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Title: The Study of Intergenerational Intimacy in North America: Beyond Politics and Pedophilia
Author(s): Gerald Jones
Affiliation: Institute for the Study of Women and Men in Society, University of Southern California
Citation: Jones, G., “The Study of Intergenerational Intimacy in North America: Beyond Politics and Pedophilia,” Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 20, nos. 1-2, 1990, pp. 275-295.


Intergenerational intimacy, social as well as sexual, has been studied in the United States and abroad for some time. In recent years the general trend has been to label such behavior "child sexual abuse." Interest in this type of abuse has generated a considerable amount of more or less scientific literature, some of which seems to have been produced in a "rush to judgment" attempt to build a "professional" literature that supports popular beliefs. This tradition of child-abuse-defined literature, along with the work of investigative and helping agencies which some refer to as a "child abuse industry," has fostered a one-sided, simplistic picture of intergenerational intimacy. A close look at the empirical studies in this tradition reveals flaws associated with two problems: the studies nearly always (1) maintain a narrow focus on sexual contact, and (2) proceed from the related basic assumption that sexual contact in intergenerational relationships by definition constitutes abuse. While sexual abuse certainly occurs, those who apply this assumption to all situations are ignoring empirical findings that show otherwise. Research outside the "child sexual abuse" tradition reveals a broader range of intergenerational relationships outside the family, including a number of aspects which typically are not seen when the focus is on the sexual. Some studies show clearly that even when sexual contact is involved, negative outcomes are not inevitable. This indicates the need for a much broader approach. Further research in North American society and in other cultures would help us to understand more accurately the diversity and possible benefits of intergenerational intimacy.


This article criticizes CSA research on several grounds. First, the author writes that much of the existing literature examines intergenerational relationships because they involve sexual behavior. As a result, the focus is on the sexual behavior alone, as if no other aspect of the relationships were important. Thus, men attracted to boys are rendered one-dimensional, interested in sex but not in love; just as homosexuals were once (and still often are) stereotyped.

Secondly, the widening scope of what is labeled as abuse is problematic. Kissing, non-genital caressing, affection thought to be excessive or inappropriate, and touching any part of a child's body—clothed or unclothed—with sexual “intent" have all been categorized as sexual abuse.

The author writes that mutuality and control distinguish intergenerational intimacy from true abuse. Because children in incestuous situations are unable to leave them and therefore have little or no control, such situations are much more likely to be abusive. On the other hand, because older children (especially males) tend to need and draw on role models from outside of the family, "same-sex intergenerational intimacy may be developmentally functional," he writes.

Definitional lapses between the scientific and legal realms add to the confusion. Because the law regards everyone below the age of consent as unable to consent to sexual activity, the literature simply follows suit, with no distinction made between pre-pubescents and adolescents. Even if the law fails to make a distinction between a sexual affair involving an adult and a teenager and the sexual interaction of an adult and a five-year-old, the standards of research should require investigators to do so.

Child sexual abuse is defined so broadly that scientific precision is lost, and studies cannot be compared or replicated. In almost any area other than CSA, an inability to replicate a study's findings obviously means that those findings are suspect.

The author describes a study which asked subjects the loaded question: "As a child, were you ever sexually abused?" If a person had sex with an adult that was pleasurable, he or she would have to answer 'No' or re-evaluate the experience and label it as abuse.

Thirdly, the child sexual abuse literature typically assumes that any sexual contact with an adult is emotionally traumatic and causes damage that often extends well into adulthood. However, this is not at all an established conclusion in the scientific literature. The author writes that the originators of the CSA literature in the 1970s ignored earlier studies which found that there was often no harm in the sexual contact per se (although harm often resulted from reactions by others), just as today CSA researchers continue to ignore current studies with similar findings.

Some of the research dealing with child sexual abuse may be conducted for the secondary purpose of justifying existing or proposed law enforcement activities and therapeutic approaches, not for primary purposes of adding to professional knowledge regarding human behavior…[Articles contain] sensationalized detail from isolated, non-typical case studies. Those few that are empirical frequently gather their information from small samples of incarcerated or court-referred adults or children. The use of research designs without control samples is common. Many of these features are virtually identical with the literature before 1970 dealing with homosexuality. (pp. 280-281)

In addition, the current cultural climate makes child sexuality research extremely difficult. Conditions are similar to those in 1948 when the FBI monitored Alfred Kinsey following the publication of his landmark study. More recently, researchers investigating child pornography have had their data seized, impeding a full understanding of this area.

The discouragement of certain types of research does not come only from outside the profession. The first way in which professional and scientific integrity is eroded is perhaps the most astounding and involves the direct and conscious abandonment of science itself. By asserting his personal belief that children inherently cannot consent to sex with adults, Finkelhor insists that any empirical evidence to the contrary is irrelevant and is to be totally discounted.

The author concludes:

Feminists rightly condemn the use of male power whenever it is used to maintain male dominance, and many see parallels between sexual adult-child contacts and the rape of adolescent or adult women. The available research, however, fails to support this position. Even explicitly sexual pedophilia--particularly homosexual (i.e., man-boy) contact--rarely involves the use of force or violence. The few studies done outside institutional settings suggest that such relationships can exist without the exercise of any manipulative power on the part of the adult. (pp. 286-287)
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