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children, Michael Seto puts preferential or exclusive attraction to prepubescent children at around 4% or less. The most obvious reason for scepticism, though, seems to me to be this: If such a high proportion of men really are significantly or preferentially attracted to children, how come our political presence is so feeble? Why don’t we organise and fight the oppression against us far more powerfully, like the massively successful gay movement? Is it just fear of the majority’s ferocity? Or is it mainly, as I suspect, that most minor-attracted adults have fallen prey to all the moralistic propaganda that so besets our ears on a daily basis?

But, hey, enough of the heavy stuff. Who’s ready for some tittle tattle about personalities?

Phil Tromovitch and Diederik Janssen, I am pleased to say, both proved to be “up for it” when I suggested chatting over drinks in a riverside pub garden after the conference ended. Huge guys, both of them – black-clad, shaven-headed, muscleman Janssen, especially, would make a very credible night club bouncer, an image massively at odds with his subtly teasing academic prose – so it felt like I had a couple of body guards. Not that I needed any: the atmosphere in the ancient university city on a lovely English summer’s evening was very relaxed. So was the conversation, which flowed most agreeably, along with the drinks and the beautiful River Cam.

Unsurprisingly, after his defeat, Blanchard himself was not at the conference, but other big-name figures did attend, such as Richard Green, emeritus professor of psychiatry, UCLA, a leading figure behind the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness thirty years ago, who courageously attempted to do the same with paedophilia early in the new millennium. As President of the International Academy of Sex Research (IASR) he even invited me to address that august body in a symposium on paedophilia.

I guess he had to take some flak for that, some of it quite probably coming from the far more conservative Ken Zucker. As IASR’s conference treasurer at the time, he found himself obliged to hand me a cheque to cover my speaker’s expenses – and judging by his cool demeanour he was none too happy about it.  But Zucker, present in Cambridge having been chair of the DSM-5 work group on sexual and gender identity disorders, has had to take his share of flak too over the years. A psychologist working with children, he has long been under attack by activists for allegedly pushing transgender kids into accepting their biological gender. Transsexuals even demonstrated against him outside the conference building: they included a female-to-male trans guy dressed as a baby and holding a placard saying “Ken Zucker – hands off our kids!” And I learned in Cambridge that a recent journal article published under the auspices of  the British Psychological Society was memorably titled “Zuck off!”

Wonderful! It was a rare few days when I could feel relatively popular!

That was fun, and even more so was the chance to chat to so many folks (including the demonstrators) on a one-to-one basis. Why, I was even able to pin Zucker to the wall over not answering my emails in recent years! He denied it was on account of personal animosity. I don’t believe him but I was too polite to say so. Well, he can read it here!

Approaching gay historian Jeff Weeks for the first time in decades, I was delighted he recognized me but saddened that his speech “Beyond the categories”, which closed the conference, was tired, bland and utterly devoid of the radical edge that characterized his exciting early work. Again, unfortunately, I was too nice to tell him so, although a question I raised from the floor was a pretty big hint. Was the current obsession with crushing paedophilia, I asked, harmfully also leading to the denial of children’s sexuality, and leading to sexually active children themselves being criminalized as sex offenders? His answer was evasive and vacuous. Very disappointing.

Shit! Every week I tell myself I must make these blogs shorter and snappier but I still haven’t delivered on saying I would tell you more about the interesting exchange when I was buttonholed by philosopher Patrick Singy, a conversation also joined to great effect by the delightful Noëmi Willemen. It would take too long to start on that now but I should add a couple of brief and hopefully useful points about my earlier Cambridge blog (11 July):

  1. I have added a paragraph to it (in square brackets and italics) in connection with Singy’s argument.
  2. Also in that same Cambridge blog I mentioned Blanchard’s fraternal birth order effect on sexual orientation in males. A brief, sharp, interview with Blanchard about this, Did having a big brother make me gay?, has just appeared in the Boston Globe online. Recommended.