In 2014, after Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter spoke out about child abuse by Bradley and her husband, Walter Breen, a member of NAMBLA, writers as different as Vox Day and Liz Williams brought up Samuel R. Delany’s comment about NAMBLA twenty years earlier:
“I read the NAMBLA [Bulletin] fairly regularly and I think it is one of the most intelligent discussions of sexuality I’ve ever found. I think before you start judging what NAMBLA is about, expose yourself to it and see what it is really about. What the issues they are really talking about, and deal with what’s really there rather than this demonized notion of guys running about trying to screw little boys. I would have been so much happier as an adolescent if NAMBLA had been around when I was 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.” — Samuel R. Delany, Queer Desires Forum, New York City, June 25, 1994.
I wrote a few posts on the subject:
• What unites Natalie Luhrs, Avalon’s Willow, and Vox Day (a post that began as The art is not the artist #4: Samuel R. Delany)
Then I began to feel bad for not asking Chip Delany about it. In the 1960s, he was one of a small number of writers who made me believe fantasy and science fiction could be both great fun and great art. When he was the guest of honor at the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, he was charming and learned and pretty much everything anyone could want in a guest of honor. I can’t say I know him, but I can say I like him. I believe we should be able to talk about things which are taboo — what reveals our nature is not what we say, but what we do. This is especially true of storytellers, who regularly write about things they would never do.
So I wrote him, which began a discussion that moved between Facebook messages and email. He agreed to share it. What follows is a version that has been lightly edited for clarity.
Will Shetterly, 6/28
In the latest controversy, I began by defending you absolutely, arguing that linking you to Walter Breen was smearing by association and that it’s fine to like your work while disagreeing with what you’ve written about sex between men and boys. But as I began to research NAMBLA and what you’ve said, I became more concerned. I hope you will clarify your statement sometime. Whether you choose to or not, I will continue to cite you as one of the genre’s great writers who fully deserves every award you’ve received, and more besides.
Samuel Delany, 6/29
Will, I never met or knew Walter Breen (and only two or three times met Marion Zimmer Bradley, in the last two or three years of her life). And this is the first time anyone has ever suggested to me that Breen had anything to do with NAMBLA. The only person I’ve known who knew Breen personally was the late Paul Williams, who, early on, I’d heard had spent a few months living with Breen, around the age of 13 or so. I met Paul when he was a 17 or 18-year-old-child prodigy editor of Crawdaddy Magazine, for whom I wrote three or four articles. We never particularly spoke about Breen. I never knew there was anything to speak about. My friendship with Paul continued throughout his life, until his death several years back. But I got the impression from others who knew him that the gossip about Breen, especially in the first years I knew Paul (well before Stonewall), whether Breen was gay or straight, was a tempest in teapot. Currently it sounds like it’s not. But, again, I never knew Breen or saw him in my life.
NAMBLA had a number of women members, including my good friend Camilla Decarnin, who died a few years ago. She put me on the mailing list for the NAMBLA newsletter, sometime in the early 90s. At that time, it was a smart, well-written, and well thought-out gay rights newsletter. Eighty percent of it was sensible analysis of the lack of children’s rights, especially when they were apprehended by the police in sexual situations. The way children were treated in these situations, immediately removed from their homes, placed in public institutions, given no counseling when they were most vulnerable and most in need of emotional support, was not a pretty picture.
My all too frequently quoted comment in support of NAMBLA was made c. ’95, I believe. I have no idea what NAMBLA has been doing for the last twenty years. At the time I made my comment, c. 1995, NAMBLA was soliciting comments from people familiar with what their organization stood for — which included sane treatment of older male offenders, and pleading for courts to take into consideration what harm or coercion had been done — if any. (I had my first sexual experience with an adult when I was six, with a local Harlem building superintendent. And nothing hurtful happened at all. It would have been cruel and unusual punishment to incarcerate him for it.)
I commend to you the comments the late gay activist and gay porn actor, Scott O’Hara, made at about the same time I made mine:
When I was 12 and 13 years old I would have joined NAMBLA in a minute, because I knew I was gay and I wanted to go out and get laid, not just read The Gay Mystique all my life; I needed personal contact.We have a million gay children out there right now who are in the same boat, who know their sexuality, and aren’t getting any support. Most of our supposed gay leaders are afraid to do anything with them. … That means we’re leaving the sex education of our youth to angry heterosexuals who don’t understand.That’s one reason NAMBLA is so important. They are willing to take the risks that no one is willing to take… . They’re the only ones willing to acknowledge that adolescents actually do have sex lives.There is also a more basic reason why I support NAMBLA. They are the voice of dissent in the gay movement today. They’re the whipping boy, the fashionable group to condemn. … I say, watch out, tomorrow that whipping boy could be you… . In the efforts of the gay establishment to suppress NAMBLA I see the seeds of tyranny.
Where or what NAMBLA is today, I haven’t the foggiest notion, Will. I said and still maintain that 20 years ago it was an intelligent and highly thoughtful institution.
Will Shetterly, 6/30
I just realized you might not know why this issue has come up again, so here’s the quick background:
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s daughter recently went public with her history of being molested as a child by Bradley. Because of this, Walter Breen’s history with NAMBLA is being circulated online — apparently he was one of its founding members — and you’re been associated with Breen because of your comments about NAMBLA. Ed Kramer, another member of the f&sf community who was convicted of child abuse, is also being discussed.
NAMBLA itself may be no more than a web site now. In 1997, someone with some connection to NAMBLA killed a ten-year-old boy, which resulted in a law suit in 2000, and the publicity may have effectively destroyed the group. Whatever it may have been when you were reading the newsletter is no more.
We’ll have to disagree about NAMBLA’s goals. For me, there’s an intellectual issue: I don’t believe there can be meaningful consent between an adult and a child. And there’s a pragmatic one: while some people think sex with adults did not harm them, others, like Bradley’s children, feel like it put them through hell.
That said, I appreciate your response. You’ve been one of my literary heroes since your first novels appeared.
Samuel Delany, 6/30
Since I spent eighteen years of my life as a child, and nine years of that life as a pretty sexually active gay child, my complaint against the current attitudes is that they work mightily to silence the voices of children first and secondarily ignore what adults have to say who have been through these situations. One size fits all is never the way to handle any situation with a human dimension. Many, many children — and I was one of them — are desperate to establish some sort of sexual relation with an older and even adult figure.
Today, all such relationships are so completely demonized as to destroy souls and psyches on both sides of the purely arbitrary 18-year-old divide. All you have to do is talk to people on both sides to see it. Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurrit, wrote the Roman poet Horace more than a decade before the birth of Christ. Drive nature out with a pitchfork, and she will hurry back, and break through your barriers (the next line goes on) the victress.
The current attitude toward pedophilia is a tragic attempt to drive nature out with a pitchfork, and at this point it is a self-reinforcing tragedy, encouraging the worst and punishing the best by making no distinctions at all, as such enterprises tend to become. Centuries of Childhood, by Philip Aries, which is a French-authored scholarly historical study from the late ’fifties about European attitudes toward (and definitions of) childhood (published in 1960 and for many years available as a Vintage paperback, but not any more — probably it would be burned today) is a good place to start. I give my graduate students Chapter Five when we are doing anything about the history of sex, and their mouths fall open. I think that’s a very healthy astonishment, too.
Adults hurting children is my notion of a bad thing, whether it is through corporal punishment or in any other way. Children hurting children is equally bad. Pain is not a good teaching tool. So that’s where I tend to stop. But if someone is hurt, I think they have to be able — child or adult — to identify the pain involved.
I read Bradley’s daughter’s account, and it sounded ghastly. But Paul Williams — as heterosexual a young man as you could ever want to find — ran away from home at 13 and stayed with Walter Breen for three (?) months, and though we never discussed it personally (because at the time I never knew there was anything to discuss) apparently, when accusations would come up, because Breen was openly gay, Paul would claim that they were absurd and that Breen was a responsible and concerned adult, who got in touch with Paul’s family and even met with them, and arranged for Paul to spend some time there to ease the tensions that had developed at Paul’s home. And nothing else happened.
I got that part of the story from David Hartwell and other mutual friends; I could tell a similar story of a young woman who was a friend of my daughter’s in her first two years of the Bronx High School of Science who, many years ago, stayed with us for a week when she fled to our house and to her friend with bruises on her neck from where her father had tried to choke her. As I said back then, “I don’t care what a fourteen year old kid has done. Even if they have robbed you blind, you don’t choke them.” (In that case, it was because the divorced father disapproved of a boy she was seeing, and it turned into a physical fight between father and daughter.) And they were real bruises, too! I spoke to both the father and the mother on the phone, and all agreed that the young woman’s spending a few days with me and my daughter would be good for everyone. I think her father had scared himself to death, when he realized what he had done. He consented to her staying with us for a week with no argument. And parents do and did scare themselves sometimes.
To expand just a little on the tale I told you in the last part of this, when I was six, my own father who used to beat me regularly and very hard, also scared himself out of physical punishment, and stopped it cold right then and there. He was one very frightened man, and never hit me again. But up until that time, practically weekly he had, and he was the kind of man who, the more he hit you, the angrier he got, and the harder he hit — especially if he was hitting someone weaker than himself who couldn’t fight back. Even as I kid, I had the impression that he started out spanking me for what I’d done wrong, but ten seconds later, he was beating me for every bad thing that had ever happened to him, and taking it out or me. That was simply the way his personality was set up.
Well, that’s more than you probably wanted to know, Will. But kids need to be protected from things like that. I mean, listen to the late comedian George Carlin: “Which would you prefer? To be punched in the jaw? Or have your dick sucked until you came?” I don’t think they’re the same crime. That’s turning it off with a joke, but like so many jokes it holds its truth.
Samuel Delany, 6/30
You write, Will, “I don’t believe there can be meaningful consent between an adult and a child,” and that, of course, is the crux of the situation. I am perfectly ready to start by saying that consent between a child an adult can’t mean the same thing as two adults consenting. But to say that any such consent is without meaning, especially legal, is to outline a situation where children will be regularly abused by the courts and by adults who believe that — or who feel justified in acting as though children’s words and feelings and ideas are without meaning.
I think we also have to remember the lesson from Civil Rights, that “Separate but Equal” in an unsustainable equality. That goes for children and adults too.) Do you remember a Heinlein juvenile, in which one of the minor adolescent characters divorced her parents, because she brought a suite against them in court and won? I read that as a twelve or thirteen year old and it probably prevented me from an attempt at suicide. Somewhere there was a man as intelligent as Robert Heinlein clearly was, who felt that certain children just didn’t belong with their parents and wrote it in a novel read by children in the ’fifties, too.
The domestic field of the ’40s and ’50s was very, very different from that of the 60’s and 70’s. Several times after my father’s death, my mother told me that, had she been married to my father ten years later, probably she would have left him — neither for unfaithfulness or for failure to provide (he felt strongly that medical procedures for women were silly and several times refused to pay for them, both for my mother and for my sister) — but simply because he was an impossibly difficult man to live with, emotionally.
You’re talking about a time when ministers and priests in New York City in respectable protestant and Catholic churches, both, would stand up on Sunday morning and excoriate the new ideas of lax discipline and say that beating your wife and your children — within moderation, of course — was still the best way to keep peace in the family. And neither men nor women raised an eyebrow, much less a word, against these notions, as they left congratulating the Father on his intelligent and thoughtful sermon. Both as a child and as a parent, twenty years later, I’ve personally run into far more cases of parental abuse of the family institution than the system was set up to deal with. These are the kinds of things that could regularly be said in the 40s and 50’s. (Read the opening of Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels.) People rarely say them today.
Yes, I would like to believe that things are in general better for most kids, but they certainly are not for all. Yes, in the 90s, NAMBLA struck me as among the more intelligent ways of dealing some aspects of that situation. They started from what was there (a situation in which there were myriad child/adult pairings, at least in the gay world; the vast majority of them that I knew of or had been involved with as a child appeared to me benign. The most stable gay relationship in my young adulthood — and I was married at 19, and my wife was 18 — was two men who had gotten together at 17 and 19 in Philadelphia, and were still a functioning couple ten years later, in New York, in the Lower East Side: I write about them in the Motion of Light in Water; and some of their early stories provided models in this century for Through the Valley of the Next of Spiders. This is where NAMBLA started from, rather than starting from some idealized notion of what could or should be — which is the way I feel the best fiction and the best politics should work.
Will Shetterly, 6/30
Chip, FaceBook’s message system is awful for anything that wouldn’t fit on a postcard. I wrote this in response to your first message:
I used to think art (which includes jokes) revealed truths. Now I think art reveals beliefs. The choice is not between the blow and the blowjob. You tell of two men who mixed love in their treatment of you when you were a boy. One beat you. One gave you something you interpreted as pleasure. In neither case was the choice yours.
The federal age of consent is eighteen, but the most common state age of consent is sixteen. Argue that it should be fifteen or fourteen, and I could be convinced, so long as the law insisted that there was no doubt in a teen’s consent. Argue that legal consent should be eliminated, and your argument will sound predatory to me. Children should be educated about everything, including violence and sex, which does not mean they should be treated violently or sexually.
And I wrote this after your second message:
My opinion has nothing to do with anyone’s sexuality — I’ve supported gay marriage and adoption by gay folks for as long as I can remember. Nor does it have anything to do with the idea that children must be the slaves of their guardians. I also read that Heinlein novel and also agreed that children should be able to divorce their parents. And I dislike bringing the law into sex because I agree every situation is different, Some thirteen-year-olds are more mature than most adults. But without the law, every adult who wanted to have sex with a child would be free to try to coerce children into sex. That’s why I want to keep the only tool we have. It didn’t protect you from either of the men who misused you, but it has protected many children.
I did a little googling, and William Saletan has an article I generally agree with. While he only uses heterosexual examples, what he says should apply to same-sex laws too: Rethinking the age of sexual consent / Slate.
Samuel Delany, 6/30
Certainly that seems like an attempt to write a good article. Simply because I have read so many of these articles in the past, I can give you the critique it would have been immediately subjected to in the NAMBLA news letters of the 90s if it had appeared back then.
Start by trying to picture the incarcerated population. “You are throwing a horny teenager in with committed pedophiles,” makes you picture a population of fifty, say, forty-five of whom are over thirty-five year old men who go after sub-ten year olds — among which you now house five “horny teen agers” who can be influenced (morally, emotionally, intellectually) by the 45 pedophiles around them.
The jail-house reality, however, is that you will have a incarcerated population of four or five older male pedophiles and 45 horny teenage males, in their late teens or early twenties. Because human males are wired in the way they are and we have all known they are since the 1948 Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, twenty-to-forty percent of that population will be more or less amenable to sex with other guys, since there are no women available. Neither in jail nor on the street are you throwing a few horny teenager in with a lot of pedophiles; in both situations you are throwing a few pedophiles in with a lot of horny teenagers. The only way to discuss the situation at all intelligently (and efficiently) is to dismantle entirely the demonic notion of the pedophile that we have put together.
The author of the article is trying to “shave away” a few “normal” horny teenagers from that demonic image. I applaud his intentions. But it’s not enough. To make any real progress, you have to jettison the entire category and see what’s going on in each case. And men and women of good will have to talk to a lot of people and find out what they do, what they want, what they think, what they think they’re after, and why they think they can get it — rather than accept these media inventions for a category of human monster they have never met, never talked to, never seen, and do not know — and whose “imaginary” existence begins and is based on one’s total incomprehension of how such “people” could exist.
There was a time, Will, when such things happened, if however rarely, in this country. I can remember a PBS show on the psychology of rape in the late seventies, where three repeat rapists were interviewed in a series that ran over several days. What I learned about these guys was astonishing. This was the intellectual attitude that impelled the country to abolish the death penalty. Now the death penalty is back. That’s insane. (It costs five million dollars to execute anyone anywhere in the country — at least it did about ten years ago. Today it probably costs more. And the only reason we have the death penalty today is because the people into whose pockets that five million goes don’t want to give it up.) The guy who wrote that article is not even trying to re-invent the wheel. He’s trying to re-invent the hub of the wheel, and you can’t get a wagon to run if you only have a hub at the end of your axle.
Samuel Delany, 6/30
Two statements you make in these comments:
“I don’t believe there can be meaningful consent between an adult and a child.”
“the most common state age of consent is sixteen. Argue that it should be fifteen or fourteen, and I could be convinced, so long as the law insisted that there was no doubt in a teen’s consent. Argue that legal consent should be eliminated, and your argument will sound predatory to me.”
There’s a contradiction between the two of them that I think is important and its possible resolution might allow use to move forward. You say — rightly, I feel — that you don’t want to give up the consent laws because it’s what we have that protects people. Yet for the “child” you are willing to say that consent is meaningless.
[This paragraph was added by Chip after the discussion was first posted to Will’s blog:] You say, rightly, consent protects us — and specifically protects us against the law. But in cases of children under whatever age you set, if you declare consent legally meaningless, I’m sure you can see that those children are simply no longer protected *from* the law. And the idea that the law treats the victims notably better than it treats the offenders means you are naive and and have no experience of the court systems and its attempts to deal with the young — especially children who are seen, by their parents, by the police, or by their community, as involved in something illegal or immoral. The absolute blanket on all communication between the child and the offenders can often be incredibly difficult and painful for the child — especially if there is some real feeling involved, which for better or worse, often there can be. Once I talked to an eighteen year old woman, who, when she was twelve, had a sexual relationship with a 19-year-old boy that had gone on all summer, who was deeply scarred because it was brought to an abrupt end by authorities and he was never allowed to speak to her again at the threat of losing his job; at twelve, she was confused and shattered by his behavior, and only later realized he was terrified too. Yes, sometimes children are abducted and tied up in cellars or attics and used hideously. But with the exception of one woman who was, yes, as a child, tied in the cellar and used as the family scapegoat and general punching bag, and rescued at age eight or nine (taken from the home and put in an orphanage) — she went on to become a very fine singer, and an extremely good person, though it took several years in a mental hospital to make it happen — the kinds of stories I’m telling are far more common. I don’t claim to have researched this; but I also know what I have seen over seventy-two years that life has simply dumped repeatedly into my lap. Though I have a daughter whom I love deeply and am still very close to, I’m a gay man. Why do I know so many more women who have been abused and hurt by this system than I do men? I suspect it’s simply because far more women are. (Not a little of that is because, legally, many of the laws involved descend from a legal system initially concerned only with protecting the female child’s marriageability for the benefit of the father. It’s called “patriarchy.”) But I’m willing to talk about either because I’ve stumbled over both — and many more than once.
I think what you have come up against is that, in the name of pragmatism, we are asking “consent” to do more than it can possibly do. I also think that “truth” vs. “belief” comes into it. This is particularly a problem for anyone who belongs to a group whose social position has been reevaluated radically over time. Simply because I know how much I’ve been tempted to rewrite my past in light of the present — it’s much easier than radical contextual honesty — I find myself often wondering about straight adults who were abused as kids, male and female, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. (This was Freud’s big problem, and why he took as his motto, “Child, what have they done to you . . .?”) I think we have to go back to concepts of pleasure and pain — or ego syntonic and ego-dystonic, if you want to use some fancy Greek based terms for them. There are many ego syntonic things that will produce harm in the long run — as there are many ego dystonic things (medicine, shots, chemo-therapy, a cast on broken leg) that will make you feel better in the long run.
I think we have to be willing to ask people did it hurt or did it feel good, and start from there — and not penalizing people for going after what feels good, even if it makes others hurt, at least in the investigative phase. After that, serious educational efforts have to be brought into play. That’s largely the European attitude, and they tend to have far less penal recidivism than we do and a far smaller carceral population.
Samuel Delany, 6/30
The other thing I would caution you: Don’t presume to tell other people what happened to them using words they wouldn’t agree with.
I think my father abused me till I was six. After that, physical abuse stopped. There was emotional abuse, yes, but there was also love. All in all, I am happy with the kinds of parents I had — but I have to do a fair amount of work to find the best in what was not a terribly great emotional situation. And, no, I had no choice. The building superintendent, however, abused me not at all. To say that he did, is just incorrect.
In Through the Valley, I give what I think is a very strong argument against having sex with children, although the main character who comes to this conclusion lives with and knows people who disagree with him. What interests me is the number of readers who get to that point and tell me, “I realized that’s what you were going be writing about, so I just closed the book and stopped reading. I didn’t want to read about it at that point.” That’s a good ten or twelve readers whom I’ve talked to personally. Even the reviewers who like the book don’t want to talk about that part of it, because they are afraid (at least I think so) of having to discuss it, even though it comes out on the “side of the angels,” though it puts the onus on society rather than on the individuals involved.
Will Shetterly, Jul 1
I’m thinking we need to divide people at least three ways for this discussion — adults, teens, and children are very different. I recently learned that the Japanese yaoi genre (“boy love”, essentially gay porn for women) has a subcategory known in the US as chan or shota that’s about boys who have not reached puberty. When discussing lowering the age of consent, I suspect most people believe puberty matters; I do.
I don’t think pedophiles should be considered demons. I think they should be considered humans whose fantasies, if acted on, are likely to result in what Marion Zimmer Bradley’s children describe. And therefore we need the law to protect children and teens from adults who want to have sex with them. We could discuss endlessly how the law could be changed — the most important factor for me is that judges need more freedom to judge each situation than they currently have.
I don’t think pleasure is relevant where there’s no meaningful consent. Men and women can be abducted and brought to orgasm, but the orgasm does not excuse the abduction. The responses of our minds are far more important than the responses of our bodies.
As for telling other people what happened to them using words they wouldn’t use, we all interpret things in our own way. Someone may think Satan made them do what they did, but that doesn’t oblige the rest of us to discuss what happened in their terms.
I read The Motion of Light in Water when it came out; I haven’t read Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. I’m very glad to hear it has a strong argument against sex with children, even if that reason is different than mine.
Samuel Delany 7/1
What I suspect we need is not a single criterion for malfeasance, but rather a set of criteria that are weighted differently in different situations. Here is a quickly thought out example and by no means complete:
• PAIN or PLEASURE
• LENGTH OF TIME BETWEEN THE ACTS ENTAILED AND THE PRESUMED VICTIMS ASSESSMENT THAT HARM WAS DONE
• FEAR AND COERCION
• THREATS OF LATER HARM
And all of these should be weighted differently at different ages.
I would differentiate between threats of harm and true information: “If you tell, you will get in serious trouble, and you will be taken away from your parents and put in a home.” That, by the bye, up until fairly recently was simply true. If you tell, the society will do painful and hurtful things to you is something that should be laid at society’s door, and neither the victim’s nor the perpetrator’s, no matter who informs who of the fact. Intimidation is not good crime prevention, especially in sexual situations. In the long run it tends to encourage rather than prevent.
Consent would be weighted differently — i.e., less — for people under sixteen (say) than for over sixteen. Another factor should probably be whether the age difference crosses legal status bounds, so that one person feels notably more helpless than the other, legally.
Finally a composite score is reached, and the “seriousness” of the infraction judged accordingly. The consent of a seven-, eight-, or nine-year old is not the same thing as the consent of a seventeen- or eighteen-year old. And the “consent” of a three, four, and five year old means much less — especially if it’s negative. But it must count for something, otherwise you are just saying the child is not human and has no feelings or agency whatsoever — which, in itself, is abusive and counter-intuitive. And, I would maintain, immoral when another possibility presents itself.
Also, historically, it’s a hold-over from the idea that children are property of their parents, and can be dispensed as the parent (i.e., the father) wants. (In pre-republic Rome, there were so many cases of fathers killing their sons at whom they were angry, it had to be declared not a crime, or the early rulers would have had to execute as many as a third of the adult male heads of families, from top to bottom of the social hierarchy! That law has simply never been repealed; over the years, it has only been adjusted, bit by bit. First: Well, you can’t kill your sons, but you may inflict any physical punishment on them you like. Well, you can’t maim them for life, so that they can’t fight in the army. Well, you can’t torture or maim them. But any other physical punishment is acceptable . . . etc., so on up through the republic itself and into the present. Historically, however, this is still the basis for patriarchal law today. [See Georgio Agamban’s Homo Sacer.])
Basically, in patriarchal society we never give children positive rights — only negative ones. That is to say they are “protected” (by the state) and the administrator of those rights is always the parent. That was what Heinlein was arguing against, at whatever level of irony. That’s what I’m arguing against in dead seriousness. (I also don’t believe the police should be the legal enforcer’s children’s rights.) None of this, by the bye, is taken up in Spiders. That too is an attempt to make the best of what we have — so there, at least, we are talking about the same thing(s).
And twenty years ago, it was what (in effect) NAMBLA was arguing for.
We all want the world to be better for everyone, kids and adults and every one at every level. But, yes, sometimes — often — good intentions go awry in terms of results.
Will Shetterly, 7/1
I agree there should be different criteria with different weight — that’s traditionally what a judge evaluated — though I continue to think that pleasure is irrelevant.
Full agreement on your last paragraph!
Samuel Delany 7/1
I will give you the irrelevancy of pleasure. But I think in any situation of that sort, you should be asked, at pretty much any age, did you like it or did you not like it? Were you afraid? Were you not afraid? And if the answer is yes, what were you afraid of? Again, in different situations, these answers should be given different weights.
Samuel Delany, Jul 1
I should warn you, re Spiders, it has two male characters, one who has had sex since he was a very young child with adults and can’t think of anything it did wrong to him. (Believe it or not, I have known people who have felt that way. They’re not necessarily stupid people, either.) There is another young man, who was abused horribly as a child, and was rescued at thirteen, when he ran away from a situation in which he had been chained in a barn, and sold by his father to adult men essentially for a sexual punching bag. On escaping, he hitch-hiked around the country, selling himself to men since that escape. That’s the only way he could relate to other people (the all to common result of such treatment. But the notion that every child who endures something like this for years is simply uncomplicatedly delighted to be released from it is not realistic either.) He is not smart. Had he been caught by the police and placed in a situation in which he could not have at least some sex, he would certainly have tried mightily to escape. He is extremely masochistic in his sexual pursuits (as I have known several youngsters of fourteen, fifteen, sixteen to be. [Not people I was at all sexually interested in, I hasten to assure you.] It seems to go with the early development of street sexuality.) He survives with a black sadist who “rescued” him when he was thirteen, and we meet him when they have been together for a decade. Without question, he has been permanently hurt by his childhood experiences, but it’s also clear that he now has a home, a social life, and is accepted in his current society. The other character certainly has character flaws, but the reader has to judge to what extent they are because of his childhood experiences or simply contingent character quirks.
In my personal case, I don’t think my own six-year-old experience had any bad results:
In his cellar, a twenty-five to thirty year old super was masturbating. Me and another friend snuck in to watch. He realized we were there, called to us to ask if we wanted to come out and see what he was doing. (Did we ever!) We all sat together on his army-style cot. And at his invitation, we touched him — both me and Johnny at six were definitely gay. (Johnny used to beg his mother to let him wear lipstick in the street [there was no father] and to keep the peace she consented.) In the cellar with the super, both of us had erections. (That came as a surprise to me! I knew I had one, but I saw once pants were opened, Johnny had one too.) We took out our genitals and showed them to him. He touched us, and told us we would probably grow up to be big men. (More or less, I did.) Finally, without any orgasm from either him or us (we couldn’t have, at that age), he laughed and told us we better go, and not to tell, because we’d all get in trouble. I went looking for him once more, but he had moved from his cellar “apartment.” I was disappointed, but also somewhat relieved. Will, I have heard fifty or sixty such tales from gay men of this nature. It had none of the affect of abuse. If anything, it had more the feel of an impromptu educational session. We weren’t embraced or held against our will or made to do anything we didn’t want to. I’m glad it happened. I learned stuff.
And I don’t believe I was at all harmed. (If the man got off on it, it was after we left and he finished up — if, indeed, he did.) Johnny and I were the “aggressors,” not him. I believe his attitude was as “healthy” about the whole thing as it could possibly have been in 1948. (Later, when I was seventeen or so, I met some people whose attitudes were not! What I’d been through as a younger child with the super was a big help.) Had we been seen or caught at this, I believe it would have been gross injustice to prosecute him — or remove us from our families, which is likely to have happened. I don’t even think he was particularly interested in children. It just happened to fall out that way. The whole incident lasted maybe six or seven minutes — certainly no more than ten. If you want to say I was very lucky, I won’t argue. But I will say that I believe there are many more people like him in the world than there are Jeffrey Dahmers or John Wayne Gacys.
That had to be in the forties. (There was a coal chute in the cellar, as there was in my father’s building, and we came in through a back alley entrance that had probably been left open because of the summer heat.) A few years later, in the early ’fifties, I can remember as far back as the early fifties, watching a child psychiatrist, a Dr. Schimmel (his daughter was in elementary school with me, which is how we came to be watching the program) on a late night television show, who explained, clearly and simply that in most cases, where the police were called in to disrupt a sexual relation where the participants were under and over eighteen, the police disruption and the fallout from it — juvenile incarceration, removal from the home, etc. — was far more traumatic for the younger party than the sexual relationship itself had ever been. And he had interviewed many, of both sexes. I can recall my mother being very impressed with his argument and saying, “Those are things most people never think about.” You have to remember, Will, that this was a time when regularly young girls who were in sexual relationships with older men were simply committed by their families to mental hospital and kept there, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Nor has every woman so committed been released to date — and in certain places it still occurs. Less frequently but often enough to be notable, the same thing happened — and still happens — with underage boys who were discovered to be gay. Basically, that was the brunt of what NAMBLA was fighting. And I still think it’s a good fight. Just in my own life I encountered half a dozen such horror stories before I was twenty-three, along with a couple of suicides by young women because abortions were not legally available at the time. (The same ways the first twenty-seven years of my life were pre-Stonewall, a good deal of it was before Roe v. Wade — and I remember what went on. I don’t think many can envision the nightmare we are sliding back towards.) With the post-1974 economic down-turn and the resultant return to neo-Puritanism over the middle parts of the country, it’s still going on. For all the DNA tests on Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, daily, you’ve never once heard birth control ever mentioned. Comparing atrocities is not terribly useful. Still, the immorality of that simply dwarfs any statistical prevalence of truly harmful gay pedophilia. And as many folks have noted, heterosexual cases so far outnumber gay cases as to make the gay gases look somewhat dubious.
There are certain things we seem to disagree on to such an extent as to suggest they may be unreconcilable. From what I’ve written so far, though you revised it (and I’m glad to see you did), at first you had no problem writing “the two men who abused you” — same subject, same verb for two acts — two sets of acts, even — that were so different I feel I simply can’t agree to such a formulation. The argument that would be raised in court, that my childhood evaluation of it is meaningless, strikes the adult that I am today as immoral. One lasted for at least three, possibly four, years. One lasted ten minutes or less. One I had no choice in and would have escaped if there had been any way possible from the considerable pain that regularly made me scream and cry. The other involved no pain and answered my own (and a friend’s) curiosity. I thought of it as fun — though forbidden fun. There were similarities. Both men stopped — and one sent me away with some good advice for the time — though after incredibly different durations and after incredibly different acts and kinds of acts. Any court today would probably excuse my father. Certainly — specially because he stopped — so would I. But I can still see it as abuse. To call the incident with the super abuse is, to me, simply immoral — though of course many would — or at best is because of a technicality, of the same sort that unknowingly driving someone under eighteen over a state line is technically rape — though many convictions have been made on the strength of both sorts of occurrences and over both people have spent years of their lives in jail.
Just because I’m rather proud of it, I’m sending you a review of the novel, written by a young (35-ish) black African critic, Keguro Macharia, who recently gave up his tenured position at the U. of Maryland to return to Nigeria to be a gay right activist, because he felt he was needed far more in that situation than he was in this country to teach a series of university English courses. (He doesn’t talk about the way the book handles underage sex either, but it’s a minor current in the book and not its primary concern.)
Samuel Delany, Jul 1
I think your three categories of children, teens, and adults is a step in the right direction, though I’d locate four or even five such categories. Under five and over five are two categories of “child.” The vast preponderance of lethal child abuse is dealt out to children under five. Deaths and murders are far greater in that group — with most occurring in the first two years — than in the over five group. The simple ability to talk, even if it’s only to scream and cry “Stop!!” is, in statistical terms, a real “game changer.” There also has to be some real investigation into how many of the child murderers are motivated by the belief that if the child talks, they will be caught and convicted — and how many are because the death is part of the turn-on, a la Dahmer and Gacey. Someone who occasionally fantasizes about a particular sort of encounter is very different from someone who fantasizes exclusively about it, and/or feels that they get little or no sexual satisfaction without it. All in all, it’s a pretty complicated subject, and the more one learns about it, the more complicated it seems, rather than the simpler. I don’t believe in the death penalty for anyone, which means that all such work has to be aimed at rehabilitation. I believe that is really important, even in cases of murder — especially when the murderer is under twenty-five, as are most.
Will Shetterly, Jul 1
My suspicion is we’ve gone about as far with this discussion now as either of us can. We agree that the subject is complicated, that the current laws about consent are imperfect, that the death penalty is wrong, and that the goal for all convicted criminals should be rehabilitation.
Would you like to share these letters somewhere public, like my blog? If so, I would organize them, check for typos, etc., and then run that by you before sharing them. But I would also entirely understand if you’d prefer this stayed private. It clarifies some things for me, and I’m grateful for that, and I know there are people who would also find the clarification interesting. But sharing it would stir up things again, and I’d entirely understand if you wanted to avoid that.
Samuel Delany, Jul 1
Will, in these letters I pretty much stand by what I’ve said. Please feel free to run them on your blog if you like, if I can be free to publish them in an essay collection at some time in the future.