It was an old study, pre-Kinsey, from the time when soda flavors came in like sarsaparilla and celery, and when I came across it I started clicking faster, in excitement really, logging in with my university credentials to bring up the PDF I could download. Not for the photographs. I hadn’t seen the photographs yet. I didn’t know there’d be photographs. But for the data.

What I’ve been looking for, really my whole life, is data—here specifically about the kinds of sex boys have before puberty, before they’re legally or morally sanctioned to have sex, because (and this may come as a surprise to the many people who’ve called me a contrarian) I’ve wanted, really my whole life, to feel less abnormal.

In other words, there are things I’ve done that have made me hate myself. These were things I didn’t fully understand and continue to have conflicted feelings about, and writing this memoir these last few years has taught me that looking at studies can show that what I’ve felt has made me disgusting and a freak is not, in the end, so freakish,[*] which has then opened up a larger and more honest story about why I’ve been led to look at who I am and what I’ve done with such disgust. What I’m saying is, there’s more than safety in numbers, there’s recognition, which for me has been step one on the path to acceptance.

Good data on childhood sex is hard to get. Much of it comes from Nordic and near-Nordic countries, and knowing that the Netherlands starts teaching comprehensive sex education in kindergarten, I don’t find that data useful, having been raised in a country where I learned that sex was not allowed to be discussed in anything other than jokes, and that gay people were tragic figures destined to die of AIDS.

The U.S. data often involve reports from parents and caregivers; the studies’ authors ask mothers (almost always) whether they have noticed their child exhibit their genitals, say, or try to touch the genitals of others, or hug adults they don’t know, or insert objects into their vagina or rectum. There’s a long list of behaviors that developmental psychologists ask about to then deduce which comprise “normative sexual behavior in children.” About 7 out of 10 or 8 out of 10 children exhibit such behavior, depending on which study you like.

The problem with these studies is obvious to anyone who had some kind of sex play as a kid: you don’t do that shit when Mom’s around. So when those studies show that only 1% of children exhibit non-normative sexual behavior (most studies unhelpfully call it “problematic sexual behavior”), I don’t trust that the number is so low. Moms and daycare workers aren’t always the authority on what their kids are up to, especially in environments where sex isn’t a topic of discussion.

What you want are self-reported data, and surprise surprise, it’s not easy in the U.S. to get funding to be allowed to talk privately with boys and girls about the kinds of sex and sexual play they’re having. The most reliable data I’ve seen asked adults to write freely about sexual experiences they had as kids, and then rank that experience on a scale of normal to abnormal. But the sample for the study was 300 Bryn Mawr psychology students. For those unfamiliar, that’s a very good and expensive school for women, which in 1993, the year of the study, must surely have meant upper-class white women. Reliable data? Yes, but not, for me, that useful.

For a while I sought newer data, but kids these days? Growing up seeing your school friends transition out of their birth-assigned gender is a far cry from growing up without even the possibility of your school having a gay-straight alliance, so in my imagination kids these days are having all kinds of sex and sexual play that they themselves would have arguments at the ready about How Dare You Call This Problematic.[†]

Maybe data from before gay men were “a thing” would be useful? Because I’ve read enough to know that as sexual identities arose and cohered around sexual orientations, sexual behaviors, practices, and attitudes changed with them. So when I found the study in question, which involved direct interviews with boys under the age of 18, I thought I’d hit a gold mine.

I did not. I hit something else. It feels like I hit something worse, but that’s what I’m right now trying to write about.

Only part of the study, turns out, was interested in the kinds of sex and sex play boys had, and at which ages they’d had it, but most of the study was focused on measuring the evidence and rates of changes in the male body from boyhood through adolescence to adulthood. How big is this 12-year-old’s balls? was, in so many words, one of the many fields of inquiry. There were charts on penile width and on armpit hair and I was scrolling through the study to find “the good stuff” and that’s when I found the photographs.

It was three of them, black-and-white of course, arranged side-by-side as a chart of its own. Three different white boys, fully naked, at age 11, standing in front of a black background. But not fully naked, was the thing. The nakedness was the first thing that made me stop, and freeze, and get scared that I’d even loaded this PDF in my browser. But the second thing was the blindfolds.

As some stab at anonymity, the study’s author had wrapped a white cloth or bandage around the heads of each boy, covering up his eyes and most of his nose. Not being able to see the camera led each boy to look slightly away, their heads out of position, and this had the effect of them looking more like corpses than boys.

And then I realized it was worse, because now, given this country’s history, whenever I see a photograph of a naked male with his face covered up, I think immediately and only of the Abu Ghraib torture photos.[**] What I was looking at, I felt, was not just evidence of abuse, but a record of the abuse as it was happening. And somehow, maybe given my nature, I felt complicit. I looked around the empty room I was in at home to see who was watching me be a sick fucking pervert.

The other night, N and I watched Mike Myers’s C’mon, C’mon, which is basically the story of Joaquin Phoenix learning how to be an uncle to a boy I personally could have used 40% less of in the movie. There’s a moment halfway through where Jesse, the boy, can’t sleep and wakes up, turns on the light, and moves over to Joaquin’s bed. “Can I sleep with you?” he asks and Joaquin lets him under the covers. It’s a tender moment, in that it shows evidence of a divide getting smaller, and the whole time I felt the same old tension and discomfort.

How to write about this? We’re also watching the new season of The Great, Tony McNamara’s retelling of the rise of Catherine the Great, and one of the ongoing jokes is how dignitaries keep giving her horse-themed gifts, because the rumor has made its rounds. And though Catherine knows herself, knows she never once fucked a horse, there must be this feeling that hits every time she rides one, or asks for her horse to be saddled. I’m letting them imagine the rumors are true, goes the fear.

That’s generally how I feel when kids, boys especially, get too physically close to me.

“The rumors,” here, aren’t about me personally, but about homosexual men, which I’m one of. Whether I believed them, I grew up hearing these lies, and as much as I’m able, with my precious data, to debunk the lies, the stain persists. It’s fucked, I know, but this is one of the side effects of learning about a group of people long before realizing you’re one of them. As a result, I can look at photos of naked women all I want without worrying that this brands me as being a closet bisexual, but the moment I saw photos of naked boys, I thought Careful, too close, run away.

I know I’m not the only person who’s felt this, because 14 pages from the study were missing, left out from when it got scanned and uploaded to research databases. An unexplained gap, no notes inserted in place of those pages, but when you see that the study is looking at boys from ages 11-18, the missing content becomes clear: Oh, more photos. Hairier photos.

And thus scarier photos? To me it would seem that the photos would get scarier the younger they get, and thus the 11-year-olds should have been first to get cut from the scan, because what scares me isn’t sex, or even the idea of sexually active post-pubescent boys being potentially arousing, what scares me is “child pornography.” He had photographs of naked 11-year-old boys on his laptop. That’s a line from a news story that never ends well, so I closed the browser window. Despite the (middling, in the end) data, I could not download the PDF.

That was yesterday. Today I want to think more clearly about the photos, not what they depict but what they reveal. Were they records of abuse? The story of how this scientist found these boys and got them participating in the study, agreeing to be photographed, is lost to history. We have to imagine it, and I have some difficulty imagining anything benign. (This was before the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, after all.)

Possibly parental permission was involved? Possibly these were wards of the state? Possibly this data was useful, and if what these boys did was a sacrifice, possibly it was for the greater good?

This is the part of this story that feels the most difficult to think about. It involves medical ethics and human bodies and sexual shame and fears of abuse. It comes down to the question of whether we need to know what we want to know, and one thing we want to know (or I’ve wanted to, at least) is what is normal when it comes to the human body.

Everyone may want to be different and special in terms of the personality, or tastes, or interests, or aesthetics, but when it comes to the body as biomass, as the living organism of us, norms are very important. What should our body temperature be? It should be the mean of every measured temperature ever taken of the human body: so 97.9° F. When should someone with ovaries expect to begin menopause? They should expect menopause to begin around the average age of all recorded onsets of perimenopause: 45.

There’s a problem here and that’s variation within the species. People who contract COVID-19, as we know, don’t all start with the same cough on day 3 after transmission, and then see 4 days of cough until it stops. And so who comprises the studied bodies matters. As the above study on menopause points out, “Most of our knowledge and perceptions of menopause have been based largely on studies of white women.”

So we need better data. “Granular” data, as the term goes. The more data we have, the better we can seek out the right combination of variables to find the normal that best matches us, so that, maybe one day, I can find a study that’ll tell me how many times gay white boys raised in the 80s and 90s in a household where sex was an unspoken subject who had sexual experiences as a child that disturbed them long enough to keep them in the closet unwilling even to experiment with same-sex encounters until their mid-20s go to the bathroom each day.

That’s the dream. Granulate the spectrum and everyone benefits. So as disturbing as the evidence I saw yesterday was, I think I believe in the science. Knowing the range of norms for body changes in puberty—knowing the quantitive measures but also knowing the range as a range—can help the already anxious adolescent feel less anxious.

But data, of course, can only do so much. Stories matter, too, maybe more. And I’m trying in this book to start with data, and let that help me tell the kinds of stories I needed to hear many years ago.

I’d like to think this work would let me come across photographs of nude boys and feel nothing, or possibly pity and worry that they were mistreated. Or let me read a book to a child sitting in my lap without worrying that people will think I like this in some way I’m not supposed to, or worry that it’s dangerous, what’s being allowed to happen.

Yesterday showed me I’m not there yet, the backpack of shame, this rotten metaphor, something I’m still carrying, still letting guide not just how I think about human bodies, but how I see them. What I see them as. Writing this book, then, is like standing as my own legal counsel in a country whose language I don’t speak. I have so much more to learn if I’m gonna get out of here alive.

UPDATE: Going through my notes on Bachelard’s The Formation of the Scientific Mind, I found this passage which feels apt re my dilemma:

We see then that if we wish to measure the obstacles that stand in the way of objective knowledge, of tranquil knowledge, it is human beings as a whole that we must consider, human beings with their heavy burden of ancestrality and unconsciousness, and with all their confused, contingent youthfulness.

I love this concept of “tranquil knowledge”. It’s the kind I think I’m looking for as I write this book.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Whether it remains disgusting is for others to decide, but as I write more and more about this, I can already feel the weight of my shame fall off me, like a backpack someone else has offered to carry the rest of the hike.
  2. Then again, all of us, including kids, are having less sex than we used to, according to doctors at Indiana University, and teens tragically are even masturbating less.
  3. If you haven’t thought in a while about that horror and terrorism of 18 years ago, it won’t cheer you to learn (or be reminded) that, according to Wikipedia (lazy source I know), “Most soldiers only received minor sentences. Three other soldiers were either cleared of charges or were not charged. No one was convicted for the murders of the detainees.”