D. L. Riegel
Philadelphia: SafeHaven Foundation Press, 2004
96 pp., $12.95.
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Reviewed by Barry Cathal Johnston, BA (candidate), Dept. of Psychology, National University of Ireland, Galway.
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David Riegel begins his book by tracing some of what he calls the misinformed and unfounded counterarguments that are made in objection to Boy Erotica (BE). Speaking about one such book, Philip Jenkins' Beyond Tolerance, Riegel claims its author “fails to make critical distinctions, employs inaccurate and pejorative terminology, and on occasions, lapses into very unprofessional inflammatory rhetoric. He cites a plethora of anecdotes, but pertinent empirical data are noticeably absent” (p. 2). Riegel must have been greatly influenced by this book because not only did he choose a similar title, but the quotation above is a perfectly apt description of his work. Inflammatory rhetoric is particularly dominant as Riegel brands his intellectual antagonists as “a Pharisaical sect,” (p. 2) “co-conspirators,” (p. 8) and “self-righteous zealots,” (p. 82) all of whom are participating in a “war of terror” (p. 82) against consensually expressed sexual relationships between older and younger males.
Only too aware and experienced with the accusations that may be thrown at researchers adopting his controversial views, Riegel quickly attempts to dispel any notion of “pedo-advocacy”. He would rather his work be viewed as a dispassionate attempt to differentiate Boy Erotica (BE) from child pornography, and genuine BPM (Boy-attracted Pedosexual Males) from real molesters by means of rational discussion, empirical data and sound methodology. In what follows, he falls well short of his goals: his book tending more towards diatribe than dialogue; less reason and more rant.
In dealing with his enemies, Voltaire said he made one prayer to God: that they would be ridiculous. Riegel likes to make similar assumptions about his own detractors when he presents their views. He depicts them as ignorant and biased, succumbing to popular stereotypes and conventional wisdom ahead of more objective analysis. Such research no doubt exists – Riegel must have a parallel at the other end of the opinion spectrum – but he picks his fights selectively rather than exhaustively. Some chapters have few or no references and many of the studies for which he reserves particular criticism are decades old. It is easy to win an argument when one gets to handpick one’s opponents.
A cursory glance at Beyond Hysteria by any undergraduate student would reveal glaring holes in Riegel’s methodology. He placed links to his on-line questionnaire on a number of BE sites. These questionnaires sought information from BPM about sexual preferences, activities, use of and perceptions of BE. There is total reliance on self-report data, which is particularly problematic in the chapter focusing on the psychological adjustment of BPM. Despite the absence of psychometrically sound indices of pathology, the omission of which Riegel justifies on the grounds that BPM “had little use for, or trust in” (p. 16) the psychology profession, he reaches the audacious conclusion that he can find no evidence to support the common stereotype that these individuals are “emotionally disturbed, depraved psychopaths” (p. 76). True, but then he doesn’t really present evidence for much at all.
In the context of this study, the potential and motivation for impression management on the part of respondents is too great not to be examined or, at least, discussed! Here is an opportunity for a section of society, viewed with tremendous hatred, to finally have their voice heard. Consequently, there is great potential for this study to be exploited as a public relations opportunity. Riegel does not acknowledge this possibility.
Riegel points out that we are all paedophiles as the original Greek translation means more of an affectionate (philia) than an erotic (eros) love. He claims that, in many respects, we are no different from those whom he calls “boylovers” (the “honourable” (p. 10) name which BPM ostensibly prefer). This assertion ignores the fact that 93.5% (p. 44) of the boylovers surveyed report at least some sexual interest in the boys for whom they have so much affection. Riegel argues that this attraction is mutual, selected for in evolution, but demonised by a repressive society. Indeed society has much to answer for in Riegel’s outlook. Not only does it deprive boys of “those most desirable potential male friends” (p. 46) but, by extension, it also pushes older men into meaningless sexual liaisons, promotes boy prostitution and is responsible for countless suicides and murders by the marginalised and oppressed BPM. Evidence cited in support of these assertions consists mainly of …well, a plethora of anecdotes.
Riegel’s main concern throughout the text seems to be with presenting the boylovers as misunderstood victims of an intolerant and ignorant society. Riegel only directly addresses BE in five of the eleven chapters (strange, given the subtitle of the book) but, when he does, the arguments he presents in favour of it are poorly formed and inherently contradictory. For example, he claims the actors appear to be enjoying themselves and that the performers who responded to his survey stated that their participation in BE was a positive experience. The problems with such statements are twofold: first, given that the performers are acting, it is difficult to gauge the authenticity of their displays of pleasure; and second, self-selection bias may be of concern. The majority of BE performers who responded to Riegel’s surveys may have reported positive experiences but how likely is it that those with negative experiences would be members of the BE sites and discussion groups from which he draws his sample?
His second basis for condoning BE is that viewing the images provides a release for BPM preventing them from acting on their fantasies. By utilizing this argument, Riegel inadvertently places himself in a paradox, one to which he remains oblivious. The argument that BE has a cathartic effect preventing BPM from acting on their urges, which by their own admission may involve harm or danger for some boys, presupposes that there is something wrong in the acts. If these individuals believe the acts they view are appropriate manifestations of “boy love” then why is there any need to redirect their own urges? If they believe that they are improper, how can they condone viewing them? If this cathartic effect reduces the chances of further abuse of boys, does this obviate the impropriety of the abuse that must have occurred during the production of the BE in question? More worrying is the percentage of boylovers reporting interest or attraction to abusive stories (37%, p. 57) and images (24%, p. 51). Although Riegel’s emphasis is on the majority who react negatively to these stimuli, one cannot merely ignore the sizeable minority who find such non-consensual acts erotic.
It would be unwise to criticise Riegel’s work on moralistic or ideological grounds. Such appraisals are subjective and historically relative but worse they play right into his hands. Blind to his own biases, he presents himself as a lone crusader, free of the vested interests that condemn BE. However, as detailed earlier, there are other grounds upon which criticisms may be based. Given his stated aim to illuminate the issue of Boy Erotica by means of research shorn of ideology, he fails not only by his own standards but also by the most basic standards of psychological research. Beyond hysteria? Not even close.