Problems of Research into Adult/Child
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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.
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).
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,
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
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
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.
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
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,
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,
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.
Abramson, P. R. (1984). Sarah: A sexual biography. Albany, NY:
Alpert, J. L. Ed. (1996). Sexual abuse recalled: Treating trauma in
the era of the recovered memory debate. New York: Aronson.
Augustine, St. (1955). Confessions. Trans. A. C. Outler. London:
Borneman, E. (1994). Childhood phases of maturity. Trans. by
Michael Lombardi Nash, Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Brongersma, E. (1986). Loving boys, vol. 1. Elmhurst, NY;
Global Academic Publishers.
Brongersma, E. (1990). Loving boys vol. 2. Elmhurst, NY: Global
Bullough, V. L. (1973). The subordinate sex. Urbana:
University of Illinois Press.
Bullough, V. L. (1976) Sexual variance in society and history. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Bullough V. L. (1981). Mahatma Gandhi. Medical Aspects of Human
Sexuality, 15, 11-12.
Bullough, V. L. ~990). History of adult human sexual behavior with
children and adolescents in western society. In J. R. Feierman (Ed.), Pedophilia:
Biosocial dimensions. New York: Springer Verlag.
Crompton, L. (1985). Byron and Greek love. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1977). A dual autobiography. New
York: Simon and Schuster.
Eberle, P., & Eberle, S. (1986). The politics of child abuse. Secaucus,
Feierman, J. R. (1990). Pedophilia: Biosocial dimensions. New
York: Springer Verlag.
Finkelhor, D. (1979). Sexually victimized children. New York:
Finkelhor, D. (1984). Child sexual abuse. New York:
Gebhard, P. H., Gagnon, J. H., Pomeroy, W. B., & Christenson, C.
V. (1965). Sex offenders. New York: Harper and Row.
Goethe, J. W. (1884). Notizbuch von der Schlesischen Reiss un Jahre
1790. Goethes Werke. Edited F. Zarukein. Leipzig: Hallberger.
Green, R. (1987) The sissy-boy syndrome. New Haven, CT: Yale
Herdt, G. (1981). Guardian of the flute. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kilpatrick, A. C. (1986). Some correlates of women's childhood sexual
experience: A retrospective study. Journal of Sex Research, 22, 22142.
Kilpatrick, k C. (1987). Childhood sexual experiences: problems and
issues in studying long-term effects. Journal of Sex Research, 23,
Kinsey, A., Pomeroy, W., & Martin, C. (1948). Sexual behavior
in the human male. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Martinson, F. (1973). Infant and child sexuality: A Sociological
perspective. St. Peter, MN: Book Mark.
Martinson, F. (1994). The sexual life of children. Westport, CN:
Bergen and Garvey.
Martinson, F. (1994a). Children and sex, part II. Human sexuality:
An encyclopedia. V. L. Bullough, & B. Bullough (Eds.). New York: Garland Publishing Company.
Mazur, T. (1994). Children and sex. Human sexuality: An
encyclopedia. V. L. Bullough, & B. Bullough (Eds.). New York: Garland
Money, J. (1988). Love maps. Buffalo: Prometheus Books.
Nelson, B. J. (1984). Making an issue of child abuse. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Rind, B., & Harrington, E. (in press). A critical examination of
the role of child sexual abuse in causing psychological maladjustment: A
review of the literature. To appear in D. A. Halperin (Ed.), False memory
syndrome: Therapeutic and forensic perspectives. American Psychiatric
Sandfort, T. (1984). Sex in pedophilic relationships. Journal of Sex Research, 20,
Sandfort, T. (1994). Boys on their contacts with men: A study of
sexually expressed friendships. Elmhurst, NY: Global Academic
Schiefenhovel, W. (1990). Ritualized adult-male/adolescent male
sexual behavior in Melanesia: An anthropological and ethological
perspective. In J. Feierman (Ed.), Pedophilia: Biosocial dimensions,
New York: Springer Verlag.
Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1994). Return of the Furies. Chicago:
|* 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]