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Title: Boys on their contacts with men: A study of sexually expressed friendships
Author(s): Theodorus Sandfort
Affiliation: Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands
Citation: Sandfort, T., Boys on their contacts with men: A study of sexually expressed friendships, New York: Global Academic Publishers, 1987.


This book was based on the findings of a study conducted in 1980 and 1981 at The Sociological Institute of the State University, Utrecht and made possible by a grant from the Praeventiefonds and the Netherlands Society for Sexual Reform.


The book begins with definitions of terms, as well as brief descriptions of pedophiles and their relationships. Based on Dutch law, the author defines children to be those under 16, although such a definition admittedly has the disadvantage of including a wide range of maturity levels.

In line with the Dutch Ad-hoc Pedophile Workgroup, pedophiles are defined as adults who have feelings of attraction for those under 16, and who perceive these feelings as an essential part of their inner life. According to the author, in addition to sexual attraction, these feelings include an intense interest in what children think and do and the ways in which they experience the world around them.

[The Dutch definition contrasts with North American usage, in which pedophiles are defined as those primarily attracted to children who have not yet entered puberty. Thus this study in fact involves both pedophiles and ephebophiles. –R.K.]

A distinction is made between pedophilia and pedosexuality, the latter referring to any sexual contact between children and adults, not only those that involve pedophiles. For example, some adults have sex with children not due to feelings of attraction, but due to the unavailability of other adults, or because they commit incest, which is a very different phenomenon from pedophilia.

The author defines abuse to be the adult's misuse of power or use of some other method to compel the child to have sex with him. He writes:

Until now almost all research has been grounded on the premise that sex between adult and child is a form of abuse. The terms used make this clear: the adult is the 'perpetrator' and the child the 'victim.' Without denying that sexual abuse of children by adults does happen, it seems to us that both the premise and the terminology are biased. The same might be said of some of the terms we have used, such as 'relationship', 'partners' and 'friendship.' Nevertheless we are of the opinion that first one must establish whether abuse really is present in a particular sexual contact; one should always ask oneself whether such descriptive words as 'perpetrator' and 'victim' are appropriate or whether they needlessly stigmatize the people involved. In any case, our terminology conforms more closely to the experiential world of the adults and children interviewed in this research. (p. 34)

Characteristics of pedophiles and pedophile relationships

The author questions the belief, based on clinical and criminological research, that pedophilia is associated with certain personality characteristics, disorders, or pathologies:

Psychiatric literature has played an important role in establishing this misconception: in it one reads that pedophilia occurs in regressive personalities who are frightened of sexual contact with women and have not sufficient social skills to be able to get along with adults. Such stereotyping is completely without empirical support. There is no research which justifies any kind of type-casting of 'the' pedophile, assuming such research would even be possible.

Pedophiles [and ephebophiles] seek and develop many varieties of relationships with children [those under 16]—some sexual, and some not. Sex may not occur because the adult finds the child does not want it or because he thinks it would be too risky. The contact between the adult and child can be frequent, sporadic, or occur in pulses.

Some relationships are monogamous, while others are not. Sometimes the man is a friend of the parents, and contacts take place mostly in the child's home. The mutual emotional involvement varies from relationship to relationship and between the man and the boy. The feeling of attraction may not be the same in both the man and the boy. Expectations between the man and the boy may or may not be clear, and they may not even coincide.

The study

In 1980, 20 men who were sexually involved with boys were found through the Dutch Society for Sexual Reform. The men ranged in age from 26 to 66. Two were married, two were divorced, and the rest were unmarried. They were relatively well educated, holding advanced professional credentials. Two of them were attracted to girls as well as boys. Twelve had had conflicts with the law. The men were fairly advanced in the process of self-acceptance, and in most ways, were similar to pedophiles who had been previously studied in the Netherlands.

These 20 men were instructed to ask the boys in their relationships to participate in the study. Five of these men were involved with two boys each, resulting in 25 boys for the study. They ranged in age from 10 to 16. Most lived at home with one or both parents; one lived with the man.

The object of the study was to investigate exactly how the boys felt about these relationships, and to determine whether from the boy's point of view, consensual and pleasurable sexual contacts with adults could take place.

The boys were interviewed using the self-confrontation method, in which each boy tried to define the most important factors in his life. The interviewer asked the boy how often he experienced certain positive and negative feelings in connection with each factor. The interviewer asked about the man, the sexual contact, and the pleasant and unpleasant sides of that contact. This interview took 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

The interview was conducted in a location comfortable to the boy, usually in the home of the man, but sometimes in the boy's home. No one else was present during the interview. The men were also interviewed separately. A second interview with each boy, about a half hour long, was then conducted to investigate certain aspects more deeply.

At the time of the interviews, the relationships had been going on for 2 months to 5 years. In most relationships, the boy visited the man at his house weekly to daily. In twelve relationships, the boy slept at the man's home regularly.

The results of this study cannot be generalized to girls, nor to all boys who have sexual contacts with men, since the men and boys in this study were self-selected. In particular, the findings of this study cannot apply to boys who are coerced to participate in sexual activity.


The author writes that even though non-pedagogic friendships between adult and children are socially unacceptable, the boys and men in this study were able to conduct them. Contrary to stereotype, which holds that adult-child sexual relationships can only occur with bribes, interviews with the boys revealed that reality was much more complex. The boys often took some initiative toward establishing these relationships.

The boys met the men through other boys, through their parents, or through other pedophiles. Sometimes they met at public places. Sometimes it was the man who initiated further contact; sometimes it was the boy. In a few cases, the boy went through great lengths to find the man. Two boys met the men through their mothers’ involvement in the Dutch Society for Sexual Reform.

According to the author, the friendship usually developed over time. One of the reasons the boys developed and maintained these relationships was because they enjoyed doing things with the men. The man and the boy had similar hobbies, or spent time together playing sports or games, eating meals or snacks, going to movies or amusement parks, or going on vacations.

The boys took great pleasure in these activities, and said that giving attention was what most typified the man's behavior. The attention was often expressed physically, as in cuddling.

Trust, loyalty, and friendship developed between the man and boy. The boys often described the man's home as friendly, relaxed, and fun. They felt at ease there, and felt they had more freedom than at home.

Many boys said the men understood them and that they could talk with the man about everything—their worries and problems—and receive emotional support. One boy described his relationship as a "special bond." The boys also felt they could learn from the men—develop a skill or talent, learn about society and life, or learn about sex.

A few boys said they felt neglected by their parents, but most described positive relationships with parents, saying they got along well with them and could talk with them about their problems. Thus, the author concluded that it is incorrect to assume that all children who enter into pedophile relationships do so due to neglect or other problems with parents.

However, there were a few situations where parents were divorced, unwed, or unable or unwilling to provide for their children's material or emotional needs, and the man provided "a welcome supplement….In such relationships the dependence of the younger partner is greater. As a result a strong interpersonal bond can develop between the two."

On the other hand, in the homes where the environment seemed more positive, there was more chance that the parents were aware of the sexual aspect of their son's relationship, which thus became more integrated into the boy's home life. In these cases, the relationship had “a kind of 'surplus' significance.”

Most of the boys felt attracted to the men emotionally but not physically, usually revealing a heterosexual orientation. They frequently mentioned friendship and intimacy. A few boys used the word "love" to describe their feelings. One 14 year old said, "We send each other letters, cards, packages, and so on....I feel just wonderful with Albert: here is someone who really cares about me; he knows me and I know him; we have no secrets from each other."

The boys expressed many positive and few negative feelings for the men. Half of the boys said the men were the most pleasant person they knew, and 10 said they were the most important, while 11 said their parents were the most important.

Five of the boys were very involved with the men, who, according to the author, were extremely important in determining the boys' sense of well-being. Thus the relationships were an important part of the boys’ experiential world, and ending them would have had "far-reaching negative consequences for these five boys." The relationships were less important for the other 20 boys.

Overall, the author found the motives of the boys in these relationships to be similar to those all humans have for seeking personal relations with each other. He writes: "The boys found sex a pleasurable aspect of their friendship, but it certainly does not seem to have been their most important reason for maintaining it—this is sharp contrast to the assumption of many people that pedophile relationships are exclusively sexual."

Sexual activity

According to the author, not all pedophile relationships are sexually expressed, but those in this study were. What the men and what the boys told the interviewer separately about the occurrence of sex were in almost total agreement.

In about one-third of the relationships, sex occurred at the first meeting; in another third, it occurred shortly after the first meeting; and in the other third it occurred after a month or more, when meetings had become frequent. Thus, in some but not other relationships, sexual intimacy developed out of the relationship.

The men and the boys did not always agree on who took the initiative toward the first sexual contact. In almost half of the cases, the boy said the man took the initiative. Five of the boys couldn't remember who initiated sex, four boys said they themselves initiated it, two said it was mutual, and three said the initiative came from a third party.

The boys who did take the initiative appeared to have already had sexual experience with other pedophiles, knew of another boy in a pedophile relationship, or knew about the pedophile feelings of the man. A number of boys pointed to their own sexual inexperience when they said that "of course" the man took the initiative.

After the first sexual encounter, both men and boys indicated the boys took a more active role in further sexual interaction. Initiative was usually mutual or alternated. When asked who initiated sexual activity, a 12 year old boy responded, "Well, sometimes one of us, sometimes the other. Yes, and sometimes he wants it and I don't, so then we don't do it. Mostly I'm the first one to begin."

The most common sexual activity was masturbation. In every case, the man masturbated the boy, and in most cases the boy masturbated the man. Sometimes, both masturbated themselves in each others' company. Oral-genital sex also took place in most relationships--the man performed it on the boy, and in 14 cases the boy reciprocated.

Oral-anal sex occurred in 7 of the relationships, with the man always performing it on the boy, never the reverse. In six relationships, anal penetration took place, but not very often. In five cases the boy penetrated the man, in two cases the reverse occurred.

The author concluded that sexual acts that the boys considered more intimate and advanced occurred in fewer relationships. When there was a lack of reciprocity in the sex acts, the man always did more for the boy than what the man himself wanted from the boy, and the man restrained himself in confronting the boy with his adult sexuality. The boys determined how far they wished to go in their sexual contacts and the men left the boys free to do so.

According to the men, more than half the boys participated actively in sexual activity, six boys were passive, and five were both active and passive. The reasons given by the men for passivity of some boys was their young age and their heterosexual orientation. Those who were active tended to be more physically mature.

Feelings about sexual activity

The men said many of the boys enjoyed the fact that sex gave them pleasure, excitement, adventure, and an opportunity to experiment and learn. Eight men, however, said that the boys were seeking pleasure through physical affection (caressing, cuddling, being held, and being treated tenderly) moreso than through sex.

According to the men, eight of the boys were seeking security, warmth, and attention. Three said the boy experienced an affirmation of his sense of self. Three men said the boys enjoyed sex because of the friendship or love they experienced through it. The author commented that similar motives can be found in non-pedophile sexual contact.

When the boys were asked what feelings they associated with sexual activity, they most commonly expressed pleasurable ones such as "nice," "happy," "free," "safe," and "satisfied." Less common were "proud" and "strong." They described sexual activity as "cozy," "really wonderful," “great,” and "expressing your love physically and emotionally."

Except for one boy, unpleasant feelings were much less common. In fact, when asked about unpleasant sides of sex, 10 of the 25 boys could not think of any even after repeated questioning. The others mentioned that they occasionally but rarely experienced negative feelings, which included not being in the mood, feeling lonely, or worrying that they were gay.

Some boys mentioned things they disliked about the man: his prickly beard, his bad breath, his occasional bad mood, or his tendency to tell bad jokes. Two boys mentioned a few times when they had felt angry because the man did something sexual they did not want. Several of the boys expressed negative feelings (anger, embarrassment, fear, or feeling naughty) related to the disapproval of their parents and others or to the need to hide the relationship.

However, according to the author, compared to the positive feelings, the negative feelings had little influence on the way the boys experienced the sexual contacts or on their general sense of well-being.

The exception to this was one boy who was 10 years old; he had as many negative as positive feelings associated with the sexual activity. His negative feelings included anger, shyness, naughtiness, and dislike. He said he enjoyed non-sexual physical contact such as cuddling more than sexual contact.

All but one of the boys found their emotional involvement in the sexual contact to be important; for several it was among the more important elements in their lives. The author wrote that interviews with the boys showed no cases in which the sexual contact had a negative influence on the boy's general sense of well-being, but some cases where it had a positive influence.

One boy, who in contrast to the others experienced no feelings of love or intimacy, stopped the sexual interaction with the man when he began an affair with a girl. He said about his sexual contact with the man, “It felt nice, but everything else about it wasn’t so good….Now I know what it’s like with girls, and for me that’s much better….Love’s involved.”

Power difference

Commentators have said that abuse of power occurs in adult-minor sexual activity through the adult's exploitation of the minor's "ambivalence," the giving of gifts, the inculcation of distorted norms, the act of seduction, emotional manipulation, or the use of physical or verbal coercion.

The boys were asked about how the power difference acted in their relationships. They responded that the man's behavior was predominantly positive. They felt the man paid attention to them during sex, was considerate of them, and worked together with them.

One boy said, "If he has some special desire he asks me if I want to do it too, and if I don't for some reason, he says, 'okay,' that's fine by him. And if I do want to do it we go ahead." Another boy said, "I never play the boss. We're both bosses: bosses of our own bodies."

Four boys said they experienced slightly negative behavior from the man a few times; the boys felt left in the lurch, made fun of, or coerced. There were occasional situations where the man annoyed the boy by nagging him for sex when he didn't want it. One boy felt he should give in because the man did so much for him.

However, others made it clear that they would make sure their wishes were respected. Even those four who experienced negative behavior felt that positive behavior predominated. Overall, the boys felt that the men's behavior toward them during sex was similar to their behavior at other times.

Two boys admitted exerting their power over the man. One said he occasionally coerced the man by nagging him for a sexual act, and another said he withheld sex if the man wouldn't let him stay up late and watch TV.

The author wrote,

These findings do not support the common assumption of power abuse in pedophile relations...The idea that the boys were unable to recognize power abuse is quite untenable, for they were obviously able to spot it in other adults with whom they interacted...From what the boys said, it was apparent that crude abuse of power simply did not occur. However, there could be situations in which a kind of subtle misuse of power could arise. (pp. 93-94)

According to the author, power and inequality play a role in every kind of human interaction—among adults and between adults and children in non-sexual relationships. However, it is true that the adult is bigger, stronger, more knowledgeable, and higher in status. Thus, if the child is emotionally and materially dependent on the adult, the power difference is very large. This is one reason why incest is quite different from pedophilia. The power differential is less in the case of pedophilia; if the child wishes to end contact with the pedophile, he can simply stay away.

The author writes that power is rarely absolute. It is limited by the capacity of both people, and in many relationships, one person has more power with respect to some things and the other person more power with respect to other things. The division of power develops through negotiation. Other writers have claimed that what is important is how much each person profits from the relationship.

According to the author, the child in a pedophile relationship has power too: staying away from the adult deprives the latter of contact which is hard to replace. In addition, the need for secrecy makes the adult dependent on the child not to divulge, giving the latter power which he may use. In fact, some children in pedophile relationships have used this power to get the adults to indulge them.

How the power is used is central to an understanding of power and inequality, the author writes. There are significant differences among the existence of power, the use of power, and the misuse of power. If the adult considers only his own feelings and not those of the child, then he is misusing his power. In addition, it is a misuse of power for the adult to reward the child for allowing sexual contact, or make him feel guilty for withholding it.

Thus, according to the author, in theory it is possible for the adult not to misuse his power. The child must be free at any moment to withdraw from the situation and the relationship. The pedophile must not allow the child to become dependent. The author concludes that "The mere existence of power difference is a poor reason to make a blanket condemnation of all such relationships,” but he admits that some researchers question whether it is possible for a pedophile relationship to rest upon freedom, mutuality, and camaraderie.

Effects of the opinions of others

The study next examined the influence of other people’s opinions on the boys’ relationships. The need for secrecy could be a heavy burden for the boys, as could the fact that the sexual relationship was considered "deviant." Thus it was difficult for the boys not to have someone to talk to openly about their sexual relationships.

In most cases, the boys’ parents were aware of the friendships their sons had with the men, but were unaware of their sexual aspect. In other cases, the parents were unaware of the relationship altogether. However, one boy's mother was aware of the sexual nature of the relationship and allowed it to continue, having read an article about pedophilia in a weekly national Dutch magazine which generally viewed most manifestations of sexuality positively.

According to the boys, most of the parents would disapprove if they knew the relationship was sexual. They would consider it "dirty" or "strange," and call the man a "pervert." Several boys thought their fathers would assault the man. One said his parents would fear the sex would turn him into a homosexual. However, other boys thought their parents would not find the relationship too objectionable.

Some called their parents' disapproval "old-fashioned" or "stupid." Some of these boys, however, respected the attitudes of their parents, although they still thought they should have the right to decide for themselves what they did. Some of the boys wished they could be open with their parents about the relationship. Two boys feared the end of the relationship if their parents found out.

In a few cases, the boy or the man suspected the parents knew about the sex. When the parents asked if it was taking place, the boys either said no or avoided answering the question, and their parents left them alone. The boys felt it was none of their parents’ business.

According to one man, the mother said she didn't want to know what they did together. In another case, only the boy's mother knew about the relationship, and the boy suspected she knew it was sexual, but she did not discuss it with the father.

About one-third of the parents were aware of the sex and the relationship, and according to both the men and the boys the parents accepted it, except for one case. Four boys were very happy that their parents knew and accepted it. The parents were never interviewed, however they granted permission for their sons to be interviewed.

The author wrote that the secrecy of most of the boys was similar to that of young people in general, who seldom say much to parents about their affairs and sexual experiences, but are more willing to talk about them with peers.

Eight of the 25 boys said they had peers who know about their sexual relationships; five of these peers had had sex with men too. One boy was occasionally called "queer" as a result of other boys' knowledge, another knew there was talk going on behind his back but ignored it, and two others said their peers' and teachers' disapproval was wrong and none of their business. One boy stood up to his friends when they called the man names, and told the interviewer "It's completely normal—anyone can become a pedophile."

The other 17 boys said none of their peers knew about the relationship. Many thought their friends would not understand, would think it was "crazy," "dirty," or "strange," or would call them "gay." Three boys weren't sure how their friends would react.

Whether their peers knew about the sex or not, many of the boys said their friends' negative attitudes were stupid and based on ignorance. One said, "I know what goes on—those boys don't...they haven't the faintest idea what it's really like." Another said, "They're always saying [pedophiles] are child molesters, and they think they're rapists. They don't know anything."

Some of the boys understood their friends' disapproval. Four said their friends would find it less strange if they had some experience themselves. One said, "The first time I thought it was sort of dirty, too...If they'd just do it once themselves they'd talk a whole lot different about it, I think. They'd say it's great!"

Another said, "There are a lot of Catholics around here and in the church they are always telling you it's bad so a lot of them believe it is bad." The boys seemed to find it easier to be independent of their friends' ideas than of their parents'.

About opinions of others in general, one boy said, “What difference does it make to anyone else if I have sex with someone, that’s what I want to know. It’s not up to them to decide what I want and what I don’t want.” When asked about other people trying to stop such relationships, another said, “I don’t know why they do that, because it seems to me I’m the one involved. I have to decide whether I think it’s nice or whether I don’t. Still they make problems about it.”

Importance of the boys’ perspective

Structuring the interviews according to the self-confrontation method disposes of the objection that what the boys said doesn’t necessarily match what they really did or thought. According to the author, the boys were not just repeating what the men told them. Their words were spontaneous, genuine, and internally consistent. They didn’t seem to be hiding anything, and they freely expressed their negative impressions about the men and their doubts about what they were doing.

It is important to take seriously what children say when they have been sexually abused. Similarly, it is prejudicing the situation to take them seriously in that case but to dismiss what they say if it does not conform to current conceptions of childhood and childhood sexuality. It is, however, necessary to remember that some boys come to view their experiences differently as they grow older.

There will be boys who later appreciate the experience with the man and maintain the bond with him after the erotic relationship ends. There will also be boys who later change their minds and even regret the relationship. In both cases, amalgamating the experience into one’s personal history is made difficult by society’s abhorrence of it. Much literature shows that if the sexual relationship comes to light, the reaction of adults, especially parents, will determine the effect on the child.

The conclusions of this study were not meant to be generalizable to all children who have sex with adults. Certainly they do not apply to cases involving incest, younger children, females, or a clear abuse of power. The author writes, “It would be absurd to conclude from this study that every child likes having sex with adults…This investigation does, however, permit us to say that there are children who, without having many problems, enjoy friendships with adults and the sex which takes place within them.”

The fact that these boys had positive experiences does not mean that such experiences are necessarily good for them. The long-term consequences of a child’s consensual sexual experiences are not unknown. Much research on the long-term effects on children of sex with adults has been conducted, and a great variety of results have been found, from positive to negative outcomes.

From a review of many of these studies, Constantine concluded that the most important factor is how the child perceives the experience: whether he participates willingly or is forced. And although some writers speculate that such relationships can cause homosexuality, research has failed to support this belief.

Implications for policy

The author makes the following policy recommendations:

Except on the basis of violation of moral standards, there was nothing in what these boys said that would justify punishment. …[The law] should be so drawn up that the kind of sexual contacts which these 25 boys experienced would fall outside of their application. At the same time the law should make it possible, wherever there is clear abuse of power and if there is no other available option, for justice to intervene. The present laws form more of a threat to boys who enjoy friendships and sexual relations such as are described in this book than a protection, and some of these boys were quite aware of this. Any new or revised legislation must provide protection for young people against sexual abuse. At the same time it must not obstruct their right to sexual self-determination.
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