Benjamin Britten: both ‘gay’ and a boy lover

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Benjamin Britten, as a boy lover, will need little introduction to many heretics here, especially after a new biography in this centennial year of the great composer’s birth, and all the other razzmatazz that attends celebrity.

So is there anything more to be said about him, as the year draws to its close? There’s the usual exclusion principle to note, of course, which makes it impossible to be simultaneously both an esteemed figure and a paedophile, or not an active one at least. Britten still just about makes the cut in this regard: his hebephilic, rather than truly paedophilic, preference for barely pubescent boys was always highly visible, but he was never metaphorically caught with his pants down (or theirs) even though he hugged them, kissed them on the lips, declared his love, swam naked in their company and even – shades of Michael Jackson – shared his bed with them.

No doubt he has been cut some slack because some of his most important works, especially the operas Peter Grimes, The Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice, all strongly feature the theme of childhood innocence and appear to abhor its “corruption”. In this, too, his career is strongly reminiscent of Jackson’s. The pop megastar was a very different musician and personality but both artists surrounded themselves constantly with children, especially boys, who were featured extensively in their work. Both took boys to bed with them and both insisted – or had others insist for them – that it was all entirely “pure”, and they were protective, not predatory. The comparison is at times uncannily close: Here’s Michael’s little friend Brett Barnes: “I was on one side and he was on the other, and it’s a big bed.” And Ben’s beloved David Hemmings: “It was a very big bed.” Or what about the first time Michael slept with young Jordie Chandler? They had been watching a video of The Exorcist and the boy said been so frightened he had not wanted to sleep alone. Hemmings again: “I have slept in his bed, yes, only because I was scared at night…” No videos in those days: he had been scared, so it was claimed, by the crashing of waves on the seashore near Ben’s house!

Unlike Chandler, though, who very credibly testified that his relationship with Jackson became overtly sexual, Hemmings, who was decidedly not an innocent child, always protected Ben’s reputation. Young David, who played the role of the “corrupted” boy Miles in The Turn of the Screw, later went on record saying he flirted with Ben. A sexual advance would not have shocked him as he had already been sexually involved with a couple of boys and began a long heterosexual career as early as age seven, when he was getting his hands in naughty places with little girls – something it would be ill-advised for even a child to confess these days! But Ben, if we are to believe Hemmings, kept himself on a tight rein, so nothing illegal happened between them.

Britten’s close, but possibly unconsummated, relationships with many boys has long been uncontested, following Humphrey Carpenter’s candid biography in 1992 and John Bridcut’s even more comprehensively revealing one in 2007, Britten’s Children. The new biography by Paul Kildea, Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century, adds little to the story of his sexuality except a sensational and almost certainly false claim that the maestro contracted syphilis, probably from his long-term adult partner, the singer Peter Pears. This claim “fell apart within about four days”, according to reviewer Philip Hensher, when a doctor who cared for Britten in his final illness went public to say that the diagnosis “does not fit with everything else … there is no serological, bacteriological, pathological or histological support for the diagnosis.”

The pox, mercifully, need not detain us, but Pears should. Bridcut writes that 13-year-old boys were Britten’s ideal, but he apparently also gained some sort of sexual satisfaction from his relationship with Pears, who was less complicatedly gay, having no apparent interest in youngsters. According to Carpenter, Pears described Britten as more masculine than himself in every way, except in bed, where the composer preferred the passive role. The biographer’s informant was John Evans, who later edited Britten’s letters, for a volume that would appear in 2009. After Britten’s death, Pears confided to Evans that Britten had “needed the active figure (Peter) to his passive, but he also needed to be active to a boy’s passive. And I’ve always had the impression that Peter meant that both types of relationship had been consummated – which left me absolutely thunderstruck.”

As well it might! One possibility that appears to have been overlooked by all the biographers is that Britten’s inhibitions, fostered in the cultural and climatic frigidity of his native England, might have melted quickly away in sunnier and sexually hotter spots abroad, as has happened to many a frustrated Brit. He spent a lot of time in the East, touring in, notably, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Ceylon. He wrote of seeing “the most beautiful people, of a lovely dark brown colour…wearing strange clothes, and sometimes wearing nothing at all.” He even notes that he became accustomed to boys “attaching” themselves to him.

Be that as it may, the revelation that Britten appears to have experienced two distinct sorts of homosexual attraction, passive in relation to the adult Pears, and active (psychologically at least) towards young boys, is surely worthy of thought and comment, especially as regards the current “politically correct” claim that gay men are no more likely to “molest” underage boys than straight men are likely to “molest” underage girls. It depends how you define “gay”, of course: the term tends to be used to describe adolescents who are attracted to physically mature males, but less often the other way around, when the preferred words usually change to “hebephile”, “paedophile” or just “child molester”. The language has now largely abandoned the older words “pederasty” and “sodomy” (no great loss in the latter case), which in the days of Oscar Wilde a century ago were applied almost indiscriminately to man-man contacts and man-boy ones.

What Britten’s case exposes is the falsity of the new language, which obscures an extensive “cross-over” phenomenon: “gay” men, such as he undoubtedly was, do sometimes like boys. In fact, whether we call it “gay” or not, men show a disproportionately higher homosexual interest in children than heterosexual. Research suggests that about a third of male paedophiles prefer boys, about a third prefer girls, and a third are attracted to both. The one third preferring boys is a very high figure given that only about 5% of all men in society are preferentially homosexual. Consider, too, Ray Blanchard’s experimental work: he has demonstrated that men typically have a significant degree of sexual response to their second age category preferences as well as their first: the erectile response of teleiophilic men (i.e. “gay” ones, preferentially attracted to adult males) to erotic images of pubescent boys is on average well over 60% of their response to such images of grown men. A key implication is that the gay men who loudly insist there is no connection whatever between gayness and boy love are making a politically expedient but factually flawed claim.

Enough with the technical stuff already! Let’s get back to Britten in this festive season (for which Heretic TOC wishes all readers well!) with a rousing operatic finale. Admittedly his opera Death in Venice is not that cheerful, but if his librettist Myfanwy Piper had had her way it would surely have cheered us up. The opera features child dancers taking part in “the Games of Apollo”. Bearing in mind that these children were meant to represent athletes, she suggested they should be attired just like the competitors in the games of Ancient Greece, which had inspired the theme – in other words, naked! Britten loved the idea but turned it down because, in Bridcut’s words, it might have attracted “unwelcome publicity”. One suspects that these days, alas, he would have more to worry about than sniggering reviewers!

Stretching the shrinks’ sexual sympathies

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When New York psychoanalyst Dr Sue Kolod asked my advice over a patient who might be paedophilic, I was pleased but not entirely surprised – pleased because usually the very last person to be consulted on matters of minor-attraction is a minor-attracted person; unsurprised because Sue and I are both members of Prof. Mike Bailey’s forum, Sexnet, so she already knew quite a lot about me from reading my posts over a couple of years.

An email exchange followed, in which I did my best to give an honest, straightforward, opinion; after that I thought no more of it. Then, quite a long time later, out of the blue, comes news from Sue that she had drafted a book chapter featuring the patient in question and also our emails. She was going to be on a conference panel looking at the “scandalous” patient. Would I be prepared to answer some questions for her, as background preparation? After seeing her interesting chapter, I was happy to do so. We have talked quite a bit here at Heretic TOC about whether MAPs should have any dealings with the mental health world, and if so how. So this seemed a valuable opportunity to explore a model of engagement that might turn out to be more useful than the typically coercive kind encountered in forensic and penal settings.

Sue’s conference contribution, as I hoped, was very positive. The event as a whole, aimed at mental health professionals, was wide-ranging, with “the unspeakable” as a major theme. The full title of her panel’s joint session was “The ‘scandalous’ patient: outrage, titillation and compassion”. The quote marks around “scandalous” conveyed the idea, even before Sue spoke, that not every alleged scandal should necessarily be considered scandalous. So that was a good start.

Before coming to the specifics of Sue’s speech, I think it is important to put ourselves in the shrinks’ shoes. Strangely, in view of the great emphasis Freud put on sex, the training of the modern analyst – and the same is even truer of the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) types – does not typically extend to a sophisticated understanding of sexuality and its diversity. Apparently psychoanalysis is mostly about object relations theory these days. so there is plenty of scope, especially among analysts whose own sexuality is “normal”, to be all too easily susceptible to accepting supposedly “scandalous” behaviour at face value. Accordingly, the real struggle for understanding in which even the most humane and well intentioned therapist must engage is worth bearing in mind in what follows. The official programme notes introducing the panel capture quite well this tussle of the imagination:

Patients involved in a sex scandal or other “scandalous” activities can evoke reactions of disgust, fascination and sexual arousal in the analyst. They are often transformed from suffering patients into special exotic beings. This panel will discuss the disorientation that can ensue when scandal takes center stage and how the clinician can regain equilibrium.

I heard Sue’s talk from an audio recording she kindly sent me. She told her audience she had wanted someone alongside her on the speaker’s panel who had actually been involved in a scandal. She tried American politicians Eliot Spitzer and John Edwards but neither was keen once they knew the subject. So that was where I came in, as an “unapologetic paedophile” who had been “the head of a pro-paedophile organisation”. She said the conference committee rejected the idea of giving me a platform, as this might be seen as endorsing undesirable behaviour. She may not have realised this, but I would probably not have been allowed into the US anyway!

Sue said she had learned, in preparing for the conference, that even just by showing yourself ready to hear a person out, if they have been in a scandal, you get implicated in the scandal yourself. But scandal can be based on gossip. What people make of it can be very different from the original event. Thus anyone can be caught up in scandal. Also, it is relative: what would once have been scandalous no longer is, and vice versa. Not that long ago famous psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949) was able to have sex with his patients without causing a scandal. This is because it was hushed up – something that could not happen today. But what is even more amazing is that James Inscoe, allegedly an underage male hustler, a patient of Sullivan’s or both, became his partner. That would be utterly beyond the pale now, but not then, when Sullivan encouraged his male gay patients to have sex with him.

On how people react to scandal, Sue quotes with approval an article “The Sex Monster”, by sociologist Abby Stein: “We have all have disowned parts of ourselves that wish to do harm. In the presence of perpetration, we may be repelled but we are also excited. In an odd way, people who have done awful, lurid, sexual things to others are not just more interesting to both lay and professional folk, they are downright sexy.”

Against this background, in which even professionals are not immune from feelings of both outrage and titillation, Sue recounted the story of her patient Frank, arrested and jailed after being accused of sexually abusing his seven-year-old granddaughter. Charges were dropped when the child recanted, but by then he had lost his job and the taint of scandal continued to poison his professional and family life. His file was kept open by the Administration for Children’s Services (ASC) and he was only permitted supervised visits with his granddaughter. He went voluntarily to therapy to be treated for depression and PTSD: he was having revenge fantasies over being got into trouble. He had also hoped Dr Kolod would provide a letter to say he did not fit the profile of a typical paedophile. Such a letter, his lawyer had told him, might persuade the authorities to close their file on him.

However, she began psychotherapy on the condition that Frank not ask her to advocate for him with ASC, with his family or in any court-related hearings. This was because there was no way she could know that the original allegations were false. My own opinion, having read some of the details of the case in Sue’s book chapter, is that the granddaughter’s original account could well have been true.

Frank was in therapy with Sue for two and a half years. His presenting problems abated without her ever being sure he was or was not a paedophile. She said the case gave her a problem of “countertransference” i.e. loosely speaking, emotional entanglement with her client. She had feelings of disgust, apprehension, outrage and fascination. In her book chapter she wrote:

Never sure whether I could trust my gut instincts, I was more distant with Frank than I usually am with my patients; more suspicious and also less likely to ask pertinent questions. For example, I was unusually reluctant to inquire into Frank’s sexual life and fantasies, a subject that was clearly relevant. I often experienced a distinct “not me” reaction to him. In short, I was uncomfortable with the idea of finding myself in him.

In an attempt to neutralise these feelings she decided to do something unorthodox. She would engage not with a fellow professional but with a paedophile: me! This would give the opportunity to see her feelings “in a context”. She took my advice not to seek a confession from Frank. After this, she said, her countertransference diminished: she was more able to see him as a suffering human being. She realised her job was to treat what he had come in for: depression and PTSD, not paedophilia. In the book she wrote:

Subsequent to this email exchange, I completely stopped trying to get Frank to confess to anything. Once I relinquished responsibility to get him to confess, I found that I was able to empathize with him. I stopped feeling either apprehension, disgust or fascination towards him and was able to experience him as a fellow suffering human being. My exchange with Tom O’Carroll helped me to “defetishize” my patient and to see him as “more simply human than otherwise”.

Sue read out from the emails between us. In the Q&A that followed her talk another analyst, Dr Mark Blechner, described it as a “remarkable exchange”. Sue wrote to me afterwards saying that Blechner, who is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute, which was holding the conference, “advocates if you have a patient with a problem or condition with which you are not familiar, it is important to consult with an expert on the subject. He was very laudatory of our interchange for that reason.” Blechner is the author of Sex Changes: Transformations in Society and Psychoanalysis (2009), a major theme of which is that some sexual practices once thought to be disgusting, perverse and illegal have become accepted.

After about two years, when Frank’s symptoms had significantly abated and he was doing a lot better, Sue finally felt able to confront her resistance to asking about his sexuality. She had sensed “an erotic transference”, with Frank becoming attracted to her. Frank told her he had become infatuated with a younger woman but was still married to his wife. In a dream he had been brought up against the need to decide. Sue recognised ambiguity in what he was saying: was the “younger woman” of his dreams his little granddaughter? This led her to have dreams herself, in which her countertransference came back, albeit in a milder form than before. She dreamt Frank was her date. When he embraced her, she was disgusted and broke free. Frank became despondent. She then felt guilty and sorry for him.

As treatment drew to a close Frank thanked her for all her work but also frequently asked if she believed him when he said he was not a paedophile. Her answers validated his understanding that some ambiguity remained in her mind, but despite that the pair parted “with warmth and loving feelings towards each other”.

Having heard all this in Sue’s talk, I found myself astonished and impressed by the candour with which she had described her own complex, deep and ambiguous reactions to her engagement with Frank. We MAPs, it seems to me, all too often fail to take account of the fact that even with the best will in the world, which I think Sue was demonstrating, it is extraordinarily difficult, when confronted with a demonised Other, just to toss that sense of Otherness out of one’s mind. So I believe we should respect that sincere effort, especially when it leads to a positive outcome, as in this case.

Sue recently wrote about follow-up work:

I am currently teaching a course at White on psychoanalytic process. I am playing recordings of my sessions with “Frank”. He gave me permission to tape him and to use the tapes for teaching purposes. At the last class I read from my correspondence with you and the students reacted very positively. They said that your comments helped them to see the patient in a more human light rather than as the “exotic other” – exactly the point of my presentation at the conference!

To be honest, my comments in those emails strike me as no big deal. It was very basic, simple stuff that focused in a matter-of-fact way on the patient’s feeling that the therapist should be there for them, not as some sort of detective trying to solve a crime. It is a simple message that accords well with traditional medical ethics. Encouragingly, it was taken seriously in this case.

Well, I say encouragingly, but it is a moot point whether MAPs will be able to secure ethical treatment in other settings. Those who find themselves coerced into taking part in sex offender treatment programmes at present are almost certain to find they are treated by therapists who regard crime prevention as their first goal, with the interests of the nominal “client” coming a vanishingly distant second. These are nearly all manual-based, one-size-fits-all CBT programmes in which the individual is systematically bullied into conformity. Treatments rooted in the Freudian tradition have at least taken an interest in looking deeply into people as individuals, but these probings, too, can be oppressive in a context of promoting “normal” sexuality: psychoanalysis since Freud, especially in America, has a poor track record of accepting even plain vanilla gayness as anything other than pathological.

As we have seen from Sue’s approach, though, the world of psychoanalysis is perhaps not as monolithically conformist as it perhaps once became in the US. It was a “sex offender”, actually, who first alerted me to its more radical possibilities. Ben Capel’s Notes from Another Country drew my attention to the fact that analysts such as Jacques Lacan, his protégé Jean Laplanche and British practitioner Adam Phillips (who gave the opening keynote speech at Sue’s conference) have struck a far less politically correct tone. Perhaps organisations such as B4U-ACT and its fledgling British equivalent FUMA (Forum for Understanding Minor Attraction), may see some merit in pointing individual MAPs in the direction of therapists who subscribe to this more radical tradition. This need not commit anyone to signing up for the sometimes abstruse theory these guys go in for: it’s the spirit that counts. Lacan himself is long gone; Laplanche died last year; Phillips, however, born in 1954, is still in private practice in London. As the William Alanson White Institute conference showed, there are also others.

Deep in the weird heart of Texas

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“Keep Austin weird!” This eccentric battle cry of a city that is the state capital of Texas surprised me when I looked the place up, especially when I discovered that weird in this context essentially means liberal. After all, the state that gave the world George W. Bush is notorious for its right-wing hard-line anti-liberalism. But that is the point. It turns out the capital is a cultured city, an oasis of civilized values in the midst of a redneck desert – which goes a long way to explaining how it came to play host recently to a conference that included some rather radical input, albeit within a respectably sober framework of legal studies.

Held at the University of Texas School of Law, the event was called Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law? The list of sponsors and supporters impressively included the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Center for European Studies, the European Union, and the William A. Percy Foundation. The speakers included figures we might regard as somewhat conservative, but their input was balanced by the inclusion of more daring choices. The themes, too, ranged from merely liberal to boldly radical, as is hinted in the session titles:

• Same-Sex Marriage and Family
• Transgender Rights; Anti-Discrimination
• Youth Sexual Rights
• Pornography and Children
• Sex Work, Migration, And Trafficking
• Do Sex Offenders Have Human Rights?
• Therapeutic Approaches to Sex Offending

In a state where the “Kill a queer for Christ” car bumper sticker might have been invented, gay marriage no doubt still seems a dangerously liberal idea. To us heretics here, though, it is now a conservative issue, along with “traditional” campaigns to combat discrimination against gays and trans people. Likewise, therapy for sex offenders has long been fertile ground in which to plant illiberal and coercive practices. But the inclusion of youth sexual rights, “sex work” (significantly not stigmatised as prostitution in the title) and the idea of rights for sex offenders, all point to more radical possibilities.

As for drawing on inspiration from European law, forget it! Yes, many experts in European law were present, but those of us who live in Europe know it is hardly a paradise for children’s rights or those of MAPs. More inspiring by far is that some speakers were pointing to the need for more radical thinking on both sides of the Atlantic.

So, who were all these interesting contributors? Gert Hekma was one name that will be familiar to many here. A Dutch sociologist, author of Past and Present of Radical Sexual Politics (2004), he has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Homosexuality, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, GLQ, Paidika and other journals. He spoke on “Sexual rights for youngsters and the fight for their self-determination in the Netherlands since the 1950s”.

I do not yet know what he said, but I do know we will all be able to find out quite soon, because recordings from all the sessions from last month’s three-day conference are soon to be made available. I am told this should be in the next couple of weeks. I imagine there will be a link at the conference website of the Center for European Studies. There was also live video streaming. I managed to catch some of the sessions, including the final one, which culminated in a wonderful paper by Jim Hunter, who was a guest blogger here at Heretic TOC with a piece called Show me an abnormal mountain back in March. His contribution was very well received and he was also feisty and articulate in the Q&A afterwards.

One new name to me was Florian Mildenberger, from Germany, a specialist in the history of medicine. Among his many books one that particularly takes the eye is a biography of the late pedophile activist Peter Schult. Prof. Mildenberger spoke about paedophilia in Germany. The introductory notes for his paper observe that the same liberal, social democratic, green and socialist think tanks that once (believe it or not) supported paedophile emancipation today use medical and biological reasoning to condemn it – just as such thinking was once used to condemn homosexuality and female emancipation.

As for forensic criminologist William Thompson, who spoke on “Pederasts, parents, police and moral panic; the ongoing saga of child pornography”, I was delighted to hear him, clearly in great form, in the live streaming. Bill and I were on TV together as panellists ten years ago, when the BBC’s After Dark series focused on paedophilia. As the introductory notes to his presentation stated, he has conducted over 200 successful investigations into false allegation/conviction cases. He been called as an expert defence witness in numerous contested pornography cases in the UK.

William Andriette is another Bill familiar to many of us. A veteran American gay journalist, his deep-thinking articles have enriched many a debate, as did his speech this time on “Sexual politics beyond human rights”. I am particularly indebted to Bill for an article in which he observed points of similarity between racial and age divisions in society, focusing on inter-racial sexual relations in the old American Deep South. I drew on this piece extensively in a chapter of my book Michael Jackson’s Dangerous Liaisons, in which the late star’s allegedly enormous power was put into the context of the vastly greater coercive power of the state and society.

In terms of heavyweight reputation, though, Fred Berlin has to be considered the star billing whether we like him or not – and many of us do not, on account of his support for “chemical castration” in certain cases. However, I would very much urge heretics to listen carefully to his contribution titled “Understanding pedophilia and other paraphilias from a psychiatric perspective”. There was much in it that was exceedingly reasonable and humane.

Last but very definitely not least, I should mention Thomas Hubbard, the conference organiser, a distinguished professor of classics at Austin. As a Greek specialist, he has had occasion to study “Greek love” in great depth, writing extensively on a culture in which pederasty was institutionally accorded an honourable connection with mentorship and pedagogy. Much as he understands and appreciates the distant past, though, Tom is not content to live entirely in it. He is very actively engaged with contemporary issues of sexual mores and laws – courageously so, indeed, bearing in mind just how hostile Texas and the US in general can be towards those who deviate in any way from “the dominant narrative”.

The conference has inevitably loomed large in his life in recent months, but so has another major creation of his that should concern us: he and fellow classicist Beert Verstraete have co-edited Censoring Sex Research: The Debate Over Male Intergenerational Relations, a book that came out in August from Left Coast Press. I have read it and can assure everyone it is important to us for any number of reasons. Almost every one of its ten chapters is worthy of a review of its own. I hope to be saying much more about this volume in due course.

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