Intergenerational Sex and Relationships

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Despite the great strides made by the LGBT movement over the past three decades in terms of political power and cultural acceptance, some issues continue to test the limits of straight liberalism and the LGBT movement alike. Public sex and pornography are two, but the issue perhaps most certain to foment serious cultural tensions and political divisions is pedophilia. Pedophilia, or eroticism between adults and young people, is perhaps better and more neutrally understood as but one form of the broader phenomenon of intergenerational sex and relationships, which can also include relations between adults across generations.

Within the LGBT movement in the United States, intergenerational sex involving youth gained widespread public and political attention during the late 1970s. After a decade of gains made by the gay and lesbian liberation movement, coupled with the increasing visibility of LGBT communities, a conservative moral backlash mobilized homophobic cultural fears of homosexuals as recruiters and abusers of children. Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" crusade, which unleashed the specter of the homosexual teacher as seducer of school children, can be taken as the prime example. Out of this volatile context emerged organizations such as the North American Man/Boy Love Association, formed in Boston in 1978 in response to a moral panic sparked by the arrest of several men on charges of sexual activity with teenage boys. The period also witnessed a slew of writings by apologists for and academics interested in the subject of intergenerational sex. But the 1970s was not the first historical moment in which intergenerational sex and panics about pedophiles prominently figured.

Historical Perspectives on Intergenerational Sex

One of the most powerful arguments for a historical perspective on sex and relationships across generations is its capacity to counter right-wing claims that pedophilia is the relatively recent product of a sexually permissive society run amok. On the contrary, historians have demonstrated that cross-generational sex extends back in time, and that the meanings attached to such relations have changed radically over the decades. For instance, looking at the Horatio Alger tales and Alger's fondness for gentle boys from the "dangerous classes," literary historian Michael Moon has traced what he calls "the pederastic character of much of the 'philanthropic' discourse about boys"during the nineteenth century (p. 90). Moon detects similar man-boy erotics at work in Walt Whitman's 1841 story "The Child's Champion." As these literary examples suggest, nineteenth-century reform work—or " boys' work," as it was sometimes called—furnished a variety of social settings that brought working-class boys and middle-class men together. As John Donald Gustav-Wrathall has demonstrated in his study of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), middle-class men's reform energies were sometimes impelled by elements of homosocial and homoerotic longing. The middle-class man's desire to "take a young stranger by the hand" also points to a recurring theme in the history of cross-generational relationships, that is, the frequent overlap between intergenerational and cross-class relations.

Intergenerational relationships have not been restricted to men and boys. Lesbian historian Martha Vicinus, for instance, has delineated the elements of distance and desire in boarding school friendships between girls and older female teachers or students. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "raves" or "crushes" between schoolgirls and older women were intense, emotionally layered relationships in which a language and practice of self-discipline became a means of expressing desire. Crucial here too was the single-sex community of the boarding school, a social setting that nourished same-sex relations between middle-class girls and women.

In addition to nineteenth-century literary visions of man-boy love and schoolgirl "smashes" on admired female teachers, other historical contexts and social settings propped up cross-generational relations. In the early twentieth century, an erotic system of intergenerational sex between older men, known as "wolves," and boys or young men, called "punks," thrived among sailors, hobos, and prisoners. Wolf-punk relations ranged from the casual in nature, involving the exchange of sex for money, treats, or protection, to longer-term relationships in which wolves or "husbands" sometimes referred to their punks as "wives" or "women." As George Chauncey explains in his discussion of wolf-punk relationships, the terminology of wolf and punk, husband and wife, underscored the centrality of gender and age rather than "homosexuality" in early-twentieth-century conceptualizations of male-male sexual practices that also crossed generational lines. It is also significant that while prison officials and moral reformers frowned upon such activity, early-twentieth-century understandings of intergenerational sex were not characterized by notions of predatory male homosexuals and sexually innocent boys.

Moral-Sexual Panics

The mid-twentieth century witnessed a dramatic redefinition of the dominant understandings of intergenerational sex. Profound changes in domestic life, gender norms, and sexuality, brought on by the disruptions of World War II and exacerbated by the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s, prompted widespread cultural anxieties focused on the figure of the "sexual psychopath." Numerous state commissions studied what they termed the problem of the sex deviate, which, combined with sensationalized media reports linking child abuse and murder to sexual psychopaths, produced a postwar sex crime panic. The panic had particularly devastating repercussions for gay men, for it was in this context that the powerful links between male homosexuals and child abuse were forged. As Chauncey has written: "If homosexuals had been relatively invisible before the war, they had also been considered fairly harmless. But press reports in the postwar period created a new, more ominous stereotype of the homosexual as a child molester, a dangerous psychopath likely to commit the most unspeakable offenses against children" (p. 172). To take one example, in his 1966 book, The Boys of Boise, journalist John Gerassi documented the 1955–1956 witchhunt in Boise, Idaho, which generated over 150 news stories in the city paper and culminated in a list of the names of over 500 suspected homosexuals compiled by local authorities. In the end, only sixteen charges were laid, but the damage to the city's homosexual subculture had been done as many gay men fled Boise in fear. Associations between gay men and child molestation made during the postwar sex crime panic continue to reverberate in the culture, always ready to be redeployed in subsequent moral-sexual panics. They have also played no small part in pathologizing and policing all forms of intergenerational sex and relationships within same-sex communities.

Beginning in the 1990s, a new series of public scandals—revolving around sexual misconduct between adult male authorities and young people in a host of religious and educational institutions—has threatened to remobilize cultural linkages between homosexuality and child abuse (despite the overwhelming consensus of social scientists that most sexual abuse involves older men and younger girls). Historical analysis can interrupt such politically motivated cultural slippages by demonstrating the historical making of the myth of the homosexual as child molester.


Whether in the past or present, intergenerational sex and relationships raise a host of political and ethical issues. For many, discussions of sexual relations between children and adults cannot be separated from issues of child pornography and prostitution. Others have pointed to the failure of much of the literature on intergenerational sex to foreground the voices of the younger partners. But perhaps the most contentious and complex issue relates to consent. Late-1970s political clashes, particularly between lesbians and gay men, were often framed as a debate about the possibility or impossibility of meaningful consent between young people and adults. It is also true that a good deal of the writing on intergenerational sex is marked, many would say marred, by a strong libertarian streak that elides important issues of power. The title of one of the most frequently cited anthologies— The Age Taboo: Gay Male Sexuality, Power, and Consent —captures well some of the central issues at stake.

Feminists have been among the most consistent in laying bare the relations of unequal power that often structure intergenerational relations. Indeed, for some feminists, the asymmetries of age and power stamp all intergenerational relationships—but especially those involving youth—as inherently exploitative and thus rule them out of acceptable bounds. Others adopt a position that acknowledges both the problems and the possibilities in such relationships. In the context of the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, for example, Kate Millett offered a rare and thoughtful meditation on "the sexual rights of children," suggesting that prevailing "conditions between adults and children preclude any sexual relationship that is not in some sense exploitative." Millett emphasized that "the main point about children and relationships between adults and children is that children have no rights. They have no money." However, Millett maintained that if society could ever reach a point in which children had sexual, economic, and other rights, "intergenerational sex could perhaps in the future be a wonderful opportunity for understanding between human beings" (p. 222).

Another striking feature of intergenerational sex and relationships has been its almost complete conflation with sexual relations between adults and children or youth. But sex and relationships across generations can, of course, occur between adults. Michel Foucault had something like this in mind when he pointed to the paucity of relationship forms officially recognized by the state. Pointing to the model of child adoption, Foucault wondered why it was not possible for someone officially to adopt a younger or older lover. "Why shouldn't I adopt a friend who's ten years younger than I am? And even if he's ten years older? Rather than arguing that rights are fundamental and natural to the individual, we should try to imagine and create a new relational right which permits all possible types of relations to exist." Commenting on Foucault's proposal, David Halperin notes that "adoption might also provide a mechanism for formalizing differences of wealth or age or education between lovers, acknowledging informal inequality while providing a framework of mutual support in which such inequality, accompanied by clearly marked rights and duties, might not devolve into exploitation or domination" (p. 82). Just how such relationships might look, how they might work, remains difficult to gage, for we know very little about the meaning and dynamics of adult-adult intergenerational relations in present-day same-sex communities. Are LGBT people drawn to them more than their straight counterparts? Within gay men's culture, does the valorization of youthful forms of attractiveness, or a willingness to flout social conventions, set the stage for sex and relationships across the barriers of age? Whatever the case, Foucault and Halperin both radically reverse the pathologizing discourse on relationships across age by suggesting that cross-generational relations might be viewed instead as an opportunity to expand the scope of affectional-sexual relationships and to secure the extension of formal rights.

Attention to cultural and social history suggests that in any discussion of intergenerational sex and relationships it is unwise to ignore or flatten out differences in the historical/social settings of cross-generational relations, each of which generates different structures of power and, hence, a complex and contradictory set of personal and political meanings. Whatever its cultural and historical context, however, intergenerational sex is a useful reminder that age, in addition to race, gender, and class, is a crucial variable of erotic preference and power in same-sex communities—one that will undoubtedly continue to provoke both controversial and creative political and cultural responses.


Chauncey, George. "The Post-War Sex Crime Panic." In True Stories from the American Past. Edited by William Graebner. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

——. "Trade, Wolves, and the Boundaries of Normal Manhood." In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and theMakings of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Gerassi, John. The Boys of Boise: Furor, Vice, and Folly in an American City. New York: Macmillan, 1966.

Gustav-Wrathall, John Donald. Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Millett, Kate. "Beyond Politics?: Children and Sexuality." In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Edited by Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge and K. Paul, 1984.

Mitzel, John. The Boston Sex Scandal. Boston: Glad Day, 1980.

Moon, Michael. "'The Gentle Boy from the Dangerous Classes': Pederasty, Domesticity, and Capitalism in Horatio Alger." Representations 19 (Summer 1987): 87–110.

——. "Rendering the Text and the Body Fluid: The Cases of 'The Child's Champion' and the 1855 Leaves of Grass. "In Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Tsang, Daniel, ed. The Age Taboo: Gay Male Sexuality, Power and Consent. Boston: Alyson, 1981.

Vicinus, Martha. "Distance and Desire: English Boarding School Friendships, 1870–1920." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Edited by Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey. New York: New American Library, 1989.

Steven Maynard

see alsoalger, horatio; boy scouts and girl scouts; millett, kate; north american man/boy love association; same-sex institutions; sex wars.

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Intergenerational Sex and Relationships

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