David Sonenschein

Fifty years in sex research, 1961 - 2011

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The child sex abuse hysteria of the 1980s serves as a reference point for a far-ranging cultural historical survey of the ways sexual villains, victims, and heroes have been constructed and used on America. Including an extensive and and unique chapter on “The Sexual Child” - one of the most avoided and undocumented subjects in history, social science, and policy research - a varied number of contemporary and historical influences are brought together for the first time around the subject of adult-youth sexual relations.

Flawed from the beginning, images of sexual actors and events have remained so because America’s use of them has traditionally been for entertainment and for the advancement of particularistic political agendas, rather than for the empirically based rational and humane guidance of public policy and personal conduct.


Fundamental to the 1980s hysteria over youth-adult sex was the use of stereotyped images of the villain, victim, and hero. Stereotypes are mixtures of truth and fantasy, of accurate perception and distorting anxieties. The major error comes in the assertion that they are universally and eternally true, and the error is compounded from farce to tragedy when the caricatures are used to dictate social policy and govern interpersonal relations. Because anxiety (often at pathological levels) is the basis of the imagery, enforcement is usually savage.

To be effective, stereotypes have to be composed of elements socially familiar, and of components used frequently enough so as to appear as divine truth or common sense. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the images of the 1980s had a long and often honorable history. The clichéd child molester (like the saving hero) has roots in ancient cultures, but the victim concept with which we are familiar is of more recent construction.

Over time the images have maintained considerable consistency, no matter what the issue. This is due to the restricted range of meanings provided by the culture for the specific uses. The intents underlying these images are to dissuade and to punish; to do either, actors who are assigned these characterizations have to be heavily stigmatized.

The effort to do this requires considerable energy and commitment. Significant cultural resources (especially economic and political ones) are mobilized and maintained on a broad scale by individuals and institutions interested in establishing uniform belief and obedience over inquiry and variance. This is made easier and more palatable by configuring issues and actors as entertainment. Social issues are raised and presented—and evaluated—on theatrical terms.

Certain images change in appeal or usefulness, especially those of villainy and victimage. Ideas, like images, also rise and fall in popularity depending on wider cultural contexts of support, criticism, or disinterest. Democracy, a whole larger than the sum of its parts emerging from a conglomeration of self-selected “rights” and “freedoms,” is one of these fluctuating human desires. Whether in optimistic ascendance or in nostalgic collapse, consumers of contemporary Western culture can be assured that its realization or disappearance will be amusing, if not profitable.

To fully appreciate the decade, we would have to consider the 1980s not through dramaturgy, as it was for 1960s critics, not through Situationism, as it was for the 1970s politically astute, but rather as a cartoon: figures and landscapes drawn with heavy outlines around primary colors on a flat surface, made to move and speak by agencies not their own, all the while maintaining dignified poses while falling flat on their faces. The apocalyptic pronouncement, meant to be solemnly intoned with authority and finality, came out only as a repetitious chattering and stuttering, sweat beads bursting visibly from excitement, frustration, anger, and fear. “The End Is Near” became “Th-th-that’s all folks!” — From Chapter 9


The variety of motives, affect, and conduct that bring youth and non-youth relationships to physical expression is of such complexity, and perplexity, that humane scientific work will most likely be in disarray for some time to come. It will be easier, safer, and more profitable to continue to justify cultural practice and defensively smear the contacts, actors, and relationships with the broad strokes of a monochromatic sealant. The interests of church and state support this through a return to 19th century medical forensics, conceptualizations eagerly buttressed and exploited by institutions of popular entertainment. But the course of sex research methodologies continues in some quarters to give fuller expression to lines laid down in the early 1960s, a reclamation bubbling from the on-going putrefaction of a moribund concept of “sexology.”

Children’s sexualities appears to be the next fertile field from which to sprout professional careers. In a paternalistic and authoritarian culture, the study of these desires and behaviors calls for little change in personal and social concepts of the investigator and expert, and can allow for the easy continuation of nearly all the present systems of authority and control which now outline and anchor definitions of “the child.” As it has for over a century, interests of discipline and domestication promise to determine and dominate official information.

So too with investigations of that 19th century zombie, “the pedophile.” A science in the context of a culture still struggling with a “heterosexual-homosexual” dichotomy has little chance or little interest in devising concepts and methods of research that would offer anything strikingly divergent from the security of design and expression now plead for so eloquently and desperately by professional societies. The task of inquiry into these characters and relations call for simply starting over, undertaking intellectual, emotional, and material risks beyond the relatively high levels usually called for in American culture. Added to ordinary professional politics, personality spats, and scientific fads, threats from the police and the press continue to distract and inhibit the collection and production of texts and the investigation and documentation of sexual lives. Social forces unfazed by and uninterested in empirical evidence continue to accumulate legislation and case law that discourage or restrict conscientious research efforts, and criminalize heterogeneous personal and social conduct (at this writing, an appeals court has declared that teens “do not have a Constitutional right to sex”).

Commitment to the work continues.


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