Problems of Research into Adult/Child Sexual Interaction

Eric Vern L. Bullough and Bonnie Bullough*

ABSTRACT: Although adult/child sexual behaviors have occurred in many different cultures throughout history, there has been little serious research on adult/child sexual interactions.  Barriers to performing this research include legal restrictions along with the fact that researchers attempting to understand and explain adult/child sexual interaction risk being labeled as pedophiles.  Despite this, it is crucial to find ways to do research with persons who resist adopting today's standards and attitudes.

Since the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention Act of 1973, and the establishment of the Center for Child Abuse and Neglect in 1974 (Nelson, 1984; Eberle & Eberle, 1986), child abuse, including adult/child sexual interaction has been the subject of many reports and has been almost continually the center of media attention.  In spite of the large sums of money available, however, little serious research has been done on adult/child sexual interaction.  Particularly neglected has been adult prepubescent and adolescent sexual reaction, the issue with which this paper is mainly concerned.  One of the major reasons for this failure is the legal restrictions preventing such research-restrictions imposed in part because of what can only be called a kind of national hysteria brought on by media misrepresentation of the issues involved.

There are two groups which have to be researched, namely the children and the adults involved.  Any researcher into sexual issues has to face the problem of how to get the necessary data.  There are, at least in theory, a number of different ways of getting information about both groups, but when it comes to sexual questions, all pose problems.

Research into Children's Sexuality

Interviews with Children

In theory, the best way of getting data about children's sexuality is to interview a random sample of children and adolescents about their sexual thoughts and interactions.  But in today's world this is impossible.  American society in general will not permit such interviews on a random basis, and researchers who would attempt to do so would undoubtedly be charged with a criminal offense.

Longitudinal Studies

The next best way is to observe and interview children over a period of time, that is, do a longitudinal study.  While such studies have been done in terms of ages and stages for several generations, sexual interaction has been almost entirely ignored (Martinson, 1994a; Mazur, 1994).  The major exception to this has been by the Austrian sexologist, Ernest Borneman (1994).  Although Borneman's studies were primarily observational, he essentially followed the Piaget model of also asking generalized questions about what could be called sexual issues and getting a variety of answers from his subjects at different stages in their lives. A large number of children (a thousand or so) were involved over a long period of time.

Borneman's method resulted in his being accused by some elements of the German speaking press of being a pedophile because of his interest in children, although his data were published.  He emphasizes what we already knew — that children are very sexual beings — but he gives the kind of detail which should be helpful to all of us.  But his work has more or less been ignored.  Only one of his studies has been translated into English, and that was the more general one and not the more detailed follow-up study.  No one has yet dared replicate Borneman's work.  It is the ever-present danger of being accused of pedophilia which makes the research so dangerous and debilitating that few individuals are able to risk it.  Borneman himself did not begin his studies on children until he was near retirement age and finished them in his eighties, perhaps to avoid such charges, albeit unsuccessfully.

Clinical Samples

Another way of examining children is to look at those referred to the helping community because of sexual difficulties.  Unfortunately, therapists cannot exercise any of the scientific controls deemed so important to the research community, and their main purpose of necessity must be therapy, not research.  Thus they can report individual case studies, but generalizing from a handful of patients to create a universe has always been a problematic approach to research, even for the master of such methods, Sigmund Freud.

One of the few exceptions in the therapeutic community was the study done by Richard Green (1987), who extended the case method to much larger samples and included longitudinal variables.  He also included a randomly selected control group.  His initial research sample was boys whose feminine conduct and activity at nursery school age was so extreme that they were referred for treatment to a gender clinic with which he was associated.  He used this opportunity to do a major longitudinal study, hypothesizing that such children would probably grow up to be transsexuals.  As Green observed and interviewed both groups of children over the years, his original hypothesis was discarded since none of his original group became transsexuals, although the majority identified themselves as homosexual.

Green's study might well be interpreted as a cautionary warning of the potential dangers of putting young children into diagnostic categories when so little is known about childhood sexual development.  All that a researcher can say at this point is that it is essential to know a lot more about childhood sexuality before categorical diagnoses can be made.

Retrospective Accounts by Adults

Another way to look at childhood sexuality is through retrospective recollections by adults.  Floyd Martinson (1973, 1994a, 1994b) has perhaps done more with this method than anyone else in the United States.  His sample, however, is not scientifically chosen, but rather a matter of accident, relying heavily upon those referred for treatment or who were students in his classes.  It might well be that Martinson's comparative isolation from major metropolitan areas allowed him to do research which would have been difficult in major urban centers, but it is also important to point out that he did it before the Human Use Guidelines were in existence.  Probably the kind of study he did in the past would be impossible with the present guidelines.

It is this recollected memory, however, which furnishes the basic data for most of those doing studies in adult/child sexual reaction, and, in terms of research design, the best are conducted on college students, the easiest available source of data for the academic psychologist.  These studies have been examined and reported on by Bruce Rind (Rind & Harrington, in press), and his studies emphasize again just how little we know about the consequences of such encounters.

Individuals in the Criminal Justice System

There is still another source of information on adult/child sexual interactions — individuals somehow involved with the criminal justice system either as victims or as perpetrators.  This includes the information gathered by therapists who are called in to deal with the children involved.  Most of the studies prior to 1985 found that sexual activity per se, whether it involved exhibitionism, fondling of the genitals, or sexual intercourse, had almost no relationship to the degree of trauma experienced by the child.  The two factors contributing most to trauma or negative reaction were the use of force and a large differential in age.  Also important was the reaction of adults to the incident; if they overreacted, children felt they were guilty of some unspeakable act, and blamed themselves for what occurred (Finkelhor, 1979; Finkelhor, 1984; Kilpatrick, 1987, 1984; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994).  But even within the same family children might respond differently for reasons we do not know (Abramson, 1984).

It is necessary, however, to be cautious here, not only because of the controversy over the recovered memory syndrome (in terms of adult recollection), but also because of the possible influence that therapists committed to certain points of view might have on their child clients.  This is an area which this paper mostly ignores because it is so controversial and the literature itself deserves a separate paper.  Perhaps one of the recent books by defenders of "recovered" memory might serve as a cautionary guide to both sides in the controversy, namely the editor's belief that what might be helpful for the client in therapy is not a legal truth, nor is it necessarily the complete truth, rather it is therapeutic truth which might or might not have happened in the way recalled by the client (Alpert, 1996).  What the controversy emphasizes, however, is the need to do serious research in the area.

Given the lack of available data, and the controversial aspects of some of it, childhood sexuality remains a minefield of unanticipated problems.  The recognition of this lack of knowledge is not a new thing.  Alfred Kinsey, for example, always interested in sexual contacts of his subjects at any age, faced this same problem of getting accurate data since he did not fully trust the recollected data of his adult subjects.  Although he questioned a selected group of mothers about their children's sexual activity, he felt there were problems with these data as well, since it was only by happenstance that such observations were made.  He serendipitously realized late in his studies that some of the best information of childhood sexual response to various kind of sexual play came from pedophiles, some of whom kept detailed meticulous records.  He reported that he got much of the data for his famous or infamous Table 34 from four pedophiles, and most of it from one who had kept detailed notes and records of the sexual response of children from all ages to his attempts to arouse them (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948).

Research on the Adults Involved in Adult/Child Sexual Interactions

The Kinsey data leads to the second major focus of this paper, that of the adults involved in sexual interaction with children.  If the difficulties of doing serious studies on childhood sexuality prevent serious research on the problem, there are equal difficulties in studying the adults involved.  The category of sexual contacts between adults and children includes a variety of sexual acts ranging from genital touching and exploration to penetration.  Probably there is a major difference between the individuals involved in sexual interaction with young children and sexual interaction with prepubescent and adolescent youth.  Many of the pedophiles, for example, regard young children as off limits (Brongersma, 1990).  Vaginal and anal penetration are extremely rare by adults with prepubertal children for physiological reasons (Wakefield & Underwager, 1994).  Moreover, young children cannot under any condition be regarded as giving consent for sexual interaction of any kind with an adult, something that most pedophiles imply takes place.

Interestingly, the Kinsey interviews of over 18,000 subjects failed to find one subject who reported being victimized by a sadist (Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy, & Christenson, 1965).  This means that such contacts are either very rare or that when they happen the children do not survive.  This then raises the troubling question of when the age of consent takes place and, for this, there can be no absolute answer, since it depends on custom and culture.  Few cultures, however, recognize consent as occurring before pubescence.

Moreover, it is with this prepubescent to pubescent group with which most pedophiliac action is concerned.  The issue of repressed memory is not usually present, and it is more likely for nonfamily members to be involved.  For these reasons, the remainder of this paper is concerned with adult-prepubescent or adolescent sexual interaction, what John Money has called ephebophilia (Money, 1988).  Other terms have also been developed to distinguish various age groups, but the break seems to come at 12 years of age (Gebhard, et al., 1965), and to make too many distinctions implies we know more about the subject than we do.

Most of the American studies on adults are based on those who have been taken into custody or have been sentenced for sexual activities with minors, a condition not conducive to getting truthful answers.  It was, however, the main source of data of the major study of such offenders, that carried out by Paul Gebhard and his colleagues (Gebhard et al., 1965).  Therapists, who in an earlier period furnished some individual case studies, now are severely handicapped because any person who admits to being a ephebophile to a therapist has to be reported.  Not all areas of the world, however, have the same laws as the United States and it is possible to study both groups in some other countries, although the stigma attached to the researcher remains strong.

One western country where it has been somewhat easier to carry on such research is the Netherlands.  One of the things that becomes apparent about ephebophiles to those who have interviewed them is the large number who keep scrapbooks or other accounts of the their youthful partners.  Perhaps they do so to use them in a masturbatory fantasy, but one result of perusing them is to convince the reader of the belief of ephebophiles that what they had done was not harmful to their "victims," but instead was helpful to them (Brongersma, 1986, 1990).

Because of the often detailed information they have about their "protégés," (i.e. sex partners) it is possible for a researcher to locate some of the once youthful sex partners, providing the ephebophile trusts the person.  Theo Sandfort, a Dutch researcher, was able with the permission of the adults involved to contact some 25 of their youthful partners to interview.  Most of the boys described their relationship in positive terms and did not perceive their sexual contact with adult males as representing abuse by adults of their authority (Sandfort, 1984, 1990).

Matters have changed somewhat in the Netherlands since his study, and the Dutch law has raised the age of consent.  While the Netherlands remains a rich source of potential research subjects, due to pressure from the United States, this research has become more complicated. Not the least of the problems is that many of the pedophiles seek their "protégés" elsewhere.  Anyone who has examined the source of partners for many of the more well-to-do ephebophiles is struck by how much economic conditions of a country or area increase or decrease the possibility of an adult finding a sexual protégé.  For a time in the late 1940s and all through the 1950s, Sicily, one of the poorest areas of Europe, was the center of activity for many European ephebophiles.  Sicily was soon rivaled by Morocco.  At the present, many travel to Thailand, the Philippines, or other developing countries where the age of consent is much lower than in the U.S. or even than in the Netherlands.  This makes it more difficult for western researchers to do research on the boys involved.

Since anyone doing research in the United States on adult ephebophiles who are not involved in the criminal justice system is automatically suspect, research in this country is almost nonexistent, except in some disciplines where personal contact is not essential.  Contemporary anthropologists, for example, can explore some of these relationships in other cultures as Herdt has done in the case of the Sambia (Herdt, 1981), and it seems safe to say that such activity is widespread (Schiefenhovel, 1990).

Historical Sources

It is not just the anthropological data which furnishes examples, but the historical sources, perhaps the most bountiful of all data bases.  What appears obvious from this rich source is that adult/adolescent sexual interaction has had different meanings at different times.  These meanings are related to what a particular culture or society regards as the marriageable age and the desirable difference in age between the spouses.  In general, also, societies have been hostile to adult/child or adult/adolescent sexual behavior involving penetration and less hostile to other forms of behavior, although what is now called adolescence was not then recognized as a stage in the life cycle.

The following cases are only highly selected examples of different periods and different cultures, and deal with well known religious figures and moralists to emphasize the point.  The first example is the case of St. Augustine, the major father of the western Christian Church, and on whose writings much of Christianity is based.  He more or less founded Christian theology by incorporating the concepts of Plato into Christianity.  Augustine, while in his 30s was betrothed to a prepubertal girl.  Since he could not formally marry her until she came of age (i.e. her first menstrual period), he did not have sex with her because he came to be converted to the ideal of celibacy before this occurred (Augustine, 1955, IV ii, VI, xii, VII, i).  The point is that it was considered acceptable for a much older man to marry and have sex with a 12- or 13-year-old girl.

A second holy figure illustrating the same theme is the prophet Mohammed who, after the death of his first wife, agreed, at the urging of his followers, to marry a young prepubertal girl, Ayesha.  Most Islamic authorities believe the marriage was not consummated until she menstruated, the traditionally acceptable time for marriage.  But this was still a marriage to a girl who many say was only age 7 (Bullough, 1973).

The third example is a more modern holy man, Mahatma Gandhi.  Gandhi was married at age 13 to a girl about his own age and at age 37 took a vow of sexual abstinence.  In spite of this vow, he found a need to fondle prepubescent and early adolescent girls.  He took such girls to bed with him to overcome, he said, his "shivering fits" in the night.  His female companions, who came from his inner circle — all certified virgins or young brides — entered his bed naked in order to warm him with their bodies.  Some of them also administered enemas to him.  Among the young girls, there was rivalry as to who would sleep with him, and one of his girl disciples reported that his bed companions had a difficult time in restraining their sexual impulses since he often rubbed against them and touched them in erotic places.  Although his closemouthed house guardians were fearful of public reaction if news of these "pedophilic" sexual interactions were publicized, Gandhi continued to engage in them until his death.  Gandhi did not have sexual intercourse with them, but obviously the touching and feeling were very important to him.  If he had lived in the United States, he would have been sentenced as a child molester (Bullough, 1981).

This same kind of occurrence is found in secular figures.  For an American figure, the case of Will Durant is illustrative.  In 1912, he was a thirtyish college instructor when a 14-year-old girl enrolled in his class, and, according to her own story, set out to marry him.  By March, 1913, he had resigned his classroom position because of his growing interest in her and they were married in October, 1913, shortly after she turned 15 (Durant & Durant, 1977).

The Durant story emphasizes an important point, namely that even in the United States the age of consent in the past was much different than it is now.  Many states had legal ages of consent at 13, although it was usually younger for girls than for boys.  It is only in the last 10 or 15 years that most states have raised their age of consent.  This consent, of course, applied to marriage, but, in essence, it was equivalent to making intercourse with such adolescents legal.

Almost any time period or culture one picks, there are numerous incidents of sexual relationships between adults and prepubescent or pubescent youths.  The German genius and poet, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe wrote:

I like boys a lot, but the girls are even nicer.  If I tire of her as a girl, she'll play the boy for me as well (Goethe, 1884).

George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron, was attached to Nicolo Giraud, a young French-Greek lad, and left him money in his will.  He also was closely involved with Loukas Chalandritsanos, a pubescent boy, who was with him when he was killed (Crompton, 1985).  The list could go on to include Lewis Carroll, J. M. Barrie (Peter Pan), Horatio Alger (Bullough, 1990).  Mostly we only have examples of the rich and famous and the pubescent boys (or sometimes girls) they loved and had sex with from ancient Greece to imperial Rome, to the medieval church, to modern times (Bullough, 1976), but they emphasize the continuing existence of such relationships.  In fact so widespread has it been in the past, that some have speculated that it has a strong biosocial basis (Feierman, 1990).

Cultural Perspectives

If valid, the ethological point of view — the belief that human behavior evolved in the context of natural selection — has important implications for how we deal with ephebophiles.  Ethnologists would argue that there are at least three features which would make pedophilia and ephebophilia relatively common behaviors in a variety of historical and cultural perspectives. These are (1) the phylogenitically familiar nature of stimuli in children and adolescents, (2) the propensity of children and adolescents to be sexually alluring to some males because of their diminutive size, and (3) the appearance of rapidly changing, budding, secondary sexual characteristics (Feierman, 1990).  Ethnologists, however, would mostly argue that the ethology of the pedophile and ephebophile are different (as indicated above), and in terms of research the two should be kept separate.  While adult females are occasionally involved in sexual activities with children and adolescents, and adolescents of both sexes are often sexually involved with children, the adult ephebophile is far more likely to be a male than a female.

The ethnological assumptions emphasize the potential extent of the problem and the absolute necessity for research.  If ephebophilia is part of our human heritage, our society is challenging long tradition in speaking out against it.  Societies can and do change attitudes, but as new definitions are adopted, a simple solution of outlawing certain forms of past conduct long tolerated is not an effective approach.

We need to emphasize another kind of research, namely how to change long-standing customs and norms.  Interestingly, the feminists in recent years have helped us reorient society in terms of such previously accepted activities as rape and sexual harassment, and standards have changed for the majority of the members in our society, although not for all.  If we can look upon adult/child sexual interaction as something that was once accepted in society, and emphasize that we are redefining it as now outside of current societal standards, our task becomes clear.

Unfortunately, while there has been a massive amount of money and energy involved in establishing new societal standards, there is little recognition that the standards have changed and little research on how to overcome the centuries of acceptance of such conduct, in part because there has not been a clear understanding that we are establishing new standards.  Unfortunately, too often in today's society, those who are attempting to understand and explain, and even do research into adult/child or adult/juvenile sexual interaction, simply get labeled as pedophiles, as I and many others have been.

There has to be a major effort concentrated on understanding the development of those adults who become involved with adolescents and children and who have not been able to adapt to changing attitudes and standards.  Such research requires a cooperative stance between the researcher and the research subject, something that as yet is not possible.  But it is crucial that it be done since in ethological terms they are reacting as our ancestors did.  All we can do at present is encourage the researcher, whenever possible, to reach out to those adults who still act contrary to the new societal rules, and establish a rapport which will enable serious research to be done.  Hopefully, in the long run, this will help them to adopt the new societal standards.

At the same time, however, we must keep in mind that adults, especially adult males, need to be encouraged to interact with children much more than they do now, but without the overtones of sexuality which may have discouraged such interaction in the past.  Labeling and smearing them as so often the case today is not the answer.


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* Vern L. Bullough is distinguished professor emeritus at the State University at Buffalo where he was the dean of natural and social sciences for over ten years and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Southern California.  Bonnie Bullough, who died in April, 1996, was a professor in the school of nursing at the University of South California and was dean emeritus of the nursing school of the State University of New York at Buffalo.  The Bulloughs have collaborated on many works, most recently Sexual Attitudes: Myths and Realities, published by Prometheus Books.

This paper was originally presented at the Western Region Annual Conference for the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, San Diego, California, April, 1996.  [Back]

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