Highlights of Prisoner Study (2020)

How Does Crime Type Affect Sentencing?

More than a thousand (n = 1,005) prisoners across the U.S. (70% in state prisons; 30% in the federal system) participated in a lengthy survey collected over several years ending in early 2020. The survey solicited prisoners through a books-for-prisoners program conducted by the Percy Foundation, which requested that book recipients fill out the survey in exchange. Sex offenders against minors under age 18 were specifically solicited, comprising 56% of the final sample. Violent offenders (e.g., homicide) comprised 33% of the sample and non-violent, non-sex offenders made up almost 11%. A major goal of the study was to examine the relation between crime-type and length of sentence, taking into account demographic (e.g., age at offense, race) and judicial (e.g., plea bargain vs. trial, private vs. public defender) variables.

Of key interest was whether sex offenders against minors were differentially sentenced based on sex of victim, given the traditionally much greater cultural negativity towards homosexual behavior. Such differences, if the crimes were otherwise similar, might constitute evidence for sentencing discrimination. For these offenders, about half the convictions were based on contact sex (48%), followed by child pornography offenses (43%), and then enticement (9%). Sex of victim was girls only in 41% of cases, boys only in 30% of cases, and both girls and boys in another 29%. For analyses comparing sentencing in relation to sex of victim, only the former two groups were included to avoid confounding.

Considering all crime-classes, violent offenders tended to commit their crimes at younger ages (i.e., under age 26) than the other two groups (45% vs. 20%), and they were more likely to go to full trial (51% vs. 30%), rather than plea bargaining. Sex offenders against minors more often had private attorneys (30%) than violent offenders (20%), who more often had private attorneys than non-violent offenders (10%). Sex offenders against minors, compared to the other two groups, more often were middle-class or affluent (49% vs. 38%), lived with both biological parents growing up (53% vs. 34%), had college background (56% vs. 25%), had professional or sales jobs (53% vs. 27%), and were white (82% vs. 55%). On other measures, sex offenders against minors, compared to the other two groups, had better family finances growing up, were less often physically abused, currently were more homosexually oriented, were less impulsive, and less often used illegal drugs. Finally, sex offenders against minors dominated federal prison participants (92%), whereas in state prisons violent offenders were the most frequent participant (46%), but with sex offenders against minors not far behind (40%).

In terms of maximum sentencing (in years) for specific crimes, the medians were highest for homicide (Mdn = 90), rape of an adult (Mdn = 42), sexual contact with a minor (Mdn = 30), and other violent crimes (Mdn = 20). Median sentences for child pornography (Mdn = 15) and enticement (Mdn = 14) were significantly lower than for contact sex with a minor.

Five levels of maximum sentencing were used to see whether differences occurred in relation to the victim’s sex: (1) low, ≤ 10 years; (2) medium, 11-20 years; (3) high, 21-40 years; (4) very high, 41-100 years; and (5) extreme, > 100 years, which included life sentences. For contact sex involving minors, boy victims much more often brought extreme sentences than girl victims (31% vs. 15%), while they much less frequently brought low-to-medium sentences (26% vs. 40%). No significant differences emerged based on victim sex for child pornography and enticement.

Was the significant difference in sentencing for contact sex discriminatory in relation to victim sex? Comparison with other crimes indicates the answer was yes. Focusing on the extreme sentencing category, no significant differences occurred for male versus female victims for homicide (46% vs. 41% respectively), other violent offenses (8% vs. 6%), or rape of an adult (10% vs. 3%). In short, in our legal system, which reflects our society’s values and attitudes, sex between men and boys stands out as a particularly heinous crime, more harshly punished in terms of extreme sentencing than all other crimes considered here except homicide.

An additional consideration in discriminatory maximum sentencing in contact sex with minors is the age of the victim. Did it make a difference if the victim was an adolescent or child? For this analysis, adolescence was considered ages 14 to 17 and childhood all ages under 14. It was for adolescent victims that the discriminatory sentencing was most apparent, bringing extreme sentences in 28% of cases for boy victims but only 7% for girl victims. Conversely, adolescent girls brought only low-to-medium sentences much more often than adolescent boys did (62% vs. 22%). For child victims, discriminatory sentencing was likewise apparent for the extreme sentencing category (33% for boy victims vs. 17% for girl victims). Only a small difference, however, occurred for the low-to-medium categories (27% for boys; 34% for girls). In short, for teenagers in particular, despite the reasonable argument for their greater agency, sentencing in the case of adolescent boys compared to girls was highly lopsided.

Finally, for sex offenses involving minors, we attempted to account for (i.e., predict) maximum sentencing based on eight variables in an ordinal logistic regression analysis. Maximum sentencing was based on the five categories of increasing severity discussed previously. The predictor variables were: victim sex (male vs. female); offender age at time of offense (<21, 21-25, 26+); victim age (<12, 12-14, 15-17); offense type (contact vs. non-contact); number of victims (0 or 1 vs. 2 or more); victim relationship (relative vs. not); legal representation (private vs. not); and case disposition (plea bargain vs. trial). Offender age at offense and whether the victim was related were non-predictive, while the other variables were. In order of predictive power and focusing on the level associated with heavier sentencing, going to trial was most impactful in increasing sentencing terms, followed by contact sex, then boy victims, victim age being under 12, having two or more victims, and lastly not having private representation. Extreme sentencing was most likely, with chances being 69%, when the victim was a boy under age 12 involving contact sex, with multiple boy victims, and where the defendant did not have private representation and went to trial. When all these factors were in place except the victims were girls instead, chances of extreme sentencing dropped to 52%. Conversely, the best-case scenario (i.e., in terms of likelihood of low sentencing) was when the victim was a girl, multiple victims did not occur, the girl was aged 15-17, the sexual event was non-contact, the defendant had private representation, and he plea-bargained. Here, the chances of low sentencing were 69% (if all factors stayed the same, but the victim was a boy, the chances dropped to 52%). Finally, if we restrict cases to contact sex, the best scenario for girl victims (i.e., getting low sentences) was when only one was involved, she was aged 12 to 17, private representation was had, and the defendant plea-bargained. Here, there was a 44% chance of getting a low sentence. With all these factors the same, but substituting a boy for girl victim, the chances of getting a low sentence dropped to 27%.

In summary, sex offenses against minors were often harshly punished (relative to most other crimes in the survey), especially when the victim was a boy. The evidence in the analyses points to discriminatory sentencing here, which needs clarification by referring to the literature on how boy versus girl victims actually react in the short term and respond in the long term to such sexual events, as well as to the literature on our culture’s current and historical attitudes toward homosexual behavior. Such a review is beyond the scope of this short paper, but in brief it consistently points to substantially more negative response by girl victims, but it shows a special prejudice towards male homosexual behavior that persists to the present day, both of which suggest the sentencing disparities reported here are discriminatory rather than just.

The Significance of Ketanji Brown Jackson on the Supreme Court

Ketanji Brown Jackson
Ketanji Brown Jackson

Although the Percy Foundation by charter does not support political candidates or take positions on specific legislation, it did take the step of voicing its support for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her historical importance is not only as the first African-American woman, but as the only current member of the Court with a background in criminal justice at a time when both expert opinion and public sentiment demand a fundamental reconsideration of inequities in the administration of criminal justice and the heavy social costs of prolonged mass incarceration. From her time as a student editor of the Harvard Law Review to her work as a public defender to her service on the U.S. Sentencing Commission to her practical experience as a federal district judge trying criminal cases in Washington, D.C., she has developed a distinguished profile that recognizes the necessary balance between public safety and upholding the constitutional rights of the individual.

That some Senate Republicans chose to attack her jurisprudence in a handful of child pornography cases over which she presided only served to highlight the issue as one that merits nuanced debate rather than emotional appeal to the politics of outrage. For the first time within living memory, media coverage has recognized the complexity of sex offense issues and the need for distinguishing between varying degrees of severity, not one-size-fits-all condemnation. In defending her record, Democrat senators have recognized that this once undebatable issue does indeed deserve careful public discussion rather than expressions of disgust and dismissal. To the extent that people are now willing to talk about appropriate parameters of sentencing in this difficult area, the attacks on KBJ may have backfired on her opponents. This issue is indeed a consequential one, as child pornography offenders are the most rapidly rising component of the federal carceral system, with whole facilities (including U.S. Penitentiary Tucson, FCI Seagoville, FCI Elkton, FCI Petersburg, FCI Marianna) now devoted to warehousing them.

She has been severe in sanctioning offenders, as in the case of Charles Hillie, who inappropriately touched his girlfriend’s two daughters over a period of seven years and surreptitiously filmed one of them in the bathroom; she sentenced him to 29.5 years. The case for which she received the most criticism was that of Wesley Hawkins, a gay teenager who received illegal images of boys from other teenagers and was manipulated into sharing them with an undercover detective.


It is not surprising that in a world where most adolescent boys find it easy to access pornography online, some of them, unaware of the legal consequences, will seek out and share images of other minors rather than adult actors much older than themselves. KBJ correctly concluded that a long prison term for a vulnerable young man who had just graduated from high school with an exemplary record would only expose him to bad influences and make him more dangerous to society.

The only other case of illegal images that resulted in less than a three-year sentence was that of Adam Chazin, another young defendant (20 at the time of his offense) with no prior record and no computer search history for child pornography, who unknowingly received from a friend some images of underage girls among a file of mostly adult images. The 28-month sentence he received after a plea bargain was in line with the recommendation of the probation officer who interviewed him. Probation officers who have hands-on experience managing offenders often have much more insight into the dangerousness of a defendant or his likelihood of re-offending than do prosecutors. In six of the seven child pornography cases cited by Senate Republicans, they recommended shorter sentences than the prosecutors, sometimes much shorter (see https://www.factcheck.org/2022/03/the-facts-on-judge-jacksons-sentencing-in-child-porn-cases/); this commonly occurs in child pornography cases, as experienced probation officers know that these offenders are mostly low-risk and rarely recidivate.

Even some prosecutors have doubts about the wisdom of pursuing these cases. Noted conservative legal commentator Andrew McCarthy (a former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York), although opposing KBJ on other philosophical grounds, defended her record on child pornography cases in National Review Online. He says, “I can’t tell you how much I hated these cases. … When the dust settled in computer-porn cases, it often turned out that the culprit was a kid who wasn’t much older than the children depicted in the porn.” He agrees with KBJ that sending such kids into prison with hardened criminals will do society more harm than good.

Moreover, KBJ’s consideration of these cases is fully in line with the views of most federal district judges, as a team of legal scholars who specialize in sentencing (led by Prof. Frank O. Bowman III of the University of Missouri) demonstrated at length in a letter sent to the Judiciary Committee (https://www.judiciary.senate.gov › media › doc).

Indeed, a survey of federal judges conducted by the U. S. Sentencing Commission in 2010 (when KBJ was a member) revealed that 70% of the judges thought the mandatory minimums in cases of child pornography possession were too high.

Public emotion over these cases is fed by two popular myths: (1) that most men who possess child pornography are pedophiles in waiting and long prison terms for illegal images are an effective strategy for keeping them off the streets, and (2) that they create a “market” for images from which criminals profit financially through exploitation of children who would not otherwise be exploited. (1) has been refuted by countless academic studies, surveyed by criminologist William Thompson on the Foundation’s website. (2) has never been credibly established, since most of these images are traded freely on the Dark Web. The Percy Foundation plans this Spring to conduct a survey of persons incarcerated for child pornography offenses to determine what percentage, if any, ever exchanged money for such images.

Already as a law student at Harvard, KBJ took a scholarly interest in the excesses and incoherence of federal jurisprudence with regard to sex offenses, in an anonymous student note (for which she later claimed credit in 2012) titled “Prevention versus Punishment: Toward a Principled Distinction in the Restraint of Released Sex Offenders” (Harvard Law Review 109.7 [1996] 1711-28). She questions in particular whether the onerous legal requirements placed on released sex offenders, including indefinite civil commitment in some cases based merely on the hypothetical possibility that one might re-offend, are not actually punishment rather than mere “administrative” measures for public safety. In her conclusion, she writes, “In the current climate of fear, hatred, and revenge associated with the release of convicted sex criminals, courts must be especially attentive to legislative enactments that ‘use public health and safety rhetoric to justify procedures that are, in essence, punishment and detention.’” This is a direct challenge to what has now become a long, sad history of federal courts upholding such detention in the wake of Kansas v. Hendricks (1997), in which the Supreme Court justified civil commitment on the basis that it was not punishment, but administrative regulation of particularly dangerous individuals who could not control their behavior due to incurable mental disorders. That opinion was supported by reference to false and debunked statistics, such as former Justice Kennedy’s remarkably ignorant assertion that almost all sex offenders recidivate, whereas the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study shows that the recidivism rate is only 7.7% nine years after release, one of the lowest for any category of crime (https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/recidivism-sex-offenders-released-state-prison-9-year-follow-2005-14). As Percy Foundation President Thomas Hubbard stated in a letter to California’s two senators, “Judge Jackson is an impressive voice for constitutional principles, from whom other justices on the Court and all of us can learn much.”

Book Review – Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West

Review of Eric Berkowitz’s Dangerous Ideas: A Brief History of Censorship in the West. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021) 320 pp. $21

  1. berkowitz dangerous ideaEric Berkowitz has written an important book on the history of censorship. It is good that Berkowitz includes the shameful 1873 U.S. Comstock laws that censored “lascivious obscenity” including books, illustrations, sex toys, abortion and birth control devices. However, unmentioned is the current campaign of the U.S. government to censor depictions of unclothed bodies and erotic interactions involving any person below age 18.

At least Anthony Comstock only burned things in his zeal to “suppress vice.” Today’s censors not only destroy all photographs, artistic depictions, and even cartoons that suggest individuals below that crucial age, but the U.S. government also imprisons hundreds of thousands of persons for many years, merely for exchanging unclothed photos of themselves with their friends.

What we are seeing right now are two current trends. First, the development of the internet has allowed people across the globe to easily send artistic images or photographs of themselves. Humans love to engage in such image sharing, and never before in human history have individuals had the ability to exchange erotic images and ideas so widely. As reviewer Ariel Dorfman notes, the invention of the internet is bringing “seismic alterations in the nature of information and its transmission, akin to what happened after the invention of the printing press.”

Second, while the forces of censorship have irrevocably lost the culture war over pornography, they have made a strategic retreat, and no longer harp on this common behavior among adults. Instead, they focus specifically on denying the right of young people to look at such images. In the name of “protecting children,” censors inflict permanent harm on innumerable young people with the scarlet letters “sex offender” legally imposed on them for the remainder of their life. President George W. Bush is the person mainly responsible for instituting this state apparatus to imprison sex offenders for exceptionally long sentences. But President Barack Obama expanded the program, even signing a law stamping those damning words on the U.S. passports of people with a sex charge. An entire generation is being criminalized.

This repressive campaign is a political act, enforcing an evangelical Christian view that nudity should be prohibited to people below age 18. There are few signs the current hysteria is abating, even though statistical evidence suggests little or no harm results from kids viewing sexual acts. Millions of youths around the world sneak a peek at such images, subjecting themselves to the real harm of state violence being used against them.

Unfortunately, this kind of punishment is nothing new. As noted, millions of writers and artists have had to suffer the torments inflicted by governing powers and religious institutions since ancient times. We can at least take comfort in role models like Margaret Sanger, who was arrested for publishing a column for girls about birth control. One of the most influential women of the 20th century, she never gave up, but founded Planned Parenthood, worked to abolish laws criminalizing birth control, and sponsored medical research that invented the birth control pill.

There comes a time, however, where inspired resistance is not the best response. Dorfman’s view that going into exile is almost as bad as being censored is not really accurate, if a person’s hesitancy to escape results in that person being imprisoned for many years, or being executed. Look, for example, at the three main reactions of European Jews after 1938. The first group denied the reality of the threat that Nazis posed, and kept silent in hopes that they would not attract attention. Their silence did not protect them, and most of them died in the concentration camps. The second group realized the seriousness of the fascist threat, and determined to resist at all costs. Most of these resistance fighters were killed. The third group recognized the lethal threat of Nazism, but determined to do whatever it would take to escape to other nations. Those who escaped were the survivors. When things get really bad, the historical record suggests, the rational response of those who are persecuted is to flee into exile if there is an opportunity to escape.

Still, it is comforting that Berkowitz concludes “censorship is ultimately futile and cannot permanently extinguish the thirst for freedom of expression.” This knowledge is inspiring, but while it may be correct that freedom of expression ultimately wins, individual lives can most certainly be destroyed. Preserve one’s life, however one can, and then live to fight another day.


  • Ariel Dorfman, “The Futility of Censorship,” New York Review of Books, April 7, 2022, pp. 32-34.
  • J.M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship. University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Susan Nossel, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, Dey Street Press, 2020
  • PEN America, “Freedom to Write Report”
  • Index on Censorship

Book Review – Bi: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, and Nonbinary Youth

Review of Ritch C. Savin-Williams’ Bi: Bisexual, Pansexual, Fluid, and Nonbinary Youth (New York: New York University Press, 2021). x + 313 pp. $29

The Cornell developmental psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams has produced over the last two decades a series of important books on gay teenagers and their experiences of negotiating sexual self-actualization. However, anyone who deals with the sexuality or gender performance of young people today is increasingly aware of their resistance to neat categorization by traditional labels and essentializing narratives. At the same time that identity politics has become hegemonic in media discourse and established organizational structures dominated by previous generations, young people in their teens and twenties are pushing back against this ideological rigidity and pointing the way toward what could be called a “post-identitarian” era that recognizes the polymorphous complexity of individual personality and self-fashioning. For those of us who grew up in the last century, chafing under the tyranny of labels and their attendant expectations, this development should be welcomed and help us deconstruct the inherited conceptual archaeologies that have too often yoked us to self-imposed limitations.

Although LGBTQQIA+ organizations nominally include “bisexuals” within their alphabet soup, and virtually all population surveys show that bisexuals greatly outnumber their other constituent categories, few of the leaders of these organizations would identify as bisexual and the distinctive challenges of bisexual life receive little attention from them. In part, this marginalization is due to the very nature of bisexuality as an anti-identitarian phenomenon within organizations that depend on identity politics for their funding and visibility.

One of the problems Savin-Williams acknowledges throughout his book is the very inconsistency of how “bisexual” is defined in previous research. He argues for the widest and most inclusive window: those who self-identify with the term “bisexual” are fewer than those who actually have physical encounters with both sexes, and those with experience are fewer than those who have had attractions to both sexes. Many previous researchers have classified as bisexual only those who might rate as an equally balanced Kinsey 3, or perhaps a Kinsey 2-4, whereas Savin-Williams believes that only Kinsey 0’s and 6’s should be excluded from the bisexual umbrella. Traditional research methods also fail to capture the fluidity of sexual preferences: an individual who rates as a Kinsey 0 at the time of a survey might at some past or future stage of life be a Kinsey 1 or 2 or higher. In addition, sexual preference per se should not be the only criterion: Savin-Williams’ case studies include more than one example of individuals whose sexual history is mostly with one sex, but whose romantic preference is entirely with the other sex. Savin-Williams estimates that the most inclusive measure of bisexuality, recognizing all these permutations, might be as much as one-fourth of the adult population.

Savin-Williams is well aware of how unsatisfactory the bisexual label is, inasmuch as it is eschewed by many young people themselves, who prefer terms such as “pansexual,” which refers to a complete indifference to the gender or sex of one’s object choice and would include attraction to individuals who do not conform to the gender binary. This term is not synonymous with bisexual, as many bisexuals distinguish sharply between what they value in male and female partners, but Savin-Williams does consider all pansexuals to be bisexual in that their attractions include both male and female. As he explains (p. 114), “… pansexuality has become for some youths and young adults a self-chosen recalcitrant and insubordinate identity, largely because it is sufficiently vague and all-inclusive so as the deliver no information to those who ask inappropriate, invasive gender or sex questions. As such, ‘pansexual’ is transgressive, a placeholder for those who are unlabeled, questioning, not sure, and none of the above and those who defiantly resist being boxed in by convention.” Although he does not discuss it, the term “queer” (letter Q in the alphabet soup) has come to function much the same way for other young people.

Others who are actively exploring or experimenting would call themselves “fluid.” A substantial number of young people, particularly those with limited sexual experience, respond to surveys with answers like “Unsure” or “Don’t Know.” Others simply prefer to “pass” as heterosexual, because it raises fewer issues for them. Yet others refuse to answer the question at all. Savin-Williams believes these should also usually be counted within the bisexual rubric, which he regards as an expansive umbrella category rather than a single, uniform identity or experience: “bisexual” simply means not exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual. Hence his belief that bisexuality is always undercounted in most sexual preference surveys.

As in his earlier books, Savin-Williams’ method is to combine synthesis of previous quantitative studies with his own qualitative interviews of mostly college-age young people. The quantitative studies, despite the definitional limitations discussed above, reveal much of interest. It has long been known that women are more likely to identify as bisexual than men, perhaps because of the greater stigma attached to male homosexuality as opposed to female-on-female sex (which many straight men regard as a turn-on). In one survey (the National Survey of Family Growth), 19% of women and 8% of men reported some level of attraction to both sexes, and in another (Add Health), 14% of women and 5% of men reported sexual behavior with both sexes.

More surprising is the generational divide. According to a 2020 Gallup survey (https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-estimate.aspx), 11.5% of the population born since 1997 self-identify as bisexual, compared to 5.1% of those born 1981-96 (so-called “Millenials”) and only 0.3% of the Boomer generation and older (born pre-1965); in contrast, the increase in gay or lesbian self-identification was far less dramatic, so this cannot be explained simply by lower social stigma. It is unclear whether this trend is due to older individuals who may have been bisexual in the past settling into a more fixed orientation as they age or to the greater historical saliency of bisexuality as a concept during younger people’s period of identity formation (since the 1990s).

In an interesting chapter, the book explores the distinctive challenges of bisexual youth from different racial backgrounds. A small sample of sexual minority youth published by Haltom & Ratcliff (Archives of Sexual Behavior 2020) suggests that African-American youth were later than other races in labelling or disclosing same-sex attractions (age 17-18), but the earliest in having actual same-sex experiences (average age of 14). Theologically driven homophobia and black nationalist hypermasculinity both play a role in deterring even self-recognition of a gay or bisexual identity, such that many African-American men who are behaviorally bisexual on the “down low” refuse to acknowledge that they are anything but heterosexual. The same phenomenon has been observed among African-American prison inmates who are situationally bisexual. Young African-American women have been shown to be twice as likely as their white counterparts to engage in same-sex relationships (p. 186), driven in part by the non-availability of male partners due to mass incarceration or desertion after the birth of children. Latinx and Asian-American youth also display distinctive patterns of sexual awareness and activity due to unique cultural factors, especially when their families retain the patriarchal values of the countries from which they emigrated.

The book makes a stab at treating the subject of gender variant youth, many of whom can be considered bisexual to the extent that their gender identity changes over time, even if their sexual preference remains stable. This discussion is not altogether satisfactory and should really be the subject of another book, which I hope Savin-Williams will write. I would suggest that nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender fluid youth stand relative to transgender or cisgender youth as young people on the bisexual, pansexual, and queer spectrum stand relative to exclusively gay or straight youth, but this is not an analogy Savin-Williams dares to make, perhaps due to fear of offending trans sensibilities. Transgender ideology relies on the same dichotomous essentialism as gay/straight identities did prior to the interventions of queer theory. This is not at all the same thing as the colorful gender expressionism and experimentation of the mostly gay, lesbian, and bisexual young people who reject extreme medical interventions based on exaggerated stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.

Savin-Williams introduces the concepts of toxic masculinity and femininity as foils to the discussion of gender variance. Again, this is a discussion that deserves a book of its own with reference to contemporary youth. Although toxic masculinity is described in a fairly conventional manner, I do not think toxic femininity is adequately identified. Savin-Williams sees it as a complement to toxic masculinity by presenting women as excessively submissive, passive, and domestic. Women who adopt that posture may well be toxic to themselves, but the more socially toxic form of femininity today is quite different. The impulse to domination and control of a subordinate partner, emotional coldness, and aggression that defines toxic masculinity is not unique to men. There are many couples in which the female partner is the primary bread-winner or emotionally dominates a weak and feckless male partner. Toxic behaviors that one not infrequently observes among young women today might include attention-seeking on social media, playing the victim when one is not a victim, vindictiveness, gossip, ridicule, false accusations of sexual impropriety, cyberbullying, etc. These may not involve physical violence against their victims so much as verbal and social aggression, but they do create victims nevertheless.

The book is most engaging in its narratives of individual case histories of the young people Savin-Williams interviewed, which illustrate a great variety of experiences. Some are still virgins in their early 20s, but others began sexual experimentation at very young ages. Several of the narratives of bisexual males recounted in Chapter 2 reveal sexual experimentation with other boys right around the time of puberty (or in some cases, like Donovan’s, much earlier). This was seldom seen as gay at the time, and some of these young men went on to identify as mostly heterosexual. But one does wonder whether early exposure to willing same-sex partners prior to solidification of an identity opens up doors to recognition of a later bisexual orientation. The issue of early sexual debut and its relation to bisexuality is something that deserves more systematic investigation.

In the past, bisexual males have faced stigma from both gay and straight. Gays tended to consider them dishonest, using heterosexual interests as a cover or in an inauthentic effort to conform with society’s expectations. Straight men would dismiss them as gay and promiscuous. Straight women would not knowingly date bi men out of concern that they were inconstant or secretive partners who might be infected with HIV or other diseases. Savin-Williams is optimistic that these stigmas are disappearing as non-dichotomous alternatives gain recognition and acceptance by a growing share of young people. However, his questioning of subjects does not seem to have included any items about the degree of disclosure of bisexual orientation to dating partners who were not bisexual. Is it still the case that 90% of bisexual men do not tell their wives or other opposite-sex partners about their same-sex attractions? How does this affect the depth and stability of their relationships? Knowing the answer to these questions is what will provide insight into just how far bisexuality is truly accepted by society at large.

Percy Foundation President Retires from University Teaching

Announces $300,000 Gift to the Percy Foundation

Percy Foundation President Thomas K. Hubbard retired at age 65 from his post as James R. Dougherty, Jr. Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas, Austin, so that he could devote his time and fund-raising skills exclusively to the Percy Foundation. Concomitant with his retirement, Hubbard announced his donation of $300,000 to the Foundation, as part of the proceeds he received in an unprecedented legal settlement with his former university.

Starting in November 2019, Hubbard was attacked by a loose coalition of extremist groups on campus, falsely alleging that his scholarship on ancient homosexuality “promotes pedophilia” and “advocates the violent rape of teen boys,” or that he was a pedophile himself and a “threat to student safety.” The initial organizer of the campaign is the daughter of Republican political operative Allen Blakemore, who was designated “the Darth Vader of Texas politics” by the District Attorney of Harris County (Houston). He is the chief political strategist for the legislative machine of the powerful and homophobic Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a former talk-radio host from Houston. Her libelous claims about Prof. Hubbard’s scholarship were not only rapidly disseminated through local student social media and Texas news media, but also national media including The Daily Beast, Breitbart News, Law Enforcement Today, and Freedom Project Media (an arm of the John Birch Society). The Law Enforcement Today story, which had the title “Professor Argues It Should Be Legal for Grown Men to Have Sex with Children,” was widely circulated among right-wing social conservative networks on Facebook, until Prof. Hubbard reached a legal settlement with the publication to take it down and pay him damages.

At 3:30 AM in the morning of December 9, 2019, the last day of classes, Prof. Hubbard was awakened in his Austin home by the sound of crashing glass in the front room of his residence. When the police arrived some 20 minutes later, he found that a cinderblock fragment had been thrown through the window and the front of his house was spray-painted in red with hammer-and-sickle logos and large letters spelling CHILD RAPIST. Threatening graffiti was also left at other locations in his neighborhood. At 6:00 PM that evening, a mob of 15-20 masked protestors invaded his property, pounding on doors and windows, shining bright lights at the windows on every side, and chanting defamatory slogans through loudspeakers. The demonstrators also put leaflets in every mailbox in his neighborhood with his photos and claims that he was a dangerous child predator. The hour-long demonstration was videorecorded and broadcast live online, as well as being archived by the ANTIFA-linked revolutionary website Incendiary News. Credit for the attack was taken by another Marxist group known as the Popular Women’s Movement/Movimiento Femenino Popular. This group had been promoting a series of on-campus sit-ins and rallies that Fall to demand the removal of various male professors who were accused of sexual harassment, and uniquely in Prof. Hubbard’s case unpopular viewpoints.

Rather than quietly retiring in the face of such an assault by extremists of both the Right and Left, as some other faculty did, Prof. Hubbard fought back, demanding that his university correct the record and take action against the students responsible for the libelous campaign that made it impossible for him to teach safely on campus or even reside in Austin. Instead, the University did nothing but issue equivocal press releases distancing itself from supposed “world views that harm people.” The University President never criticized the violent attack, but instead expressed his “understanding” for the “concerns” of the protestors who perpetrated it, and announced an investigation of Prof. Hubbard. That investigation turned up nothing, but its result was never publicized.

Once it became clear to Prof. Hubbard that the University had no intention of punishing the students involved or in any other way supporting his academic freedom of inquiry, Prof. Hubbard spent considerable financial resources to retain the best legal talent available. After giving them an opportunity to withdraw their libelous statements, Prof. Hubbard sued the three students who were most responsible for the campaign, including Allen Blakemore’s daughter. He also filed an EEOC complaint against the University for its failure to address the stereotype-based harassment of a gay professor (which qualifies as sexual harassment under federal appellate jurisprudence). Prof. Hubbard and his counsel believed that the university president was retaliating for a letter Prof. Hubbard wrote to the Board of Regents debunking a deeply flawed and unscientific multi-million dollar study that purported to demonstrate an embarassingly high rate of sexual assault and harassment at the UT-Austin campus. This tendentious study, based on a biased convenience sample and poorly worded questions, did great damage to the University’s reputation and directly precipitated the violent wave of anti-male protests that came to a head in 2019-20.

Hubbard was widely denounced by other academics who knew little of his case, but thought no student should ever be held responsible for anything they say, no matter how ignorant, untrue, or damaging to innocent parties. A bill was even introduced by one of Allen Blakemore’s clients in the Texas Senate to require universities to fire any professor who ever sued a student for anything; another Blakemore client introduced a bill threatening faculty tenure. The University of Texas System’s Vice Chancellor was caught lying in testimony to the senate, falsely claiming that the university had alternative paths of resolution that could have prevented a libel suit. However, Hubbard had defenders. Prof. Brian Leiter, a noted First Amendment expert at the University of Chicago, wrote multiple blogs explaining that these student statements were in no way legitimate expressions of “opinion,” but statements of fact that qualified as per se defamation and were a threat to true academic freedom. The state’s faculty unions were immediately on top of the proposed legislation and defended the right of faculty to sue malicious students, informing other senators on the Higher Education Committee of the pernicious political origins of the proposed bills. In the end, the people’s representatives emphatically rejected the bills; some of them expressed concern that universities’ failure to regulate irresponsible social media left them and their employees vulnerable.

Hubbard’s complex litigation strategy allowed him to use the discovery powers yielded by his three libel suits to expose the direct complicity of both former university president Gregory Fenves and the university’s general counsel in leading Allen Blakemore’s daughter to believe that they supported her. She had lunch with the general counsel on the same day that she disrupted Hubbard’s large class, was invited to the President’s skybox at a football game, was seated at the President’s table during a political event, and told by him “not to worry” about the possibility of a libel suit. In addition, Hubbard was able to subpoena evidence showing misconduct and mendacity at multiple administrative levels of the university. Evidence proved a direct connection between Blakemore fille and the violent Marxist group that attacked Hubbard’s house, and that university officials were aware of their connection.

In June 2021, the University of Texas offered Hubbard an unprecedented settlement of $700,000 if he would retire at 65 and discontinue further discovery in his libel suits that might turn up more evidence of the university’s culpability. The university used public funds to bail out a privileged and politically well-connected student from a wealthy family who, with a small group of other extremists, attempted to ruin the career of a major scholar whose work she had scarcely read, much less understood. It should be noted that the amount of $700,000 is far in excess of what would normally be offered in settlement of a mere labor dispute with a professor who was already 65. The amount is in fact nearly equal to the statutory maximum allowed by Texas law for libel WITH PUNITIVE DAMAGES.

This case should be regarded as a major victory for academic freedom against defamatory disinformation. Prof. Hubbard persevered in pressing ahead, despite ostracism within his own department and field, because of his conviction that honest historical and social scholarship on controversial issues must not be intimidated through ignorant anti-intellectual mischaracterization by political actors or press. He hopes that this victory, as well as his successful actions against multiple media sources, will deter such ad hominem political attacks on academics in the future.

However, Prof. Hubbard also believes that his case should be a warning to both scholars and donors that even the most prestigious public universities have become so riddled with political corruption and ideological uniformity that they are unreliable defenders of the free pursuit of truth. By donating nearly half his award to the Percy Foundation, as well as pledging the bulk of his large estate, Prof. Hubbard wishes to send the message to other educated citizens that honest scholarship in public policy and the liberal arts is better supported through private foundations like ours than through America’s hopelessly deteriorated and feckless university system.

Book Review – Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives

tales of idolized boysReview of Sachi Schmidt-Hori’s Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives (University of Hawaii Press, 2021) 254 pp. (cloth $68; paperback $28) ASIN: B08M93JFRY.

For decades now, literary criticism has fallen under the sway of what philosopher Paul Ricœur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” which erases the notion of an author as an “illusion of consciousness” and interrogates the text to uncover its hidden role in a matrix of power and oppression. In some cases, this methodology borders on what might better be called a “hermeneutics of paranoia.” This is why Sachi Schmidt-Hori’s new book, Tales of Idolized Boys: Male-Male Love in Medieval Japanese Buddhist Narratives comes at a precarious but deeply important time for the humanities. Citing scholar Rita Felski and using what she termed a “postcritical reading,” Schmidt-Hori closely studies the medieval Japanese literary genre, chigo monogatari (acolyte tales), stories of romantic encounters between adolescent chigo and older clerics within Buddhist institutions. (p. xiv) Though not dismissive of 21st century concerns of egalitarianism and secularism, Schmidt-Hori skillfully subverts the current discourses on this genre and its historical backdrop, and thaws out its humble but tender aesthetic which has been lost to the modern world, inside Japan and out.

The author

In her introduction to this book Sachi Schmidt-Hori explains her personal experiences which partly inspired her to write this book. When she was a child, her mother, a single parent of three, worked as a hosutesu (an adaptation from the English word “hostess”) in a nightclub in Kabukichō, one of Japan’s most (in)famous red-light districts. Every night she watched her mother quickly apply makeup before cooking them an early dinner, and at six she was out the door. Their apartment was cluttered and rundown, money was not plentiful, and Schmidt-Hori recalls the discomfort she felt in the subtly demeaning way people used the word “hosutesu.Though, despite their less than ideal circumstances, Schmidt-Hori writes:

Watching my mother negotiate with the club management and her patrons taught me a simple fact of life: power need not stem from wealth, a high-status profession, or a special talent. Kabukichō nightclubs may seem far removed from the normative mores of the rest of society, and many people believe that a hosutesu is at the mercy of her clients and her employer. Nevertheless, well-established clubs are generally governed by a self-regulating system that generates a power equilibrium among the three parties involved. (p. xvii)

She explains that reputable Kabukichō nightclubs in the 1980s maintained their prestige by enforcing firm rules of etiquette for their clientele. When a hosutesu moved to another club, most of her patrons followed along with her, so management couldn’t afford to accept clients who were not thoroughly vetted and who might alienate or abuse the women.

Moreover, there were a variety of ways a hosutesu could succeed in this industry aside from basic sex appeal. As Schmidt-Hori explains, “it is common knowledge in the industry that the most successful hosutesu in a club is not usually the most beautiful woman.” (p. xvii) Some women sang and danced, others flirted, and her mother brought in businessmen with her cultured conversational skills she developed by reading numerous books on the train to work each day. Schmidt-Hori writes,

Although my mother was not notably gorgeous or even particularly cheerful, let alone seductive or submissive, she did quite well in her profession with the resources she had cultivated by reading great literature and reading people. The sources of her power, I think, were her down-to-earth personality, no-nonsense authenticity, and an unapologetic drive for upward mobility. (pp. xvii-xviii)

Schmidt-Hori’s mother developed close relationships with many of these men over the years, with many of them even taking her and her children out to dinner at expensive restaurants, and her mother “regarded these men not only as the source of her income, but also as friends and allies.” (p. xvi) Instead of women being subjected to any and all of her client’s and manager’s wishes, all three members of these groups formed an interdependent triumvirate with distinct roles and shared power.

Though the inner workings of hosutesu nightclubs involved unfixed, fluctuating systems of power governed by checks and balances, her neighbors were unable to see her mother as anything other than an unfortunate object of pity. While Kabukichō nightclubs in the 1980s seem miles apart from Japanese Buddhist monastaries in the middle ages, these memories of her mother inspired Schmidt-Hori to study chigo monogatari and the chigo system “to learn whether there had been a self-regulating system that created a relative power equilibrium, or a type of symbiosis within the chigo tradition, like the unwritten rules of the Kabukichō clubs that few outsiders know or care to understand.” (pp. xviii-xix)


The chigo system

The chigo system developed in Japan in the Heian period (794–1185) and was a feature of the court-centered politics of the Fujiwara regency known as sekkan seiji. Members of the increasingly powerful Fujiwara clan used alliance marriages to integrate themselves into the imperial court. Members of the Fujiwara clan would carefully educate their daughters for service in court, where at least one of them, it would be hoped, would be named the emperor’s primary consort and bear a son with him. This son would be close in line for the throne. The chigo system was another process by which ruling powers, namely the aristocracy, the shogunate (military), and the religious institutions formed mutually beneficial alliances.

In this system, early adolescent boys from middle- and upper-class families would be sent to Buddhist monasteries as acolytes. In these monasteries chigos would receive an education, network with people in high society, and learn skills such as dancing or flute-playing, all while unambiguously being at the center of monks’ and laymens’ desires. There they were allowed and encouraged to brandish their charm and erotic magnetism, as well as form sexual and romantic relationships with older monks.

Because of their similarities, later scholars have drawn connections between this system and certain heterosexual arrangements, including those between shirabyōshi dancers and their male patrons, and meshūdo (“those who are beckoned”) and their lords. References to shirabyōshi and meshūdo in medieval Japanese literature often depict their plight as tragic and their fate determined by the fluctuating mood of their male benefactors. The chigo system, however, was different in a number of ways. First, the chigo system was an officially recognized institution operating publicly within the religious sphere. It was also a temporary relationship; the mechanisms for it’s termination came built-in with its structure. Lastly, the relationship was designed to prepare the boy for a position of authority, either within the Buddhist institutions or outside of them. Schmidt-Hori writes:

… For the youths in question, participation in the chigo system was an opportunity to receive a premier education, to create political connections, to demonstrate their filial piety to their parents, to accumulate religious merit, and to bask in the homoerotic energy inside and outside of their home institutions as idolized boys. (p. 25)

Showing some similarities to the pederastic systems of the ancient Greece upper class, when the chigo system functioned as intended, Buddhist institutions would benefit by ensuring that the chigos they brought up were put in positions of authority in the court or the military, while aristocratic and shogunate families were able to reduce their financial burden and solidify support from the religious communities. The chigo, meanwhile, would be the heir of all three loci of influence.

Like marriage politics, these arrangements were imperfect, but because these were formal relationships with the long term stability of these institutions in mind, a monk exhibiting any kind of hubris towards a chigo would be unable to do so for long without consequences. Furthermore, unlike marriage, these relationships formed the beginning of a chigo’s career in society, not the end. All of these factors make the chigo system an intricate network of reciprocal relationships with much room for individual expression at each point.

The chigo

Defining a chigo is a challenge because the concept has few parallels. In classical Japanese, the word “chigo” comes from chi (milk) and ko/go (child), and originally meant a child of either sex from infancy to around age 12. (p. 3) Later the word was used to describe boy attendants who partook in religious ceremonies. Eventually, the word chigo came to mean postpubescent boys who acted in a religious and erotic capacity in Buddhist temples, and who were often thought to be avatars of the bodhisattva Kannon.*

* In Mahāyāna Buddhism (the more lay-centered sect of Buddhism which became popular in Japan) bodhisattvas are defined by the author as: “Those who have almost attained enlightenment or those who have attained buddhahood but linger in this world to help others.” (p. 31) Kannon is the bodhisattva associated with compassion and mercy.

Becoming a chigo required an elaborate initiation rite called the chigo kanjō. After the boy spends a week being purified in seclusion, the next couple of days are spent repeating various chants and prayers in front of different altars with his master. Then, the master spends some time explaining the esoteric teachings of apprenticeship with the youth. After that, there is more praying, chanting, mudras (symbolic hand gestures), and purifying of the body with incense. The ritual is completed once the boy “recites the Five Great Vows, cleanses his teeth and mouth, drinks the holy water, and blackens his teeth with a brush three times” (p. 10). Finally, he enters into chigo-hood by putting on a special robe and headgear and his master pours water on his crown. He is given a new name and declared reborn as Kannon.

What Schmidt-Hori searches for throughout the book is an approximate understanding of a chigo’s sei . Sei, she writes, refers to one’s gender, sexuality, and sex, as well as age and social status. A nuanced explanation of this develops over the course of the entire book, but, in short, Schmidt-Hori pays close attention to the chigo’s “liminality,” and the ways the concept of chigo-ness was sculpted over the years as a product of converging discourses of sei. For instance, chigos were seen as “symbolic children,” though they weren’t infantilized. (p. 7) They were not regarded as masculine, though they weren’t feminized. They were on the cusp of divinity, though they occupied the profane realm of humanity to guide others to salvation. The rich and complex iconography of the chigo and the chigo system inspired monks and laymen alike, as well as nuns and laywomen, and this sense of awe was channeled into chigo monogatari, a literary genre with an important place in the history of medieval Japan.


Chigo monogatari

Chigo monogatari (acolyte tales) arose as a literary genre in parallel with the chigo system. They were first written by Buddhist clergymen for circulation between monasteries, though they soon became so enmeshed in the mainstream culture that a chigo monogatari parody was even written. Fourteen of these stories survive extant (including the parody version), and Schmidt-Hori closely analyzes six of them, though others are mentioned for comparison. Despite all of these stories being umbrellaed under a single genre, they were not all written with the same unifying criteria. Rather, there are a series of general conventions which a chigo monogatari can more or less follow. According to Schmidt-Hori, these are: “(1) at least one of the principal characters is a Buddhist acolyte; (2) the chigo and a Buddhist monk develop mutual affection; (3) the chigo dies an untimely death; (4) the surviving lover renews his devotion to the Way of Buddha; and (5) the chigo turns out to be an avatar of a bodhisattva.” (p. 46) Interestingly, only three of the 14 extant chigo monogatari satisfy all five conventions.

One of those three, A Long Tale for an Autumn Night, is cited as one of the most iconic chigo monogatari. For the sake of elucidation, here is the author’s summary:

When Keikai was a young priest with the rank of risshi (master of precepts), his heart was restless, despite his reputation as a great sage. Yearning for a true understanding of the Way of Buddha, he traveled to Ishiyama-dera and gave prayers to the Kannon for seventeen days. On the seventeenth night, a beautiful chigo appeared in his dream, so Kei- kai interpreted this as a positive omen. Nevertheless, the situation worsened back on Mount Hiei; the stunning image of the youth constantly occupied Keikai’s mind and heart. To express his grievance, he set off to return to Ishiyama-dera. On his way, Keikai was caught in a rain shower and decided to take shelter at his home temple’s long-term enemy, Miidera. There, Keikai stole a glimpse of a chigo, who looked identical to the very youth who had been consuming every waking moment of his life.

Keikai managed to befriend the chigo’s boy attendant, Keiju, and learned that the beautiful youth’s name was Umewaka; he turned out to be the son of the Hanazono Minister of the Left and an acolyte serving the abbot of Miidera. Keikai eventually won the trust of Keiju and this boy agreed to assist the monk with delivering love letters to Lord Umewaka. After a period of courtship, Keiju set up their first tryst. They consummated their relationship that night and exchanged vows to be lovers. Back at the Eastern Pagoda, the dreamlike night with the chigo further fueled Keikai’s obsession, making him completely love-sick. Learning of this, Umewaka decided to visit Keikai—he clandestinely departed Miidera, accompanied only by Keiju. On their way to Mount Hiei, however, the pair was kidnapped by a band of bird-faced flying goblins (tengu) disguised as mountain ascetics (yamabushi) and was thrown into a cavern.

Meanwhile at Miidera, the disappearance of the beloved Umewaka triggered chaos among the clerics. Hearing the rumor that a Hiei monk had recently pledged his love to this chigo, they concluded that Umewaka’s father must have given the two permission to elope. A mob of five hundred angry Miidera monks subsequently attacked the minister’s residence, burning every building to the ground. In response, Keikai led a force of over a hundred thousand fighting monks from all 3,700 branch temples in a counterattack, reducing all of the buildings to ashes and leaving intact only the shrine of Shinra Daimyōjin, the patron deity of Miidera.

Fortunately, Umewaka and Keiju escaped from captivity thanks to the help of a dragon god who had also been incarcerated in the cave. Despite a moment of joy and relief, the chigo realized that the two places he called home, his father’s mansion and Miidera, had been completely obliterated because of his own selfish actions. Crushed by agonizing guilt and despair, Umewaka jumped into the Seta River when Keiju left his side to deliver his letter to Keikai. Upon discovering the lifeless body of Umewaka, Keikai and Keiju were overcome with immense grief and pain, and both contemplated following him in death. The next day, they took the body to a nearby crematory and helplessly watched the beautiful boy’s flesh turning into a wisp of smoke. After three days of mourning, Keikai set out on a pilgrimage, carrying his lover’s ashes in a small container strapped around his neck. Later he built a hermitage in a place called Iwakura on Mount Nishi, where he prayed for Umewaka’s salvation. Keiju, too, became a priest and retreated into seclusion on Mount Kōya.

In the aftermath of the violent conflict, thirty surviving Miidera priests kept vigil in the shrine of Shinra Daimyōjin. Deep in the night, when dream became indistinguishable from reality, a lavish procession escorting Hie Sannō, the guardian deity of Mount Hiei, appeared in the eastern sky and descended to Miidera. The Shinra Daimyōjin then threw a splendid banquet and entertained his guests with a feast and music all night long. The next morning, after the strange visitors disappeared into the sky, one priest inquired of the Shinra Daimyōjin why he was so amicable toward the patron god of their enemy. The great deity explained that the destruction of the temple was not in vain, because it had opened up a myriad of opportunities for accumulating religious merit, such as rebuilding the halls and recopying sutras. Shinra Daimyōjin went on to say that he and Hie Sannō were ecstatic to see Keikai’s profound religious awakening. Basking in awe, these thirty Miidera priests decided to visit the hermitage of Keikai, who had now taken a new name, Senzai. He later built Ungoji near the capital so that he could directly serve the masses. Numerous worshippers from all walks of life were seen gathered around this holy man, crying tears of utmost bliss. (pp. 58-59)

Like many chigo monogatari, Autumn Night is loosely based on real events. The Rise of Conflicts between Enryakuji and Miidera, a 13th-century account detailing the above depicted intertemple skirmishes, reports a rumor that there was indeed a risshi from Mount Hiei who fell in love with a boy from Miidera whose later disappearance sparked a large scale attack and counterattack, causing destruction on both sides.

Schmidt-Hori cites Nishizawa Masaji’s (1980) comparison of the two texts to study the monogatari-ization of Rise of Conflicts into Autumn Night. Nishizawa calculates the percentages of the major points in each story to see which elements were expanded and which condensed. For example, in Autumn Night the battle between Enryakuji and Miidera decreased from 34 percent of the story to 14 percent, while the romance between Keikai and Umewaka lengthened in Autumn Night to 38 percent from only 15 percent. This comparison shows that chigo monogatari did not emerge out of thin air, but served to amplify and highlight the homoerotic elements of its literary and historical precursors.

One of these precursors which chigo monogatari made use of is the literary genre hōben-tan (skillful means stories). Hōben (skillful means) is an integral feature in many schools of Buddhist theology, and according to Schmidt-Hori it “can refer to a ‘provisionary divine intervention’ that meets a short-term goal as a step toward the ultimate goal of enlightenment, comparable to a raft that a person desperately needs to cross a river and will abandon once reaching the other side.” (p. 31) The influential Mahāyāna Buddhist text, the Lotus Sutra, illustrates this concept in the “Parable of the Burning House,” wherein a man’s three children are playing while their house is on fire. Their father has a cart outside for them to escape in, but they are too distracted by their toys to listen. The man uses “skillful means” to get them outside by telling them that there were three carts outside drawn by three different animals: An ox, a goat, and a deer. Because he knew that each of his children liked a different animal, he enticed them all in different ways. Once they were all outside, they all escaped together, not in three vehicles (“yāna”), but the single, true vehicle (“ekayāna”).

The idea that erotic beauty could also be a vehicle (“yāna”) by which one comes closer to understanding mujō (impermanence) and reaching buddhahood was formulated by many in medieval Japan, but perhaps most fully by the founder of Shin Buddhism or True Pure Land Buddhism, Shinran (1173-1263). Shin Buddhism was one of the most widely practiced sects of Buddhism in medieval Japan, and since indigenous Japanese Shintoism already had a relaxed view of sex,* this gave both hetero and homoeroticism a soteriological justification in pre-modern Japanese literature. This juxtaposition between the earthly need for affection and the divine recognition of this worlds’ evanescence presented in Autumn Night demonstrates how, “Tragedy helps humans find bliss in ordinary events, while profound affection for others makes the loss thereof all the more painful.” (p. 61) The author continues, “The most significant step in developing an anecdote into a chigo monogatari, therefore, is foregrounding the plight of the lover, followed by the solemn revelation that renunciation of all earthy attachment is the only path to enlightenment.” (p. 62)

* There were discourses in Shintoism that associated sexual behavior with uncleanness, though this usually referred to contact with body fluid and could be expiated with purification rituals, similar to the idea of ritual impurity in the Hebrew Bible. The moral problematization of sexual acts and desires, however, was uncommon in traditional Shinto beliefs. (p. 29)

20th and 21th Century Receptions of Chigo Monogatari

Sachi Schmidt-Hori first encountered chigo monogatari during a graduate seminar. She writes in the prelude, “These narratives turned out to be an abundant repository of all things fascinating: Heian-esque courtly aesthetics, depictions of nonbinary gender, an array of Buddhist ideals, portrayals of male-male love, and intricate negotiations of power between the chigo characters and those around them.” (p. xviii) Then she writes, “Yet above all, the reception history of acolyte tales intrigued me.” (p. xviii)

The Edo period of Japan 1603-1867 was a time of economic growth, the widespread distribution of art and culture, and an intensely isolationist foreign policy (sakoku, “locked country”). In 1853, U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry approached Japan with far superior warships with the intent to strong-arm the country into agreeing to open up trading ports for Western merchants. Seeing the United States’ power was unstoppable and knowing that taking the initiative would allow them to better control the terms of the treaty, Japan flung open its doors to the outside world, and thus began the Meiji Restoration – the returning of imperial rule back to the Emperor, ending centuries of shogun control, and the spurring of the rapid Westernization of Japan.

This had countless effects on Japanese culture, one of which was the adoption of Western sexual mores. These mores seeped into critical discourses of Japanese literature, and for a number of decades chigo monogatari could only be openly discussed so long as authors “prefaced their works with blatantly homophobic apologia for the subject matter.” (p. xviii) Ichiko Teiji (1955), for example, “In his analysis of the chigo monogatari genre, … comments that nanshoku* is an ‘unnatural act and a perverted sexual desire seen in perverts.’” (p. 35) Similar language was used by many other scholars in Japan as well. People around that time also began looking for an “explanation” of male homosexuality (though not of male heterosexuality for, as Schmidt-Hori notes, under Western influence “men’s desire for women (was) taken for granted as the normative behavior”). (p. 33)

Nanshoku is a word for homosexuality. It literally means “male colors.” “Colors” in Japanese has the added meanings of “love,” “beauty,” etc.

Then, in the 1980s, once again, ironically, due to Western influence, the tone of voice in Japanese scholarship changed, and “discriminatory sentiments about homosexuality have waned in Japanese academic publications.” (p. xviii) Of course, within a short period of time, chigo monogatari was quickly shoved backed into the closet, as “The homophobia-inspired negative evaluation of the chigo tales propagated by Ichiko and his contemporaries was replaced wholesale by similar denouncements of the genre – this time around, for its portrayal of lovers with an age gap.” (p. 37)

Just like before, as Schmidt-Hori shows, depictions of age-discrepant homosexual relations are now reviled with the same uncritical certainty as homosexual relations in general were less than 50 years ago. To demonstrate this, the author cites several scholars from the last few decades, including Bernard Faure who, in The Red Thread, sees chigo monogatari “as a rather crude ideological cover-up for a kind of institutionalized prostitution or rape” (p. 37; cited from Faure, 1998). According to Schmidt-Hori, Faure supports statements like this by “extensively cit[ing] Hosokawa Ryōichi,” who writes that shōnen-ai (love for boys) in monasteries “coerces the younger partner into a unilateral sexual servitude” during which time “the powerful priest controls the boy’s body and personhood, including his ‘inner-self’ (naiteki jiko).” (pp. 37-38)

It’s apparent that these are deeply interested and culturally influenced readings, and Schmidt-Hori responds to them by writing,

… their hyperbolic and highly speculative language irresponsibly demonizes the Buddhist institutions and parents of the historical chigo. To paint the chigo system with a broad brush as “child sexual abuse” contributes nothing to efforts to prevent actual sexual exploitation in our society. Worse, the hyperbole surrounding the chigo system and chigo monogatari stigmatizes these very topics. This stigmatization undermines the objectives of deepening our understanding of human sexuality across time and culture and of countering the sexual exploitation of vulnerable populations as well as various forms of discrimination against sexual minorities. (p. 38)

Meanwhile, studying the reasons for the sudden paradigm shift in discussions of normative male homosexual behavior, she writes,

Today, when the idea of transgenerational male-male coupling is evoked, we tend to make a series of mental leaps, from “inserter vs. insertee” to “active vs. passive,” and then to “dominance vs. servitude” and “predatory vs. victimized.” The contemporary critiques of chigo nanshoku and chigo tales seem to be premised on these mental leaps. (p. 37)

Furthermore, these “mental leaps,” she asserts, are a major part of what binds contemporary research on chigo monogatari to reductionist and stereotypical caricatures primarily formed through eisegesis.

A concrete example of this is the misapplication of René Girard’s “scapegoat theory” to some of the more tragic elements in the genre. This theory, as Girard put forth, posits that societies assimilate their collective guilt onto a few individuals whose demise cleanses the community of their misdeeds. Often, as with the crucifixion of Christ, the victim is later revered for the sufferings they endured for their communities’ sanctification. Connecting this to chigo monogatari, Faure, followed by others such as Paul S. Atkins (2008), suggests that the authors of chigo monogatari must have automatically known that the chigo system was immoral. Thus, to atone for their desire for boys, the chigo is depicted in the literature as “as an innocent victim who is sacrificed for the purpose of subduing communal violence and reinstating order in society.” (p. 48) This theory supposedly accounts for the unfortunate ends that many chigo face in the genre, and why they so often are later revealed to be bodhisattvas.

Schmidt-Hori, however, illustrates why this too hasty assumption is unfounded. Aside from the fact that the chigos survive the endings of many of these tales, when they do perish there is no reason to conclude that their death is evidence of the authors’ and readers’ shame in their erotic pleasure, conscious or otherwise. Instead, Schmidt-Hori connects chigo monogatari to the broader “aesthetics of romantic Heian court literature, namely, the waka poetry and courtly monogatari that chigo tales tend to emulate.” (p. 49) These literary traditions which chigo monogatari often drew from “privilege the poignant aspects of romance, such as desertion, change of heart, forbidden love, and, of course, the death of the lover, over a happy-go-lucky ethos.” (p. 49) Furthermore, death in Buddhist culture, while frightening and mournful, was conceptually for the ones still alive, “an opportunity to realize the impermanence of life and the need to accumulate Buddhist merit to ensure one’s own enlightenment. Indeed, the unification of love, loss, and awakening is a well-established framework that was prevalent in medieval Buddhist literature.” (p. 49) This shows how Girard’s philosophy, however interesting in its own right, is inapplicable to these narratives.


In addition to Autumn Night, Tales of Idolized Boys closely analyzes five other chigo monogatari. This includes the dark and dramatic ​​The Tale of Genmu, a collection of five lighthearted and bawdy vignettes, A Booklet of Acolytes (Chigo no sōshi), and the chigo monogatari parody, The Chigo Known as Miss Rookie, a work likely penned by a women which depicts a chigo who falls in love with a minister’s daughter. Each story has its own distinct flavor, as they all try in their own way to capture the mysterious and enticing aura of the chigo. Schmidt-Hori meticulously combs through each of them, studying their particularities and comparing them to other texts to situate them into the medieval Japanese cultural milieu, and it is apparent that her knowledge of medieval Japanese literature and history is highly developed.

However, for all of the interesting historical tidbits and pieces of trivia, Schmidt-Hori does not lose sight of presenting chigo monogatari first and foremost as literature. The context behind the characters and events in these stories, including vindictive stepmothers, warfare between temples, and kindhearted nun-goblins, are all discussed in terms of the role they played in traditional Japanese synecdoche, not cynically with the intent of “breaking the spell,” but to give the reader a better appreciation of the watch by revealing the intricate gears and springs within.

If one needed to find a fault with this book, perhaps it would be a general lack of focus in the final chapter. Here Schmidt-Hori discusses the above mentioned chigo monogatari, Miss Rookie. Because Miss Rookie is a parody of the chigo monogatari genre, it is naturally separated from the other five stories analyzed (nine if you count each vignette separately in A Booklet of Acolytes), hence its commentary is likewise disconnected somewhat from the rest of the book. Parodies are an excellent avenue for understanding a particular genre, as seeing which elements of it are subverted and rearranged gives better insight into the genre’s essential structure and how it was received, especially by readers for whom it was not primarily written. However, such a large and sudden shift in the book’s direction was noticeable. Perhaps condensing this last chapter and incorporating another of the eight remaining chigo monogatari would have done the final product some good.


Sachi Schmidt-Hori combines composure and open-mindedness with scholarly rigor to counter the dominantly accepted articles of faith on human sexuality and social organization as they pertain to chigo monogatari and the chigo system. Despite moral disapproval from publishers and suggestions that she “choose a ‘safer’ topic for (her) first book,” her tenacity and natural curiosity towards the inner workings of power relations alone have made this work possible. (p. xix)

No blind adoration, though, of chigo monogatari and the chigo system can be found in this book, either. Her intention instead was “to let chigo monogatari speak for themselves first, rather than approach the texts with a predetermined thesis.” (p. 164) This she does through a close reading of these works designed to reestablish the original ambiance and modus vivendi of medieval Japanese court life, and present chigo monogatari to 21st century readers in its proper form. Though this book documents a relatively slim episode of all of Japanese literary history, its potential applications for anyone interested in Buddhist studies, gender/queer studies, reception history, and social theory is immense and makes Tales of Idolized Boys well worth the time.

Book Review – Debauched Genius: The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Debauched Genius TchaikovskyReview of D.H. Gutzman’s Debauched Genius, The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Amazon, 2021) 322 pp. (paperback $15; Kindle version $9)

D.H. Gutzman’s novel, Debauched Genius: The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a vodka-drenched romp through the life and mind of one of the world’s most renowned composers. Extensively researched, and closely adhering to the biographical facts insomuch as they are known, Debauched Genius resurrects Tchaikovsky as a restless but brilliant soul, constantly teetering between fear and love. It’s not a perfectly told story. Too often the characters seem to be speaking purely for the sake of edifying the reader listening in, making the dialogue occasionally feel maladroit. Likewise, its abrupt ending left me with a slightly unsated sensation and desirous of a more circumspect and sober denouement. All the same, in today’s day and age when human sexuality, especially as it pertains to great historical figures, is more than ever under the intense heat of the magnifying glass, Gutzman’s novel – at once sincere, tragic, and riotously funny – limns the complex entanglement of creativity and corporeality.


Inner Demons

Debauched Genius opens in 1870 on Tchaikovsky in the middle of intercourse with Eduard Zak, his then 18-year-old music student. Before Tchaikovsky can climax, Zak pulls himself out from under him and tells his tutor that he no longer wants a sexual relationship. Though apparently heterosexual, Zak loves Tchaikovsky and wishes to remain friends. Tchaikovsky loves him as well, but “Pyotr could no more quell his need to combine love with sex, than he could repress the excessive, overwrought passion in his composition” (Location 231 on Kindle). Zak, meanwhile, believed “The sex [was] killing [their] love,” and hoped to continue a Platonic relationship with Tchaikovsky without what he called the “sordidness” of intercourse. Despite Tchaikovsky’s pleading, Zak puts on his clothes and leaves the room. Chapter one ends with Tchaikovsky on the floor, clutching the score for his just completed Romeo and Juliet orchestral fantasy and shaking it at the door: “‘I wrote this for you …’ he screamed. ‘This is my love. This is my love and it is all for you!’ And it was.” (L 93)

The fact that Zak calls off the affair with Tchaikovsky in the midst of the sex act seems a deliberate authorial provocation to the reader who may by proxy experience his “unfulfilled need and the pain of his swollen arousal.” (L 70) This doesn’t justify Tchaikovsky’s behavior as Gutzman portrays it, which comes across as highly immature and petty, but it does show the authoritative strength of sexual desires, not so easily subdued. Moreover, by endeavoring to bring the reader into the erotics of the scene and make them complicit in desire, potentially judgmental readers whose sexualities and social conditions allow for easy and risk-free erotic release are perhaps reminded that ultimately we are all existing from one orgasm to the next, the only difference is how far the distance is between them. As in a tragic opera, this first chapter serves as an overture for the rest of the narrative.

Tchaikovsky’s vulnerability to absolute infatuation with handsome boys began young. In chapter seven, we see Tchaikovsky at 14 in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg, where he experienced his first major crush on Sergey Kireyev, four years his junior. Tchaikovsky followed this boy all over school grounds, and Kireyev was well aware of the effect he had on his admirer. At one point in the novel, Kireyev and his friends are congregating around the staircase leading from the school down to the waters of the Neva river while Tchaikovsky watches him from nearby. To flaunt his power over the future composer in front of the other boys, Kireyev calls Tchaikovsky over and says, “Ptyor, moi droog, I feel like slapping you. May I please slap you really hard?” (L 467). Tchaikovsky gladly agrees. “The younger boy smiled sweetly and then struck his would-be friend as hard as he could in the face.” (L 467) Kireyev then tells Tchaikovsky that he might allow him to write a song about him and sing it for him, but only if Tchaikovsky lowers his trousers and exposes his member to the group. Again Tchaikovsky agrees, and “somehow the humiliation fed his love.” (L 479)

Another romance of Tchaikovsky – in a way the reverse of his affair with Zak – is with the precocious young Count Vladimir Shilovsky. Shilovsky was one of Tchaikovsky’s aristocratic students who supported Tchaikovsky financially in his early career. Unlike Zak, Shilovsky is homosexual and Tchaikovsky’s desire for him is fully reciprocated. Though, in chapter six, after Zak has left, Tchaikovsky becomes too distraught to show the same enthusiasm for the count, and Shilovsky departs feeling betrayed.

Later, in chapter 11, at a party celebrating Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, a drunk and brazen Shilovsky walks into Tchaikovsky’s bedroom and finds a timid Joseph Kotek – shy and adolescent, though already a skilled violinist – sitting alone. Shilovsky instantly assumes (and he isn’t wrong) that he has found his replacement and decides to have some fun at the boy’s expense. Pretending to read his palm he tells Kotek, “Knowing Pyotr Ilyich, I know you …. You come from money, right? And you’re a musician with enormous potential …. And you’re beautiful. Perfect.” (L 799). Then he says:

Now I will tell you about him. He is not what he seems. You will have to play nurse as well as lover. Nurse and mother, too. He has hallucinations. When he calls you ‘Mamma’ and crawls into your arms, you mustn’t show surprise. Sing him a lullaby. (L 799)

Soon, the composer’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky, comes in to rescue Kotek. After Modest and Shilovsky bicker for a bit, Modest gives Kotek some advice of his own. In response to Kotek clarifying to Modest that he is not a homosexual, Modest replies:

It doesn’t matter what you are not. You’ll fall in love with him and not know why. It’s because he’s a genius and a child. As a child, every sensation overwhelms him, from the first snowfall to the last wildflower. Every moment in his life, every event, is intense. Sex is not a game to him, as it is with Shilovsky or an adventure, as it is with me. To Pyotr, sex is an attempt to cling to some kind of internal safety, some security … to fill an emptiness in him. He never seeks to corrupt youth as gossips accuse. He seeks to commune with it, to ward off not only the fear of death, but the terrible sadness of being alive. (L 848)

For obvious reasons, this advice doesn’t make Kotek feel very comfortable either. At the door, ready to leave, Kotek tells them that the reason he’s at the party is to hear Tchaikovsky’s music, which he loves. Then he confesses tearfully, “I only wish he would write something with more joy in it.” (L 886) Shilovsky responds:

Oh, my dear, sweet, innocent malchick, Joseph Kotek … don’t you realize there is no such thing as joy in Russian music, anywhere? There is longing, desire, regret, conquest, defeat, despair, devotion, guilt, and sex, but no joy. There is a kind of frantic hysterical abandonment that some mistake for happiness, but no joy. A wistful hope perhaps, but no joy. If you think you sense joy, you are either mistaken or not Russian. (L 886)

The specter of the public

Kotek does in fact fall in love with Tchaikovsky and they remain together for several years, though their relationship falls apart in chapter 26, when Tchaikovsky decides to remove the dedication he wrote for Kotek on his Violin Concerto in D Major. He wrote this concerto “for and with Joseph Kotek,” and though it was a very difficult piece for the violin, he knew that Joseph’s talent was up to the task. (L 2147) However, Tchaikovsky had a constant fear of social condemnation and was worried what a dedication to Kotek would imply, as rumors were already circulating. This deeply hurt Kotek, and after hearing Tchaikovsky’s explanation he said to him, “So you erase me from your work? Your work is your soul. This work is our love … you can hear it in every note. It was written for my fingers, for my talent, for my feelings. No one else could play it the same” (L 2196). Joseph left, and once again Tchaikovsky was in despair.

The fear of ridicule comes up at many points in the novel, for instance in chapter eight during a partially public argument between Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky. The composer is visibly worried that his lover will make a scene out of spite, and Gutzman writes, “What Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky feared more than anything in the world was not Truth, but public humiliation. Public rejection.” (L 614) Tchaikovsky is never shown in the novel to crave fame, though beset as he is by severe social anxiety, the specters of gossip, rumor, scorn, and mockery are his omnipresent, faceless antagonists throughout the text. In chapter one, Gutzman takes the idea of sexual gratification – often written off as a shallow and unnecessary luxury, especially for sexual minorities – and reconceptualizes it as a critical element of, if not contentment, then profound relief. Here, Gutzman does the same thing with public acceptance, another concept which has a special significance for sexual minorities. Tchaikovsky’s obsession with what the newspapers of the world will write of him in lieu of concern for whether or not his actions are morally appropriate at first glance seems to discredit Tchaikovsky’s character and indicate that he would ultimately eschew care for others if the Ring of Gyges was within reach.

However, it’s clear that Tchaikovsky’s fear of derision is much deeper than arrogance, vanity, or a need for veneration. Instead, the text explores the trial of understanding oneself in a heavily appearance-based society. Being a man of such passion and sensitivity in a world where from a very young age one is under intense expectations to act “respectable,” Tchaikovsky struggles to distinguish between his public image and his own individual nature. Near the end, in chapter 42, Tchaikovsky is being dressed before a performance by Modest, “Bob” (his nephew and lover), and Alyosha (his servant and occasional lover). Suffering from crippling stage-fright as he typically did, Tchaikovsky is not up to the task of doing it himself, instead rambling on about his many anxieties. As they attach his cuff studs, he says, “Whenever I read about a horrible criminal, a murderer or a rapist about to be executed, I try to find a picture of his face. I study it, looking for some sign of his evil. And no matter how heinous the crime, I find myself feeling sorry for him. For the criminal. How did it all come about?” (L 3787)

This theme is taken further by two story arcs that take place after the main events of the novel. One is set in 1895 and involves Modest, Bob, and other close associates of Tchaikovsky going through his diaries and letters in order to hide all references to his sexuality. The second takes place in 2014 at the Tchaikovsky museum at Klin, where a government official is seeking to verify that nothing incriminating about Tchaikovsky’s life is available to the general public in preparation for the upcoming Winter Olympics. These time jumps awaken the reader to the way history negotiates itself with posterity, and inspects how much gets lost when authenticity is forced into an ill-fitting but socially acceptable narrative.

For instance, in Chapter three, set in 1895, Modest and Bob are in a room surrounded by boxes of documents preparing for the task of censoring and altering their brother and uncle’s personal papers. Modest says to Bob, “We’re going to destroy the man we know and love and create the one that history will revere.” (L 252) However, neither are happy about this project, especially Bob, who pulls out Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6,” and says to Modest, “What about this? It’s dedicated to me. His last symphony. I won’t let you change that.” (L 275) Modest says, “It’s all right. It may remain as he wrote it. A dedication to a nephew is not something out of line or suspect. You are allowed to be ‘beloved nephew,’ but nothing more.” (L 275).

Engagement with women

Two female characters get extended presentations in Debauched Genius. The first of these is Tchaikovsky’s correspondent and patroness Nadezhda von Meck, the manageress of a railway network which she inherited from her late husband. She is depicted as an astute and socially intuitive woman, if somewhat eccentric. She is enraptured by Tchaikovsky’s music and supports him financially, though under the condition that they never meet face-to-face, fearing that a conversation in the same room would make their friendship stuffy and lifeless. Von Meck becomes one of Tchaikovsky’s closest confidants, and they exchange numerous letters throughout the novel.

The second major female character, by contrast, is less concerned with personal boundaries than the first. Antonia Milyukova first sees Tchaikovsky in chapter 21 at a performance and immediately falls in love, writing to him repeatedly for a chance to speak in person. Tchaikovsky politely declines, but as she insists, he struggles to figure out “How to level with her without leveling with her? How to be honestly dishonest.” (L 1762) Eventually, he agrees to meet, thinking that perhaps she would be able to pick up on subtext and consent to being his “beard.” He tells her that he has “certain shortcomings in the department of intimacy,” and says also that he has “gentlemen friends and business partners who, out of habit, required a great deal of personal attention.” (L 1762, L 1817) He assumes, foolishly it turns out, that she understood he was homosexual, though “It was only later at the church, being prodded to repeat the vows, “that Pyotr suddenly understood that in fact, she understood nothing.” (L 1909) Tchaikovsky stumbles backward under the pressure of this realization, and Joseph Kotek has to whisper in his ear, “Kiss the bride.” (L 1909)

On their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky arranges that they would sleep in separate bedrooms, which Milyukova agrees to, but eventually she enters into Tchaikovsky’s room in seductive clothing and responds to his protestations by saying, “Don’t you think it’s time to dispense with your shortcomings?” obviously not understanding the intended connotation of that word. (L 1936) The scene of the great composer undergoing a nervous breakdown while trying to repeal a woman who is oblivious to nuance, and who thinks she can redress Tchaikovsky’s “shortcomings” with enough effort Gutzman illustrates in all its painful awkwardness without missing its comedic farcicality.


The question of age

One aspect of the novel that I struggled to understand was how Gutzman navigates the question of the ages of the young men Tchaikovsky fell for erotically and romantically? With the age gap lately the most contested fault line in contemporary Western sexual regulation and discourse, does Gutzman draw attention to Tchaikovsky as a lover of youths, or does he assimilate the evidence of the composer’s same-sex attractions into the established contemporary LGBTQ identity?

Prima facie, Gutzman plumps for the latter. For instance, at novel’s end, in his acknowledgments, Gutzman chastises many biographers of Tchaikovsky who dismiss his sexual orientation as inconsequential, writing that, on the contrary, it was a fundamental part of his life and an inspiration at every turn to his music. Being gay himself, the author says, he better understands the role that homosexuality plays in driving a creator’s artwork. Furthermore, in the present-day sections of the novel, when the museum curator Sasha (who is gay) is contemplating the current situation of homosexuals compared to the late 19th century, he thinks, “While much of the rest of the world was accepting gay marriage, Russia was still imprisoning homosexuals. And in America, certain gay youths were still being disowned by backward parents.” (L 3235) Later, Sasha laments over how much of Russia was “brainwashed to believe that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one-hundred percent heterosexual.” (L 3248) Here it seems that the line between these 21st century “gay youths” and “imprisoned homosexuals” and the sexuality of Pyotr Tchaikovsky is clear and obvious.

However, there are ample instances in the novel where Tchaikovsky’s interest in males only within a certain age range is overtly specified. For starters, the word “boy” is used 250 times in the novel. More specifically, when Eduard Zak tells Tchaikovsky that he can’t help being attracted to women any more than Tchaikovsky can help being attracted to men, Tchaikovsky replies, “Boys. I am attracted to boys.” (L 107) When Shilovsky asks Tchaikovsky what more he can do to get him to stay with him, “Pyotr squeezed his eyes shut and sadly said, ‘Be fifteen again!’” (L 449) Near the end, in chapter 42, Tchaikovsky is listening while some men bring up his past sexual encounters with boys and young men (I won’t spoil the exact circumstances). When he protests that these affairs were consensual, one man retorts, “My God, man, we are speaking of sodomy. You used our children to sin against God!” (L 3748). Finally, when Modest and Bob are going through Tchaikovsky’s papers in 1895, Modest says, “We have to change every compromising ‘he’ to a ‘she.’ We need to obfuscate ages as well as sexes.” (L 263)

Dozens of examples like these can be found throughout the book, giving evidence to the fact that, though homosexuality per se is the pivotal matter of apprehension, Gutzman also saw Tchaikovsky’s pederasty as its principal manifestation. Nor does Gutzman depict Tchaikovsky’s sexuality as ethically problematic, ipso facto that is. The novel does show Tchaikovsky as frequently petty and lacking in self-awareness, for example in the opening chapter when Tchaikovsky is pleading with a sexually uninterested Zak to come back to bed with him. Similarly, his relationship with Shilovsky is clearly tumultuous and causes great distress to both partners. However, the tragic elements in Debauched Genius, considerable though they are, are equally divided among the individual, social, and cosmic spheres; the myth of the conniving sex predator cannot be found.

Historical accuracy

Debauched Genius is closely rooted to the historical sources from which it sprung. As Gutzman writes in the acknowledgements, “I have made every effort to stay true to Tchaikovsky and his life, and in this way, hopefully, I have through illusion, approached some new truths about the man and his work.” (L 3945) Aside from altering some time frames and, of course, inventing many private scenes, dialogue, and descriptions, most of the major (and even many minor) events of Tchaikovsky’s life are represented and Gutzman makes good use of the myriad of available documents to reconstruct this unique slice of time. Here are some examples of how the text remains faithful to history – and where it diverges for structural and dramatic purposes.

As the subtitle of Debauched Genius, The Loves of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky would suggest, this novel is heavily concerned with Tchaikovsky’s romantic and sexual partners, so let’s start with how much of the text follows what history tells us about these individuals. The historical Eduard Zak, was born in 1854 and was in Tchaikovsky’s composition class in 1868 in the Moscow Conservatory. Apparently they both became very close, and their relationship may have even been sexual. Between 1871 and 1872, Zak worked for the railways in Ukraine and was employed by Tchaikovsky’s older brother Nikolay. In a letter, Tchaikovsky implored his brother to allow Zak to rest with him in Moscow, clearly desperate to see him again and worried what too much labor would do to his “intellectual refinement.” Zak arrived in Moscow in 1873 and their relationship apparently evolved into a “passionate affair,” though later that year for unclear reasons he committed suicide. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Tchaikovsky:_A_Life)

We know little of the extent of this affair, or why Zak killed himself, but Gutzman portrays Zak as a troubled young man who was anxious about his relationship with the composer. This anxiety is closely linked to the cause of his suicide and Tchaikovsky becomes grieved by the role he believed he played in it. Outside of the novel, we do know that Tchaikovsky was incredibly distraught by this loss. Fourteen years after Zak’s death, Tchaikovsky wrote this in his diary:

Again thought of and recalled Sack [Zak]. How amazingly clearly I remember him: the sound of his voice, his movements, but especially the extraordinarily wonderful expression on his face at times. I cannot conceive that he should now be no more. His death, that is, complete nonexistence, is beyond my comprehension. It seems to me that I have never loved anyone so strongly as him. My God! no matter what they told me then and how I try to console myself, my guilt before him is terrible! And at the same time I loved him, that is, not loved, but love him still, and his memory is sacred to me! (ibid.)

The cause of Tchaikovsky’s remorse is not known either, but there’s no reason to suspect it was anything beyond survivor’s guilt. T. he novel also portrays Eduard Zak as a major influence on Tchaikovsky’s overture Romeo and Juliet, which he completed in 1869 when Zak was 15, and scholars have suggested Tchaikovsky associated the themes of Shakespeare’s play with his feelings towards Eduard. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Eduard_Sack)

Sergey Kireyev, Tchaikovsky’s first crush, was also true to life, though their respective ages were 12 and 16 when they first met, instead of ten and 14. Modest, in his autobiography, compares Tchaikovsky’s love for Kireyev to the “chivalric service of ‘a fair Lady.’” (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Sergey_Kireyev) Kireyev was not quite the tyrant that Gutzman makes him out to be, though he did actually strike him in front of his friends (without his permission, however) to prove Tchaikovsky would put up with anything from him, which he did. (ibid.) They met again in 1867 when Kireyev was 22, and Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly, “How sweet he is, though not so handsome as formerly.”

Tchaikovsky first met the historical Shilovsky in 1866 when the latter was 14. Shilovsky was the son of the Moscow theater director Vladimir Begichev, and, though young, was already writing compositions for performance. As in the novel, the historical Shilovsky was much more brash about his homosexuality than Tchaikovsky and seemed to have even initiated the courtship. In the next couple of years, the two of them did much traveling together with Shilovsky paying Tchaikovsky’s expenses. As also depicted in the novel, Shilovsky had a reckless streak which put a strain on their relationship in its later years.

Gutzman takes bigger liberties with Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Joseph Kotek. In Debauched Genius, Tchaikovsky is first acquainted with Kotek in 1873, and their romantic relationship lasts between 1875 and 1878. According to Tchaikovsky’s letters, though, Tchaikovsky and Kotek first began a romantic affair in 1877 when Kotek was 21 and Tchaikovsky was 37, though Tchaikovsky had known him for six years. That same year, however, Tchaikovsky’s feelings towards Kotek had cooled, one of the reasons being (as he explained in a letter to Modest) Kotek’s recently injured finger, which Tchaikovsky found distasteful to look at. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Iosif_Kotek) Their friendship continued for the next couple of years, though numerous incidents caused strain on both sides (Kotek refused to perform Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” fearing its poor reception and Tchaikovsky was put off by Kotek’s frequent womanizing).

The last of Tchaikovsky’s romantic relationships I’ll consider is with his wife, Antonina Milyukova. Gutzman characterizes their marriage as utterly disastrous, and it most certainly was, though the historical Milyukova was not entirely the tone-deaf harpy she is made out to be, nor was Tchaikovsky so incapable of addressing her concerns after their separation. Sources tell us that Milyukova met Tchaikovsky through a mutual friend in 1872 and since then, as she later wrote, had loved him secretly for four years. In 1877 she confessed her love for him in a letter. They married that year.

Still in that same year, Tchaikovsky felt unable to endure her presence and left her for good. This seems to be the moment when Tchaikovsky gave up the idea of living a “normal life,” writing to Anatoly, “Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.” Milyukova, however, was not willing to grant a divorce, much to Tchaikovsky’s chagrin. Tchaikovsky gave her a monthly alimony and they communicated via a third party. Eventually, they both seemed able to forgive each other, though they never spoke again. After Tchaikovsky’s death, her mental health deteriorated and she spent her last ten years in a psychiatric hospital. (https://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Antonina_Tchaikovskaya)

Apart from Tchaikovsky’s relationships, Debauched Genius goes into great detail regarding many other aspects of the composer’s life, staying consistently close to the historical record. Though, of course, not even the historians know everything. Particularly, there is much debate over what occurred in the week or so before Tchaikovsky’s death. Gutzman chooses the more dramatic conjecture, though the historicity of this position is disputed. (http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Tchaikovsky:_A_Life) Another debate about Tchaikovsky’s life is how much his sexuality impacted his art and sense of self. Gutzman depicts Tchaikovsky as deeply tormented and conflicted, as do many other historians, though some, such as the scholar Alexander Poznansky, believe Tchaikovsky’s anxiety on this score is often overemphasized and that Tchaikovsky did not necessarily view his attractions with much shame and doubt. (ibid.)

General critiques

This novel did have some minor flaws. Namely, the dialogue can occasionally feel inauthentic. For example, in chapter three, when Modest and Bob are in Tchaikovsky’s archives, Modest explains the task before them. Bob responds, “Do you really mean we have to edit, censor, and destroy much of what is in this room?” (L 263). Clearly, the reader infers, Bob understands perfectly well that that is what they need to do. Clunky expositional dialogue such as this sometimes made me feel the characters were speaking over-deliberately, for the benefit of an unseen audience. As well, the ending felt rushed: The climax occurs only two chapters before the last, and the final few pages don’t seem to pay homage to the emotional tension building up throughout the novel. Not that I felt short-changed on closure; all of the major plot elements were covered, but the acute dramatic pressure the novel raised till then seems to be largely frittered away before the book’s close.


Debauched Genius is a solid read. Given that the novel’s plot does not stray too far from the life of Tchaikovsky, it’s easy to follow what is going on, despite its time jumps and considerable roster of characters. Seeing Tchaikovsky ramble on about his paranoias, such as his fear that his head will fall off while conducting as his servant and family members struggle to dress him, or watching him fruitlessly try to hide from his wife by climbing into a wardrobe provides no shortage of comedy, and the depth of devotion he feels for his lovers and friends is always poignant and moving. How closely the narrative sticks to the actual facts of Tchaikovsky’s life is impressive as well, and Gutzman does a remarkable job sorting through and distilling these countless historical details into rich, pure literature. All in all, Debauched Genius is a notable contribution to the new, 21st-century tradition of resexualizing the past.

Book Review – What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo

JoAnn Wypijewski, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority, & the Mess of Life. London and New York: Verso, 2020. xxxiv+286pp.

This highly readable collection brings together and updates some of the best journalism of former Nation editor JoAnn Wypijewski (pronounced “Vipichevsky”) over three decades, including essays relating to various sex panics, obsessions, and scandals that have gripped American media from 1992 to 2018. What most of these stories share is a rush to construct villains, typically but not always male, to act as scapegoats for the more complex, but unacknowledged social maladies that lie concealed underneath the media’s facile narratives of angelic innocence violated by incarnated evil. Wypijewski visits the multiple scenes of atrocity and gives us an anthropologist’s view of the local cultures that produce them, whether the Laramie, Wyoming, of Matthew Shepard and his killers, the decaying upstate factory town where a charming black drug dealer from Brooklyn was alleged to have knowingly infected a score of working class white girls with HIV, or the dusty Texas military town where Abu Ghraib’s “sexual sadists” were based and tried. With her, we see, hear, taste, and smell these places. In every case, she opens up to us a very different tableau from the formulaic monster/victim scripts that most reporters are content to mass produce in case after depressing case. Her rich narratives become vastly more interesting than what we thought we knew about the perpetrators and victims.

Unlike many reporters, Wypijewski never loses sight of her own subjectivity, framed by who she is and was as she grew up experiencing sex. She starts some of her essays with a brief autobiographical film clip. A girl raised in a working-class Polish Catholic family in Buffalo, she remembers how she had led her fellow Girl Scouts to walk out on a priest who tried to feel them up and engage in inappropriate talk, and has scant sympathy for the brand of feminist victimology that holds that all women and children become limply passive in the presence of male desire. As a young editor, she encountered and consented to the advances of a male intern, not much younger than her, but had to tell him that he could not be hired because of their relationship. This makes her wonder what the media narrative would have been had the gender roles been reversed. In frankly acknowledging her subjective positionality, she is far more honest than more conventional reporters who delude themselves with a false pretense to objectivity. Her sense of ambiguity and complexity comes from real lived experience as a sexual subject.

In almost every case, the real story is something other than the textbook demonization ritual celebrated time after time by the sanctimonious clerisy of mainstream media. The real story of Abu Ghraib was not the inhumanity of poorly trained low-rank soldiers or the naïveté of a not-very-bright hick girl from West Virginia, but a military culture of unthinking conformity and systemic torture encouraged by the U.S. government. Matthew Shepard’s death had nothing to do with homophobia, but everything to do with the drug-sated lifestyle of unambitious young men in a boring cowboy town; we now know that both Shepard and his killers were drug dealers who sometimes traded sex for more pharmaceuticals. The Nushawn Williams case in Jamestown, N.Y., is not just that of a reckless and narcissistic sexual player, but a milieu of casual unprotected sex (and drugs) that assumed HIV is not an issue for heterosexual partners who imagine they are in a “relationship.” Williams himself may very well have gotten HIV from one of these local girls. Woody Allen’s disgrace was not about child sexual abuse, but manipulative implantation of victim memories within a grossly dysfunctional family. The real story about Brett Kavanagh is not whatever may or may not have transpired between Catherine Blasey and him when they were both drunk teenagers, but his lack of intellectual curiosity about contemporary sexual politics and the consequences of the upper-middle class adolescent party scene in which they grew up.

The most famous priest scandal that won the Boston Globe a Pulitzer and the film Spotlight an Oscar had nothing to do with real child abuse in the Catholic church, and everything to do with a greedy personal injury attorney and unscrupulous psychiatrist who recruited mentally unstable patients to produce inconsistent and scientifically discredited “recovered memories” of weekly abuse that no one else present at the school had ever witnessed any occasion for. No one says anything about the psychological damage done by implanting false memories of horrific acts into the already disturbed minds of men desperate to find an easy explanation for all of their failures in life. The secondary story was the Diocese’s too ready acquiescence in paying out huge sums to illegitimate claimants, which only encouraged still more to come forward and board the gravy train, thereby delivering even more damaging stories about hundreds of victims and feeding the torrent of hate-filled anti-clericalism from “victim advocacy” fanatics like SNAP (Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests). Wypijewski attended Paul Shanley’s trial and extensively interviewed both Shanley and others involved in the case. Her sceptical investigative reporting definitively established Shanley’s innocence of the criminal charges brought against him. She concedes that the radical street priest who founded the Boston chapter of Dignity and championed gay inclusion against the disapproving Catholic hierarchy was a complex and imperfect human being. He violated his clerical vows by actively pursuing sexual relationships with some of the troubled young gay men and teens who sought his counsel in the 1960s and 70s; it is possible, although not certain, that some of the runaway boys he took in might have been younger than 16, the legal age of consent in Massachusetts. But there is no evidence that he was ever interested in pre-pubescent children or even had occasion to be alone with them, much less commit rape. Despite mounting scientific evidence against the credibility of any “recovered memory” testimony, which is now rejected almost universally in courts of every state, the Massachusetts Supreme Court refused to overturn Shanley’s unjust conviction. His story had become “too big to fail.”

Even as Shanley was the stereotypical sexual monster of the 2000’s, another even more odious monster emerged in the next decade in the persona of the repulsive Harvey Weinstein, whose downfall spurred the 2018 essay that gives the book its title. The media relished the image of the once wealthy and powerful film producer bent over his walker, publicly derided as fat, hairy, stinking of shit, with graphic descriptions of his deformed genitals broadcast to a world full of laughing haters. No one will deny that he engaged in bad behavior, but what we don’t talk about is the willing complicity of the many young actresses who either acquiesced to his crude advances or agreed to keep silent. In a Hollywood culture where the “casting couch” has always been a byword, ambitious young women sometimes compromise their moral purity by consenting, however reluctantly, to sex with ugly and obnoxious men, seeing it as a necessary and temporary sacrifice, at least until a personal injury attorney helps them monetize it even more by saying they didn’t fully consent on one or two occasions. There is much else we don’t talk about, such as sex panic, vengeance, Schadenfreude, due process, and the serious social costs of criminalizing all but a strictly regulated menu of permissible sexual and romantic behaviors.

For an hour-long interview of Wypijewski by Canadian “Femsplainer” Danielle Crittenden and the libertarian journalist Emily Yoffe, listen to the podcast at https://t.co/6O8ZDzXV7R. It is always a relief to hear independently minded sex-positive feminists, whether of the left or right, who reject the paternalistic construction of ubiquitous female victimization and weakness, itself a sexist stereotype that is arguably even more toxic to women themselves than to the men whom we so love to damn as serial predators. Theirs is a feminism of strength and self-confidence in dealing with men, not whining self-pity. They recognize that sex and desire are inherently messy and often disappointing, rarely Platonic ideals of perfect egalitarianism that can be hypostasized into a legally obligatory conformity.


Book Review – Paying for Sex in a Digital Age

Paying for sex in a digital ageReview of Teela Sanders, Barbara G. Brents & Chris Wakefield, Paying for Sex in a Digital Age: US and UK Perspectives (London and New York: Routledge, 2020) xvii + 250 pp.

This book differs from most scholarship on sex work in that it focuses not on the demography and experiences of sex workers, but of the consumers who pay for sex. Much feminist and social conservative rhetoric demeans this group as men who exemplify the worst aspects of “toxic masculinity”: a desire for dominance and control, indifference to relationships and emotional intimacy, neglect of family, compulsive hypersexuality, misogyny, and violent abuse. This ideology has engendered a progressive orthodoxy, often known as the “Swedish model,” that favors decriminalizing the sex worker, but criminalizing anyone who purchases sex. The present book offers a much more nuanced and humane view, based on two separate surveys the authors conducted in the UK (1206 participants) and the US (687 participants), recruited from users of online sexual services platforms. This population yields a sample more typical of most sex work customers today than previous studies based on men arrested for soliciting sex on the street, who tend to be intoxicated or relatively indiscreet in their interactions.

Comparing US and UK samples is helpful: despite the cultural similarities between the two nations, they have very different approaches toward the legal status of sex work. In the UK, it is completely legal as long as it is privately negotiated between two parties, kept off the street and out of organized brothels. The US, as in most sexual matters, adopts a much more restrictive and intolerant regime, criminalizing it in all but a few counties of Nevada with regulated brothels (whose customers the book also studies, as two of the authors are located in Las Vegas). Indeed, the repressive state apparatus in the US has recently moved in the direction of shutting down web platforms utilized by sex workers and their clients, such as Craigslist, Backpage, and Rentboy. US media, academics, and legislators justify this repression in the name of protecting victims of sex trafficking, which they assume to be so ubiquitous that one study estimated over 1% of the population of Texas had been trafficked. The frequent users of sexual services who responded to this book’s surveys, in contrast, found that trafficking and other forms of third-party coercion were relatively infrequent in their experience.

Chapter One examines the demographics of those who buy sex. General population surveys show that 11% of adult men in the UK have at some point in their lives paid for sex, 14% of men in the US, 17% in Australia, and over 20% in Spain, where it is fully decriminalized. Carceral repression would thus in theory involve locking up a significant proportion of the male population. In the UK and Australia, younger men in their 20s and 30s without a regular sex partner are most likely to be consumers of paid sex, whereas in the US, it is more common among men in their 40s, but older men who do pay for sex tend to do so more often. In the US, the religious are just as likely to pay for sex as the non-religious, men living in rural areas just as likely as those in urban areas, and the poor just as likely as the rich. Contrary to feminist dogma, surveys find no evidence that buyers of sex score higher on psychological tests of entitlement or control; indeed, these authors accumulate evidence that they are more gender-egalitarian in their attitudes.

Chapter Two surveys the contemporary political and legal landscape with regard to sex work in both the US and UK. Religious conservatives and feminists have joined forces to combat prostitution, nominally out of concern for the welfare of female sex workers, but perhaps with greater zeal to demonize male moral turpitude and hypersexuality. They have successfully exploited a dominant media and public policy discourse around “sex trafficking” as justification, but this book argues that the evidence for it is often little more than anecdotal, the data sources dubious, and the generalizations unverifiable. The authors maintain that the more punitive approach does not lower the supply or demand, but it does make sex work encounters more dangerous for both consumers and providers by dismantling safer online platforms and driving transactions underground. Legal developments in both the US and UK hold consumers strictly liable for enhanced “trafficking” penalties if they engage anyone who later claims to be trafficked or compelled by a third party, even if the consumer is completely unaware of the circumstance.

Chapter Three treats in more detail how digital platforms enable both consumers and providers to screen each other more carefully, set out clear understandings in advance, and communicate multiple times to increase each party’s trust and comfort with the transaction. The authors note that the impact of the 2018 Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) has been to thwart most online communication in the US, forcing formerly independent sex workers back onto the street (note the fourfold increase in street prostitution in San Francisco the week after passage of FOSTA/SESTA) or into brothels/agencies managed by organized crime. As such, it has made them less safe. By pushing any remaining online commerce onto the invisible “Dark Web,” it has actually made it more difficult for law enforcement to identify real cases of trafficking. The sex workers rendered most vulnerable by the loss of online platforms are not the high-end call girls or gay porn stars, who can rely on extensive interpersonal networks, but precisely the poorest and most marginalized, women of color and trans persons.

Chapter Four gives a more in-depth look at the data about sex-work clients accumulated in the authors’ US and UK surveys. They acknowledge a key limitation of their data sample, namely its probable over-sampling of regular users of sexual services who frequent some of the more specialized online platforms, such as those that provide ratings or reviews of sex workers. Both their sample and previous studies have suggested that most online clients are “white, middle-aged, middle-class, cisgender men with slightly higher than average education and income.” However, depending on the sampling technique, studies show some significant differences with regard to how many clients are married or have other regular sexual partners, with the figures ranging from 75% with regular partners to 75% without. The authors’ US survey showed 42% married, but only 31% in monogamous relationships, suggesting that many of the men who sought sex work did so with the knowledge, permission, and in some cases participation of their wives. Unfortunately, their data was not granular enough to distinguish how many of the men remained married in sexless or sexually unsatisfying relationships (e.g. for the sake of the children) and resorted to sex work out of loneliness or need for physical contact and how many were men with very strong sex drives who continued to enjoy sex with their wife, but felt they needed more. Significantly, and in contrast to some previous surveys, the authors’ work showed that sex work clients are much more politically and socially liberal than the general population.

The authors note that previous studies of men arrested for street solicitation reveal a very different demographic: younger, poorer, and more likely to be non-white. It remains unclear whether this is because less experienced or socially polished men are more likely to make awkward or drunken advances on undercover officers or because more affluent, educated, and experienced gentlemen prefer to go online and book their trysts in advance. What is certain is that street work is much more risky for women and trans persons, and it is now far less common in the UK, where online communication and privately negotiated sex work indoors are legal.

Criminalization in the US does nothing to restrict demand, but may have the perverse economic effect of making sex work a more profitable (but risky) career choice for young women, as well as the pimps or escort agencies that may control them.

The information on prices paid for sexual services was not as useful as it could have been, failing to distinguish between male and female sex workers, older (i.e. wealthier, but less physically appealing) clients and younger clients, and prices paid for overnight stays or multi-day travel from those for brief encounters. The US and UK surveys were not comparable, because they asked fundamentally different questions (average monthly expenditure vs. average expenditure per encounter), but they do suggest that prices are considerably lower in the UK, probably because of the lower threshold of legal and physical risk for both parties. Criminalization in the US does nothing to restrict demand, but may have the perverse economic effect of making sex work a more profitable (but risky) career choice for young women, as well as the pimps or escort agencies that may control them.

Chapter Five is in many ways the most interesting to me, as it focuses upon niche markets for atypical consumers, including women, gay and bi-sexual men, disabled people, and the older man. Despite feminist denials that women would ever purchase sex, they constituted about 1% of the respondents to the UK survey, 6% of the US survey, but the authors make no claim these numbers are representative of the general population. Female purchasers are mainly unmarried professionals in their 30s and 40s (and in the US, also their 50s). The UK survey asked about the particular services purchased: women were more likely than men to purchase anal sex, threesomes, and webcam services, but since there were only 13 women in the UK sample, this may not be representative. They frequently purchase services from other women (8 of the 13 in the UK sample, not asked in the US survey).

Disabled and elderly men find sex workers less judgmental toward them than other women, so they provide a valuable service to those who are otherwise lonely. The older buyer tends to have more disposable income, but may be divorced or have a wife who is ill or no longer interested or no longer attractive to him. Indulgence in periodic purchase of sexual services may be less disruptive to his life and family than a regular mistress would be. A significant percentage of older men only begin buying sex in later life (31% of the UK sample began after age 56). If we include more informal “sugar-daddy” arrangements that are on the margins of being definable as sex work, older men’s engagement with the sexual market is even more widespread. Older men who do purchase sex tend to be more frequent purchasers than younger and middle-aged men, unsurprising given their higher income and lower prospects for finding attractive partners just based on their looks and vigor. They also tend to value ongoing relationships and some measure of emotional intimacy with a favored sex worker to a greater degree than young consumers.

Chapter Six explores the phenomenon of webcamming as non-contact sex work. This tends to take two forms: public performances open to multiple viewers who can encourage the performers with electronically transmitted tips (comparable to strippers in a club) or private one-on-one performances in which viewers are able to share their own (often unclothed) image with the performer and talk with them directly. Among those who use this latter medium, many report having favorite performers with whom they develop online friendships and talk about non-sexual topics as well.

Chapter Seven provides an insight into the motives and ethical attitudes of online consumers of sex work. Contrary to feminist doctrine, the vast majority have no interest in “control” or coercion. 66.5% of the US sample said they sought “emotional intimacy” with sex workers, whereas only 14.2% cited “power or control” as a motivation. Many even say they seek sex workers to deal with stress, anxiety, and a need not to be always in control; many cite disappointments in non-commercial relationships, appreciate the clearly negotiated boundaries and expectations of a sex work encounter, and see their sex work experiences as having more to do with validating their masculinity among their male peers than about asserting it toward women. US samples of sex consumers report much more egalitarian attitudes toward women in work, politics, and the home than the general population of men.

Indeed, most clients report compassion toward the sex worker and avoid situations where they suspect exploitation. Only 2.2% of the US sample of regular purchasers admitted having ever bought the services of someone under 18, suggesting that media-driven narratives of a widespread industry of “child sex trafficking” are overblown. 23% of the UK buyers reported that they had at least once in their life encountered a sex worker whom they believed was being exploited by a third party; in the qualitative portion of the survey, they said such situations were a turn-off and they would even pay the fee without actually engaging in physical contact. The authors did not explore what clients thought about the ethics of supplying cash to sex workers who were in thrall to a drug habit. But they did emphasize that criminalization of buying sex (with especially harsh penalties for buying from a victim of exploitation) deterred clients who encountered exploitation or abuse from reporting it to authorities. This only makes it more difficult to stop.

The US survey revealed that 16.1% of respondents had ever been in a “heated argument” with a sex worker, but only 3.4% had been in a “violent confrontation.” These figures are less useful than they should have been, because they did not specify whether the conflict or violence came from the sex worker or the client, and whether the sex worker was male (more likely to resort to threats and violence) or female.

A brief concluding chapter ties together the threads of this investigation and again warns us that poor public policy comes out of ideologically motivated “stereotype, falsehood, and generalization” concerning clients of paid sex. Their data proves conclusively that clients are not the chief source of the exploitation and violence that characterizes some segments of the sex industry. In a fully decriminalized context, where they feel free to report abuses to the authorities, clients can be a key part of the solution.

I have noted a few places where I wish we had more granular data. My largest criticism is that the authors should have made a greater effort to recruit more gay and bi-sexual users of online platforms, who would likely confound the reductive feminist shibboleths about power and control even more resoundingly than straight men. The UK data about lesbian or bi-sexual women purchasing sex from other women is intriguing, but the number responding (eight) is too small for us to conclude very much about this phenomenon. As the old sexual and gender binaries break down, sex workers may provide a key role in allowing previously straight men and women to broaden their horizons of attraction and self-fulfillment by experimenting with alternative desires, ethnicities, and body types. Not every bi-curious man is ready to put his profile out on Grindr.


Book Review – The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Harm, Ending State Violence

Review of Judith Levine & Erica R. Meiners, The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Harm, Ending State Violence (London & New York: Verso, 2020) vi+213 pp.

This is a book written by feminists for feminists. For most academic and activist writings, that would not be remarkable or particularly worthy of distinction, but this book is special because it chooses to focus upon a topic that causes distress and anxiety to many feminists; moreover, the book challenges feminists to rethink their position, which many activists blame for the draconian regime of mass incarceration and subsequent social death of men whose past sexual behavior has deviated from contemporary social norms. Womens’ Studies scholars commonly assert the necessity of “intersectional” analysis, but Levine and Meiners argue that they need to be even more intersectional in recognizing the damage to queers, people of color, and economically disadvantaged communities done by policies encouraged by mostly white, educated, cisgender heterosexual women under the banner of holding all perpetrators eternally accountable for crimes that have anything to do with sex. Levine and Meiners draw on strands of black and Latina feminism that, since the 1970s, have argued for the oppressive role of law enforcement against racial and ethnic minority communities. As well they invoke the rhetoric of prison abolition activists in proposing to reinvigorate “abolition feminism” to oppose the vindictive “carceral feminism” that has become so fashionable in the era of #MeToo crusades against still too frequent male swinishness. The authors argue that sexual violence cannot be ended by a regime of sanctioned state violence, but only by personal engagement and restorative justice within the community.

As a feminist journalist with a long background in left politics, Levine, along with Meiners, a tenured Gender Studies academic with a track record of publication on sex-offense related issues, presents us with a succinct, well-written polemic, backed up by solid references to peer-reviewed literature. While not minimizing the serious toll of sexual violence on its victims, they call our attention to the increasing severity of the sex offender regime, which imprisons men for terms substantially longer than are meted out to other categories of violent crime and then place them uniquely, often for life, on open public registries that make them pariahs within their communities, debar them from full involvement in their children’s lives, as well as the job opportunities and housing necessary to successful reintegration, despite long-documented statistics showing they are less likely to recidivate than any other class of “violent” felon (p. 70).

They contrast the complicity of contemporary carceral feminists with the anti-police distrust of state authority by the radical feminists of the 1970s, especially those who were non-white and poor. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994, proudly shepherded by former Sen. Joe Biden, actually had the perverse effect of disempowering women and limiting their agency by forcing prosecution of violent partners whom many women chose to forgive and maintain as family breadwinners rather than see the family broken apart and forced into poverty by extended incarceration. They also see state paternalism at work in the 2011 initiative of the Obama-Biden administration (the infamous “Dear Colleague” letter of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights) to require universities to investigate murky cases of drunken or later-regretted student sex with procedures and assumptions that presumed the truth of allegations and denied due process to the accused. They point out that these policies have produced the regressive result that the campus allegations have disproportionately targetted African-American males (pp. 27-28), even as the sex offender registries and carceral state also do (p. 50). Although they do not mention it, these allegations also disproportionately affect gay male students because other male students who may drunkenly consent to experiment with same-sex intimacy later regret it and want to cleanse themselves of any taint of being gay by casting their partner as a predator who took advantage of them.

The book is always ready with a handy statistic or study to illustrate the absurdity and futility of the surveillance regime that the war on sex offending has created. As laws and sentencing guidelines have grown progressively more punitive, sex offenders are the most rapidly increasing segment of the incarcerated population (12% of those in state prisons, 10% in federal facilities – p. 46), despite a decline in the absolute number of sex offense cases. A Minnesota study of the small number of sex offenders who re-offended showed that residency restrictions would not have prevented a single case of re-offense, and a New York study showed that the institution of community notification had no effect on rates of sex offending (pp. 51-52). Girls spend twice as long in juvenile detention for sex offenses as boys (p. 56). A California study showed that released felons who had been through a sex offender treatment program in prison were no more or less likely to re-offend than those who received no treatment (p. 73). Individuals with strong religious involvement throughout their lives actually have higher rates of sex offending, more victims, and younger victims (p. 108). A meta-analysis showed that the most commonly used instrument for assessing the risk of recidivism was accurate only 60% of the time, “not much better than a coin toss”(p. 75). This entire vastly expensive and bureaucratic system is nothing but security theater for the benefit of an anxious and fearful population, unsupported by even a sliver of empirical evidence for its effectiveness.

Part III of the book, called “Fractured Resistance,” strikes a more hopeful note as it surveys the terrain of various groups that are fighting or might be enlisted in fighting the pernicious effects of carceral solutions to anathematized sex: we meet groups like NARSOL, ACSOL, and WAR (Women Against the Registry), largely composed of mothers, grandmothers, and wives of men caught up in the system. Their effectiveness has been limited by failure to forge alliances with other groups that might be helpful: movements to restore voting rights to felons or register them where they do have the right to vote, the broader prison abolition movement, some non-mainstream LGBTQ organizations, religious ministries that see no one as “irreparable,” the men’s movement, disability rights advocates aware of how age and disability are used as an excuse to deprive people of sexual agency, and sex worker support groups that have learned all too well that criminalization of websites offering sexual services puts them at greater risk of abuse by clients or pimps. The authors express hope that each of these groups can look beyond their particular focus to understand the broader context of the struggle for a world where both sexual violence and state violence are rare. However, given the differing agendas of these groups and the timidity of those who fear being tarred with charges of “normalizing pedophilia” or being “rape apologists” for daring even to raise the issue (charges particularly likely to be hurled at male activists), this vision of a broad fusionist movement may be an elusive pipe dream.

What is the alternative to the carceral system for men who harm others sexually? Levine and Meiners show enthusiasm for Circles of Support and Accountability and other manifestations of what is called “Restorative Justice” or “Transformative Justice.” This approach has considerable appeal, but I am disappointed that their chapter is short on examples of how it works in real life situations. The one concrete example concerns a small activist organization dealing with a once-influential officer who committed sexual harassment. Everyone getting together to educate such an individual and hold them accountable for pursuing change in the future might work in such small-scale collaborative contexts, and also holds some potential for the many Title IX cases that involve situations of ambiguous, drunken, or poorly verbalized consent among inexperienced college students. But what would Restorative Justice look like in the most serious cases: the woman who is forcibly raped by a stranger (not her date), or the small child who is manipulated by an adult into doing something they neither understood nor wanted? Would such victims ever want to see their assailant again, much less engage with him in a process of mutual healing? Those with an exceptional capacity for philosophical breadth, empathy, and forgiveness might, but we must understand that many victims will not. Can we always find five sympathetic and emotionally stable friends for every sex offender who needs a Circle of Support and Accountability? Offenders and victims alike tend to come from marginalized communities with frayed social fabric and low thresholds of tolerance.

In keeping with their aspirational mission, Levine and Meiners end the book with ten concrete recommendations. Most of these are obvious and would receive our wholehearted support: end the Registry, end civil commitment and the medicalization of sexual deviance, rationalize the laws pertaining to teenage sexuality, provide positive sex education that does not focus on sexuality only in terms of risk, but as a collaborative interaction that aims at reinforcing social bonds through mutual pleasure. I particularly like their proposal to “complicate consent” beyond the simple-minded strictures that imagine every sexual exploration must be desiccated into a constantly affirmed checklist of “Yes” and “No.” As they point out, there is a lot that even vanilla practitioners can learn about consent from the BDSM community; I would add that cruising spaces of the gay community have also evolved codes of communicating consent and non-consent that are not always verbal and from which heterosexuals can derive valuable lessons.

I am more dubious about their proposal that sexual violence can be reduced if we “Build and Sustain a Robust Welfare State.” Domestic abuse, spousal rape, and child sexual abuse occur in families up and down the socio-economic ladder; sexual harassment is just as much a problem in corporate boardrooms, broadcast TV studios, and the halls of Congress as it is among the immigrant janitorial staff cleaning those facilities overnight. There is no evidence that socialist economies or generous welfare benefits correlate with lower rates of sexual abuse. The fusionist approach to organizing and activism depends on attracting support across the political spectrum. Small-government libertarians are natural allies to those of us who want to get law enforcement out of the bedroom, so they should not be alienated with calls for massive redistribution of wealth that has no provable relation to the problem under consideration. A government that is omnipotent enough to provide cradle-to-grave care for all its citizens is just as paternalistic as the state that attempts to legislate sexual morality and enforce it with brutal repression. Both are grounded in the conviction that a “knowledge elite” of privileged technocrats knows what is good for our public health and safety better than we do.  – TKH