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The term pederasty is used variously to refer to: the erotic attraction of an adult male to an adolescent boy; sodomy of an adolescent boy by an adult man; sexual relations between an adult male and a prepubescent boy; anal intercourse between two men; pedophilia, or sexual attraction to young children; sexual molestation of a child by an adult. There is little agreement about the exact definition of the term even in scientific literature, much less in general usage. Unless otherwise specified, however, this article will use the term pederasty in its first sense—that of the sexual and/or emotional attraction of an adult male to an adolescent boy.

The indeterminacy of pederasty's definition is at least partly due to the controversy surrounding the notion of sexual relations between adults and children. In industrialized countries in Europe and North America, societal outrage at and disapproval of such relationships is greater and more unified than censure of perhaps any other sexual behavior. As such, pederasty is often conflated with pedophilia, the sexual attraction of an adult to a child, and sexual molestation; even scientific studies of the behavior tend to assume its abusive nature and often fail to distinguish between pederasty and other forms of child-adult sexual relationships, including rape and incest. Most sociological studies further conflate pederasty with pedophilia in general, and such studies often treat all forms of pedophilia with the same criteria, failing to adequately examine the differences between men drawn to girls rather than boys; between men attracted to prepubescents rather than adolescents; and the degree of consent at work in the relationship. As a result of such conflation of pederasty and pedophilia and sexual abuse, there is often very little distinction made—scientifically, legally, and in the general population—between a long-term, mutually-satisfying relationship between an adult and a sixteen-year-old youth and a one-time sexual encounter between an adult and a nine-year-old boy.


Contemporary North American and European attitudes generally stress the complete separation of child sexuality from adult sexuality, arguing that the relative power positions of the adult and child render a truly consensual relationship impossible. Even among the researchers who have suggested that pederastic relationships are not intrinsically harmful, this power differential is an ever-present point of concern. Some have argued for more relaxed social and legal understandings of pederasty, pointing out that earlier civilizations (and even some contemporary cultures, most notably in a number of Pacific communities) both sanctioned and encouraged sexual relationships between adults and children, and often provided ritualized mechanisms by which those relationships might be established. The most vigorous opponents of any relaxation of the boundaries between child and adult sexuality maintain that pederastic behavior is always wrong and harmful. More moderate opponents often note that while such relationships may not necessarily be psychologically damaging to the child involved, the attendant social stigmatization and the lack of cultural support for such relationships may render them extremely harmful.


Pederasty was used in ancient Greece to describe a loving relationship in which an adult male served as an educator and mentor to an adolescent boy. Although there was some debate about whether these relationships should be sexual in nature, man-boy relationships were widely considered to be beneficial and an important part of a young boy's development. As with many other practices and beliefs, pederasty was imported from Greece into the Roman Empire. Unlike Greek men, who believed that male love was exalted and would help both lovers to be better citizens, Roman pederasty took place primarily in the context of the master-slave relationship. The power inequities of such relationships engendered the belief that the passive partner (who was almost always a slave) was weaker and less masculine than the dominant partner. Sexual submission to one's master was considered a routine and necessary aspect of a slave's life, but sex with freeborn boys was frowned on and freeborn men who were discovered to have submitted to sodomy by another were subject to ridicule. Although pederasty was conceived very differently in Rome than in Greece, it appears nonetheless to have been commonly practiced and widely accepted. Provided that one played the "male" rather than "female" role in the encounter, such sexual behavior incurred no particular social stigma.

As Christianity took root in the Roman Empire, however, homosexuality and pederasty were increasingly disapproved of and legislated. In the Middle Ages, with the growing influence of the Catholic Church in Europe, homosexuality and pederasty were increasingly criminalized, and evidence of the existence of pederastic relationships often occurs in the context of legal trials and sentencing. By the Age of Exploration, European attitudes toward both pederasty and homosexuality were highly critical and moralistic.

As European explorers, travelers, and missionaries began to come in contact with the Eastern world, then, they were shocked at the prevalence of homosexuality and pederasty. Chinese literature under the Ming Dynasty, which lasted until 1644, demonstrates a matter-of-fact acceptance of relationships between boys and men, often depicting the affairs as grand, lifelong passions. In the conservative years after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, pederasty was criminalized and penalties were instituted against men who engaged in sex with a boy under twelve. During the nineteenth century, however, a number of emperors had sexual relationships with younger men or boys, and restrictions against such behavior were consequently loosened. Western European visitors generally condemned the cultural familiarity with and acceptance of pederasty, but one French traveler noted that, for the Chinese, pederasty was an aesthetic and physical pleasure and it was often a mark of rank, culture, or intellect for a man to have an adolescent lover.

Japanese culture was heavily influenced by the Chinese and took a similarly casual attitude toward man-boy sexual relationships. Early European visitors to Japan were horrified by the ancient Japanese tradition of nanshoku (male love) which dated from at least the ninth century and was thought to exceed the depth of love possible between a man and a woman. As in China, much of the literary production that deals with homosexuality involves an adult man being beguiled by a youth or boy; even when things end badly, the relationship often leads to some sort of religious salvation.


Quantitative attempts to analyze the prevalence and beneficial or detrimental effects of pederasty have generally returned widely conflicting results. Case studies based on interviews of both pederasts and the boys they are involved with provide a much more cohesive picture of what constitutes such relationships. Many self-identified pederasts describe themselves and their relationships in terms reminiscent of Greek love: they consider themselves to have a special affinity for children and see themselves as mentors and educators. For some men, the pederastic relationship is largely confined to quite traditional mentoring activities and includes a minimal amount of erotic interaction. Anal intercourse is generally limited to men with adolescent partners, and many relationships forego it altogether. Studies suggest that the type, degree, and frequency of erotic and sexual interaction is often dictated by the boy rather than the adult, and this interaction is often limited to caressing, cuddling, and manual or oral genital stimulation.

These relationships are rarely violent or physically abusive, though many researchers identify both the potential for and engagement in emotional manipulation by the adult member of the relationship. Interviews with pederasts suggest that such men are more likely to target children who lack self-assurance or who seem emotionally deprived; however, interviews with these boys often—though by no means always—suggest that the involvement with the older man is welcome and provides them with love and attention that they may not receive at home. While many pederasts are interested exclusively in male children or adolescents, it appears that boys who are part of pederastic relationships are as likely as not to be heterosexual; often, the end of long-term pederastic relationships coincides with the adolescent's growing interest in the opposite sex. While there is plenty of scientific documentation to support the contention that such relationships are emotionally damaging to minors, there is also evidence to suggest that sexual involvement with an adult can help teach boys how to be part of a respectful, stable relationship with another person, whether male or female.


In some areas of the world, pederasty is both legally and culturally sanctioned. In most Western countries, pederasty is illegal unless the boy has reached the local age of consent. In many countries, the legal code makes additional provisions to ensure a minimum age difference between participants before the older partner is subject to legal prosecution. Some European nations have recently moved to lower the age of consent for minors. In the United States, controversy over pederasty and age of consent focuses on the question of child welfare and, for some, raises questions about to what degree the government can or should legislate private, consensual behavior. There are a number of groups who advocate for stricter laws governing adult-child sexual behavior and others who agitate for lowering the age of consent.

The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) is perhaps the best known and most controversial of these groups. NAMBLA advocates for increased sexual freedom for children and adolescents, arguing that prohibition of consensual relationships oppresses men and boys. Founded in the late 1970s, NAMBLA was initially part of the burgeoning gay and lesbian movement of the time. However, NAMBLA was quickly and increasingly ostracized by LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) organizations, many of which echo the general population's disgust for NAMBLA and its violent rejection of adult-child sexual relationships.

NAMBLA insists that it neither encourages members to break existing laws nor serves as a mechanism for its members to make sexual contacts; the group does not advocate any nonconsensual relationships whatsoever, but the occasional arrests and prosecution of NAMBLA members on grounds of child molestation and pornography have led the general public to believe otherwise. In 2000, the parents of a young boy kidnapped and murdered by two neighbors brought suit against NAMBLA, charging that the organization and its publications had incited the murderers to action. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) took the case, arguing that NAMBLA publications are protected under the First Amendment. The case was ultimately dismissed and was continued as a wrongful death suit against individual members of NAMBLA. Public reaction was intensely critical of both NAMBLA's political positions and its existence as an organization. The volatility of public reaction to this and other cases concerning adult-child sexuality concerns some researchers, who have begun to worry that the intensity of public sentiment surrounding issues of adult-child sexuality has adversely affected attempts to properly study and legislate the phenomenon.

see also Pedophilia.


Bagley, Christopher. 1997. Children, Sex, and Social Policy: Humanistic Solutions from Problems of Child Sexual Abuse. Aldershot, UK: Avebury.

Brongersma, Edward. 2000. "Boy-Lovers and Their Influence on Boys: Distorted Research and Anecdotal Observations." In Deviance and Deviants: An Anthology, ed. Richard Tewksbury and Patricia Gagné. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Crompton, Louis. 2003. Homosexuality and Civilization. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Krivacska, James J., and John Money, eds. 1994. The Handbook of Forensic Sexology: Biomedical and Criminological Perspectives. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Percy, William Armstrong III. 1996. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sandfort, Theo; Edward Brongersma; and Alex van Naerssen, eds. 1991. Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological, and Legal Perspectives. New York: Harrington Park Press.

Weitzer, Ronald. 2002. Deviance and Social Control: A Reader. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Wilson, Glenn D., and David N. Cox. 1983. The Child-Lovers: A Study of Paedophiles in Society. London: Peter Owen.

                                           Maureen Lauder