News & Resources: review – Cleves: ‘Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality’


Rachel Hope Cleves, Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020)

norman_douglas_unspeakable_clevesCleves’s book both succeeds and fails in speaking the “unspeakable.” Through the life of the writer Norman Douglas, the author succeeds in giving readers a glimpse into the lives of youth who refused to disavow their sexual relationships with a much older individual, but misses a golden opportunity to draw extensively on their surviving personal letters, which provide compelling evidence of their abiding love and affection for him. Although there is much to criticize, Cleves’s important work reminds readers that a society’s most seemingly incontrovertible taboos are nevertheless socially constructed, a product of history rather than necessity. Like anything else, social mores and codes are constantly in motion, subject to challenges, reversal, and change.


(Re)discovering Norman Douglas

A professor of history at the University of Victoria, Canada, Rachel Hope Cleves has spent several years researching the life of Norman Douglas (1868-1952), constructing a social history of modern pederasty when sexual encounters across generations were common and, to some extent, permitted.

An Austrian-born writer of Scottish ancestry, Douglas was widely considered British and lived through the end of the Victorian era and past the end of the Second World War. For the bulk of his life, Douglas was a celebrity. As Cleves explains: “He was friends with Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and countless other figures in the literary pantheon, all of whom knew about his sexual life. Everyone did. He was a central figure in literary circles all the same” (p. 1). He was adored by early feminist and women writers such as Nancy Cunard, Bryher (penname of Annie Winifred Ellerman), Elizabeth David, and Viva King. He even published on the natural world in the same periodicals as Charles Darwin, and later met and corresponded with Sigmund Freud.

His 1917 novel South Wind established his reputation in the literary world, inspiring subsequent generations with its rejection of Victorian prudishness. But Cleves’s primary interest resides in Douglas’s personal life, not his literary merit.

Indeed, Cleves discovered Douglas by accident on a trip to Capri, the Italian island where he lived for much of his life and where he is remembered most positively. Curious, Cleves the historian heads to the archives. To her shock, she discovers not only records of sexual activity between older and younger persons now considered taboo, but worse, scores of letters from those same youngsters expressing their devoted affection for Douglas, with whom they often remained friends in later life.

There are issues that readers should be aware of, however. One is Cleves’s choice of terminology (cf. Rind and Bauserman, 1993; Rind, 1995). First, although standard practice in academia and media, the term “sex” is used in a way that might confuse or unduly shock readers. For Cleves and for Douglas, “sex” / “sexual” means more than simply penetration or activity involving the genitals. Hugging, kissing, touching of any kind; poses and glances perceived as erotic; smell even, with Douglas waxing lyrical about armpit odor (p. 234), are all considered under the rubric “sex with children.”

Understood in this broad sense, it is less surprising when Cleves writes how “Douglas believed that sex did no harm to a child, but he utterly rejected physical brutality against children” (pp. 192-193). This was evidenced when, in 1895, Douglas went as far as to compile “a report condemning child labor in Lipari, which generated enough outrage among London buyers to pressure the mine owners to eliminate the practice” (p. 57).

[O]ne evening,” we read, “she [Viva King] and Douglas got onto the subject of whether sex should be taught in schools. “Norman was asked his opinion as to whether ten years old was too young for such knowledge. ‘Nonsense,’ he replied, ‘children can’t learn early enough what fun it is.’” (p. 238). As Cleves explains, “Douglas refused to disavow children’s entitlement to sexualized pleasure” (Ibid).

Cleves occasionally uses the term “child” / “children” in a misleading and debatably inappropriate way. We read of Anetta (pp. 54-57), a 16-year-old female, and her brother Michele, who between them engage in very “adult” activities, including sex-work and acts of violence. On page 77 Cleves briefly alludes to some examples of Douglas’s relations with youth; however, the only specific ages given are 17 and 20 years old: hardly prepubescents or even children in some countries by 21st century standards.

Cleves labels sex-work involving youth as exploitative without justification or supporting evidence. It is unclear precisely what’s considered exploitative: wage slavery, financial inequalities, poor working conditions, sexual activity itself, or manifold combined factors? Youth sex work is a hotly debated topic (e.g. Montgomery, 2010; 2011; 2013; Bernstein, 2010; 2019; Agustin, 2014; Katsulis, 2010; Katsulis et al., 2010; Ordóñez, 2010, pp. 179-187; Miller, 2011; Kang, 2015; Lutnick, 2016; Mitchell, 2016; Swaner et al., 2016; Gearon, 2019; Cheng, 2019; Kotiswaran, 2021) and Cleves is honest enough to admit that historic campaigns against the practice were sensationalist (p. 53; cf. Brown, 2004), and that “Italians, including Italian youths, had agency within sex tourism” (p. 57). In Douglas’s time, youth sex work was so common that an 1877 report repeated the testimony of a physician that “there are no virgins among girls over the age of 12.” (p. 54). To be sure, horror stories occurred. However, through Douglas’s life, Cleves shows that popular discourses / images of terrified, sexually innocent children are exclusionary and overly simplistic, casting the everyday experiences of many young people as unbelievable and hence “unspeakable.” As for Douglas, “he never fetishized pain or bloodshed in his writing. […] Douglas sought enthusiasm from his sexual encounters, not terror” (p. 53).

Radically individualist, Douglas rejected Victorian social mores from an early age and would live as a sexual radical / libertine throughout his life. He created epigrams to sum up his philosophy, including: “The business of life is to enjoy oneself; everything else is a mockery” (p. 189). For him, the business of life was both pleasure and the avoidance of pain (p. 197).

Most controversially in his own time, Douglas rejected Christianity and embraced atheism. He consistently eschewed all morality as made up, dangerous nonsense, avoiding identification with all isms. Douglas lived through and reserved special hatred for fascism, which eventually forced him to flee Italy. He “called Mussolini and Hitler ‘gangsters’ who deserved to be put to death ‘on the spot.’ He despised the English expatriates who sided with the Fascists, like Oscar Wilde’s old friend Reggie Turner, and the poet Ezra Pound.” (p. 226). Douglas cared about covering up his sexual relationships to avoid the criminal law. Outside of threats to his freedom and safety, however, Douglas was consistent in eschewing all sexual morality. His anti-fascist stance could be expected to earn him historical credence if it weren’t undercut by contemporary aversions to pederasty and youth / intergenerational sexualities.

Although Cleves discusses most negative assumptions one could make about Douglas based on his sexuality and shows them to be untenable, she takes a strong view surrounding Douglas’s wife, Elsa.

Stated briefly, they moved to Italy where their relationship had been happy and loving. Together, they had two sons, Archie and Robin. Cleves notes that “Elsa’s diary from this period of reconciliation survives. Her entries from July 1901 to July 1902 give no indication that her marriage was anything but loving” (p. 65). Scandal erupted, however, when Elsa had an affair. Although Douglas had not been entirely faithful himself, she miscarried the man’s baby and her relationship with Douglas ended in divorce. Douglas was already well-known, and their divorce became a public scandal. He returned to England with Archie and Robin, who preferred their father. Cleves explains that “At first, Douglas was willing to let Elsa see the children. In 1905 he sent Robin to visit her in Munich, where she had moved to start a new life. However, when she brought Robin back to Capri, she became convinced that Douglas was treating Archie “in an immoral way” (p. 70). Elsa accused him of molesting Archie, and Douglas was soon embroiled in legal trouble. Douglas had the boys live with friends in England, where Elsa had no rights over them. Ultimately, Douglas retained custody after winning the court case.

Elsa’s story did not end well. She never saw her sons again and the man she had cheated on Douglas with abandoned her. Wracked in poverty, she became an alcoholic and died tragically in a bed fire. 

Douglas, at least publicly, expressed no sympathy, and here Cleves makes her value judgements clearest. Her remark – “Maybe this is where I should have begun. This is true villainy: to destroy a woman and then to laugh at her death” (p. 73) – reads almost as hateful. 

Cleves presents no evidence which suggests Douglas wanted and / or planned to “destroy” Elsa’s life, only questionable insinuations. Her conclusions are tenuous and, as she explains, open to multiple, more or less sympathetic interpretations (p. 74). It isn’t hard, after all, to empathize with Douglas. He judged Elsa most harshly only after she accused him of molestation and scandalized his name in a custody battle and court trial. I struggle to see how this would’ve made Elsa particularly endearing to Douglas, nor why he would want his sons to be around her if she takes a hostile attitude towards their father. I would speculate that, had the boys visited Elsa during or after the custody dispute, she might have made efforts to stop them from returning.

I would suggest Cleves’s judgement here is a product of hindsight and backwards reasoning, as she makes some contradictory comments. She speculates that Douglas “surely would have destroyed her [Elsa’s] diary if he could have” (footnote 26, p. 307). Although Douglas never liked to discuss Elsa, avoided writing about her, and supposedly destroyed his letters involving her before his death, it is unclear why he did so and it does not follow that Douglas would want to destroy Elsa’s writings. Especially when, as mentioned, her diary presents him in a positive light. Complicating the picture, we read that “Another friend recalls Douglas being more disturbed than jubilant about the manner of Elsa’s death. According to Walter Lowenfels, Douglas once fled a restaurant that smelled of burnt meat because it reminded him of Elsa” (footnote 43, p. 307).

One could impugn Douglas, however, for his distanced relationship with his sons. Living with Douglas’s friends, Archie and Douglas regularly exchanged letters but both sons rarely saw their father in person until the first and second world war periods. By current standards this could be interpreted as neglectful, and Cleves reads it as such. One must be cautious, however, about projecting contemporary norms on to the past, and not assume that someone raising their kin differently constitutes pathology / dysfunction. We must remain cognizant of alternative lifestyles such as “open families” (Constantine, 1977) and communal living (Johnston and Deisher, 1973), of which Douglas’s raising-at-a-distance could be another variation. For their part, Douglas’s sons were loyal supporters of their father and defended him and his legacy. Whilst Robin had a more chequered relationship than Archie, they reconciled in Douglas’s final years. Visiting Douglas in 1947, Robin declared “that he felt “more at home” on the island “than I have felt any place at all, during the past 20 years.” (p. 254).


Tarrying with Silence

As Cleves notes in her introduction, writers who dare to critically investigate intergenerational sexualities have, as sociologist Richard Yuill explains: “faced intimidation through a series of systematic political attacks, punitive legal injunctions, financial penalties, and harassment” (Yuill, 2010, p. 159; for more detail, see Yuill, 2013, ch. 3; cf. Sonenschein, 1987).

In short, it is dangerous work, and in a 2017 article, Cleves concludes with a stern warning to researchers: it is “a risk they should consider carefully” (p. 7). The author struggled to find a publisher, and I would speculate that reproducing extensive material from affectionate youths which fails to condemn Douglas unreservedly would’ve rendered the book unpublishable.

Unspeakable” therefore, is an apt title. With research(ers) hampered by a stigmatizing and fraught climate, important material has not found its way out of the archives. Whilst the task falls to future researchers to fill these gaps and make available a more complete historical record, the fraught context Cleves writes from has indelibly shaped her work.

Often, readers are presented with encounters that are said to be sexual, but crucial details which would evidence this labelling are either not provided, or “impossible to know” (p. 206). Take the case of Emilio Papa. An Italian boy, his name first appeared in Douglas’s pocket diary in 1924, when Papa was around twelve (p. 162). We are told that after Papa’s parents died in 1927, “Douglas took responsibility for him, although by that time his sexual attentions had moved on” (Ibid). Cleves declines, however, to explain what these “sexual attentions” involve. We’re left guessing.

Douglas identified with the image of the pederast in his era: an educator / teacher of the young, especially those approaching or going through puberty, preparing them for later life including intellectually and sexually. He often encouraged his young boy lovers to flirt with women, for instance, as they travelled carrying pocket diaries for testing vocabulary.

Emilio Papa in 1925 or 1926
Emilio Papa in 1925 or 1926. (Reproduced from Cleves, p. 162)

Douglas’s sexual life resists neat categorization, however, as he formed relationships across the age spectrum and never identified as homosexual. Bryher described his pederasty as “an astounding capacity for romantic love” (p. 262). She wrote: “It might have been a boy, an old woman with a glass of wine, or a child” who attracted Douglas’s gaze; he would find the beauty in them all. “He did not need to touch them; some power rose in him and transformed whoever was there into what they had dreamed of being.” (Ibid). Viva King described him, accurately I think, as “pan-sexual” (p. 237).

There is only one indication of Douglas ever treating a young person poorly. Douglas had invited a boy to his room and sat him on his lap. The boy attempted to move away, and Douglas pulled him back and kissed him. Douglas was later arrested for “assault” and had to flee England. Cleves describes this as “the only intimation […] that Douglas ever used force to coerce sex” (p. 120).

More generally with young people, Douglas participated in and tended towards activities that included and sought their enthusiastic assent – kissing and masturbation – as opposed to penetration or sadistic sex. Activities which the youths he engaged with were developed enough to participate in (see Bender & Blau, 1937; Bender & Grugett, 1952; Broderick, 1966; Martinson, 1976; 1994; Borneman, 1983; 1994; Sandfort, 1984; 1987; Bauserman, 1991; Frayser, 1994; Friedrich et al. 1998; 2000; Herdt and McClintock, 2000; Larsson et al., 2000; Rademakers et al. 2000; Graaf and Rademakers, 2006; 2011; Josephs, 2015; Lamb et al., 2018), but were also an expression of autonomy and mutuality.

This is consistent with those who share Douglas’s orientation towards young people (see Wilson and Cox, 1983) who tend to meet youth on their level; treating them as subjects, not objects. Today, a youth and their caregiver(s) risk social stigma, harassment and ostracization if they permit or participate in intergenerational sex. On the other hand, academics and many in positions of authority risk criminal charges for failing to comply with ineffective and harmful mandatory reporting requirements (McTavish et al., 2017; Goodyear-Smith, 2012), which has shaped and limited the possibilities for research (Okami, 1990, ch. 3). In Douglas’s lifetime, censorship made overt discussions of sex difficult. Privately, however, reactions to Douglas’s relationships were mixed but largely supportive. The Nietzschean philosopher Oscar Levy, for example, wrote to Douglas: “The Italians ought to have sent you yearly 12 boys and 12 girls as did the Athenians to the Minotaurus of Crete. On account of your literary merits. And because you are not a minotaurus, but a nice gentleman, who does the children good” (p. 225).

As Walker (2019, p. 3) explains, “between 50 and 70% of individuals” who come to the attention of authorities for offences involving young people, “are not preferentially attracted to minors.” Rather, they are “situational offenders,” and consequently may not manifest the tender, loving (Martijn et al., 2020), nurturing and affectionate (Money, 1991; Ponesti et al., 2018) disposition that those who are preferentially or exclusively attracted to youth (pedophiles, hebephiles, pederasts) like Douglas typically evince.

When asked what occurred between Douglas and a young girl Renata, the answer was “kissed and fondled” (p. 223), not penetrated. Harold Acton, a first-hand observer at the time, “described her as a ‘precocious little lass’ who ‘loved lipstick and liqueurs as well as Norman’s company.’” (p. 222). Douglas “claimed, ‘The child seduced me,” and he ‘could not keep her away from the house.’ One time when Marcello [her brother] came to remove her, Renata screamed in protest” (p. 223).

Acton “claimed that Renata’s parents had no objection to her relationship with Douglas” (p. 224). His legal trouble was political, with the English being unpopular whilst “Renata’s father had been heard making rude remarks about Mussolini” (Ibid). Douglas’s lawyer warned him about risks from authorities, but he nevertheless insisted on taking 10-year-old Renata out to a café, “where he ‘proceeded to cram her with chocolate eclairs, wiping her chin when the cream overflowed.’” (Ibid).


Unspeakable” Implications?

Positive intergenerational experiences have been variously discussed (e.g. O’Carroll, 1980; Sandfort et al., 1990; Featherstone, 1992; Nelson, 1989; for female / lesbian experiences exclusively, see Sax and Deckwitz, 1991; Littauer, 2020), catalogued (Rivas, 2020), and scrutinized philosophically (e.g. Leahy, 1988; 1994; 1996; Ehman, 2000; Malón, 2015; O’Carroll, 2018; Kershnar, 2001; 2015). Cleves’s contribution is to historicize intergenerational sex without denying or rationalizing away young people’s positive experiences / outcomes. She does this best in a recent journal issue of Historical Reflections dedicated to intergenerational history, with an open-access introduction and original article (2020). In that essay, Cleves focused on Eric Wolton, a London sex worker picked up by Douglas at the age of 12, whose parents granted permission for him to travel with Douglas for a walking tour of Italy. With Wolton recalling the experience positively, Cleves reproduces more fully than in her book a letter he sent to Douglas. As Cleves writes: “A decade after they first met, […] Wolton refused to disavow his childhood sexual relationship with Douglas, writing:

They were happy times […] I have no evil thoughts about them although I am different today than I was then. You were my tin god and even now you are. I do really love you […] I want you to understand Doug that you are more to me than ever you were. The difference is now that I am old enough to realise it.

As an adult, Wolton pursued sexual encounters with women. He was ‘different’ than he had been as a boy, but he felt positively about his youthful sexual encounters with Douglas nonetheless” (p. 54). Cleves indicates that “neither the letters nor the actions of Douglas’s long-term child sexual partners indicate that they regarded their relationships with him through the framework of trauma” (Ibid).

In her book, Cleves reflects on how the positive experiences of Douglas’s younger partners do not fit with the current trauma model of Child Sexual Abuse (CSA). Currently, this model assumes that any experience of erotic significance between those above and below a given age (usually an “age of consent”; see Waites, 2005) constitutes “abuse,” “rape,” “assault,” or “victimization” of the younger party, regardless of social / external responses to such activity, the youth’s views and feelings, or whether force or coercion were present (Rind et al., 1998; Mulya, 2018, p. 741; Malón, 2010; 2015; Lowenkron, 2014; 2015), and that all such experiences are highly injurious (Rind and Welter, 2016; Rind, 2019) in psychological terms (e.g. traumatic).

Douglas’s younger counterparts did not experience trauma. They had relationships with older peers as opposed to engaging sexually with youth or taking on Douglas’s attraction; a theory variously criticized (see Garland and Dougher, 1990; Riegel, 2005; Widom and Massey, 2015; Leach et al., 2015). They often remained friends with Douglas and sought his company. Occurring before the CSA discourse and “abuse scripts” came to prominence in the 1980s (Angelides, 2004; 2005; 2019; Best, 1997) it was socially acceptable for young people to interpret their experience positively.

Moreover, Cleves reflects on how contemporary sexual morality views love as incompatible with intergenerational sexual relations (p. 100). Research has found that “passionate love” can be experienced by all ages (Hatfield et al., 1988), and Douglas claimed that each of his books were inspired by falling in love (p. 99). South Wind, for example, was inspired by excursions in 1908 with his houseboy Pasqualino Amitrano. Whilst Cleves does not give any indication of Amitrano’s age at the time, nor details about the supposed sexual encounters that took place, we know for certain that Douglas “mourned Amitrano when he died from injuries in the Great War” (p. 100). In fact, Douglas felt so moved that, as Cleves writes, he “memorialized him in later books, refusing to let his memories of this “laughter-loving child” fade into obscurity” (Ibid).

Douglas’s life was marked by these bitter-sweet tragedies. Another boy lover, René Mari, had loved his youthful adventures with Douglas, and, in later life, visited him as often as he could. Douglas helped Mari find work, and he married the following year. In the 1930s, however, Mari developed tuberculosis. His marriage ended, and Douglas went to great lengths to help his dying friend. “Douglas visited him in Venice,” Cleves explains, “and helped to arrange his admission to the sanatorium where D.H. Lawrence had been treated. Douglas kept in close contact throughout Mari’s final days – visiting, sending letters and books, asking his friend Martha Gordon Crotch, who lived nearby, to check in on the dying young man, and trying to pressure Mari’s father to spend more money on his son’s care.” (p. 147). “Mari,” we read, “appreciated his efforts. He sent Douglas a letter in June 1933 that included a sketch of Douglas as an owl and Mari as his little friend” (Ibid). As Cleves writes: “He relied on Douglas as a friend and mentor until the end” (Ibid).

Emilio Papa, mentioned earlier, visited Douglas for his 79th birthday. He had spent much of the Second World War in a concentration camp. Papa was devoted to Douglas, but their “reunion,” Cleves explains, “was cut short by tragedy, […] when Papa travelled back to Florence to arrange for the sale of Douglas’s apartment and was fatally injured in a plane crash” (p. 246). He “lingered for six days in the hospital before dying of his burns” (Ibid). Shortly after this photograph was taken, Papa was dead.

Douglas (second from left) with Papa (second from right) with friends [cropped].
Douglas (second from left) with Papa (second from right) with friends [cropped]. (Reproduced from Cleves, p. 247)
Douglas,” Cleves writes, “was devastated by the death. He wrote to tell Archie the news three separate times, seemingly incapable of processing the tragedy. “There will never be anybody who can replace him,” Douglas wrote, “we shall never find another Emilio” (Ibid).

Douglas loved Papa. And, after his death, he supported his family by allowing them “to live in the Florence apartment rent-free for three years” (footnote 11, p. 341). Elena and Nella Papa, Emilio’s widow and daughter, joined the procession at Douglas’s funeral (p. 258).

Such positive and loving intergenerational experiences are rendered “unspeakable” today. Young people and their older counterparts risk everything by speaking out, with a third of those on the US’s sex offender registries being children themselves (Horowitz, 2016; 2017; Levine and Meiners, 2020), and even peer-aged sexual expression being dubbed criminal activity (Graupner, 2005; 2010; Okami, 1992).

Nevertheless, Cleves’s research suggests an important role for cultural attitudes in determining negative responses to intergenerational sexual experiences. As Chenier (2012, p. 173) writes: “the meanings we attach to those acts, to their impact on the child, and to the adult who performs or commits such acts, are historically and culturally constructed.” Rind (2013, ch. 1) conducted an extensive literature review on pederasty which supports this view, whilst Malón, (2009) discusses harm resulting from intervention (iatrogenic harm). Rind explains that empirical research such as Constantine (1981) has found that “reaction depends on perception of willingness and whether the minor had absorbed the moral negatives about the sex. If the minor both saw himself or herself as willing and had not absorbed the moral negatives, then he or she would likely respond positively; otherwise, negatively or neutral” (2010, p. 117). Researcher Susan Clancy found her subjects were not traumatized at the time of the experience; only later when re-conceptualized in accordance with negative social prescriptions (see Green, 2010; Loftus, 2010). Cleves gestures towards this possibility when she remarks that, “For [Emilio] Papa, who grew up in a city where sex between boys and men was routine, the sexual elements of his relationship with Douglas did not stand out as aberrant” (p. 163).

The typical reply is that, “even if […] the harms are culturally contingent, this does not make the harms any less real” (Moen, 2015, p. 115). Quite so. The question then, is whether that harm is justifiable?

If alive today, Papa could have been forced into mandatory victimization therapy, where, as Grondin (2011, p. 224) explains “the first task for therapists is to lead children to recast their denials of injury as accounts of abuse and of victimization.” “In other words,” she explains, “therapists encourage children to rewrite their experiences to fit the parameters of the dominant CSA framework, wherein victims and offenders are conceptualized in absolutes” (Ibid).

Wolton, Mari, and Papa cherished their memories of Douglas into later life. “On Christmas Day, 1937, Papa wrote, he pored over old photographs and diaries from their trips together […] recalling those “wonderful days.” (p. 163). In 1939, Papa wrote to Douglas “as happens often to me, I dreamt of being in your company. Believe me, I felt happy.” (Ibid). Is it acceptable to subject Papa and those like him to a perverse kind of cultural gaslighting? To risk inducing psychological symptoms (e.g. trauma) in them where it could otherwise be avoided or minimized? It is a question for future research.

Similar to psychologist Paul Okami who claims, referencing a 1991 study of “positive” experiences, that “I do not believe we can accuse the claims-makers of false consciousness” (2002, p. 493), Cleves implores readers to “believe” the children.

I hope we can start believing them. I hope her book encourages more critical, less value-laden inquiries into intergenerational sex. As Cleves concludes: “our present sexual mores are less stable than we imagine. Attitudes are likely to change again. The first decades of the twenty-first century will not be the final word” (p. 283).