A Critical Analysis of Subjectivist-Based Theorising and Research on Male Intergenerational Sexualities

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Article Title:

A Critical Analysis of Subjectivist-Based Theorising and Research on Male Intergenerational Sexualities.


Richard Yuill


This paper seeks to explain why critical research on child sexual abuse (CSA) and paedophilia has generally only emerged from positivist-based approaches to the social sciences. In contrast, subjectivist-based theoretical and research approaches have produced a dearth of critical analyses of victimological positions, with survivor accounts constituted as an “uncontestable” reality. A case study from the author’s own PhD research examines a non-victimological account from someone who was involved in a series of intergenerational relationships. It will conclude that the colonisation of non-victimological accounts of male intergenerational sexualities throughout late modernity is more than a casual oversight, but consistent with political attempts to present CSA as a monolithic sexual truth.

Key Words:

Subjectivism, positivism, CSA, non-victimological, intergenerational sexualities.


The last thirty years has seen a substantial shift in the field of intimacy and sexuality in many areas around the globe. After a series of at times, two steps forward and an occasional one step back, sexual minorities have managed to achieve a range of substantial achievements. These achievements have been well documented within the gay, lesbian and queer academic and popular literature covering this period (see Duberman, Vicinus, and Chauncey (eds.), 1989; D’Emilio, 1992; Evans, 1993; Plummer (ed.), 1992; Weeks, Heaphy, and Donovan, 2002). However, rather than joining in a chorus of triumphalist celebration at such momentous developments, this paper focuses on conspicuous anomalies in the way child and intergenerational sexualities have been treated (and problematised) in late modernity.

It will begin by focussing on a prominent feature in recent approaches to late modern transformations in sexuality - specifically the ‘turn to the subjective’ and its consequences for studying intergenerational sexualities. Part two will critically analyse the way victim-based survivor accounts have been accredited singular truth status on intergenerational relationships. Thirdly, the article identifies curious exceptions to this trend, in which more traditional positivistic approaches to the social sciences, in contrast to subjectivist-based theorising, have adopted a far more critical approach to child sexual abuse (CSA). Part four will examine possible ways in which other stories on intergenerational sexualities can be told by critically examining a non-victimological narrative (Philip) from my own research on ‘Male Age-Discrepant Intergenerational Sexualities and Relationships’ (see Yuill, 2004; chapter nine). It will also draw on Philip’s account to highlight the considerable investment of dominant professional and academic perspectives in maintaining a victimological hegemony over the telling of intergenerational sexual stories. Finally, the paper will synthesise these empirical and theoretical insights in arguing for non-victimological accounts of intergenerational sexualities and relationships to be accredited far greater agency. It calls for a more iconoclastic debate, which recognises both the hierarchy of knowledges and material imbalance in presenting the respective accounts of victimological and non-victimological discourses.

The sexual turns “all” subjective

If recent contributors to debates on sexual transformations are to be believed, late modernity has ushered in an era of unheralded imagings. Indeed, mainstream theorising tends to stress significant disjunctures from previous eras. For example, Weeks (1995: 12) argues that late modernity has led to ‘changes in patterns of sexual identity and arrangements of intimate life […] which respect and validate different ways of life, different choices, alternative forms of responsibility and love’. Similarly, Plummer (1995: 144) alludes to evidence of a growing sexual pluralism by speaking about ‘new social worlds of sexual politics […] moving out of silence, generating communities to receive and disseminate them on a global scale’.

Weeks (2000: 244) continues on this up-beat theme, referring to how many lesbian and gays believe their relationships ‘represent the emergence of new narratives of everyday life, and a […] commitment to the democratisation of relationships’ based on ‘mutual care, respect, responsibility and love’. Within such analyses, changes in intimacy are constituted through a process of ‘reflexive modernity’, where traditional relationship patterns have been displaced by plural opportunities (Weeks et al., 2002: 181). Others go even further, arguing that such shifts have produced ‘a wholesale democratisation of the interpersonal domain, in a manner fully compatible with democratisation in the public sphere’ (Giddens, 1992: 3), in which ‘lifestyle choices are constituted through a reflexive narrative of self’ (p. 75).

These recent contributions to late (post) modern sexualities display a common denominator of general optimism in which previously excluded sexualities, via a process of liberal democracy and reflexivity, can now enter an inclusive sexual citizenry. The late modern sexual rainbow has now multiple identities as LGBT (Lesbian, gay, Bisexual, Transgender). Within the academic literature and journals devoted either exclusively to the sociology of sexuality, or at least to its presentation within a range of sociological topics, this ‘turn to the subjective’ has been greeted with widespread applause. Long gone are the days of objectivist, positivist-biased arrogant masculinist, heterosexist scientism! Instead, the subjective turn has now ushered in an era of perverts speaking for themselves (Giddens, 1992).

A major feature of the ‘turn to the subjective’ is a general rejection of positivism. For its critics, positivist approaches to the social sciences should be viewed with scepticism. The main thrust of such critiques is that lying behind such apparently objectivist, empirical scientific approaches lie sexist, heteronormative and ethnocentric assumptions. Subjectivist approaches to the social sciences on the other hand emerged as either histories from below, or openly championing subjugated opinions from women, ethnic minority cultures, and “others”.

A major effect of this has been to create a polarisation: with subjective epistemologies characterised as agency-driven, victim sensitive and wary of the objective realm’s positivist masculinist, scientist agenda. As part of this seismic epistemological shift, academic and political gays and lesbians made direct challenges to the institutionalised pathologisation of same-sexualities by the American Psychiatric Association, culminating in its removal from the list of paraphilias in 1973. The next thirty years has witnessed an almost expotential growth in the literature on sexuality devoted to the subjective experiences of gay and lesbians. These narratives began to trump the scientists; the closet door became unhinged as the “perverts” assumed a voice, one which became increasingly self-confident and lippy! However, this trajectory has not been followed in the area of child and intergenerational sexualities.

Discrepant Subjectivities

Not everything in the garden is rosy! Plummer and Weeks do identify counter-veiling trends. For example, Plummer (1995: 26, 116) highlights how the different opportunities for sexual minorities to articulate stories and fashion communities, create the potential for very differential trajectories and contrasting fortunes. Weeks (1995: 2, 43) also identifies sexology’s tendency throughout the twentieth century to affirm and reinforce normalisation through cataloguing sexual varieties, whilst recognising that the fluidity and malleability of sexual categories have increased the numbers policing those very boundaries.

The case-studies of child and youth sexuality, and adult sexual attraction to children and young people are prime examples of what Plummer and Weeks allude to. Without exception across social science disciplines, CSA is the only permitted discourse on intergenerational relationships. Here, research paradigms and narrative presentations tend to assume a formulaic, monolithic character, in which abuse, manipulation, or violence is invariably perpetrated by an adult to sexually exploit a child or young person. For example, Kincaid (1998: 218) elaborates on the way discourses on adult-child sex are played out in various media through the term ‘CSA talk’ (‘sex as power, control, denial’).

The 1970s witnessed fledging attempts in the UK, US and Europe to present positive paedophilia through political movements such as the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) and the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Initially, gay and lesbian organisations permitted such groups within their midst. This toleration often went alongside clamours for youth groups to assert autonomous sexual rights; freed from professional, legal and familial constraints (Tsang, 1981). However, by the 1990s, gay and lesbian organisations tended to avoid associating with such groups.

Parallel to the political ostracism of activist groups supporting intergenerational sexualities witnessed a dramatic upsurge of media and political attention to the plight of child sexual abuse victims and survivor groups. The following three studies highlight some of the key themes in survivor narratives (King, 1995; Hunter, 1990; and Lew and Bass, 1990). For King (1995: 20, 21), such relationships are impermissible because ‘children are utterly dependent, powerless, and unable to understand about sexuality’, and consequently, for a boy, ‘adult sexuality is foreign and incomprehensible’. Hunter (1990: 63) adds that ‘children are uninformed about sexual matters’. All characterise children and young people in their sexual experiences with adults as powerless, helpless and betrayed, and draw a clear distinction between “normal” sexuality and male sexual abuse (MSA).

The language in these texts also relies on naturalistic conceptions of sexual development. For example, King (1995) states that ‘any boy naturally gives great power to his male role model’, (p. 55) and that MSA constitutes an ‘intrusion into his own natural developmental progression’ (p. 68) and ‘his own natural sexuality’ (p. 99). Furthermore, the adult abuser is often pathologised or demonised as one of the ‘few evil, sick individuals who abuse children’ (Lew and Bass, 1990: 11).

Abuse is often casually defined as ‘an expression of power, compulsiveness, a desire for control, or an act of vengeance, which comes masked as an act of love’ (Hunter, 1990: 3), or an ‘aggressive, destructive violation of another human being’ (Lew and Bass, 1990: 54). According to these accounts, the long-term effects of MSA invariably ‘inhibits and stifles a man’s fullness of being and experience of self in the world’ (King, 1995: 5), resulting in ‘dissociation,’ ‘depersonalisation disorders’ and ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ (Hunter, 1990: 66, 67, 73). Such contributors also emphasise the incidence and extent of MSA, the societal neglect of male victims, and the sexual behaviour of adult abusers in order to provide resources to men who have experienced abuse.

The above literature has also been disseminated through professional, popular, academic publishing, where it is presented as the sole reality on intergenerational relationships. Consequently, the late modern narrative turn has given one voice: the self-identified victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. The assumption indelibly embedded in late modern story telling is that, with respect to intergenerational sexualities, only one subjective reality, one story needs to be aired, because that’s all there is to it.

Often in CSA analyses, any attempts to challenge or contest survivor accounts are portrayed as insensitive or as disingenuous attempts to superimpose medical-psychiatric schemas or a left libertarian political morality (Scott, 2001: 49-50). However, akin to the way positively experienced accounts are challenged by proponents of CSA, victim-based narratives can also be scrutinised. A large amount of the survivor literature relies on inputs from clinical samples and practioners, creating difficulties in evaluating how far such accounts are actually representative, or justify why such voices should be the only ones to speak for all retrospective accounts. Secondly, much of the language draws on US and UK sources during the 1990s and 2000s, with most collaborators adopting mainstream feminist perspectives. A clear example of this can be seen in the work of Lew and Bass (1990: 38), in which they make direct reference to the ideological nature of their collaboration. Finally, such accounts are not created in isolation and influential pressure groups (media, legal profession and support groups) have reinforced this through sensationalist coverage of abuse cases. Consequently, any “re-visiting of experience” should be analysed in the light of the potential for relatively large amounts of compensation, and the role played by the police and legal system in encouraging such claims.

“Subversive Positivism”

Over the last decade a few researchers have attempted to provide a critical analysis of CSA. These have included: theoretical challenges (Li, 1993; Leahy, 1994); research methodological critiques (Okami, 1990); and research highlighting extensive positive experiences of young people in intergenerational encounters and relationships (see Okami, 1991; Leahy, 1992; Rind, Bauserman, and Tromovitch, 1998). A consistent theme in many of these challenges is an appeal to the very positivist canons of objective impartiality by criticizing what they see as either incompetent and/or biased research ideological agendas from mainstream CSA contributors. The following examples are selected here to highlight such approaches.

Li (1993: 146-180) highlights significant methodological and theoretical problems with CSA research. He criticises Finkelhor's four-factor model of ‘traumagenic dynamics’ in CSA for obfuscation, by casually and uncritically constructing ‘thing-like entities that could cause harm to children’, whilst giving the impression that the harmful effects derived from such dynamics are objectively grounded, rather than attempts to reinforce an ideological stance (p. 169). Secondly, Li argues that CSA findings are mediated through a victimological labelling process, which creates the potential for a ‘self-fulfilling potential’ of iatrogenesis, or induced symptoms created by the medical profession, whereby respondents construe their experiences in a particular way (often negatively) after participating in CSA research (p. 177-178).

Okami (1990) criticises the prevalence of ‘subjective and untested assumptions regarding childhood experience and human sexuality’ in the ‘victimology-based literature’ (p. 91). He bemoans the absence of ‘in-depth critiques of the victimological paradigm, or of the research and writings supporting it’ (p. 92), and blames ‘cultural feminism’ for proselytising the claim that all intergenerational encounters necessarily involve rape and male aggression (pp. 93-95). Okami singles out both Russell and Finkelhor for ‘intentional, structural and ideological’ biases in their research, which present for both respondent and reader alike, ‘a circumscribed universe of experiences-a continuum with a severely truncated positive end-while being told that this universe is “inclusive of even the most unusual and unlikely” experiences’, which lead to the “obvious” ‘impression that…catastrophic sequelae are intrinsic to any sexual interaction between an individual under 18 (or 16) and someone five or more years older’ (p. 103, 105).

In a similar vein Bagley (1999: 29) cautions against applying ‘taken-for-granted categories’ in social work professional praxis, and ignoring the best interests of the child. West (1998: 539) argues that ‘[t]he emotive terms adopted in professional discourse - abuse, perpetrator, victim, survivor’- have been unhelpful ‘and introduced a tone of moral revulsion alien to scientific inquiry’. Finally, Oellerich (2000: 77) identifies a number of problems with the ‘victimological paradigm’, including the often biased and polemical constructs which are casually introduced into research design and the way the scientific and professional community have created non-empirical constructs to sustain a self-fulfilling ideology.

Rind, Bauserman and Tromovitch’s (1998) study is typical in many ways of such positivist critiques of CSA. For example, Rind et al. (1998: 21-22) caution against the application of legal and moral constructs into scientific definitions, claiming that biases amongst CSA researchers, including extrascientific and subjective preconceptions, have only led to conclusions which reinforce their political ideology. Finally, the authors criticise the way particular professional and political groups have imposed self-serving agendas in constituting a ‘victimological paradigm’ as the singular dominant “truth” on all intergenerational sexual relationships (p. 46).

These contributors have in their critiques of CSA adopted three central canons of the positivist credo, namely the importance of using objective criteria to measure social phenomena, guarding against imputing subjective bias to subsequent findings, and finally, elevating scientific integrity against submission to conventional dogmas popular at a particular time. Although such critics highlight the importance of the social and historical context, alongside the influence of particular groups (clinicians, psychiatrists and child protection welfare interests) in the ascendancy of CSA, they have not addressed a crucial element in this topic, namely why have contemporary subjectivist-based theorising and research only presented one-sided accounts of intergenerational sexual relationships?

Narrating other realities

The particular ways respondents’ testimonies are constructed as personal narratives in social research has received considerable interdisciplinary and sociological attention. The trend of what Denzin and Lincoln (2000) call ‘a narrative turn’ in the formulation of late modern story-telling has important implications for researching intergenerational sexualities. These include hermeneutics (the potentially multiple ways such individual narratives are interpreted), the socio-cultural and localised micro-terrains in which such accounts are produced, their epistemological status vis-à-vis dominant and marginalised power-knowledges, and the way such narratives are woven into the overall framework.

The present hegemonic status accorded to CSA researchers and professionals allows for the production of only negative scripts on intergenerational relationships / sexualities. However, for my research (conducted from 1999-2004) in the UK on ‘Male Age-Discrepant Intergenerational Sexualities and Relationships’ (see Yuill, 2004) I drew on the work of Gubrium and Holstein (1995). ‘New ethnography,’ so they argue, should open-up the possibility of multiple realities through ‘the active mediation of contrasting local perspectives, resources, and applications,’ coupled with a more substantive ‘appreciation of participants’ indigenous accounts, descriptions, and theories of their own lives’ (Gubrium and Holstein, 1995: 56). The research also adopted a grounded approach to qualitative research; providing both a descriptive and interpretivist focus (see Ward-Schofield, 1993: 202), and one which prioritises how individuals construct meaning as meaningful actors (see Burgess, 1990: 3 and Foddy, 1993: 15).

In order to recruit respondents who had a wide range of intergenerational experiences when they were under eighteen, I made approaches to a number of male survivor, gay and lesbian, and ‘general population’ groups, organisations and publications throughout Scotland and the UK via post, email and telephone (see Yuill, 2004: chapters 9-11). I have singled out the following interview with an individual (now in his forties) who, throughout his childhood and adolescence, experienced numerous sexual relationships with adult males to highlight the discrepancy in presenting respective stories on intergenerational relationships. Philip was alerted to the research by another respondent and contacted me by phone, explaining that he wanted to discuss his experiences with adult men when he was a boy.

The sexual attraction of children or young people to an adult has been defined as gerontophilia (see Sandfort, 1987: 31). However this term has almost vanished from the contemporary lexicon. Within gay communities, youths have been often categorised as “chickens”, and their older partners labelled “chicken hawks”. However, such labels have produced problematically stylised and reified notions of intergenerational sexual contacts without addressing the socio-sexual agency of young people, or self-appropriated meanings to define male youth attraction to older people. More recently the term “chaser” has been used to define boys or youths in the gay community seeking older partners.

The four sexual experiences of Philip (as a young boy through to adolescence) with older men are relayed here chronologically. Although differing subjective meanings on intergenerational sexualities are revealed in Philip’s account, they are not presented dichotomously as in CSA frameworks: that is in children bringing an emotional as opposed to an adult’s overtly sexualised script (Ferenczi, 1932). Philip relates his first experience as a learning experience seeing, and being excited by, the somatic changes brought on by the man’s subsequent ejaculation. Although he draws a distinction between the psychic and sexual in his recollection of the event, he defines this event as superior to peer sexual experimentation. Philip relays both physical and psychological excitement at the event, substantiating child libertarian claims that differences in subjective differences between adults and young people (in terms of understanding and needs in the intimate and sexual sphere) does not invalidate a relationship, or the possibility for a young person’s needs to be fulfilled.

Philip: My first arousal of adult men was when I was in Africa…It was just my curiosity was piqued and I noticed that he was washing his genitals. He started to get an erection…I was curious to explore his body further. About three or four days later I crept into his bedroom…I think he was fast asleep, and I started playing with his penis…I was just curious what an erection was. I think I’d experienced it a bit as a boy but they would come and go…and I certainly hadn’t seen anything as big as that…I was most excited by his sexual excitement. There was no sexual excitement for myself, it was just pure curiosity but he was clearly very aroused, and my touching him increased his arousal - that excited me more. I think it was just like childhood curiosity.

In Philip’s second experience there is more of a physical interchange, in which the man carried out particular sexual acts which excited him. Again, the initiative was shown by Philip who viewed it as furtive physical curiosity and playfulness.

Philip: There was a chap who lived in the apartment above ours called Paul…I got onto the bed with him and he just had his shorts on...He didn’t resist me, my advances to touch him and stroke him physically but he was a bit taken aback when I tried to feel his genitals.

Researcher: You mentioned the first experimentation, looking at men's erections. Can you recall the first time when you took it further, thinking about sexual activity?

Philip: Paul actually on one occasion - when I was playing around with him and he was masturbating - inserted his finger into my backside, which really did excite me!

At various points in the interview, Philip reflected on his childhood experiences. He sums up his sexual experiences with adult men as seduction by him, but firmly embedded within child understandings of sexuality. He lists these as less selfish, playful, pleasure seeking and less fearful of rejection, but also stressing the unavailability of labels to explain the activities he was involved in. This reinforces Dowsett’s (2000) claim that man-boy relationships are often exploratory, effectively taking place in ‘social lacunae’, in which a ‘sexual culture’ develops before any formal definition (p. 32).

Philip: Again, with time and sort of seduction, I suppose as a child it’s a conscious process but it isn’t quite as selfish as the sexuality as you experience as an older person. So there’s a genuine interest in making the other person get a response and make them happy or whatever. So I played around with them whenever I could…They probably weren’t gay men or pedophiles…I certainly didn’t have a name for them at that age…I think as a child you just learn to take such things in your stride…You don’t take a rejection of a physical advance quite so personally.

Philip characterises his third experience as a more overtly physically sexual friendship. He contrasts this with a later more mature, intimate and rounded relationship. He reiterates his assertiveness in initiating the initial encounters, coupled with his careful pre-planning of the event.

Philip: We had a next-door neighbour…and I was probably about nine-ten years old. He was going through a divorce, and I had got to know him quite well…I asked him if it would be okay if I stopped over for the night…I got into bed with him and started playing around with him. And at first he objected, but I just persevered and got him fully sexually aroused and was masturbating him and trying to get him to orgasm. Because that was my objective: to get men to achieve orgasm…I persuaded him that I liked to have my bottom played with…He loved my arse-hole. Of course that was my dream. And as our friendship - because it wasn't a relationship - developed, we would get more and more bold about inserting things into my backside.

Philip notes significant developmental somatic changes associated with stronger orgasms. Alongside greater excitement, he explains how carrying out sexual acts in public places gave him more power in the exchanges. Philip claims that he had control over his adult partner through the very process of initiation, whereby he could decide whether or not to initiate a sexual exchange. Rather than risk being construed as a negative debarment to adult-child sex, Philip views it as providing the impetus for a greater sexual thrill, in which he was able to appropriate a public space for his own needs.

Philip: Now I was twelve/thirteen, and I was definitely having much stronger sexual responses. I was having orgasms. I wasn’t ejaculating as far as I can remember at that time…I used to get him to do risky things like put his fingers inside me when we were at the swimming baths in the cubicle drying afterwards. That was quite a turn on - the fact that it was in such a public environment, and I think the power I had over him in the sexual department…I could wrap him round my finger to have sex. It was quite easily done, and it was me that made the advances…He just identified as a sexual man, and saw me as this curious boy who liked his arse being played with.

Res: Did he at any time give pleasure to you through masturbation?

Philip: I used to masturbate myself. He would occasionally do it but I wasn’t really interested in that. My orgasms came through being screwed, the friction of rubbing my body against the sheets. The masturbating element really developed from my playing with him but I could quite easily get orgasms from being buggered.

Philip draws sharp contrasts between the following experience, which he characterises as more of an emotional and cognitive connection including a greater symmetry of interests and experiences, and the former, which he views as purely physical. Although alluding to infrequent sexual contact, Philip considers learning from his adult partner, through acquiring knowledge and experience, as more important.

Philip: This was a much older man - in his mid-fifties. Whereas the neighbour was in his thirties - a very virile docker - the older man was much more intelligent, more cultured and the relationship between ourselves was far more cerebral. I’d go round, and we would read and listen to music…It was a more intelligent, mature relationship than the one I’d had with the docker, which had really been seduction on my part, very physical…This person didn’t have a huge penis unlike the docker, but that didn't bother me. This was a different relationship. We did things together, camping…[ ]… The friendship I had with the docker - the physical friendship - there was no sort of mental connection at all. I went round there purely to get my rocks off. But with the older bloke…I wanted to learn more about music, about literature. It was more of an intellectual side. It was very good and there was equally, if not more, stimulation from the intellectual side than the physical side. Maybe every couple of weeks we would have sex. It was just masturbatory sex.

Throughout, Philip emphasises the importance of his early familial and cultural context for scripting his early sexual experiences positively. He also positions himself through a libertarian sexual ethic of individual enrichment through empowerment. Philip also challenges dominant notions of age-appropriate interaction, by contending that the central component of his sexuality throughout his life course was a substantial attraction (physical, emotional and intellectual) to adult men as opposed to his peers.

Philip: I had a couple of friends, but because I was in and out of school my education was a bit all over the place…It was quite clearly men that interested me not younger boys at all…Their sexuality was - for want of a better term - now and for then…just playful and experimental but I wanted to push…I was pushing things further, but I never thought I was doing anything wrong. My parents - my mother especially - was quite liberated…I grew up in quite a wholesome and healthy environment, without physical and sexual inhibitions.

Philip alludes to wider social contrasts between his interests and attitudes and those of his peers, leading him to seek adult company, and participate in adult activities. Philip’s experience is concurrent with respondents in Leahy’s (1992) study, who identified a commonality of interests with their adult partner, alongside a conscious minimisation of adult-child boundaries, to explain their positive experiences. This was shared by a significant number of respondents in my own study who describe symmetry of interests with older people at a relatively early age, non-commensurate with their chronological age (see Yuill, 2004: chapter 9).

Philip: Because I was quite independent and didn’t have many friends…I had a different social attitude from my peers, different political attitudes through my grandparents. I was a socialist at seven or eight years old…So I developed a lot of personal interests in music, and I used to like cycling a lot, joining the Youth Hostel Association...and I joined the Red Cross.

In contrast to CSA formulations, Philip eschews victim status in intergenerational relationships. Although recognising physical power differences between adults and young people, he maintains that he was always able to distinguish consensual from coercive intergenerational experiences. In all of his encounters and relationships he saw himself as the active seducer and initiator. He also relates that throughout these experiences, a range of his own needs (physical, educational, emotional and social) were met. Philip’s account criss-crosses the mentor-child empowerment positions referred to in positive discursive presentations of intergenerational sexualities (see Yuill, 2004: chapter 1). Whereas there is a prominent theme of learning from his adult partners (commensurate with mentor-protégé conceptions), Philip also positions himself as an active initiator within such exchanges. Although mindful of physical power differences, he asserts that he was the one who had control throughout such situations, and knew exactly what he was doing.

Res: You mentioned that you always had an interest in adult men?

Philip: Yeah! I would say that from the age of seven onwards that my focus on sex and men have always been maturer men…in all the relationships and friendships I was involved in, I knew exactly what I was doing, and knew what I set out to do and was fully in control. And there were times as a boy, I travelled to and from school by train…and you would occasionally get old men into the apartment…Sometimes I’d get turned on by that and hope that something happened and I’d engineer a situation. I'd play with my crutch or something to see if they were watching at the corner of their eye but if ever a man made an approach on me that would terrify me…I had to at all times be the seducer and initiator, and I think that was right and proper because I was a child and I knew my circumstances, I knew I was smaller and they were bigger and stronger men and I knew what rape was, and knew what physical assault was, and I wasn’t going to let that happen to me…It never happened to me!

This final contribution from Philip shows up both specific and general reasons for the inability of such positive voices to effectively communicate their opinions (see Yuill, 2004; chapter nine). The way he relays how his account was reinterpreted by the commentator, is similar to professional techniques of reconfiguring positive accounts to identify as victims. Whereas Plummer (1995: 118) explains the inability of the paedophile’s story to be told through the lack of any willing audience, Philip’s narrative highlights the way positive accounts from young people of intergenerational relationships are censored.

Philip: There was a radio discussion with an American sex abuse industry commentator Michelle Elliott and there was a…BBC journalist and she was going on about children’s rights…So I said, fuck this, I’m going to phone up and explain that as a child I was quite happy to have sex and I actively sought sex!…I got through and I explained to the switchboard and I got on and said my bit in ten seconds, and Michelle Elliott immediately cut in saying, kill the caller, and went on to say this is a perfect example - you can’t speak after they’ve cut you off - of how a child has grown up to believe that what he was doing was his own free will but really he was being manipulated by adults. And I couldn’t say a word. Nobody could hear me now. I was pissed off!

Theorising the state of play

Clearly, Philip’s narrative cannot be analysed outside available cultural discourses as Waites maintains in a recent work (Waites, 2005). He refers to Reavey and Warner’s 2002 post-sructuralist analysis of CSA, in which the authors claim that many children’s initial positive experiences will likely be reframed as abuse in latter life, due to the latter’s predominance on the cultural landscape (Waites, 2005: 27). Waites claims that such ‘complexities confound arguments such as those of Rind, Bauserman and Tromovich which seek to justify sexual behaviour involving a child purely on the basis that it is experienced positively by both parties at the time and has no immediate clear negative psychological consequences’ (p. 27).

However Waites misrepresents Rind, Bauserman and Tromovich, as many of the studies they drew on for their Meta–Analysis were based primarily on retrospective self-reporting of respondents, not children at the time of their experience (see Rind et al., 1998). More significantly in the context of this paper, Waites also construes the socio-cultural framing of CSA tautologically. Victimological perspectives have an undoubted hegemonic position in the framing of intergenerational experiences throughout Anglo-American cultural. However, this fact should not: accredit undue privileging to just one subjectivity; prevent a critique of that very hegemony; or condone censoring alternative theorising and narrating on child and intergenerational sexualities.

Foucault (1978: 97) claimed that due to the fact that sexuality acts as a significantly dense transfer point on account of its strategic importance as a foundation for knowledge on bodily functions, it will inevitably be a prime target for the application of a multitude of ‘anxious gazes’ that are exerted on sex. He also highlighted the importance of children’s sexuality to modern forms of power - a point further strengthened by the rapid proliferation in the different types of professional and academic expertise and knowledge on child and youth sexuality since Foucault’s death (Stainton Rogers and Stainton Rogers, 1992).

The body of the child, under surveillance, surrounded in his cradle, his bed, or his room by an entire watch-crew of parents, nurses, servants, educators, and doctors…has constituted, particularly since the 18th century, another local centre of power-knowledge (Foucault, 1978: 98).

The above context has clearly provided a fertile context for the sequestration of non-victimological experiences of intergenerational sexualities. The CSA literature has an extensive back catalogue of such strategies. For example, Glaser and Frosh (1993: 7) argue that there is no need to specify the power dynamics in CSA, as adult-child sex ‘always designates an exploitation of power’, which differentiates it ‘from other forms of sexual encounter and can never be anything but abuse’. Finkelhor (1991: 314) has likened positive accounts of intergenerational experiences to slavery and child labour. The apparent logic for invoking these dubious analogues for Finkelhor is that such accounts do not contradict the immorality of these practices. CSA proponents have also been accused of carrying their prejudices over into the actual presentation of research findings. For example, Finkelhor has been criticised for deliberately excluding positive accounts from his 1981 study (see Leahy, 1996: 32).

Professional management of CSA has also reinforced the above practices, with no opportunities for positive experiences to be accepted as valid (see Yuill, 2004: 346). As Hunter (1990) states, ‘just because some people wouldn’t agree that it is abusive doesn’t mean that it isn’t’ (p. 4), and ‘even if the child enjoyed all aspects of the relationship physically and emotionally, abuse still took place’ (p. 62). Other contributors conclude that adult-child sexual interaction can be defined as abusive regardless of the intent of the perpetrator or the opinions of the victim (Lew and Bass, 1990).

Why young people need to be victims in CSA discursive systems

Although addressing different facets of this issue, Kincaid (1992) highlights the way both CSA ideology and dominant cultural depictions of childhood require a passive, infantilised and empty depiction of children and young people. He suggests the ‘proliferation of categories and numbers to mark them [children] with’, constitute a ‘tactic for defining childhood’ as ‘a kind of purity, an absence and an incapacity, an inability to know’ (p. 70). Kincaid (1998: 212) also provocatively claims that ‘paedophiles and us aren’t much different: both of us really yearn for this empty, incompetent “child” and if we don't find it, we know…how to manufacture it’.

Kitzinger (1997) outlines how ‘images of frightened children’, deployed in CSA literature, rely on a 'fetishistic glorification of innocence’ which ‘excludes those who do not conform to an asexual ideal’ (p. 165), denying them ‘access to knowledge and power’ (p. 167). In an earlier contribution, she criticises the way CSA markets images of children as passive, consequently stigmatising ‘knowing’ children, but also commodifing sexual innocence in the form of an ideology (Kitzinger, 1988: 77). Kitzinger argues that young people are kept increasingly more dependent in late modernity, but disavows reductionist positions which assume they are helpless and therefore require protection, and contemporary child protection individualist solutions, which create illusions of power rather than any genuine empowerment strategies (p. 82, 83).

These insights go a substantial way to explaining why children and young people must remain helpless and disempowered dupes in CSA frameworks, and why positive accounts cannot be given any substantive weight in subjectivist-based theorising. Furthermore, they provide a more convincing lens for analysing the construction of CSA accounts than Waites’ (2005) position referred to earlier. Rather than simply accepting that researchers or theorists need to take on board that individuals in intergenerational relationships will inevitably adopt available cultural discourses, they create the potential for initiating a critical interrogation of those very discourses. This includes the privileged position held by CSA in the framing of intergenerational experiences, whereby children and young people (this also includes retrospective reflecting on that experience as an adult) must compulsorily assume the status of disempowered victims.

Reinvesting in the subjective

Leahy criticises the way professional discourses on intergenerational relationships ‘can lead to the younger person feeling stigmatised and defining their relationship in terms of that stigma’. A number of researchers have also noted a significant, and on occasion, substantial discrepancy between the actual findings of CSA researchers and the language, conceptual tools and theorising they employ (Okami, 1991; Leahy, 1992; Rind et al., 1998; West, 1998; Yuill, 2004). Despite recognition, even amongst CSA researchers, of a continuum of experiences in intergenerational sexualities (Coxell, King, Mezey, and Gordon, 1999), this has not been translated into a permitted subjectivity. Instead, differential responses are inscribed within CSA discursive systems via a series of strategies in which non-victimological accounts of intergenerational sexualities from young people are either marginalized or dismissed through familiar formulaic explanations. These include the consequences of a “victim” being “duped” by their abuser, hegemonic male socialisation patterns consistent with patriarchical values or medical-psychiatric and psychoanalytical explanations of “denial.”

These strategies are curiously similar to those identified in backlash discourses identified by CSA theorists (Scott, 2001). Scott accuses writers such as Jenkins of undermining survivor accounts of ritual CSA through prioritising medical-psychiatric FMS (False Memory Syndrome) claims. Perhaps not surprisingly (due to the predominance of victimological sentiments in academic circles), this criticism has not be taken up with regard to the way non-victim and positive accounts have been similarly marginalized, medicalised, or insensitively dismissed. This point has been made by Rind et al. (2001: 750) when they argue, [o]ur critics, and many CSA researchers, have had no difficulty accepting reports of negative experiences at face value, but have selectively denied any validity to reports of positive experiences and seek to discount them as the result of processes such as denial…[ ]…To our knowledge, no one has systematically studied the sorts of pressures that might exist on individuals to redefine experiences initially seen as positive.

The dominance of conventional victimological thinking has led to a situation in which transgressive subject positions of young people who do not identify themselves as victims in intergenerational relationships have been consciously ignored. It has also produced (through professional, media and academic dissemination) a “hierarchy of agencies” which automatically confers victim-based accounts with a higher status than alternative narratives, which are heavily marginalised. Furthermore, the hegemonic status accorded to professionals managing CSA, allows for the production of singularly negative scripts. Furthermore, CSA researchers and professionals have created the conceptual tools and environment, in which survivor accounts receive no such criticism, and are accredited unmediated status.

The earlier insights provided by Kincaid and Kitzinger on the key foundations underpinning victimoloical ideology on childhood (unknowing and passivity) only partially explains the discrepant lens for analysing accounts of intergenerational relationships. Another crucial aspect is the inability and unwillingness of such perspectives to countenance alternative, empowered notions of children and young peoples’ rights. For example, key proponents of maintaining the injunctions on intergenerational sexualities (Finkelhor, 1984; Alcoff, 1996; and Wyre 1996) all claim to be facilitating the development of young people's sexual difference by protecting them from adult impositions. However, this position itself imposes a politically normative schema on the direction young peoples’ sexuality should take, failing to facilitate the very autonomy and self-determination, which they assert should be the central aim in child protection measures.

Whereas Adams (1994: 349) may be too optimistic in ushering in a situation where sex is not perceived as something young people need to be protected from, it is further along such a continuum that future sexual agendas need to traverse. Adopting such a possible makes possible what Kincaid (1998: 290) calls new ways ‘of imagining new actions and new beings’ on the construction of child and intergenerational sexualities. This would involve developing a more agentic approach to children and young peoples’ socio-sexual rights which could include: a greater appreciation of the differing contexts in which intergenerational relationships takes place; recognising the potential for a continuum of meanings and motivations; and greater sensitivity to the impact of societal intervention and labelling.


The case study of intergenerational sexualities suggests that the ‘turn to the subjective’ has not provided enhanced plural possibilities, but has in fact reproduced new epistemic regimes of truth. Subsequent approaches do no need to throw out the “subjectivist baby” with the “positivist bathwater”. Substantial criticisms of positivism can be retained such as materialist concerns over unequal access to resources including the power of those funding research, attention to the interstices of age, sexuality, gender, class, and racial oppression, and a range of miscellaneous constraints (such as career threats and media harassment) on the ability to conduct critical research on CSA and intergenerational sexualities.

Critical approaches to the position of young peoples’ citizenship claims can provide useful insights for examining young peoples’ sexual rights outside protectionist frameworks, whilst taking seriously more radical empowerment agendas, which can provide the context for an extension to children and young peoples’ sexual citizenship and more radical conceptions of consent.


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Author: Richard Yuill, PhD

The author has recently completed his PhD on ‘Male Age Discrepant Intergenerational Sexualities and Relationships’. He has taught at the University of Glasgow and Cumbernauld College, and is currently involved in independent research on age, sexuality and masculinity.

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