Latin lovers versus British bum bandits


The web of suspicion, stigma, bureaucratic regulations and punitive laws that “protects” minors today from unauthorized contacts with adults has become a form of age apartheid as ugly and in-yer-face as the razor-wire fences thrown up across Europe to keep out refugees – and many of us, including one recent commentator here, might feel this web is much more effective than the fences.

Thwarted in his attempts to be sociable, never mind sexual, across the age divide, Sapphocidaire is sceptical there are many youngsters who would welcome relationships with anyone more than a few years older. I had responded to a post by “A”, saying “… I gather a lot of underage gay boys are now using Grindr to meet men.” Not true, insisted Sapphocidaire, saying gay boys online are for the most part actively hostile to paedophiles. The GYC was better years ago, “which is why it was shut down and then reintroduced with age constrictions by relative groupings”.

Yes, times have changed quite drastically, even within a decade or so. But was I wrong about Grindr? My information comes from someone who knows what he is talking about. This is Darren, a mid-thirties guy who introduced himself on Sexnet last year as a former rent boy from the UK, sexually active from 11 and a prostitute by 14 in the 1990s. Also a cypherpunk with a science background, he has latterly been working on some projects relating to sexual offending and sex offender laws, and says he has been “alarmed at the increasing ways in which homosexual youth are being dragged before the courts both as victims and offenders in recent times in the west”.

“As gay sex went online, the boys followed,” he tells us, adding that in the late 1990s allowed 13-year-olds to register.

The gay scene argot for inter-generational sex is called Daddies and Sons, apparently, although I don’t think there is any rule that it actually has to be a family thing! Indeed, if the term were meant to be interpreted literally, it would need to be Daddies and Granddads, because the younger party is supposed to be legally of age and hence old enough to be a Dad himself. But Darren assures us that there are 15-year-olds on Grindr who are looking for “daddy”. “Grindr,” he says, “includes daddy as an option in what you are looking for.”

Can we put numbers on it? Darren has attempted to, using an indirect method rather than contacting any of these youngsters, which would have been legally fraught with peril. He came up with a substantial figure but on reflection I am not convinced. The numbers looked low in relation to  the huge area and population in question, and some of the “youths” may actually have been law enforcement agents.

For genuinely strong 21st century data (albeit pre-Grindr) on young gay boys willingly getting into relationships with gay men we need to go somewhat further afield, to North and South America, starting with Latin American communities, first in New York and then in Campinas, a city of over 1mn in south eastern Brazil. Common to both of these Latin studies is Alex Carballo-Dieguez, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University and also a researcher into the prevention of HIV transmission. This research focus is highly significant. Funding institutions hate supporting any work that makes sex sound pleasant, especially where minors are concerned. An emphasis on disease and other dangers is much preferred.

The upside of this, however, is that when the main point of your research is HIV you are allowed to go where other researchers are forbidden, and to report facts honestly that would otherwise in effect be censored. This is because controlling and eradicating life-threatening sexually transmitted disease is a really serious business: even the influential moralisers who prefer to sweep the pleasant side of sex under the carpet know that fighting the spread of disease requires good data on people’s sexual motives and behaviour.

In 2002 Curtis Dolezal, with Alex Carballo-Dieguez as co-author, published a paper called “Childhood sexual experiences and the perception of abuse among Latino men who have sex with men”. The title is worth dwelling on. The first point is the reference to childhood sexual experiences, a term that does not predefine the contact as abuse. That is because the authors want to know about the feelings (or “perception”) of these guys themselves as they look back to their childhood: they get to say for themselves whether or not they think their early experience was abuse. Secondly, “men who have sex with men” are not necessarily gay, hence the precise but unwieldy term.

In this study of 307 Latino men in New York City,  recruited from bars, dance clubs, parades, AIDS service organizations, community centres, public parks, etc., 100 of them (predominately gay) were found to have had childhood sexual experiences with an older partner (CSEOP):

If any partner was 4 years older and had sexual contact with the participant prior to his 13th birthday, the participant met criteria [for CSEOP]. One hundred men met our criteria for CSEOP. The median age of the first such experience was 8.5 and the partner was, on average, 9 years older.

The authors conclude that since a third of the sample reported childhood sexual experiences with an older partner, “these experiences cannot be considered rare or isolated occurrences for this population”. Asked whether they considered their experiences sexual abuse, 59 of the men said yes but a substantial minority, 41 said no.

Dolezal and Carballo-Dieguez also say:

Each participant was asked why they did or did not consider the event(s) to be sexual abuse. For those who did consider it sexual abuse, over half of the men referred to their age (e.g., “I was a child,” “I was too young,” and “A child doesn’t know what he is doing”). The next most common response had to do with volition (e.g., “It was done without my consent,” “It was against my will,” and “I was forced to do things”). The men who did not consider the event to be abuse also frequently referred to their volition, with approximately two thirds stating that it was consensual and that they were not forced into the situation. Several felt that they had actually initiated the experience (e.g., “It was my initiative,” “I was the one who went out for it,” and “I exposed myself in front of him and provoked him.” More common responses simply stated that they agreed to the encounter(s) (e.g., “I agreed to everything,” “I was consenting,” and “I was curious, I wanted to do it”).

One participant was 10 when he had sexual contact on 20 occasions over 3 months with a 25-year-old male neighbour. The events involved mutual masturbation and oral sex. The participant did not feel coerced or hurt and did not feel it was sexual abuse “because I seduced the neighbour.”

Carballo-Dieguez, who incidentally has worked with the renowned Theo Sandfort, also undertook the research referred to above in Campinas, Brazil. Published in 2011, this study of 575 participants (85% men and 15% transgender), showed 32% reporting childhood sexual experiences with an older partner. Mean age at first experience was 9 years.

So the prevalence rate and age at first experience were both very similar to the New York-based study. But the men’s perceptions were strikingly different. Only 29% of the participants who had had such childhood sexual experiences considered it abuse; 57% reported liking, 29% being indifferent and only 14% not liking the sexual experience at the time it happened. Although both populations were of Latin Americans, it looks as though the New York ones had been influenced to a far greater extent than their Brazilian counterparts by sentiment against “child abuse”, which is perhaps at its strongest in the US, the UK and the wider anglosphere.

I started out by exploring whether gay boys in contemporary society, with implicit reference to the English-speaking countries, are seeking out gay men for sex online. Inevitably, with hard data difficult to come by, I’ve had to rely on studies that nearly answer the question but not quite: the Latin research tells us about boys’ early experiences but without telling us much as to whether they initially knew they wanted sex with men and deliberately went after it or whether – as we must suspect given the early average starting age – they typically had no such clear agenda, and were found by the older partner rather than them doing the finding. Maybe, like Darren, most of them would soon have come to realise they were gay in any case, and would have sought out the gay scene in their early teens.

What we have stumbled upon by focusing on studies of gay men, though, may be something even more important than the original question. The most significant thing of all is not how relationships get started but whether any value is put upon them; and, if not, whether it is only the pressure of cultural hostility that is causing a negative evaluation.

Jessica Stanley and her colleagues surveyed the “age-discrepant childhood sexual experiences” of 192 gay and bisexual men living in Vancouver, British Columbia, who were recruited from a randomly selected community sample. This research team also took an interest in the men’s own perceptions. From the data, published in 2004, Stanley et al. were able to conclude that  “Those who reported consensual sex with older partners described their experiences as neutral or positive, whereas those who were coerced had greater adjustment problems including difficulties with competitiveness, coldness, expressiveness, and general interpersonal problems.”

It’s what we would intuitively expect, isn’t it? But this sort of investigation is so rare it is worth trumpeting. I’ll conclude with another done in connection with AIDS prevention: Sonya Arreola et al., 2008.

This study examined differential effects of forced, consensual, and no childhood sexual experiences (CSE) on health outcomes among a sample of adult men who have sex with men in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York. 2881 telephone interviews were conducted. Unsurprisingly, the forced sex group had the highest levels of psychological distress, substance use, and HIV risk. The report says:

Interestingly, the forced sex group and the no sex group were statistically indistinguishable in their level of well-being, while the consensual sex group was significantly more likely to have a higher level of well-being than either of the other two groups. This suggests that consensual sex before 18 years of age may have a positive effect, perhaps as an adaptive milestone of adolescent sexual development.

Crucially, the study acknowledges that children and adolescents have voluntary sexual relationships with men, even finding that the voluntary variety (34%) were more than twice as common as forced ones (16%) among those surveyed. Amazingly, a public education guide based on these and related positive findings was government funded, via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Back to contemporary reality in the UK. According to Darren, “Grindr is a hideous app that has taken us right back to the days of cottaging”. He feels the present scene has not stopped adolescent initiation into the world of adult gay sex, but has constrained it to being a furtive, seedy, guilt-ridden business for both the younger and older party. Like “cottaging” in dingy public toilets, often the only way for gays to meet in the bad old days, it is a scenario for swift fuck-and-flee sessions filled with self-loathing and mutual contempt – no place for Kind people or the real boy love that a chico in Brazil might find.

Apps such as Grindr, and the more relationship-oriented Blendr, should enable people to come together across the age divide for friendship, relationships and love, as well as encounters of a casual but also respectful type. Alas, the countervailing pressure exerted by stigma and aggressive, hostile, policing mean that the good side – so strikingly shown to be a possibility in the research discussed above – is crushed out of existence and only the bad remains. Instead of Latin Lovers we have British Bum Bandits.


Title IX: discrimination against discussion


Professor Thomas K. Hubbard, a leading expert on sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome, is a busy man. I caught up with him early last month at Edinburgh University, where I heard him presenting a paper at the annual conference of the Classical Association. More about that later, but first we must whisk him off back to his own seat of learning, the University of Texas, Austin, where, later in the month, he was giving a speech to welcome participants at another conference, this time one he had organised himself, on a theme very much about our own time and culture.

Titled “Theorizing Consent: Educational and Legal Perspectives on Campus Rape”, this two-day event brought together a range of professionals to discuss sexual consent and so-called “campus rape culture”, a term signifying the dubious but very high-profile belief that sexual harassment and rape are rife at colleges and universities. Along with sensationalist media pressure and an unhelpful legislative background, it is a doctrine that has thrust upon university administrators responsibility for policing student sexual conduct to an unprecedented degree and led to disciplinary action for alleged misbehaviour in a number of cases where the accusations turned out to be false.

It is a poisonous atmosphere, which is why Hubbard felt it a matter of urgency to focus serious debate upon it. As well as wreaking unjustified disgrace on those wrongly accused, potentially blighting their entire future, the very purpose of academic life is threatened. Tasked with a responsibility to promote a rape-free environment on campus, administrators are under pressure to police how rape is discussed: but without freedom of expression and thought how can classroom educators  teach and discuss the ethics of sexual consent as encountered in history, literature, the arts, and social research? How can free and objective discussion be promoted in an environment of mandatory “trigger warnings” about material that some students might deem sensitive or objectionable?

Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, in London, recently drew attention to an American series of short videos, featuring a collection of mainly young female school-leavers nervously about to open envelopes and emails: would they or wouldn’t they get a university offer? They go on to read aloud fictitious college admissions letters. The letters tell the school leavers they have been accepted, which ought to be great news. In line with this, the letters offer congratulations and talk about the “exciting” experiences that can be expected in their new life on campus.

But then comes the hit. Each of the Unacceptable Acceptance Letters films has a different monstrous scenario, read out matter-of-factly, as though it were the norm: “You’ll be raped in your first semester and as a result will attempt to take your own life in the next.”

The facts do not support this scary propaganda, but that does not mean it is ineffective. The paranoia, and overwhelmingly anti-male sexism, are now deeply entrenched on both sides of the Atlantic. Also, as Fox points out, even young children are now being eyed suspiciously in British schools as would-be perpetrators of abuse. She writes that “in 2016, some primary schools discourage kiss-and-chase games, prohibit hugging, view the innocent interactions between children playing doctors and nurses through the distorted lens of abuse.”

Now, concern over the protection of little children is one thing. Whatever one’s misgivings about the present state of the laws that supposedly protect them, it is overwhelmingly obvious that kids are vulnerable to abuse. The infantilisation of university students, whose tender ears must be guarded against even hearing rape discussed in class, is quite another.

How we have arrived as this sorry state of affairs inevitably fell within the purview of Hubbard’s conference. He told me all the sessions would be video recorded and released for public viewing, so in due course we will have access to the participants’ experiences and insights on this. In the meantime, I can report that an excellent article by Elizabeth Nolan Brown very clearly delineates some key features which have led to “rape culture” and “trigger warnings” figuring so strongly in the lexicon of campus life.

Brown describes the entrenched bureaucratization of sex in America, a phenomenon all the more remarkable for taking root in a country that prides itself as “the land of the free”. In a classic case of mission creep, it has come about through state intervention initially aimed at stopping sex discrimination. Basing her article on an academic paper by Harvard Law School professors Jacob Gersen and Jeannie Suk for a forthcoming issue of the California Law Review, Brown’s story begins way back in 1972, when the Educational Amendments of that year introduced the now notorious Title IX. In what was a perfectly reasonable measure at a time when women faced serious discrimination in study opportunities, and academic employment, it decreed that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”.

The grievance procedures set in place to ensure compliance “have today become a lever by which the federal bureaucracy monitors schools’ policies and procedures regulating sexual behavior”, wrote Gersen and Suk.

This is where it gets really weird. What started with the benign intention of according women equal academic opportunities now begins to morph into a ball-crushing instrument of torture aimed in effect at reducing the sexual opportunities of men, putting in peril not just would-be rapists (who are quite rightly imperilled in any case by the criminal law) but even ordinary flirting, or respectful moves to invite someone out on a date.

This came about in the 1990s through pushing the argument that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination because it creates a “hostile environment” for women, making it less safe for them to get an education and thus potentially deterring their free participation in it. If Title IX had only ever been applied to genuine cases of harassment, the argument would be a good one. But by this time the tide of victim feminism was running so strong that at least in retrospect it seems bureaucrats would have been bound to push the machinery of Title IX much further.

In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the arm of the US Department of Education tasked with Title IX upkeep, started including “sexual violence” as a form of sexual discrimination. This so-called “violence” is a term that has been used to include not just clearly violent assault but also the use of “violent” language, a concept which has been stretched to include “unwelcome comments about appearance”. OCR has offered guidance suggesting that academic institutions address “risk factors” for sexual violence including exposure to pornography, and having a “preference for impersonal sex”, thus taking newly restrictive government-generated norms about sexual behaviour into the lives not of children but of young adult students, as well as their teachers, and also mature students.

The serious implications of all this for free speech were brought out dramatically in the case of Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University. An article she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing Title IX was itself reported as a possible violation of Title IX! A complaint filed with Northwestern’s Title IX office against Kipnis, argued that her essay had had a “chilling effect” on students’ ability to report sexual misconduct, thus indirectly contributing to a “hostile environment”.

It comes to something when the language of safety and protection are used to suppress discussion, in a university, of all places, of important issues. The complaint was eventually dismissed after a 72-day investigation, but not before the “chilling effect” on free speech had sent a shudder down the spine of the academic world and those concerned with the health and vigour of public discourse more widely.

Kipnis was the keynote speaker at Hubbard’s conference, which also focused on the contentious doctrine of “affirmative consent”. This holds that for sexual consent to be valid it must be explicit. Instead of spontaneous love-making, a prior contract of agreement, so to speak, has to be made and unambiguously declared. This is not the time to go into that debate. I will just nod respectfully towards a couple of commentators here who have voiced their support in the past for affirmative consent, particularly in the case of children’s relationships with adults. I blogged on this theme last July, in Negotiating a little girl’s knickers down; and consent in the context of children was ably explored here in a guest blog, The staircase has not one step but many, by “Lensman” in the following month.

Maybe one day Prof. Hubbard will find time in his busy schedule for a conference on the age dimension of consent, especially as regards the suppressed narratives of consenting juveniles. The theme is likely to become increasingly urgent in the academic world, not least because the current “protective” coddling of young people, corralling them into “safe spaces” rather than a “hostile” environment of uninhibited debate, could well lead to demands for an increase in the age of consent in the UK to 18 and in the US to perhaps 21, thus putting even greater pressure on campus administrators to police students’ sex lives.

With this dread possibility hovering at the back of my mind, it seemed like a good idea to get myself up to Edinburgh to meet Tom Hubbard, whose earlier conference a couple of years ago titled “Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law?” was featured in my blog Deep in the weird heart of Texas. I wanted to meet him anyway, not least as we have a mutual friend in retired history professor William A. Percy, for whom I have undertaken quite a bit of work as a freelance research assistant in recent years – work that has involved me in getting to grips with Tom’s own field, especially as regards the distinct turn towards “family values” in the Athens of Socrates’ last years – a time when old customs came under critical scrutiny with such astonishing rapidity as to bear some comparison with the strictures of our own times.

Fortunately, we had plenty of time to talk about Ancient Greece over dinner and drinks on the day before  the conference got under way, although in conversation with an expert of his stature I was largely in a questioning and listening mode. Like the peripatetic philosophers of old, too, we talked while we walked, so far as catching our breath would allow, over the summit of the city’s rugged little local “mountain”, Arthur’s Seat. Attendance at Tom’s lecture on “Timarchus’ Body as Rhetorical Evidence” was also enlightening, showing how a legal orator in Ancient Athens could get away with character assassination of an accused person, using their bodily appearance as “proof” of their debauchery in ways that even today’s shameless false accusers might envy!


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