sponsored and organized by the
Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society
Division of Social Sciences and Communication
College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
University of Southern California
February 13-15, 1987
Sexism and racism are among several insidious results of elitist dominance in our society. To these should be added the practice of discrimination against young people, who must try even as they are growing to overcome the power difference and bridge the distance between themselves and those who are "mature". This pervasive discrimination is coming to be known as "ageism", and it is most clearly visible in situations where young people are kept uninformed, unemployed -- the equivalent of "barefoot and pregnant" -- and as naive as possible until the "magical" moment of adulthood arrives one morning. In the same way that much human potential in our society has been bludgeoned by male dominance and what Adrienne Rich brilliantly capsulized as "compulsive heterosexuality", so is this potential being stunted in its very growth process by "compulsive age-segregation" and the concept of adolescents and children as "not yet human beings".
If the growing individual is in fact a human being, that individual exercises choice and retains responsibility for actions, but she or he also needs help from those who have "invented the wheel" before. The best context for such help may exist in intimate one-to-one friendships between young people and adults. It seems likely to assume that such friendships would at least reduce ageism's effects. To the extent that ageism and sexism come from the same source -- adult male dominance of society -- intergenerational friendships might also serve to reduce sexism, if only by interrupting the cycle of stereotypes handed from generation to generation.
This presentation does not present a wealth of previous studies, for such literature is by no means abundant. Instead, it outlines the need for such studies and suggests some approaches. The presentation also acknowledges the resistance in today's society to scholarly discussion of intergenerational relationships -- especially those outside the family -- and to most ideas in which children are seen as functioning human beings. Current specific attempts to control or suppress such research briefly are reviewed.
As used in this paper, the term "intimacy" refers to all types of closeness, especially verbal or emotional trust and sharing, but also quite importantly physical contact in the form of affectionate hugs and touches. The kind of physical contact that most would label "sexual" also could be part of this definition of intimacy, but it will not be considered so for two reasons: first, intergenerational sexual contact -- probably because of our cultural bias against it -- is extremely rare; second, when stripped of all its cultural and emotion-charged baggage, sexual contact is just another form of touching anyway.
In fact, the issue of sexual contact could be ignored completely were it not for the current confusion arising from child sexual abuse cases. It is nearly impossible for some authorities, including many social science professionals, to conceive of relationship and abuse as separate terms when pre-adults are involved. To focus on same-sex intimacy only complicates the discussion, invoking the nemesis of homophobia. For these reasons, my comments and suggestions about the efficacy of reducing sexism by encouraging intergenerational relationships relate only to non- sexual interactions.
It is important to note that while the present discussion generally is limited to male relationships, virtually all of what is presented here is assumed to apply in analogous ways to female relationships; however, female intergenerational contacts to a large extent already are characterized by intimacy and closeness, and anti-sexist values there seem much more likely to be transmitted than in comparable male contacts. In any case, of course, the relationships within each sex should be the subject of studies and programs to identify and facilitate any means of transmitting anti- sexist values to children. Moreover, I echo Walter Williams' (1986) perceptive observation that in cultures where gender separation is emphasized, it takes female anthropologists to study sensitive issues involving females. Whereas the present paper investigates issues of male intimacy, female scholars are encouraged to increase our knowledge of female intimacy.
The fact that the overt behavior of males in our society is too often characterized by sexism, dominance and attempts to prove superiority hardly needs documentation here. Beneath the surface, of course, exist the corresponding emotional shallowness, fear of inadequacy, and perhaps most debilitating of all, homophobia. The interconnection of these elements needs more study, but common sense sees them almost as cut from the same cloth.
In my dissertation (Jones, 1985; Jones & Dembo, 1986), I studied intimate relationships with best friends in 8 to 15-year-old girls and boys who were divided into androgynous and sex-typed sub- groups. The primary finding was that boys in general were lower than all girls in intimacy -- as expected from numerous previous studies -- but that androgynous boys considered separately were not lower than females. It was only the sex-typed boys that caused the male average to decline. And decline is probably the operative word, too. A secondary finding was that when looked at over time, all sub-groups began relatively even -- intimacy was low for the nine-year-olds, and equally low across the four sex role groups. As the subjects' age increased, intimacy levels also increased in all groups except sex-typed boys. Their movement graphed as a downward trend, though perhaps because of a relatively small sample, statistically there was no difference.
What was most interesting, in terms of the present paper, was an unplanned observation of homophobia in my older subjects, occurring just about the same time that lower intimacy levels among sex-typed boys were beginning to become significant. Since I administered all the questionnaires by reading the questions to the subjects myself, I kept notes on potentially significant things that happened during the twenty questionnaire sessions. There were what I would call homophobic responses in several situations. For example, in one questionaire, I would read a statement, and the subject would indicate in an answer booklet whether that statement were characteristic of GIRLS, BOYS, BOTH BOYS AND GIRLS, or NOBODY. Often, after reading a statement such as "Children who put their arms around their best friends are . . .", someone would mutter -- anonymously but audibly -- "fags". In question-and-answer sessions after the study was concluded, several homophobic comments also were made. In two separate classes, students commented that anyone who held hands or looked into the eyes of a best friend "probably lived in San Francisco". The audible "fags" response always came from boys. The San Francisco references also were made by boys, as were almost all of the comments I judged to be homophobic.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of these observations of homophobic responses is that while there were various unsolicited audible responses in every group, the homophobic content was not heard until the age of the subjects reached 11 or so (about 6th grade), yet by the time I went into the eighth grade classes, such comments were inevitable. Whether the lack of such comments in the lower grades was due to younger kids being more inhibited, or due to a basic lack of homophobic feelings in the younger subjects, is unclear. Nonetheless, it is interesting that 11 is also the age at which the difference in intimacy scores between the upward-moving females and androgynous males, and the downward-moving sex-typed males became evident. This apparent coincidence must be studied further.
No doubt this proposition will seem highly speculative, even naive, to many who have always seen intergenerational same-sex contacts -- such as those between fathers and their sons, mothers and their daughters, and the other same-sex intergenerational contacts we find in our society -- as places where sexism is fostered, not challenged. But these are more likely examples of the lack of true intimacy, of failed attempts truly to relate as two human beings.
As it is now, males typically wait until middle life before discovering the importance of intimacy, relationships and care --- as Carol Gilligan (1982) puts it, something that women know from the beginning. Sexism may be one of the by-products of this delay. The mere fact that true closeness is part of an early relationship in many cases may give the boy enough of a respite from his stereotypes to allow his natural "discovery" that sexism is not necessary for him. It may not even be necessary for the man in such relationships himself to be aware of anti-sexist principles and behavior, though undoubtedly it would help the process if he were.
There is probably no better illustration of this than the recollection of Dr. Edward Brongersma, former Dutch senator and initiator of a foundation for the study of intergenerational relationships, in a speech in Los Angeles on March 12, 1984:
The present paper suggests that such an experience is not unique, that intimacy such as this boy experienced tends to result in changed attitudes.
The very fact that an unique closeness exists with a member of the same sex serves to assure the child or adolescent that same-sex intimacy is nothing to be afraid of, and it does so at a time when knee-jerk homophobic responses have not yet immobilized the ability to share at an emotional level. To try to deal with all these all of a sudden in young adulthood is to try the impossible. Dealing with them gradually makes a favorable outcome much more likely. Of course, the theory -- with males at least -- is that a man will respect his place in the world and will value his fellow humans if he was once the boy who was not alienated, who felt as he grew that he was more and more a part of the "human community" as opposed to being "just a kid" one day and a grown man the next, who felt just as comfortable exercising power as he did giving it up, and who learned to feel at ease with intimacy, even when it was with other males. This surely is the antithesis of sexism.
Evidence of beneficial effects. Though there is almost no research on the long-term effects of intimacy experienced during late childhood and adolescence, either with peers or with older friends, it is common to hear testimonials from individuals about how important such intimacy was to them. Close friendships are remembered throughout life -- Douvan and Adelson (1966) felt that the intensity of adolescent friendships might never be duplicated in one's lifetime -- and memories of close relationships with valued adults who took the time to care are treasured by more than a few people in our culture.
Because of being a member of the Board of Directors of a professional Boys' Choir, I have had an unique opportunity to see just how such closeness with peers and caring adults can affect growing boys. The intenseness of the experience, of course, is not typical of the vast majority of boys, for these singers spend hours each week and weeks on end during tours and summer training together with their fellows and the directors and teachers, most of whom are male. The most immediate evaluation of the experience typically comes from the parents, who almost invariably see a positive change in their boys as the training and choir experience continues. Many of the boys while still in the choir will express at least an appreciation for the attention and dedication of the adults working with them, and in later years almost inevitably will feel a deep affection for these adults. It is quite common for boys who have had such an experience to believe they are better people because of it. Of course, it would be most helpful if such situations could be researched and the benefits of such experiences more clearly defined.
Research involving sexual contact. It seems that most research on male intergenerational relationships has used subjects involved in sexual contact. Much of the theory, as well, derives from the writings of those who focus on the sexual aspect. One of the most remarkable is Eglinton (1964), who confidently asserts that intimate man/boy relationships can have a positive effect on most of the social problems in which boys are involved, including delinquency, alienation and rebellion, and the "Mike Hammer syndrome" (the 1950's/60's term for "macho"). While it is unfortunate for our opinionated society that the focus in such writings always has been on sexual behavior, the literature is surprisingly instructive as to the potential benefits of the non-sexual side of the relationship.
In his study of over 1,000 American pederasts and about 300 of their adolescent partners, Rossman (1976) found that boys typically were involved because they wanted to be, not least because the relationship provided love and the feeling of being cared about. Tindall (1978) studied nine adults who as adolescents were involved sexually with men. Their recollections were of deep friendships in which the man adopted a fatherly attitude and the boy modelled himself after the admired qualities of the older partner. (All of the nine subjects had "developed into adults with sexual patterns considered acceptable by the culture" [sic, p. 380; "the American, heterosexual culture" is assumed here, though the author is not specific].)
Few, if any, scholars believe that it is the sexual aspect of such relationships that causes the results seen; I certainly don't think it is the sex. The point, of course, is that whatever else is going on in such relationships should be investigated for what it can teach us about how caring and sensitive men are raised.
Another position of some feminists is that children may receive what they need for optimum development from adults of either sex, and hence that boys don't necessarily need male role models. While it is hardly disputed that many types of male models are quite sexist indeed, this is not sufficient reason to believe that boys can do without male contact, especially in a gender distinct culture such as ours. It is inconceivable that women would ever agree that female "bonding" is not important, that girls could develop properly in our culture without female role models and same-sex relationships. Nor should they agree to such a proposition. In the final analysis, of course, we don't really know, and research is needed.
Feminists skeptical about studying and/or encouraging intimate male intergenerational contacts should consider the possibility such relationships might encourage alternatives to stereotypical socialization. In many ways boys develop like girls, until about age 11 or 12, when puberty begins to highlight physical differences and homophobia begins to appear, as discussed above (Jones, 1985; see also Friday, 1981, for personal accounts of men whose childhood homosexual experiences stopped around puberty because of fears associated with homosexuality). Of course, traditional man-boy contacts, typically revolving around sports and macho posturing, tend to reinforce sexist attitudes and glorification of violence, but not all intergenerational contacts are traditional. Systematic study of all relationships might reveal that some result in behavioral outcomes on the part of boys that feminists would welcome.
Indeed, the whole question of just what images of masculinity are appropriate to offer boys needs to be investigated, regardless of the question of sexual activity. Riddle's (1978) review of the literature shows how children --- those who will be involved in homosexual behavior as well as those who will not --- might well benefit from gay role models, for instance. Morin and Schultz (1978) have asserted that access to gay role models is indeed a right to which growing persons are entitled.
Erotophobia and other biases. To focus on male intimacy, especially between adults and children, is to invite the assumption of sexual motivation. Even when male intergenerational friendship does not involve sexual behavior, skeptics often assume that the motivation for the man is sexual anyway. Needless to say, whether real or imagined, such sexual motivation is highly disapproved.
The higher the social disapproval of an activity being researched, the greater the potential for distortion due to emotional resistance to the potential findings. Erotophobia is one potential source of resistance which, like homophobia, is associated with sex guilt, authoritarianism, and conservative sexual attitudes. Byrne (1983) notes that "those who conduct sex research" (among others) "tend to espouse . . . the virtues and benefits of low sex guilt, erotophilia, egalitarianism, and sexual liberalism", but he also points out that "a substantial proportion of the population would, in contrast, gladly stand up and be counted as advocates of guilt and erotophobia based on a firm moral code, authoritarian values, and a conservative approach to sexual matters" (pp. 54-55). This represents a challenge for sex researchers, particularly those investigating the more emotional areas of child sexuality and intergenerational relationships involving pre-adults. As the taboo level of the behavior under study rises, researchers themselves could be influenced by their own erotophobia or pedophobia when faced with research situations and findings that come in conflict with societal and personal values. Kinsey (1948) more than once noted that the the lack of research on a topic was related to the degree of taboo surrounding it. Brongersma (1984) analyzes the development of such taboos and shows how erotophobic moralists began to target pedophiles "slightly over a century ago" (p. 79).
The study of such relationships which happen to be same-sex risks the added pressure resulting from the traditional pro- heterosexual bias (Morin, 1977) that tends to affect all research into homosexual behavior. Heterosexual researchers often are hopelessly encumbered by biases such as Erikson's (e.g., 1968), in which he defined intimacy as the type of relationship characteristic of marriage, therefore characteristic of late adolescence and early adulthood. If he had been able to give same-sex relationships the same importance as heterosexual ones, he might have seen, as did Sullivan (who was himself homosexual), that intimacy in its early forms begins in life's first love relationships, those of the same- sex "chumships" of preadolescence (1953ab).
The child-abuse "industry". The last few years have seen a phenomenal increase in popular attention to what is generally termed child sexual abuse, and an equally striking lack of quality research in this and related areas. Virtually all of the empirical research available to scholars comes from other countries, notably the Netherlands (Bernard, 1975; 1985; Sandfort, 1981; 1983), or is produced by American "child abuse industry" (Note 1) professionals studying arrested, incarcerated or agency-referred samples of "child molesters".
A typical assumption of child abuse industry literature is that sexual contact with an adult is emotionally traumatic and causes damage that often extends well into adulthood. This is not supported anywhere in the empirical literature (Wilson & Cox, 1983), though numerous authors have pointed out that such trauma does result from the hysterical reactions of parents, police, court officials and other adults upon discovering the activity has taken place. (Lempp, 1978; Mohr & Turner, 1967; Weeks, 1976). As mentioned above, some studies have found benign or even beneficial results in boys who were at the time involved sexually with men (Sandfort, 1981, 1983; Ingram, 1981) and in adults who had been involved in sexual relationships with adult men when they were boys (Landis, 1956; Tindall, 1979). This is significant because the "child abuse industry" literature, as it developed in the 1970's, ignored the earlier studies that found no harm due to sexual contact per se, just as today's writers are ignoring the more recent "independent" literature which studies intergenerational contact and child sexuality in value-neutral terms (see Jones, 1982, 1984, for a review of these).
A number of highly visible child abuse professionals apparently have a vested economic and career interest in preventing an unbiased, "free market" inquiry, and in maintaining "knowledge" on the subject at current unacceptable levels (Burgess et al., 1984; Densen-Gerber, 1980; Dworin, 1984; Lanning, 1984; MacFarlane, 1978; Tyler, 1984ab). The lack of usable, replicable research in any area of study is cause for concern; but the probability that research is avoided in the United States because of puritanical and emotional reactions to the sexuality and sexual behavior of pre-adults raises serious questions about the priorities of a society that identifies problem areas and then refuses to generate unbiased research that might help alleviate the problem.
Suppression of research. Research on intergenerational relationships cannot ignore the sexual aspect when it is present, and this potential of finding sexual activity restricts professional inquiry in very real ways. Legitimate researchers have been intimidated by the witch-hunt tactics of local and federal government officials in recent nationwide child abuse and pornography purges, just as routine adult-child relationships, especially in professional settings such as day-care centers, are being limited and restricted (Baker, 1985). Sonenschein (1985) documents in chilling detail the suppression of sex-related research from the purge of John Watson from Johns Hopkins just after World War I, to Kinsey's loss of Rockefeller Foundation funding and attendant FBI investigation, which, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, resulted from the FBI's "feeling that continued research in Kinsey's direction would corrupt and endanger the nation's children" (p. 1). Sonenschein also documents recent seizures of materials thought to be sex-related, including his own (in 1984), those of the present author (in 1985), and those of Edward Borneman, who reports that he actually was arrested in the course of conducting research on children's sexuality (Borneman, 1984). This is convincing evidence that Constantine and Martinson's (1981) warning about the special risks of research on children's sexuality, incest and pedophilia was well advised.
In case one might think the pressure against certain types of research comes only from outside the profession, Sonenschein cites almost unbelievable evidence to the contrary:
(1985, p. 6, emphasis original)
The child goes through several stages of development on the way to psychosexual maturity. The first truly social stage, beginning around age 8 or so, is almost always centered around others of the same sex (Sullivan, 1953ab). Most established theories agree that at least in preadolescence (from about age 8 to puberty), and perhaps throughout childhood the child's primary "task" is to develop first an understanding of self, then gradually of social realities; and that this is done, in most cultures, through relationships with members of one's own sex. Understanding of the other sex, at least in terms of being able to relate in a mature way to a member of the other sex (regardless of one's sexual attraction- based behavior), waits until same-sex friendships have been established in preadolescence (Sullivan, 1953ab) and probably builds on the foundation set in same-sex relationships with peers and with adults. Why shouldn't gay/lesbian scholars take the initiative in studying such relationships? Whether or not the childhood contacts have sexual content, they are "homosexual" in the broadest sense, and as such are worthy of our attention. So far, most other segments of the scholarly community have been less than enthusiastic on this issue.
Cross-sex relationships --- whether or not society approves --- also should be studied, of course, but a rationale based on child development (such as that used here to encourage the study of man- boy or woman-girl contacts) does not seem to apply as well to heterosexual adult-child relationships outside the family. The study of such relationships, then, may be more effectively pursued by other than lesbian/gay scholars.
The study of the importance of touching itself, including the potential detriment of adults withholding affectionate touching from children, could lead to a better understanding of how this behavior affects the attitudes, behavior patterns, and overall development of children and adolescents. It is well known that touching is essential in the early phases of human infant development (Casler, 1961; Montagu, 1971; Prescott, 1971). A wide repertoire of touching and contact behaviors throughout the life cycle is typical of primates (Harlow, 1974), whereas at least in American culture, touching declines gradually over childhood until during adolescence and especially adulthood, there are very few exceptions to the rule that touching is reserved for heterosexual intimacy (Willis & Reeves, 1976). We have barely begun the research needed to assess the consequences of this cultural aberration, which Prescott (1975) confidently asserts is directly related to the violence in our society.
Intergenerational contacts that do include sexual behavior also should be a part of this research. Regardless that it is disagreeable and controversial, the study of intergenerational interaction needs to take into consideration this persistent, though comparatively infrequent, life style that has existed throughout history and throughout the world. Of course, the most important task is to conceptualize and study relationships, not just sexual behavior. Research into adult-child sexual contacts conceptually should be considered part of a spectrum of behavior which also includes relationships between coaches and their team members, Big Sister/ Little Sister and Big Brother/ Little Brother pairs, parents and children, indeed all intergenerational contacts. The use of such a conceptual scheme may be the only way to understand fully the reality of the human behavior involved, to inform accurately public policy and popular attitudes, and to liberate research from the unfortunate bias and limitations of the past. Indeed, correctly identifying and outlining the whole picture may be the only way effectively to reduce true child abuse.
The study of the dynamics and importance of same-sex interaction (social as well as sexual), especially in the crucial period of late childhood, could lead to more effective programs for encouraging the development of peer friendship, and could provide validation for various social programs such as Big Sisters and Big Brothers, scouting, YMCA and YWCA programs which value role modeling as a tool for the child's optimum development. As unlikely as it seems, such programs depend for the most part on popular beliefs in the efficacy of positive adult role models and contacts for children, for apparently there is little or no empirical research of extrafamilial relationships to support these assumptions. The research that does exist centers on parent identification and the effects, for example, of father absence (Biller, 1971). For studies of the effects of relationships outside the family setting, Seidl's (1982) study of short-term benefits of Big Sister programs, and his review of comparable Big Brother program studies is a starting point, but long-term (preferably longitudinal) studies are needed.
Other issues which are currently under-studied and poorly understood include the whole question of sexuality during childhood and early adolescence (Jackson, 1982), the effects of delaying free choice and most of one's experience of sexuality until late adolescence, and the effects of severe heterosexual societal pressure on children and adults. Such pressure, of course, affects lesbian- and gay-identified individuals (or those who will become so as they grow up) but also has its effect on heterosexuals, much like male dominance causes even those who practice it to suffer. The development of homophobia in children and adolescents and its debilitating effects, especially in males, need immediate study, as macho cultural images and attitudes receive more support from the media. Likewise, the whole process of socialization through same- sex peer contacts, hero worship and the like during the crucial stage of preadolescence and early adolescence needs further research attention.
Further study of the overall sexuality of children would lend much needed credibility to many sex education and child development programs and theories, and would challenge many others or revise them completely. Of course, our society is not noted for an ability to look dispassionately at any aspect of sexuality or sexual behavior, but this is not to say that future generations will continue this pattern of ignoring the truth. To begin now to gather accurate and complete information is our duty to the social policymakers of the future. To allow any research to be restricted by temporal prejudices is inexcusable.
Interview and projective-test studies should be designed to assess the importance of role-modeling, hero worship and similar constructs at various ages --- and whether such relationships are more likely to be intergenerational or peer-based. As we move into a more egalitarian society with more egalitarian role definitions, we can't really know whether same-sex role modeling and hero worship is actually necessary at some basic level. Intuitively it may seem likely that it is, considering its prevalence cross-culturally, and the fact that core gender identity is one of the earliest acquired notions (Stoller, 1965), but we don't know until we identify the issue and begin to study it as such, both within our culture and in cross-cultural research.
The interconnection of sexism, homophobia, and early intimate friendship experiences could be assessed -- first retrospectively, then in longitudinal designs -- and differences between the effects of peer intimacy and those of intergenerational intimacy could be studied. Retrospective studies with a wide range of adults could help us learn more about people's reactions to early sexual and non- sexual involvement with adults, including trauma associated with sexual contacts and whether sexual activity in and of itself contributes to such trauma.
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