Trans kids 1: Insistent, consistent, persistent

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This is the first part of a two-parter on transgender youth. Heretic TOC’s tentative conclusions on trans kids’ rights and well-being, including the right to puberty blocking, will be deferred until part two. By all means send comments straight away, but it would not make sense to judge my opinions until you know what they are. As for the conclusions being “tentative”, I think that as an outsider parachuting myself into this difficult issue for the first time, that’s the way they should be. My view is offered with due humility and I welcome reasoned dissent, not least from one or two people here whose knowledge goes far beyond my own.    

 

What is best for transgender youth? Noisy militants demand the “right” of even little children to adopt the gender of their choice, so that every Stephen can become a Stephanie, start wearing dresses, long-hair and makeup, use the girls’ toilets at school and require everyone to call her “she”.

And every tomboy Stephanie, it is asserted, should be free to do the opposite. Thus the path may be cleared, or so it is hoped, for a smooth transition at adolescence and beyond to a more complete reversal, if so desired, of young people’s originally assigned sex, through hormone treatments and surgery.

Heretic TOC has always keenly advocated children’s rights, so cheerleading for the right of youth with gender dysphoria to change their gender may seem an obvious choice. What is definitely a no-brainer is that we should favour policies and practices aimed at securing their dignity and well-being – aims which should include promoting both a happy childhood and long-term flourishing in adult life.

These welfare aims are not necessarily best advanced, however, simply through declaring and implementing a child’s right to transition. This is because, unlike children’s sexual expression and self-determination, gender transition involves setting out on a path that becomes increasingly harder to reverse as time passes; and irreversible changes of a profound nature, especially sex reassignment surgery (SRS), are sometimes profoundly regretted.

ng-trans-cover-pic

On its Facebook page, the American Family Association posted about this magazine cover: “BE WARNED PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS!!! National Geographic shakes a fist at God and biblical authority on their radical mission to advocate gender confusion…” The nine-year-old trans girl in the picture, Avery Jackson, and her parents, Debi and Tom, have received an outpouring of public support following the appearance of this very high-profile publicity, but also lots of internet trolling.

This is not to say there should be no early start to transition. Some children make their feelings very clear, very early. From as soon as they learn in infancy about the traditional dress codes and gender roles, they will begin telling their parents they have been assigned to the wrong gender. They just know, from as early as age two or three, that they are really a girl not a boy, or vice versa. In the mantra of therapists approved of by the trans community, if these children are “insistent, consistent and persistent” in such beliefs, then it makes sense to start treating them as belonging to their chosen gender, with a first name and clothes, etc., to match, perhaps just at home to begin with and later at school.

There is nothing irreversible about these symbolic changes, and for that reason there can be no strong reason for making a child’s life miserable by sternly ruling them out. But there are hazards, even at this stage. “Being” a girl instead of a boy, or a boy instead of a girl, may be relatively easy if your mum and dad are relaxed about it and they are the only ones to know; and so will changing back again if so desired. At this stage, there is no commitment beyond the level of any other “let’s pretend” game.

It is much more of a commitment to go to school with a new name and gender though. And a vastly bigger commitment if – as is increasingly happening now that transgender is suddenly such a fashionably high-profile phenomenon – your life as a trans child is featured on a TV reality show such as I Am Jazz, or if your photo is featured on the front cover of National Geographic magazine, as happened to nine-year-old Avery Jackson last month. Once things have reached this stage changing course could be as psychologically tough as getting to the altar with the dreadful sinking feeling that your betrothed is not going to be Mr or Mrs Right after all, but you are already caught in a trap.

The psychiatrist Richard Green, a pioneer in the field of transsexuality since the 1960s, expressed a dim view of transgender children being exposed to the full glare of the media when I heard him speak in London last month on the development of transsexual surgery for adults from its beginnings in the 1930s.

“I’m not convinced that going on TV to announce your child is dysphoric is the best way to ensure their development,” he said. “It might even be considered child abuse. Better if it’s under the radar: allow the child to go to a new school. You test the water. Being on the cover of National Geographic is not necessarily in that kid’s best interests.”

I agree. The high-profile route is a sign not of children being legitimately insistent, consistent and persistent, but rather of militant activism by adults who have shown themselves all too willing to use ruthlessly dishonest tactics. Think of the aggressive noisiness we hear all the time from “victims” of “historic child sexual abuse”: the pushiest ones tell the most sensational yarns and grab the most media and political attention. In this post-truth era, few seem to care whether their stories – with lurid “Satanic abuse” and improbable conspiracy theories based on “recovered memories”, or outright lying – have any basis in reality.

It’s the same, unfortunately, with some trans activists. On BBC’s Newsnight last month, for instance, an activist called Shon Faye made swingeing allegations against Dr Ken Zucker, one of the world’s most eminent clinicians in the transgender field. He falsely claimed that Zucker’s peers, in a  review of his clinical practices, found he had a habit of taking unnecessary photos of his young patients “in various states of undress” and he was “asking them very lurid sexual questions”. Zucker’s long-time colleague Ray Blanchard, also on the programme, intervened to say the allegations were untrue. The presenter stopped Faye from going any further, but by then the damage had been done. The allegations appeared to have been an attempt to recycle an earlier one. A former client, now an adult, claimed Zucker asked him to remove his shirt in front of other clinicians present, laughed when he complied, and then referred to him as a “hairy little vermin”. The accusation was subsequently retracted by the accuser. The resurrected form of the accusation on Newsnight was potentially even more damaging; its vagueness hinted at the possibility of a sexual motive on Zucker’s part – and we need no persuading as to how destructive that can be.

What is certainly true, as H-TOC has reported previously, is that there has been a long-term campaign against Zucker, who is seen by some as a monster who practised a brutal form of “conversion therapy” in which he tried to make kids’ gender identity “normal”, otherwise known in the terminology as cisgender. All this agitation led to a highly critical external review last year of Zucker’s work at his clinic, Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), as a result of which he was sacked. Investigative journalist Jesse Singal wrote an in-depth series of articles about this, and concluded:

…the truth about Zucker and his clinic is a lot more complicated. Many of the claims activists have made about him are false or seriously overblown, and the “external review” that led to his firing… was absolutely riddled with errors and falsehoods. CAMH itself quickly decided it couldn’t stand by the review it had commissioned; after we reported that the single most damning allegation in the review was completely false, CAMH yanked the document off its website entirely, replacing it with a toned down “summary.” Zucker has since sued CAMH for releasing what he and his lawyer claim was a defamatory report, and that suit is ongoing.

Zucker had a great chance to put the record straight last month in a BBC 2 documentary called Transgender kids: Who knows best?, and to a significant degree he succeeded – despite a vigorous censorship bid in the shape of a the petition aimed at stopping the show going out, and Shon Faye’s libellous trashing of Zucker, broadcast as part of a Newsnight preview of the show. The programme as a whole was generally well-received by mainstream reviewers, who judged it “cautious”, “well worked out”, “even-handed” and “sophisticated”.

Crucially, it considered the controversial and all-important question of what gender dysphoria actually is. There are those, including clinicians and activists, who believe it always reveals a key aspect of an individual’s innermost, stable identity, by showing there is mismatch between their gender identity and their assigned gender, as traditionally determined by their visible genitalia at birth. Thus until they transition they will never feel at ease with who they are. Arguably, they feel a bit like a gay person before liberation or a Kind one now – forced to hide and deny a fundamental aspect of themselves, and hating the idea that the medical profession wants to wish them out of existence through a “cure”.

Zucker does not deny the importance of the fundamental identity question, but as a clinician he is also aware that people are very complicated and that any particular case may actually be driven by other factors. “Taking any behaviour in isolation when thinking about gender dysphoria is not the way that I think about it,” he says. You also need to know about the child’s family and life history. He gave the example of a girl whose mother had been murdered when she was four. The child wanted to be a boy, he said, in the belief that a boy would have been better able to protect her mother and look after himself too.

It sounded very plausible, but I note that Mike Bailey, one of the top research scientists in the field, is sceptical. Addressing him on Sexnet, Bailey said:

Ken, this mantra that there are many ways to gender dysphoria is possibly true, but it is also possibly false. That your clinical team comes up with various formulations about family dynamics that make sense to the team and that the child gets better when problematic dynamics are treated are not very convincing to me as evidence. (I think a plausible alternative is that the passage of time and a shared commitment to helping the child desist are the active ingredients.) Clinical formulations of this general type (family dynamics) have virtually no evidence supporting them.

What does have strong evidence going for it, though, is a connection between gender nonconformity and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which can definitely be a profound mental health issue at the severe end of the spectrum. According to paediatric neuropsychologist John Strang, children and adolescents on the autism spectrum are seven times more likely than other young people to be gender nonconforming. And, conversely, children and adolescents at gender clinics are six to 15 times more likely than other young people to have ASD. Zucker has himself pointed out this connection; pro-trans activists play it down.

James/Jasmine, are you reading this? Our brilliant, geeky, teenage male-to-female transgender contributor here at Heretic TOC a couple of years ago also identified as autistic, but at the mild end of the spectrum, such that she felt it was not a mental health problem but a valid and positive aspect of her identity. If you see this, Jasmine, we’d love to hear your reaction!

Even more convincing evidence on Zucker’s side came in the programme from “Lou”, who was born female and had a double mastectomy as part of transitioning to a man. Now she feels “freakish” and regrets it deeply. She says it is a decision that “haunts” her and she feels her gender dysphoria should have been treated as a mental health issue. The identity that now feels truest to her is as a cisgender lesbian.

And yet when she was a girl entering puberty she was desperate to be a boy. Distressed by her unwanted periods, she attempted suicide. She was told by the trans community she really had no choice: it was transition or die. She did not think he had a mental health problem.

Also on Who Knows Best? was trans therapist Hershel Russell, who is based in Toronto, like Zucker, and was one of the people who helped get him sacked. Russell  tried to talk Lou’s case away as a rare exception. But even one exception is enough to prove that matters are not as simple as the more gung-ho activists would have us believe. They also have a problem with the widely-touted claim (albeit the figures are disputed) that around 80% of children and adolescents diagnosed with gender dysphoria do not in the end go through with transition: they desist, sticking with their sex as assigned at birth.

In the Q&A session following his talk on transsexual surgery, I asked Richard Green about the reasons for this desistance. I was particularly interested to know whether he thought the persistors were mainly people with a potentially diagnosable gender-related biological condition underpinning their gender dysphoria, whereas perhaps the desistors had become transgender for socially-motivated reasons.

He favoured a biological explanation for persistence, especially when it was really insistent and consistent. As for those who desist, he said a lot of them become gay or lesbian. And nobody knows better than Green, who wrote a classic book on the subject, that gender non-conforming boys tend to be homosexual later on. It appears to me that gender dysphoria and sexual orientation probably have a connected common origin. Given the present scientific consensus that sexual orientation has pre-natal biological origins, it also seems a good bet that gender dysphoria is triggered further back in an individual’s development than any social influences.

For yet another Toronto angle on all this I can thank Peace, who has guest-blogged and commented here. Transitioning from female to male, Peace has chosen not to guest-blog about his personal journey, but responded instead to my request for general information, thoughts and resources on the subject. One such resource I found particularly helpful was Families in TRANSition: A Resource Guide for Parents of Trans Youth, published by Central Toronto Youth Services.

What struck me most from this publication was its calmly reasonable tone – a million miles, one might think, from the militant, angry activism that sees Ken Zucker libelled and branded a monster. Bizarrely, however, one of those pleasant, sensible contributors turns out to be none other than Hershel Russell, one of Zucker’s most strident critics. He confesses he worries a bit about parents who seem immediately very accepting of their child’s wish to transition. Zucker himself could have written that!

A point I feel Peace would particularly agree with is this:

Trans people often describe puberty, the point at which their bodies begin to change and visibly betray their inner experience, as traumatizing – “nature’s cruel trick” – and a time of true despair. It is a time when feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide may emerge or worsen.

But the guide makes clear that being transgender is not always about heading towards radical anatomical change:

Some youth are clear that their survival depends on fully transitioning from one gender to another. Other youth find that they only need to change one aspect of their bodies, or need no medical interventions at all but rather wish to express their unique gender identity through clothing and behaviour. Whatever the case, these needs come from inside the child and, for better or worse, are unlikely to be changed by pressure or persuasion.

 

The next part of this two-part blog will go deeper into the question of what being transgender really means. It will introduce the scientific basis for a striking claim: that there is such a thing as an intersex brain. It will also discuss transgender choices in relation to wider cultural issues.  

 

The seven ages of sexual attractiveness

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Neologophilia is a terrible disease that can wreak havoc on its victims, especially those who become trapped inside neologisms emanating from the warped minds of mad scientists.

It all started over a century ago with Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing, a man apparently destined by an odd quirk of nominative determinism to become obsessed with strange names. For it was Krafft-Ebing, as he is usually known, who gave us the term “paedophilia erotica” and a whole lot of other new words for sexual “perversions”, now known as “paraphilias”. In more recent times the palm for linguistic inventiveness in the sexual field passed first to John Money and then to Ray Blanchard, who is still with us.

Money, for instance, dreamed up “formicophilia”, which translates roughly as “insect-love”. The insanity of thinking the world needs such a word might seem self-evident. On the other hand, a glance at the symptoms suggests otherwise, as does the case of a 10-year-old boy who was diagnosed as a formicophile. Beaten by his father for a sexual relationship with another boy, he focused instead on getting sexual satisfaction from having ants crawl over him. By adulthood he had graduated to getting his jollies from cockroaches crawling on his thighs and testicles, and snails on his nipples and penis.

So maybe we should not be too hard on the neologophiles, including Blanchard, who came up with the terms hebephilia and teleiophilia for sexual age-orientations. It’s not the terms themselves that count, necessarily, so much as what is done with them. Blanchard, for instance, is a highly-rated researcher whose experimental work distinguishing hebephilia from paedophilia is of considerable theoretical importance. Unfortunately, he massively blotted his copy book by trying to have hebephilia classified as a mental illness, which would make it easier for sex offenders to be kept locked up indefinitely under civil commitment laws until they are “cured”.

There is no such black mark against the name of the newest big-time word coiner on the block, Michael Seto. I know Dr Seto from the Sexnet forum. He absolutely does not agree with my radical views but he once very nobly expressed his appreciation of my “informative and thoughtful posts” after some of his professional colleagues had been grumbling about the presence on the invitation-only forum of a few non-academic activists like me.

Seto’s textbook Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention, published by the American Psychological Association, was by far the most authoritative guide to the research literature when it appeared in 2008. Now he has come up with an exciting new paper, “The Puzzle of Male Chronophilias”, thereby introducing us to another term of Money’s, chronophilia, an umbrella expression covering the various forms of sexual attraction to those within a particular age range, or stage of physical development.

What is exciting about it? Well, Seto unveiled the brand new term “mesophilia”. It hasn’t set the world ablaze but it did float journalist Jesse Singal’s boat. He wrote an article, “Being Into Middle-Aged People Is Probably a Sexual Orientation”, which neatly sums up both the meaning and the (as yet) rather shaky level of support for the idea. Seto merely wrote that “The existence and relative prevalence of mesophilia is hinted at by the relative popularity of the MILF (for ‘‘Moms I’d Like to Fuck’’) genre in pornography”, adding that DILF (with the expected meaning) is out there too.

Even BoyChat, straying from their usual focus, featured a lengthy thread on the topic after poster “Filip” (who must surely be the same Filip who has posted very informatively here) introduced it. As someone who makes the effort to do his own research, Filip commented acidly “It is interesting to see that sexual age preferences are born by writing an article and not by doing research…” But that didn’t stop him from seizing on an interesting thought: How many boys and girls are “mesophilic”?

But mesophilia is just an attention grabber. The really interesting aspect of Seto’s paper is its review of age attraction across the board, including how it is conceived, and the relative prevalence of attraction to the different ages/stages of life.

Shakespeare gave us the Seven Ages of Man. Seto nominates seven ages to which anyone might be sexually attracted, and names the desire: nepiophilia (infants/toddlers), paedophilia (prepubescent children), hebephilia (pubescent children), ephebophilia (postpubescent, sexually maturing adolescents), teleiophilia (young sexually mature adults, typically 20s and 30s), mesophilia (middle-aged adults, typically 40s and50s), and gerontophilia (elderly adults, typically 60s and older). See Table 1, which I have adapted from Seto’s own Table 1.

chronophilias-table-1

He is at pains to emphasise, though, that these labels are not meant to pigeon-hole us into neatly separate categories. Rather, we each have our own individual, idiosyncratic, pattern of sexual attraction: we might be hot for women and boys but indifferent to men and girls; or crazy for the smooth, hairless genitals of little boys and girls alike but distinctly turned off by the hirsute turn that comes to both sexes with puberty. A friend jokingly tells me he is bisexual, the two “sexes” being boys and men! He is in effect saying females of any age are so sexually uninteresting to him they might as well be a different species.

Seto speaks of us each occupying “blobs” in a multi-dimensional sexual space, a territorial concept which to my mind has much in common with Money’s “lovemaps”. Seto’s dimensions include not just the most obvious ones, the gender and age to which we are attracted, but also some far more exotic axes, such as human/animal, alive/not alive and forced/consensual. But age is both interesting and puzzling, so I’ll stick with it.

Starting with nepiophilia, Seto admits that not much is known about sexual attraction to infants or toddlers, but data held by the FBI indicate that few cases of active sexual involvement with such young children come to the attention of the authorities. Also, this sexual interest is rare as judged by child pornography content. Quayle and Jones (2011), we are told, found that only 1–2% of the more than 24,000 child pornography images in their analysis of a large police database depicted babies or toddlers. As for Seto’s own research, “Only 1% of our sample of 286 child pornography offenders had images of such young children compared to a third with images of prepubescent children and 20% with images of pubescent children (Seto &Eke, 2015).” We frequently encounter lurid claims in the media of “baby rape” images being discovered when a child porn ring is busted. Based on Seto’s figures, though, the strong suspicion must be that such claims often amount to no more than black propaganda.

The prevalences of paedophilia (with nepiophilia usually included by default) and hebephilia have been studied much more but the figures are hotly contested. I will return to these major categories of minor attraction, but a word first about ephebophilia, which, like nepiophilia, has been remarkably little researched. The first question to ask about this is why not? After all, while many women are known to find older men attractive (especially wealthy, high-status guys), men are notorious for trading in their wives and long-time lady friends for much younger females: the images that work best for advertisers when trying to grab men’s attention tend to be of young models, no older than early twenties and down to mid-teens. And as Filip pointed out in a comment here recently, studies have shown that the highest risk of sexual assault for females is when they are in their mid-to-late teens, which looks a reasonable indicator of maximum sexual attraction. Seto cites research putting the highest risk at 14-15, though these figures must include consensual “statutory” encounters, thereby artificially inflating the “assault” rate against minors. Either way, it is entirely possible that ephebophilia is even more common than teleiophilia, at least among males.

Or is it? Somewhat belatedly, I realise that I have been carrying at the back of my mind the traditional idea of the ephebe, which is of course the inspiration for the modern term ephebophilia. The Oxford Dictionary tells us an ephebe was “(In ancient Greece) a young man of 18-20 years undergoing military training”. Forget the male-only bit, and the military training. Just look at the age: 18-20. As we have seen, though, Seto defines ephebephilia as attraction to those aged approximately 15-17.

His rationale for this, reasonably enough, is that what distinguishes different age-attraction categories is not so much age itself as the size, shape and other physical characteristics that are typical of any particular age group, including visible primary and secondary sexual characteristics such as the appearance of  the genitals, size of breasts or testes, and development of pubic hair. Using the Tanner stages of physical development, Seto defines ephebophilia on the basis that it corresponds to Tanner Stage 4, whereas teleiophilia is Tanner Stage 5. You can check these stages for yourself, from the link. Personally, I would say there is not a great deal of difference between stages 4 and 5. The young people in both of these stages are clearly well past puberty, with extensive genital development, and female “ephebes” are quite full breasted. So it seems artificial to limit ephebophilia in the way proposed. It would make more sense to designate Tanner Stages 4 and 5 as the target of ephebophilia.

What we need, perhaps, is a different scale. Let’s call it the TOC Scale. Babies and toddlers are clearly a very different shape to older children, being typically much chubbier, with shorter limbs and relatively larger heads. So there should be TOC Stage 1 (nepiophilia). Then we would have prepubescent children as TOC 2 (paedophilia); pubescent as TOC 3 (hebephilia); sexually mature (nubile, typically ages 15-25) as TOC 4 (ephebophilia); then straight to dad bod and mum bod as TOC 5 (mesophilia); finally, elderly as TOC 6 (gerontophilia).

Filip might want to start TOC 4 a year earlier, after spotting a very important problem with Seto’s age scheme. He wrote that “Girls in Tanner stage 4 are 14.0 to 15.2 years according to one German study. According to that study 99% of the girls have reached the Tanner stage 4 with 16.8 years. So nearly no 17-year-olds are in Tanner stage 4. Most of the ‘typical men’ would probably prefer a 16- or a 17-year-old over a 30-year-old.”

In addition to being more realistic, the TOC Scale would stop obscuring the obvious truth that men, especially, are mainly attracted to youth. Not to prepubescent children though: we minor-attracted types should not exaggerate the prevalence of Kindness out of desperation to make ourselves feel normal or to claim that our tastes are not that different to the mainstream. I say this in the full knowledge that a lot of research (reviewed extensively in comments here and in papers by Filip Schuster and Philip Tromovitch: see below) show that around a quarter of all men, or even more, have a significant level of sexual attraction towards children. But this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that many among this 25% or so feel a more powerful degree of attraction to their preferred age/stage of attraction, which tends to be young but physically mature. [TOC adds, 11 Sept: Actually, I stand corrected. Filip has pointed out in a comment below that research has shown a quarter of men taking part as control group participants in lab studies show at least as much sexual arousal to depictions of children as to adults. TOC further adds 12 Sept: However, Filip now gives further information. If he is right, my original intuition may have been reasonably accurate after all. See below.]

Neither should researchers downplay the rarity of such desires in order to pathologise and Other us. With this in mind, I asked the researchers on Sexnet last year what would have happened if Blanchard had included a set of ephebophilic stimuli in a major paper of his on sexual attraction. Ray Blanchard replied in person.

“Just for the record, he said, “the phallometric stimuli were assembled by Kurt Freund long before I met him – long, in fact, before I ever thought of studying sexual behavior. My guess is that Freund did not include mid- or late-adolescent photographic models because his immediate agenda was clinical diagnosis. If my assumption is correct, he deliberately built this discontinuity into the stimulus set, in order to make the differentiation between teleiophiles vs. pedo- or hebephiles simpler… I suppose I could, in principle, have made the effort to add later adolescent models and middle-aged or elderly models to the stimulus set, and that might have strengthened my theoretical studies of erotic gender-age preferences. To a large extent, however, I used the modus operandi that Freund had taught me: Piggyback your research onto your clinical operation.”

This strikes me as an honest answer, and one that gives a real insight into how research projects, even those by such a careful and highly regarded scientist as Blanchard, tend to be cobbled together in ways that potentially allow convenience to trump accuracy. In this case, allowing their work to be influenced by clinical considerations has meant that both Freund and his protégé Blanchard have focused on issues predefined by society as problematic rather than on truly objective research. Their work has been led by the perceived need to fix the presumptively sick minds of their clinical patients, or at least to stop paedophiles and hebephiles from “offending”. The effect has been to emphasise the pre-declared abnormality of these often involuntary patients and simultaneously to misrepresent what constitutes normal male attraction: the very common male preference for youth, including freshly nubile teenagers, has been wiped out of consciousness by the simple act of not researching it.

chronophilias-figure-1

Figure 1 shows Seto’s view of the relative frequency of his “chronophilias”. The TOC Scale would define ephebophilia in a way that would put it at the top of the curve, reflecting men’s overwhelmingly common attraction to youth. Allen Frances, best known for producing DSM-IV, wrote that “Evolution has programmed humans to lust for pubescent youngsters – our ancestors did not get to live long enough to have the luxury of delaying reproduction.”And as Filip noted here, the age of puberty is steadily getting lower, so the age to which adult males are attracted may also be falling.

On the other hand preferential paedophilia is probably rare. Some years ago Seto’s estimate was that up to 5% of the adult male population could be exclusive or preferential paedophiles. Now he tells us his best guess is that it is probably only 1%. He says his new, lower, figure is based on recent large Finnish and German surveys (Santtila et al., 2015).

I read the Santtila et al. study when it appeared last year. It is a complicated paper that I found difficult to interpret, so I asked about it on Sexnet. Mike Bailey, one of the top guys in the world on statistics in this field (he stoutly supported the controversial meta-analysis by Rind et al. 1998, showing that “CSA” causes little if any long-term harm even based on figures including coerced contacts) did not dispute Seto’s estimate but conceded that despite a large database, the Santtila et al. data “aren’t very good. … The truth is, it’s very hard to get good data on this.”

As for hebephilia, Seto reckons the figure is only “slightly higher” than the 1% for paedophilia. My guess – in the end we are all guessing – is that 1-3% seems about right for paedophilia but it looks crazy to claim hebephilia is not considerably higher bearing in mind Blanchard’s work, which shows that typically there is a smoothly curving gradient in the strength of sexual interest people feel between adjacent age categories. Thus those whose strongest sexual preference is ephebophilia have a lower, but still quite strong, attraction to those in the next age two groups, one a bit older, the other a bit younger. In this case the immediately younger category would be pubescent i.e. the hebephilia group. If there are thus a large number of people whose second preference is pubescents, it would seem odd to claim only a vanishingly small number whose strongest preference is for this physical stage of development. Phallometric testing of control samples of men also support the claim that preferential hebephilia is quite prevalent. See “Tromovitch sets a poser on prevalence” here at Heretic TOC and also “Every fifth boy and man is pedophilic or hebephilic” (Schuster, 2014). Schuster comes up with prevalence rates of 3% for paedophilia and 16% for hebephilia. These figures, carefully derived and explained, look more realistic to me than Seto’s, for which he does not set out a clear rationale.

Sorry to get bogged down in figures and technicalities and for the taxing length of this blog. I had hoped to go further as well, to a discussion of sexual orientation in its relation to identity politics. But that must wait until another time.

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!

New quests sparked by fading old charts

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Heretic TOC is delighted to report that readers here are increasingly leaving comments on old blogs – even from last year – as well as the latest one, and these comments include some excellent contributions. This reflects the fact that Heretic TOC aims to do more than just respond to the latest headlines: a goodly proportion of the blogs so far have engaged with topics that will remain live issues long after many “major” news stories have been forgotten.

Admittedly, the mainstream media is where the “dominant narrative” is at its most comprehensively, well, dominant, and this blog is pledged to challenge that dominance. But the narrative doesn’t just spring out of nowhere: its sources and headwaters need tracking down, with careful exploration and mapping of some remote and obscure places. The commentators I am talking about are actively engaging themselves in that process: where Heretic TOC’s fading charts may say little more than “Here be dragons”, a new and determined quest may yield more accurate knowledge .

This is great, but it presents a bit of a problem because it is easy to miss some of these wonderful responses to the older blogs. One solution is to offer a guest blog slot to the best contributors. This has already worked very well, in my view. But what do you do when a new contributor simultaneously sends in four superb comments, amounting to over two thousand words in response to old blogs, raising  all manner of interesting discussion points? A useful way forward, I think, is simply to trumpet their presence, which I will now do.

These four posts all come from “A”, who I gather is female, but about whom I presently know nothing else. Two of her comments are in response to Tromovitch sets a poser on prevalence; another is about How to take a vacation from yourself; finally, there is one on Adultophilia or teleiophilia? This last item is on a long page with 35 comments, and quite hard to find: the search term “curly hair” will get you there. I absolutely urge everyone to read all of these posts, and to read especially carefully those in response to the Tromovitch piece, as they require some concentration.

I am tempted to wade in with some response of my own to A’s detailed points, but further words from me will only distract from what she is has written. So I say no more, except go to the links and see for yourself!

Tromovitch sets a poser on prevalence

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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.

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