Homosexuality and Child Sexual Abuse:
Science, Religion, and the Slippery Slope
Mark E. Pietrzyk*
In response to the scandal involving former Congressman Mark Foley, a number of conservative religious groups have claimed that homosexuals pose a substantially greater risk of committing sexual abuse against children than heterosexuals, and have issued papers citing a number of scientific studies to support these claims. However, when one examines the studies cited in these papers, one finds that the religious right has engaged in some serious distortion of the works of others. The scientists who authored the studies made no such claim about homosexuals posing a greater threat to children, and in fact in many cases argued the opposite.
In addition, many in the religious right have employed a version of the “slippery slope” argument, charging that the gay rights movement has led inevitably to tolerance for pedophilia by eroding all traditional norms of sexual behavior. However, the “slippery slope” argument is based on the false premise that the protection of children from sexual activity is a long-standing part of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which has only recently come under assault as a result of the gay rights movement. In fact, throughout most of history, the Judeo-Christian tradition tolerated and even approved of sexual relations between adult males and girls of twelve years of age or even younger. The contemporary taboo against sex between adults and minors developed only in the late nineteenth century, as societies became increasingly committed to the ideals of individual rights and personal autonomy, which led to concern about the possibility of coercion and exploitation in adult-minor relationships.
In the wake of the scandal of former Congressman Mark Foley’s inappropriate behavior involving teenage male pages, a number of conservative commentators and organizations are reviving an old charge that homosexuals are more likely to sexually abuse children. The Family Research Council is promoting a paper by one Timothy Dailey which claims that since approximately one-third of child sex crimes are committed by men against boys, and homosexuals comprise only 1 to 3 percent of the population, gay men are greatly overrepresented in child sex offenses.1 Articles by Steve Baldwin and Judith Reisman in Pat Robertson's Regent University Law Review make similar claims and argue that “homosexuals sexually molest young boys with an incidence that is five times greater than the molestation of girls.”2 A booklet from Focus on the Family charges that “studies indicate that around 35 percent of pedophiles are homosexuals. . . . a child molester is 17 times more likely to be homosexual than heterosexual.”3
In addition to these claims, a number of conservative Christians have employed a version of the “slippery slope” argument, charging that the gay rights movement inevitably leads to tolerance for pedophilia by eroding all traditional norms of sexual behavior. Robert Knight, formerly of the Family Research Council and now with Concerned Women for America, argues that if gay marriage is accepted, “Why not [marriage between] three men? Three women? A man and a boy?”4 Senator Rick Santorum has blamed the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals on modern liberalism, arguing “It is startling that those in the media and academia appear most disturbed by this aberrant behavior, since they have zealously promoted moral relativism by sanctioning ‘private’ moral matters such as alternative lifestyles.”5 Similarly, the Wall Street Journal has complained, “Some of those liberals now shouting the loudest for [House Speaker] Hastert’s head are the same voices who tell us that the larger society must be tolerant of private lifestyle choices, and certainly must never leap to conclusions about gay men and young boys.”6 Mary Eberstadt, a writer for the Weekly Standard, has written no fewer than three articles attempting to link homosexuality to pedophilia, arguing that the growing success of the gay rights movement has brought a formerly taboo subject out into the open.7
There are, however, two major problems with these claims which try to link homosexuality with pedophilia. First, the statistical data that has been cited is based upon a serious distortion of reputable scientists’ studies on child molestation. The scientists who authored the studies made no such claim about homosexuals posing a greater threat to children, and in fact in many cases explicitly argued the opposite. These scientists have concluded that pedophilia is a separate orientation from homosexuality and that the vast majority of molesters who target boys have either no interest in mature males or are heterosexual men who are attracted to the feminine characteristics of young boys.
Second, the “slippery slope” argument is based on the false premise that the protection of children from sexual activity is a long-standing part of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which has only recently come under assault as a result of the gay rights movement. In fact, throughout most of history, the Judeo-Christian tradition tolerated and even approved of sexual relations between adult males and girls of twelve years of age or even younger. The contemporary taboo against sex between adults and minors developed only in the late nineteenth century, as societies became increasingly committed to the ideals of individual rights and personal autonomy, which led to concern about the possibility of coercion and exploitation in adult-minor relationships. If the slippery slope argument has any validity, it more aptly applies to defenders of religious tradition and orthodoxy than to proponents of gay rights.
Scientific Research on Pedophilia
In a recently published paper, Timothy Dailey of the Family Research Council repeats a common claim made by many conservative Christian groups that approximately one-third of child sex abuse cases are committed by men against boys. Since homosexuals make up a small proportion of the population, he argues, homosexuals constitute a disproportionate threat against children.8 To support this statistical claim, Dailey cites the work of several researchers, including A. Nicholas Groth, an Orlando, Florida psychologist who has treated over 3000 child molesters over the past several decades; W. L. Marshall, a psychologist at Queen's University in Canada; and the late Kurt Freund, a psychiatrist at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Canada. Freund, in turn, has based his findings on studies conducted by Dr. Groth and David Finkelhor, a sociologist and director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.9
Conservative spokespersons Steven Baldwin and Judith Reisman, in an attempt to support their claim that “homosexuals molest children at a rate vastly higher than heterosexuals,” cite a study by Gene Abel, a psychiatrist at Emory University, Atlanta.10 Finally, Focus on the Family cites the work of Kurt Freund in support of its allegations.11
The numerous citations of the scientific literature by social conservatives initially look impressive. However, when one examines the original studies that have been cited, one finds that the conclusions of the original studies are contrary to the claims made by those citing the studies. Most significantly, while social conservatives claim that all the cases of sexual molestation of young boys by adult males are committed by homosexuals, the scientists whom they cite explicitly reject this assertion. Let us examine the actual claims of the scientists, one by one.
The Work of Dr. A. Nicholas Groth
A. Nicholas Groth is a pioneer in the scientific study of sexual offenders against women and children, who has treated over 3000 child molesters over the course of two decades.12 A former director of the Sex Offender Program at the Connecticut Department of Corrections, Groth is the author of Men Who Rape: Psychology of the Offender,13 a work widely regarded as a classic textbook on the psychology of sexual violence. In his work, Groth has found that approximately one‑third of all cases of child molestation involve an underage boy and an adult male14, a statistic which has been used incessantly by certain conservative activist groups in an effort to prove that homosexuals are disproportionately responsible for acts of child molestation. However, Groth explicitly states that it is a myth that men who molest boys are homosexual.
According to Groth, child molesters can be divided into two types: “fixated” and “regressed.” The fixated offender is attracted primarily to children and has little or no interest in adult relationships; such a person is known in clinical terms as a “pedophile.” The regressed offender is interested in and capable of adult sexual relationships; however, this person may on occasion regress to sexual encounters with children, often as a result of difficulties and frustration in his adult relationships.15
Groth writes that the fixated offender, or pedophile, tends to select boys more often than girls, but for reasons having nothing to do with homosexuality:
In general, fixated child molesters are drawn to children sexually in that they identify with the child and appear in some ways to want to remain children themselves. It is for this reason that the trend for fixated offenders is to target boys as victims. . . . They see the boy as a projected representation of themselves. They feel themselves to be more child than adult – more boys than men – and therefore find themselves more comfortable (especially sexually) in the company of children. . . .16
Groth stresses that “these same individuals are uninterested in adult homosexual relationships. In fact, they frequently express a strong sexual aversion to adult males, reporting that what they find attractive about the immature boy are his feminine features and the absence of secondary sexual characteristics such as body hair and muscles.”17 The second type of offender, the regressed offender, is predominantly heterosexual. However, he may temporarily turn to boys or girls as a result of complications in his adult relations.18 Although regressed offenders are more likely to choose girls than boys as victims, writes Groth, what attracts the regressed male offender to boys are the feminine characteristics of pre‑ pubescents. Groth found no cases of boy molestation in which the offender had an adult homosexual orientation. Concludes Groth,
Homosexuality and homosexual pedophilia are not synonymous. In fact, it may be that these two orientations are mutually exclusive, the reason being that the homosexual male is sexually attracted to masculine qualities whereas the heterosexual male is sexually attracted to feminine characteristics, and the sexually immature child’s qualities are more feminine than masculine. . . . The child offender who is attracted to and engaged in adult sexual relationships is heterosexual. It appears, therefore, that the adult heterosexual male constitutes a greater sexual risk to underage children than does the adult homosexual male.19
The Work of Dr. Kurt Freund
The late Dr. Kurt Freund was a psychiatrist at the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto, Canada. A sex researcher for well over 30 years, Dr. Freund was a pioneer in the use of the penile plethysmograph, a device which measures the sexual arousal of subjects in response to visual stimuli. Freund’s work has been cited by Timothy Dailey and by Focus on the Family as evidence for the claim that “around 35 percent of pedophiles are homosexuals.”20 Actually, this is a grotesque distortion of what Freund has written.
Like other researchers, Freund draws a sharp distinction between attraction to adult males and attraction to prepubescent males. The clinical term he uses to describe the phenomenon of men who are attracted to other men is “androphilia”; attraction to adult women is known as “gynephilia.” (Since pedophilia is rarely found in women, Freund’s studies are based solely on men). Like Groth and other researchers, Freund has found that a high proportion of pedophiles prefer boys to girls, and that these pedophiles generally have little or no interest in adult males. Nowhere does Freund state that homosexuals are more inclined to molest children. In fact, according to a study he conducted of a sample of heterosexual and homosexual men, he found that there was no greater propensity for pedophilia among homosexuals than among heterosexuals: “the erotic attractiveness of male children (or pubescents) for androphiles is not greater than the erotic attractiveness of female children (or pubescents) to gynephiles.”21
Freund stresses that pedophiles are significantly different from men who prefer adult partners, whether heterosexual or homosexual, in that their arousal pattern is lacking in gender differentiation. That is, pedophiles are attracted in general to the bodies of children; and since children lack the secondary sex characteristics which distinguish mature males and females – body hair and muscles in men, breasts in women – pedophiles are often attracted to both male and female children. In contrast, Freund has found that true bisexuality among the adult‑ preferring population is very rare.22
This finding is consistent with other research studies on the phenomenon of pedophilia. These studies stress that what the pedophile seeks are the qualities of “childness,” such as small stature, hairlessness, and an innocent, trusting disposition; the maleness or femaleness of the child is secondary.23
The Work of Dr. Gene G. Abel
Dr. Gene Abel is a Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University and a former president of the National Society for Behavioral Medicine. He has been a researcher in the field of sexual violence for over twenty-five years and has published over 100 scientific articles. A number of years ago, Abel completed an eight‑year study for the National Institute of Mental Health of 403 child molesters. He found that child molesters do not usually fit popular stereotypes:
Most of us think that a child molester is a rather slimy individual( a stranger in town, sitting in his car near a schoolyard, luring children with candy. Our findings reveal that, on the contrary, the child molester is not a stranger, but is someone we know well. He often is a man we trust, a man our children trust. . . . As a rule, he is married and has children of his own whom he usually does not molest. He is almost always a well‑respected, even loved, member of his community. He is often an active Christian who is involved in his church.24
In his study, Dr. Abel found that nonincestuous offenders against boys have many more victims than nonincestuous offenders against girls; specifically, offenders against males averaged approximately 150 victims, while offenders against females averaged only 20 victims.25 This statistic has been used by the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, which claims that since homosexuals molest seven times as many victims as heterosexuals, “homosexuals, as a group, represent a serious threat.”26
However, Gene Abel explicitly states that most cases of boy molestation cannot be attributed to homosexuals:
[M]ost men who molest little boys are not gay. Only 21 percent of the child molesters we studied who assault little boys were exclusively homosexual. Nearly 80 percent of the men who molested little boys were heterosexual or bisexual, and most of these men were married and had children of their own.27
Based on Abel’s statistics, if approximately 33 percent of all molestations are male-on-male, and 21 percent of these cases are committed by homosexuals, the actual percentage of molesters who are homosexual is 21% x 33% = 6.9%. Keeping in mind that even the best surveys have a margin of error of a few percentage points, this figure is pretty close to the figures usually given for the total percentage of homosexuals in the overall population, which is about five percent.28 In other words, homosexual males are not a significantly greater threat to children proportionately than straight males. (In fact, one could argue that since the number of molestations committed by females is relatively rare, it is clear that lesbians pose less of a threat to children than straight males.)
The Family Research Council’s analyst Timothy Dailey, who argues that there is a link between homosexuality and child molestation, admits that pedophiles who target boys may also have sexual relations with women. However, he implies that such men are merely closet homosexuals and refuses to admit that heterosexual men may well be attracted to women and to underage boys at the same time. This tactic leads Dailey to again distort the work of a reputable researcher, W. L. Marshall. Marshall's paper, “Sexual Offenders Against Male Children: Sexual Preferences,” discusses the results of a study of the sexual orientation of a sample of male sex offenders against boys. Marshall measured the sexual orientation of the offenders by means of a plethysmograph, a device which measures arousal responses. Marshall found that out of his sample of 21 offenders against boys, two‑thirds of the offenders were predominantly heterosexual in their adult orientation.29 Yet Dailey completely omits this result, and cites Marshall's paper as evidence for the notion that sex offenders against male children are invariably homosexual.30
In fact, Marshall's study found that not only could heterosexual males be attracted to women and young boys simultaneously, the heterosexual males were more inclined to be attracted to the very young, whereas the homosexual offenders chose older victims:
heterosexually‑oriented men characteristically chose victims who were clearly pre‑pubescent, whereas the homosexually‑oriented offenders chose pubescent boys. In their remarks to us during the course of our assessment interviews, the offenders described the features of boys which they found to be attractive. The homosexuals mentioned the early appearance of male secondary sexual features. . . . Amongst the heterosexuals, the commonest remarks concerning attractive features of the victims, were that the young boys did not have any body hair and that their bodies were soft and smooth. These two distinct descriptions of their victims suggests that the heterosexual offenders were looking for female‑like features in the boys while the homosexuals were looking for male features.31
Other scientists that have been cited by social conservatives also repudiate the idea that most men who abuse boys are homosexual. One such scientist, David Finkelhor, states in his 1984 text, Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research, that “the evidence suggests that a great number of the men who victimize young boys are not self‑identified homosexuals. On the one hand, many abusers of boys appear to be married and have lengthy heterosexual histories. Others are exclusive pedophiles, who have no interest in adult males at all and do not consider themselves to be gay.”32 These statements are entirely ignored by conservatives.
Religious Tradition and the “Slippery Slope”
Aside from misquoting scientific literature, it is a popular tactic among certain social conservatives to attempt to link pedophilia to homosexuality by employing a version of the “slippery slope” argument. By rejecting traditional values against homosexuality, it is argued, the gay rights movement has called into question all restrictions and values pertaining to sexuality, including those restrictions which protect children. If one ancient taboo on sexuality is disregarded, it is argued, one begins to proceed down a slippery slope to the point where all taboos on sexuality are challenged and overthrown.
One writer, Mary Eberstadt, has charged that homosexuals are almost entirely responsible for eroding the taboo against sex between adults and minors, noting that “pedophilia chic” among gays is the “last gasp of a nihilism that has exhausted itself by chasing down every other avenue of liberation, only to find one last roadblock still manned by the bourgeoisie.”33 In one article, she argues:
Of all that Christianity has represented since its inception, there has been one teaching in which believers could take particular historical pride. That was the notion, virtually unique to Christianity (and Judaism), that not only were sexual relations between adults and children wrong – a proscription that puzzled and irritated the ancient pagans, as it does the pagans of today – but that this particular exploitation of innocents was an especially grievous sin. . . . Anyone who doubts the historical consistency of the Church's teaching here should know that the advocates of pedophilia in the world today – the outright public enthusiasts for man-boy sex – vociferously deplore the Church specifically on account of its millennia-old condemnation of the sexual exploitation of the young.34
The “slippery slope” argument is sometimes supported by the use of quotations from various gay activists and scholars who argue against the legitimacy of age-of-consent laws and for the legitimacy of sex between adults and minors. There are certainly a significant number of gay activists on the left who believe that the gay rights movement should be part of a broader movement which aims to erode many moral restraints on sexuality, and among these activists there are some who would like to lower or abolish age of consent laws. The relevant issue, however, is to what extent are the opinions of these people representative of gays as a whole? The statistics noted in the first part of this paper give no solid evidence for the notion that gay male population is more inclined to molest children than the straight male population. So, does the gay rights movement pose an inherent threat of a “slippery slope” to tolerance for pedophilia by eroding moral foundations?
One major problem with this “slippery slope” argument is that certain assumptions about our moral traditions are just plain wrong. An honest examination of the historical record indicates that Biblical law and the Judeo-Christian tradition, far from condemning pedophilia, often condoned sexual relations between adults and children. The contemporary social and legal taboo against sex with children developed only gradually over the centuries, and did not become firmly established until the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. The very concepts of age of consent and statutory rape did not derive from Biblical orthodoxy and ancient tradition, but rather evolved out of the same modernist conceptions of individual rights and equality which underlie the contemporary struggle for gay rights. Thus, if the slippery slope argument has any validity at all, it more aptly applies to contemporary proponents of Biblical orthodoxy and “traditional family values” than to proponents of gay rights.
When considering the historical record of attitudes toward sexual relations with children, it should be kept in mind that adult exploitation of children in general was widely tolerated in both ancient and medieval times. Parents who had difficulty supporting themselves were allowed by both secular and religious authorities to sell the labor of their children or even abandon them.35 In many respects, children were regarded merely as the personal property of the male head of the household. Exploitation of other human beings, in the form of slavery, prostitution, or even child prostitution, did not matter as much as did the purity and “naturalness” of one’s sexual acts.36
The attitude of the ancient Israelites toward the crime of rape can be found in the Bible, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, which states,
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on [seize] her, and lie with her, and they be found;
Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
To modern ears, this may seem a strange penalty for the crime of rape. What kind of punishment is it which forces the rapist to pay a fine to the father of the victim and marry the victim? Furthermore, it must be recognized that under ancient Jewish tradition, a girl was usually married by the time she reached puberty37; the virgin “damsel” mentioned in the Biblical passage was understood to be a young girl between the ages of three and twelve and a half.38 Why would any sane person subject a raped child to marriage with her attacker?
The reason is that the feelings of the victim of rape are not really all that important under Biblical law. Rape was considered a crime by the ancient Jews not so much because it caused harm to the female but because it violated the property rights of the father and the rules of social order. The virgin status of a young girl was a valuable asset to a father hoping to obtain a suitable bride-price from the man who would marry his daughter. If this asset was destroyed before marriage, it was an economic loss to the father. That is why the offender is forced to pay a fine to the father and marry the victim.39 In fact, the Bible implicitly gives permission to the father to sell his daughter as a slave. Exodus 21 contains regulations regarding the treatment of slaves, and Exodus 21:7-11 gives specific instructions regarding the treatment of female slaves that have been sold to other men by their fathers.40 A father was permitted to sell his daughter into slavery as long as she remained under the age of twelve.41
More detailed information on the sexual ethics of ancient Judaism can be found in the Talmud. The Talmud is the record of oral law and commentaries which supplements the written law of Scripture; in Jewish tradition, the oral law is part of the divine revelation received by Moses on Mount Sinai.
According to the Talmud, the recommended age for marriage is sometime after twelve for females, and thirteen for males. Marriage below these ages was generally frowned upon. However, a father was allowed to betroth his daughter to another man at an earlier age, and sexual intercourse was regarded as a valid means of sealing a betrothal. The age limit for betrothal through sexual intercourse was shockingly low. According to the Talmud, “A girl of the age of three years and one day may be betrothed by intercourse.”42
This age limit was apparently chosen because, according to Rabbinical discussion, the features of virginity in the young female (the hymen, which breaks and bleeds the first time after intercourse) did not finish developing until the age of three years and one day. Intercourse with a female younger than this was like “putting a finger in the eye,”43 that is, as putting a finger in the eye causes it to tear and tear again, intercourse with a female younger than three causes the hymen to initially bleed but then to grow back again, restoring the sign of virginity. Thus intercourse with a female younger than three years and one day was not a crime; it was simply invalid as a means of sealing betrothal by ending her virgin status, since the signs of virginity would eventually reappear. According to the Talmud, “When a grown-up man has intercourse with a little girl it is nothing, for when a girl is less than [three years], it is as if one puts the finger into the eye.”44
The Bible sets down a number of laws prohibiting various sexual unions – bestiality, homosexuality, incest, adultery – under the penalty of death. However, there is a significant loophole in the original understanding of these commandments that is described in some detail in the Talmud: in order for such unions to be considered truly unlawful, both partners must be of an age of sexual significance. As noted above, the age of sexual significance for females was three years and one day; for males, it was nine years and one day. If either partner in the forbidden union was under the age of significance both partners were exempt from any punishment.45 According to the Talmud, sexual acts with children under these ages did not break Biblical law precisely because such children were not really sexual beings. Needless to say, the possibility of psychological harm to a child as a result of an unwanted sexual act was not a consideration.
The age loophole even applies to the famous injunction against homosexuality, Leviticus 20:13, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” According to Talmudic commentary on this law,
[Homosexual] pederasty with a child below nine years of age is not deemed as pederasty with a child above that. . . . only he who is able to engage in sexual intercourse, may, as the passive subject of pederasty throw guilt [upon the active offender]. . . . [Thus only] pederasty at the age of nine years and a day [and above] . . . is liable to punishment.46
These attitudes about the sexual status of children persisted for many centuries, and were confirmed for the most part by the great twelfth-century Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides. According to Maimonides, while it was “not proper” for a father to betroth his daughter while she was under the age of twelve, and it was “detestable” for a child to be betrothed to an old man, the father still had the right to betroth his daughter by means of sexual intercourse with another man when she was at the age of three years and one day.47 According to Maimonides, it was important for the father to marry off his sons and daughters as close to the age of puberty as possible, for if they were left unmarried, they might be “led to adultery or indecent thoughts.”48
Maimonides also tried to close some loopholes in Talmudic law by recommending flogging for certain acts which, although not in violation of any specific law, were still contrary to public order and decency. One such loophole was that in the traditional understanding of the Levitical prohibition against homosexuality, which exempted acts committed with boys under the age of nine on the grounds that such acts were not true acts of sexual intercourse. Remarking upon the penalty under this law, Maimonides wrote:
the rule is as follows: If both [partners] are adults, they are punishable by stoning. . . . If he is a minor aged nine years and one day, or older [i.e., between the ages of nine and thirteen], the adult who has connection with him, is punishable by stoning, while the minor is exempt. If the minor is nine years old, or less, both are exempt. It behooves the court, however, to have the adult flogged for disobedience, inasmuch as he has lain with a male, even though with one less than nine years of age.49
There are several interesting facts about this ruling which should be noted. First, the primary concern is over the nature of the sexual act; the issue of possible harm to the child plays no role in determining the punishment. Second, the loophole is only partially closed; flogging is a less severe punishment than the death penalty, which was called for not only for homosexual acts, but for acts of incest, adultery, and bestiality.
To the extent that sexual relations with female children were considered problematic under Judaism, it was because a female child below the age of puberty was unable to conceive. This raised the tricky question of whether intercourse with such a child was permitted, insofar as it apparently violated the Biblical commandment to procreate. However, most rabbis up until the fifteenth century counseled that marriage and sexual relations with a girl too young for procreation was perfectly acceptable, since eventually the girl would acquire the capability to conceive.50 Maimonides took a stricter view, counseling against marriage to a child unless the man had another wife with which to procreate (polygamy was permitted under Jewish law):
One should not marry a sterile woman, an old woman, a barren woman, or a minor female who is incapable of giving birth, unless he has already fulfilled the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, or unless he has another wife by whom he can fulfill this commandment.51
Christian canon law followed Roman law in setting the minimum age of marriage at twelve for females and fourteen for males. The logic behind these marital age limits was that these were the approximate ages of puberty for both genders, indicating readiness for procreation.52 In ancient Rome, among both pagans and Christians, marriage at an early age was frequent. Betrothals often occurred even before puberty, although the consummation of marriage through intercourse usually did not take place until after the girl's first menstruation. Very often, the age discrepancy of marriage partners was great. According to one historian, “the matching of a man with a woman young enough to be his daughter or even granddaughter was generally accepted.”53
One such example of betrothal between a mature male and young girl is that of St. Augustine (354-439 A.D.). At the age of thirty-one, Augustine betrothed himself to a ten-year-old girl. However, he found it impossible to wait for the girl to reach puberty so he could consummate the marriage and satisfy his sexual desires. In desperation, Augustine took a mistress, but this act only tormented him with guilt. Not long afterward, Augustine converted to Christianity and adopted a life of celibacy.54
Medieval Christianity continued to maintain the age of twelve as a minimal age for females to enter into marriage. However, even this low age limit was not absolute. Using natural law logic, Catholic authorities argued that the decisive factor which determined a child's readiness for marriage and sexual relations was the onset of puberty, and not necessarily age as such. According to one Catholic scholar, “If it could be satisfactorily proved that puberty . . . was actually attained by the boy before the completion of his fourteenth year, or by the girl before the completion of her twelfth year, then . . . the party could enter upon a valid marriage.”55
Sexual intercourse which took place before marital age limits or puberty was not necessarily illicit or sinful. On the contrary, some popes ruled that intercourse below the age of twelve/fourteen had the effect of sealing a marriage contract, as long as such intercourse took place after the age of discretion, which was seven.56 Once intercourse had taken place, the marriage could not be annulled. In the twelfth century, Pope Alexander III ruled,
If a girl of tender age is betrothed and delivered to her husband, and afterwards desires to marry a different man, her petition is not to be granted if her husband swears that he has had carnal knowledge of her even at the early age of eleven or twelve.57
Thus even for very young partners, the act of intercourse bound the two of them together for life. As one Catholic scholar has written, “carnal relations between the parties seemed to indicate sufficient maturity and made up for the defect of years.”58 Sexual intercourse below the age of discretion (seven) was not a crime, but merely “invalid,” and thus, inconsequential, as under Jewish law.59
Parents arranged marriages for their pre-pubescent children during the Middle Ages for a variety of dynastic, economic, and cultural reasons.60 Such marriages were usually consummated at the age of twelve. Although physicians warned of the dangers of impregnating very young girls and implored husbands to wait until the wife reached the age of at least fourteen, such warnings usually went unheeded, and the Catholic Church continued to bless marital bonds with twelve-year-old girls.61
Although technically the consent of the child was necessary for a marriage to take place, the child was usually not in a position to challenge his or her parents and resist an unwanted union. This led to a number of abuses which went unchallenged by the Church. In 1526, the Dutch scholar Erasmus complained,
it is no uncommon case, especially in France, for a girl of scarce ten years to be married and a mother next year. . . . It seems portentous, and yet we sometimes see it, especially in Britain and Italy, that a tender child is married to a septuagenerian. . . . Yet Church laws do not rescind such nuptials. . . .62
In later centuries, some Christian commentators would denounce sexual relations with young girls as being equivalent to rape. In the sixteenth century, canonist Egidio Bossi argued for this interpretation on the grounds that a child could hardly be considered as being in a position to give consent. However, he recommended that the age of consent be fixed at only six or seven years of age.63
At the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, there was some discussion among the Church leadership about possibly raising the age for marriage. Cardinal Charles De Guise of Lorraine, France, advocated raising the age of marriage for women to twenty and for men to twenty-five. The bishop of Cordia, Spain, argued for the ages of twenty for women and twenty-two for men. However, the majority of those on the Council were opposed to raising the age for marriage on the grounds that adolescents would be tempted to commit fornication unless they were permitted to marry. The conservatives prevailed: the age limit remained at twelve for females and fourteen for males.64
In English civil law, the principle of statutory rape was established in the thirteenth century. The statute of Westminster I made it a misdemeanor (i.e., minor crime) to have sexual relations with a girl under the age of twelve, whether with her consent or without it; the punishment for this crime was two years in prison and the payment of a ransom.65
However, three centuries later, in 1571, an English court put on trial one “W.D.,” a man indicted for the rape of a seven year old girl. Despite irrefutable evidence that W.D. did in fact have forcible intercourse with the girl, the court decided that W.D. could not be convicted of rape because “the court doubted of rape in so tender a child.” The court noted that (if she had been nine years and more, it would have been otherwise,” and W.D. could have been prosecuted for rape. But since she was only seven, rape did not technically occur.66
This decision sounds strange to modern ears, but it must be remembered that the court was simply following the Judeo-Christian ethical heritage, which saw rape not so much in terms of the psychological damage done to the victim, but in terms of the theft of virginity and the violation of sexual morality. Since a pre-pubescent child had no sexual status, rape of such a child was not considered a crime.
Fortunately, by the sixteenth century, more enlightened human beings were beginning to discover the absurdity of such a narrow view. In response to the case of W.D., Parliament passed a law in 1576 making it a felony to “unlawfully and carnally know any woman child under the age of ten years,” whether with or without her consent. This essentially closed the loophole created by the case of W.D.67
As a result of the Enlightenment, substantial advances were made in the understanding of human rights, and religious leaders and groups began to crusade for moral and social reform on a number of issues. The anti-slavery movement was one such crusade; another was the crusade to raise the age of consent.
Up until the late nineteenth century, the age of consent in many countries continued to be fixed at twelve. Although an orthodox interpretation of Biblical law could find no grounds for condemning the exploitation of children, sexual or otherwise, many Christians felt that the rights of women and female children to resist unwanted sexual unions was a moral imperative. Consequently, reform movements arose to lobby for an increase in the age of consent.
A chief concern of many of these moral reformers was the problem of child prostitution. The use of female children as prostitutes was becoming increasingly prevalent in the nineteenth century, due to men's fear of catching venereal disease from older prostitutes. Many female children were being sold by their parents or forced by economic circumstances to service men sexually. Many of these children acquired venereal diseases themselves as a result, some dying. Others were raped and tortured. To remedy this state of affairs, a British feminist by the name of Josephine Butler lobbied to raise the age of consent, which at that time in Britain was still twelve. Aided by the crusading reporting of W. T. Stead of the Pall Mall Gazette, who documented the existence of girls as young as three to five years old in England's brothels, Butler was successful in getting the age of consent raised to sixteen.68
The publicity created by Butler's campaign spread to the United States, which soon saw the rise of its own Christian feminist movement to raise the age of consent. As of 1886, twenty-five of the American states, following earlier English law, had an age of consent of ten years; four states, following Christian canon law on marriage, had an age of consent of twelve; Delaware, following Christian canon law on the age of discretion, set its age of consent at seven.69
The Women's Christian Temperance Union and various allied organizations conducted petition drives and lobbying to raise the age of consent in the states and the District of Columbia. Initial successes sparked a backlash in some states; in 1892, the New York Senate, which had previously raised New York's age of consent to sixteen, considered lowering it back to ten. Reflecting a split between liberal and conservative views on the subject, reports from Texas indicated that older men tended to favor retaining a low age of consent while younger men favored raising it. Nevertheless, by 1895, reformers succeeded in raising the age of consent to between sixteen and eighteen in twenty-two states. However, those states reflecting the most conservative religious views – those in the South – lagged in raising their age of consent. Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina kept their age of consent at ten, while Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia set their age of consent at twelve. But eventually, these states as well raised their age of consent.70
By 1918, the Catholic Church finally raised its permissible age for marriage from fourteen for males and twelve for females to sixteen for males and fourteen for females.71 To this day, in a number of underdeveloped, predominantly Catholic countries, it is common for adult males to marry and impregnate barely pubescent girls. In Mexico, adult men may wed girls of fourteen years of age or even younger.72
A number of recent studies and articles have attempted to discredit the gay rights movement by linking homosexuality to pedophilia. These writings have either cited articles in the scientific literature alleging to show that homosexual males are more inclined to molest children than heterosexual males, or they have attempted to demonstrate an inevitable trend toward toleration of pedophilia by employing the “slippery slope” argument.
However, the very scientists that are cited in support of the contention that gays are more likely to be molesters explicitly reject the idea that homosexuals pose a disproportionate threat to children. These scientists note that pedophilia is a separate orientation from homosexuality and that the vast majority of molesters who target boys have either no interest in mature males or are heterosexual men who are attracted to the feminine characteristics of pre-pubescent males.
As for the “slippery slope” argument, the biggest mistake many social conservatives make is to assume that the contemporary taboo against sexual relations with children is a longstanding part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is only now coming under assault by the left. In fact, the Judeo-Christian tradition and many other religious traditions tolerated and even affirmed pedophilic relationships for centuries. The contemporary taboo against such relationships developed only a little over one hundred years ago, as people became more enlightened about the potentially damaging aspects of sexual relations between persons of unequal maturity and power. If anything, the slippery slope argument applies more aptly in reverse: a return to religious orthodoxy and tradition would seem to require a return to the dark days of the past when adults could sexually exploit children with impunity. In particular, those who cite Leviticus 20:13 (“If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman . . .”) as an authoritative statement on the ethics of homosexuality should be asked whether they also accept the original understanding of that law, which is that there is no penalty for men who have sexual relations with boys under the age of nine years and one day. Or perhaps instead, proponents of Biblical morality can admit that there are times when moral codes can and must be modified in light of new knowledge and understanding.
1. Timothy J. Dailey, “Homosexuality and Child Sexual Abuse.” Washington, D.C.: The Family Research Council, 2002. http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=IS02E3&f=WA06J01
2. Steve Baldwin, “Child Molestation and the Homosexual Movement,” Regent University Law Review 14 (Spring 2002): 279; Judith Reisman, “Crafting Bi/Homosexual Youth,” ibid., 301.
3. Larry Burtoft, The Social Significance of Homosexuality: Questions and Answers (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family, 1994), 64, 90. The booklet has subsequently been retitled as Setting the Record Straight: What Research Really Says About the Social Consequences of Homosexuality.
4. Quoted in “Legal Gay Marriage on the Nation's Horizon,” USA Today, January 2 1996, 6A.
5. Hon. Senator Rick Santorum, “Fishers of Men,” 12 July 2002, Catholic Online. http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=30
6. Wall Street Journal, 3 October 2006. http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110009033
7. Mary Eberstadt, “Pedophilia Chic,” Weekly Standard, June 17, 1996; “Pedophilia Chic Reconsidered,” Weekly Standard, January 8, 2000; “The Elephant in the Sacristy,” Weekly Standard, June 17, 2002 http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/001/344fsdzu.asp
8. Dailey, 1.
9. Kurt Freund, Robin Watson, and Douglas Rienzo, “Heterosexuality, Homosexuality, and Erotic Age Preference,” The Journal of Sex Research 26 (February 1989): 115. Freund cites Paul Cameron, “Homosexual Molestation of Children,” Psychological Reports 57 (1985): 1227-36, which is based on data from Groth and Finkelhor.
10. Gene Abel et al., “Self-Reported Sex Crimes of Nonincarcerated Paraphiliacs,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2 (March 1987): 3-25, cited in Baldwin, 279, and Reisman, 300-301.
11. Burtoft, 64. The study cited is Kurt Freund et al., “Pedophilia and Heterosexuality vs. Homosexuality,” Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy 10, no. 3 (1984): 197.
12. “OCA Stirs Emotions with Its 2nd Flier,” The Oregonian, Sept. 25, 1992, D1.
13 A. Nicholas Groth, Men Who Rape: The Psychology of the Offender (New York: Plenum Press, 1979).
14. A. Nicholas Groth and H. Jean Birnbaum, “Adult Sexual Orientation and Attraction to Underage Persons,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 7, no. 3 (1978): 175.
15. A. Nicholas Groth, William F. Hobson, and Thomas S. Gary, “The Child Molester: Clinical Observations,” in Social Work and Child Sexual Abuse, eds. Jon R. Conte and David A. Shore (New York: Haworth Press, 1982), 129‑44.
16. Ibid., 136.
17. Groth and Birnbaum, 180.
18. Ibid., 177.
20. Burtoft, 64.
21. Freund et al., “Heterosexuality, Homosexuality, and Erotic Age Preference,” 115.
22. Kurt Freund, Robin Watson, Robert Dickey, and Douglas Rienzo, “Erotic Gender Differentiation in Pedophilia,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 20, no. 6 (1991): 555‑566; Kurt Freund and Michael Kuban, “Erotic Gender Differentiation in Pedophilia: A Follow‑Up,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 22, no. 6 (1993): 619‑628.
23. Frank G. Bolton, Jr., Larry A. Morris, and Ann E. MacEachron, Males at Risk: The Other Side of Child Sexual Abuse (London: Sage Publications, 1989), 61; Kathleen Coulborn Faller, Understanding Child Sexual Maltreatment (London: Sage Publications, 1990), 55.
24. Gene G. Abel, “The Child Abuser: How Can You Spot Him?,” Redbook, August 1987, 98‑99.
25. Gene Abel et al., “Self‑Reported Sex Crimes of Nonincarcerated Paraphiliacs,” 3-25.
26. Burtoft, 64, 90.
27. Abel, “The Child Abuser,” 100.
28. F.L. Whitham, “Culturally Invariable Properties of Male Homosexuality: Tentative Conclusions from Cross-Cultural Research,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 12 (1983): 207-26; “Presidential Candidates Embrace Gay Issues and Enjoy Donations,” Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2000.
29. W.L. Marshall, H.E. Barbaree, and Jennifer Butt, “Sexual Offenders Against Male Children: Sexual Preferences,” Behavior Research and Therapy 26, no. 5 (1988): 383-91.
30. Dailey, 5-6.
31. Marshall et al., 390.
32. David Finkelhor, Child Sexual Abuse: New Theory and Research (New York: Free Press, 1984), 196.
33. Eberstadt, “Pedophilia Chic,” 20.
34. Eberstadt, “The Elephant in the Sacristy,” 2.
35. John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 3-179.
36. An excellent history of traditional attitudes toward child sexual abuse can be found in Florence Rush, The Best Kept Secret: Sexual Abuse of Children (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980).
37. Judith Romney Wegner, Chattel or Person? The Status of Women in the Mishnah (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 15.
38. Louis M. Epstein, Sex Laws and Customs in Judaism (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1948), 184-85.
39. Epstein, 179-83; Wegner, 13-15.
40. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 94n.
41. Wegner, 14.
42. Niddah 44b, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Tohoroth, trans. I. Epstein (London: Soncino Press, 1948), 308.
44. Kethuboth 11b, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, trans. I. Epstein (London: Soncino Press, 1936), 58.
45. Epstein, 132-33, 213.
46. Sanhedrin 54a-55a, The Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, vol. 3, 367, 370-71.
47. The Code of Maimonides: The Book of Women, trans. Isaac Klein (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 17-21.
48. The Code of Maimonides: The Book of Holiness, trans. Louis I. Rabinowitz and Philip Grossman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965), 138-39.
49. Ibid., 13; Epstein, 136.
50. David M. Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law (New York: New York University Press, 1968) 41-42, 65-69, 176-77.
51. The Code of Maimonides: The Book of Women, p. 94.
52. Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 39-42.
53. Treggiari, 102; John C. O'Dea, The Matrimonial Impediment of Nonage (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1944), 1.
54. Augustine: Confessions and Enchiridion, trans. Albert C. Outler (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), Book 6, Chapters 13-16; Vern L. Bullough, “History in Adult Human Sexual Behavior with Children and Adolescents in Western Societies,” in Jay R. Feierman, ed., Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990), 70-71.
55. O'Dea, 1-3; Rush, 30-3.
56. Rush, 32-34.
57. Quoted in John Fulton, The Laws of Marriage (New York: E. and J.B. Young, 1883), 112.
58. O'Dea, 8.
59. For an example, see Charles Edward Smith, Papal Enforcement of Some Medieval Marriage Laws (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1940), 142-44.
60. V.H.H. Green, Medieval Civilization in Western Europe (London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1971), 184-85.
61. William J. Fielding, Strange Customs of Courtship and Marriage (New York: The New Home Library, 1942), 166-68.
62. Quoted in G.G. Coulton, Medieval Panorama (New York: MacMillan, 1944), 639.
63. “Rape and Marriage in the Medieval Canon Law,” in James A. Brundage, ed., Sex, Law and Marriage in the Middle Ages (Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1993), 67.
64. O'Dea, 4-6.
65. Sir Matthew Hale, The History of the Pleas of the Crown, vol. 1, (Philadelphia: Robert H. Small, 1847), 627.
66. Mortimer Levine, “A More Than Ordinary Case of Rape,” American Journal of Legal History, 7 (April 1963): 159-63.
67. Ibid., 163.
68. Bullough, 74-77; Glen Petrie, A Singular Iniquity: The Campaigns of Josephine Butler (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 112-14, 244-54.
69. David J. Pivar, Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1973), 141-43.
70. Ibid., 139-46.
71. O'Dea, 18-19.
72. “Expectant Couple Caught in Clash of Two Cultures,” USA Today, January 29 1996, D1, D2.
* Mark E. Pietrzyk is an independent researcher in the Washington, D.C. area and a member of the Independent Gay Forum (www.indegayforum.org).