David Sonenschein

Fifty years in sex research, 1961 - 2011

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Using data collected over a decade, this volume documents popular ideas of adult-youth sexual relations from the mid-1970s into the 1990s, a period now known as the child sexual abuse hysteria. Looking critically at both fiction (including film) and journalism, core elements of villains, victims, and heroes are drawn out and shown to be interconnected. Sources widely distributed as well as those inaccessible to others are examined and tied to a variety of products and processes of American culture to yield the most complete and in-depth study yet available of this crucial period and issue.

During the 1980s, conceptions of the child molester and the child victim were based on simplistic or incorrect assumptions, incomplete or skewed data, and distorted by personal and institutional biases. The result has been an irrational panic extracting high costs financially, personally, and socially.


It has been known for quite some time that there is a considerable variety of sexual relationships and events that occur between adults and non-adults. The consequences of those contacts and affairs are also known to cover a wide range, and the specific cultural and historical points at which they occur are of significant influence. But the associations commonly have been looked down upon, and despite clear evidence of variance, actual descriptive research has been quite rare. Professional views, at least initially, usually encode popular ethnocentric superstitions; consequently, the relationships and the individuals involved in them have long been defined and governed by agents whose intents have more to do with discipline and dominance than with empirical investigation and open access to information.

Beginning roughly in the mid-1970s, with seeming suddenness youth-adult sex became vehemently condemned, its varieties homogenized into a single image of horrendous abuse and exploitation. Participants became subjected to increasingly savage punishment, supporters were stigmatized, and those interested in critical research were ignored or censured.

The apparent explosion of condemnation actually had firm historical precursors coming from three cultural domains. One was the professional culture, a historically specific interrelated system of values, meanings, and socioeconomic relations that formed career paths for journalists, mental health and social workers, researchers, and legal and medical personnel. Drawing upon templates already in place, construction and punishment of “The Pedophile” followed all the same steps that had been used on other deliberately stigmatized sexual interests and behaviors in the past. The tools, methods, and assumptions of investigation, the styles of representation, the intentions of rehabilitation and elimination—all contained elements that predetermined the characterization of pedophiles and children. Theory and method were linear, causal, and object obsessed. The drive theory of sexuality, after a brief replacement by more complex and realistic explanations, reemerged to dominate with a new vehemence.

Another source was the political culture. The long present tension in America between reaction and liberalism became intensified by a fervid resurgence of religious and political fundamentalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some old antagonisms (such as feminism and patriarchal interests) found effective commonalities with an ease and rapidity surprising to those unaware of historical precedents. Classic liberalism continued its collapse begun several decades before the 1980s, leftist radicalism continued to splinter, and military wings of the right continued to gain members and armaments. Major segments of gay and lesbian movements were co-opted by mainstream and conservative mentalities. Feminism became professionalized and trivialized by academics, but more significantly, the movement fractured, attracting and encouraging totalitarian personalities who insisted on essentialist dogmas of belief and behavior. The children's liberation movement was suffocated by legal discourse and failed to replace itself over time. Old and new hostilities escalated into literal combat. War was explicitly declared, and rhetoric and imagery were major weapons.

The third domain helping construct the phenomenon was the popular culture, the subject of this study. It was here that traditional images and genre were drawn upon to characterize youth-adult sexual relationships. Adult-youth sex is overlaid by a number of themes, motifs, and narrative devices clustering around three essential elements of what constitutes a singular conception of “child molesting.” The three foci—the pedophile as villain, the juvenile as victim, and an adult as hero—require interdependent descriptions, settings, and plottings. These relatively stable connections have maintained historical consistency and ensured the popularity of the images for both the general public and professionals.

The emphasis of 1980s mainstream popular culture was on the highly emotional and aggressive presentation of villainy, victimage, and heroism. Assisted by professional and political cultures, the popular culture machine mass produced and marketed the three character types for universal consumption via familiar theatrical genre. Each was paraded before the society as an actor in a drama of cosmic proportions. Apocalyptic imagery was routed by moral hierarchies into sensational expositions from nearly all of the culture's information institutions. This made for good, often excellent and exciting entertainment, so much so that the high human and social costs were nicely hidden.

The approach used here to study this period is what has been called “culture history.” Its primary obligation is documentation. This data-oriented survey is on its most basic level a descriptive one, and I spend some time citing exemplary texts. These present the exact language used during the period—shrill and garbled language and contradictory imagery that both reflected and contributed to the era's reaction to youth-adult sex. When I began in 1984, no critical record was available of events constituting the abuse hysteria. Some have now begun to appear on selected events or issues, such as the McMartin case, Satanism, or “recovered memories;” these studies provide more detail and I am pleased to refer to the critical work of other researchers for additional data, though errors or misunderstandings are corrected in the present study.

Central to the language of the period are the labels “pedophile” and “pedophilia.” Like the words “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” or “pornography,” these are not empirical terms that describe stable, eternal, inherent, and universal forms or contents. They are the names of culturally grounded Western 19th century anxieties and aspirations for power, disturbances that still distort thinking and behavior well past the point of buffoonery. Rather than continually place these terms within quotation marks as they ought to be, it should be remembered that their use here refers to the limited and varied meanings of the time. Despite all of the near-fanatical efforts to instill an idea of “The Pedophile,” the concept remains specious. Since the objectivist or categorical approach has proven to be as embarrassing as it is destructive (it is ludicrous to try to speak of “The Heterosexual” or of any of the other old homogeneous simplicities as a unified and distinct configuration of motives and behaviors), the continued forced use of such language is based in other concerns, usually psychological, economic, or political.

Because they are symbolic rather than empirical, the use of such terms and ideas is also due to an uncritical acceptance of cultural inertia. The terms make references beyond themselves across cultural horizons and link themselves to historical traditions.  Moreover, their importance is added to by their use, that is, their performance. Youth-adult sex was presented to the culture as theater, and actors, often backed by suitable soundtracks, enacted villainy, victimage, or heroism for (briefly) enthralled audiences, often on interactive bases: villains were booed or killed, victims were given a shoulder to cry on or were jailed, and heroes were cheered and allowed to escape prosecution for their abuses and crimes.

To add more depth to the documentation, when possible I try to trace certain images back as far as they may be recognizable to the contemporary reader, showing what meanings were intended or were found to be useful. Where I have enough data, I have tried to specify time spans and contexts a little more exactly. For some time I used to rail against facile expressions like “The Sixties,” but I now enjoy the simple-mindedness of it all, and the phrase is certainly fitting for the period's conception and treatment of history and individuals. “The period” as used here refers mostly to the 1980s, but covers a range from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s.

I have avoided disciplinary theoretical discussions because the emphasis is upon description, and for other reasons. Although I make reference to such concerns when it seems appropriate, there is little citation of the professional literature. Such work should be done in the context of a separate study of the professional cultures that helped generate the panic. Almost all of the research on adult-non-adult sex is so badly flawed that little can be done to salvage what remains of the lives of its subjects, an expensive characteristic of sexology over a variety of topics since its inception.

The first four chapters of this volume are devoted to themes of adult-youth sex in popular genre fiction, in either textual or visual media. Most appeared in crime novels and film, though they were also seen in horror, science fiction, and domestic drama. The image of the child molester has long been a negative one, though the intensity has varied from bemusement to homicidal hatred. I am after the more generally accepted view as it developed and maintained itself in the popular culture—how it was used, from whence it came, its relation to other symbolic sets, and how it related to historical events and actions. Tied to the image of the molester are the images of victims and heroes and these are examined along the same lines. I have generally omitted works, usually with more artistic non-genre pretensions, that try for a balanced, understanding, or positive view of sex between adults and non-adults. I have also avoided the very rare novels about sexual children and the many coming-of-age narratives, and I have not included the growing number of novels about adults and youth who have sexual interests in each other, such as those found in the rich and rapidly developing boy-love subculture.

In Part II, the focus for non-fiction is on print and broadcast journalism. It is here that the professional and the political cultures have important and explicit links. While sometimes present in fiction, it is in non-fiction that the expert, via the journalist, is automatically and repeatedly brought to the fore to authorize the images and assertions of fact for mass markets. Further, many of these experts aligned themselves with particular political or religious interests because such commitments purported to solve what were presented as individual and social problems. As in Part I, where possible I try to indicate some of the historical movement of images within the period. Immediately noticeable will be the reappearance of several of the same images and devices that were seen in fiction. It is precisely that repetition that I want to strike the reader. The period was characterized by cultural separation and fragmentation; for the images to be effective in that structural context, pervasiveness and mere duplication had to substitute for unity. The message of the monstrous pedophile and the ravaged victim was generally consistent despite coming from a variety of sources, though each had its special emphasis and justification. No matter where one turned during that time, images of the threatening molester and the threatened child saturated the cultural environment.

In volume 2, the second part of this study moves to a more interpretive level first by providing historical data on the persistence of key images and themes and by noting events in the 1980s that supported the particular conception of the pedophile and the social behaviors that derived from that image. Secondly, the analysis comments upon the consequences of America's use of these images as it relates to what have been basic social and political meanings of a relatively young democracy.


From this descriptive overview, the data clearly show that the 1980s child sexual abuse hysteria was media-driven, offering documentation, once again, that journalism largely continues to fail as a source of reliable information. Exceptions did appear, but they were late in coming and had minimal effect, particularly at the local level of media practice. Further, the treatment of this issue was different only in degree, not in kind, from the journalistic construction of other issues and individuals.

Beyond that, the data also reveal the inability or unwillingness of other institutions to correspond to their public myths, either because of corruption or incompetence. The criminal justice system is the most obvious example, but just as pervasively, professional cultures also exposed their prior, sometimes exclusive, allegiances to careerism, a necessary commitment in the absence of advertised critical intellectual abilities. Across the board, stupidity and viciousness, protected from challenge by the obliviousness and cowardice of any opposition, ruled. It was one of the best expressions of a culture based economically, politically, and morally, on consumption and waste.

But it was fun. It was entertaining, pleasurable to many, and to not just a few, erotic. Here was a chance to publicly and privately enjoy forbidden, and for not just a few, unacknowledged desires.

While satisfying on an elementary level, the analysis of cultural images can also tell us much about the personal and social relations upon which a culture operates. Part myth, part reality, the images must be matched against behavior to distill that which seems to matter, that is, what meanings, professed or unprofessed, become translated into concrete action and enforced law. For this period, the images assumed their own reality, moving their consumers, unconscious or uncaring of their source, to connect to their objects by electrified reeducation or, just as commonly, by spittle, a fist, or a bullet.

This has been so for a long, long time. Broader and older streams of perception and belief helped reduce what happened in the 1980s to a mere repetition, its histories readily accessible but conveniently forgotten, its negations deliberately ignored. Recurrences continue to accumulate, making Foucault’s “archaeology of knowledge” a wistful optimism. Autopsy becomes the necessary analytic approach, continued in Volume 2.


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