from Books & Reviews
Gay Cornell University Professor Ritch Savin-Williams argues that teenagers are rejecting gender categories in their pursuit of satisfying sexual relationships. And, he's encouraged by the trend.
Reviewed by Frank York
Professor Rich Savin-Williams in The New Gay Teenager, presents the premise of his book in the first page of his Preface. He observes: "Gay people have historically too readily accepted the inevitability and desirability of divisions based on sexual categories. It's not that same-sex attractions are disappearing--indeed, they appear to be on the upswing as young people more freely share with each other their same-sex feelings. They're not embarrassed by gayness, don't consider it deviant, and see it all around them--on television, in movies, in songs, in cultural icons, among their friends."
Savin-Williams is encouraged by this trend and looks forward to the day when terms like "gay" become irrelevant in public discourse. He notes that more and more teens are becoming pan-sexual in their outlook--and the line between what was once considered "gay" and "straight" is becoming blurred.
The "New Gay Teenager" will be a person who can be attracted to both girls and boys and have sexual relationships with both sexes without guilt. The "New Gay Teenager," then is basically a pansexual or bisexual who rejects all gender categories.
Savin-Williams asks what has resulted in this "dramatic generational shift" between the old generation of gays who maintained that sexual orientation is fixed and unchangeable versus the new teen who views gender categories as unimportant? "Probably the media," says Savin-Williams. He notes: "The success of the entertainment industry in presenting and hence normalizing same-sex desire has had an incalculable impact on the ability of adolescents to understand their own emerging sexual desires." (p. 18).
Another change agent, says the professor is the public school system. He credits Los Angeles Public School teacher Virginia Uribe and her Project 10 program as the pioneer of this effort to normalize homosexuality among teens. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), says Savin-Williams is following in Uribe's footsteps. He notes that GLSEN-sponsored Gay Straight Alliance clubs have proliferated on high school campuses.
Gay-Affirming Researchers Invented 'The Gay Teen'
Professor Savin-Williams admits in Chapter 2 that gay or pro-gay researchers "invented" the gay teen. "Gay adolescence came to be what we researchers wanted it to be--what we were," says the author. (p. 23). He observes: "... who researchers say is gay and who they chose to provide data determine the outcome" of the research findings.
He criticizes many of the early studies done on gay teenagers because of the problems involved in correctly defining who is gay and who isn't. "Most biological and social scientists assume a categorical sexual orientation, allowing them to contrast heterosexuals with homosexuals. The category of bisexual is often ignored altogether or folded into the gay group. Bisexuals are said to be confused, in a state of transition, not yet having decided just what they are." (p. 30).
Savin-Williams says researchers define sexual identity in a limited fashion and force teens to choose between limited options. "What about young people who identify themselves using a sexual label not provided, such as two-spirit, polysexual, or ambisexual? What about those who span multiple identities, the bi-lesbian or the gay-curious heterosexual?" asks the author. (p. 35)
Determining who's gay and who isn't, is a difficult task, says the professor. It depends on how researchers define the population: by attraction, behavior, or identity.
Savin-Williams presents the results of his own study of same-sex teenagers and draws the following conclusions:
The professor observes that much of the research published during the 70s and 80s was not peer reviewed. In addition, "... all early gay-youth investigations were based on flawed research designs and included small or biased samples of those who sought the services of mental-health or social-support agencies. In defense of these earlier researchers, they have been so pleased to have access to any gay teens that any slippage in standards for methodological rigor seemed relatively inconsequential ..." (p. 57)
Savin-Williams says the "investigators who published these negative findings knew what they were doing. They were aware of their sample limitations, that they had recruited those disproportionately at risk for negative health outcomes and risk behaviors. Yet few attempted to correct this portrait of the suffering gay adolescent." (p. 68) Their goal was to follow the money in getting grants to conduct their research.
Savin-Williams urges researchers to stop focusing on the suffering gay teen and begin promoting the view that gay teens are healthy and fully functioning individuals. He says: "Same-sex attracted teenagers are, in general, indistinguishable from other teens neurologically, anatomically, and chemically." (p. 85)
Early Same-Sex Attractions: A Great Delight
In his interviews with gay-identified teens, Savin-Williams says that "early same-sex attractions for many teenagers are sources of great delight, fond remembrance, and lifetime reverberations; they may even be these individuals' most tender and pleasurable childhood memories." (p. 131)
In Chapter 7, "First Sex," Savin-Williams introduces the subject of gay childhood sexual experiences by noting that Alfred Kinsey and his associates were the first to systematically explore the "onset and nature of sexuality during childhood." (p. 133)
Kinsey argued that humans are naturally sexual and orgasmic throughout childhood and their reluctance to engage in gay sex is often attributable to repressive socialization that doesn't tolerate such behaviors.
"Kinsey found little evidence for the traditional view of childhood's being a time of sexual latency or arrest in sexual development," says Savin-Williams. (p. 134)
Savin-Williams observes: "Regardless of gender of person and partner, if an early sexual contact is not abusive or coercive, then it likely has a positive impact on adolescent and adult sexual arousal, pleasure, satisfaction, and acceptance of various sexual behaviors for self and others. Given the degree of sex negativity in U.S. culture, not all view these seemingly positive results as desirable outcomes. As for general social adjustment, sex among children is seldom associated with either developmental benefits or liabilities. " (p. 135)
An Apologist For Pedophilia?
Throughout Savin-Williams' book, he quotes favorably from Dr. Theo Sandfort's various research on gay males. Sandfort's background, however, is ignored.
Dr. Sandfort is a research scientist on HIV and Associate Clinical Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. Prior to going to Columbia, Sandfort headed up the Interfaculty Department of Lesbian and Gay Studies at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is former President of the Dutch Society of Sexology.
Dr. Sandfort is also on the editorial board of the Dutch pedophile journal, PAIDIKA, and has written favorably on adult/child sex in the past. Sandfort was co-author of "Man-Boy Relationships: Different Concepts for a Diversity of Phenomena," for the special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, "Male Intergenerational Intimacy," published in 1990.
Joseph Nicolosi and Dale O'Leary published an article on pedophilia and referenced Dr. Sandfort's pro-pedophile research in: "On the Pedophilia Issue: What The APA Should Have Known."
Savin-Williams favorable use of Dr. Sandfort--without providing background on his his involvement in the pedophile movement--is evidence of the propagandist nature of his writings. Savin-Williams is perfectly comfortable with gay children and teens having sex with each other. His position on adult/child sex is not directly stated but his use of a PAIDIKA board member as a cited resource seems to imply approval.
Sexual Identity Formation
Professor Savin-Williams observes that it is difficult to tell how many teens self-identify as gay because researchers use so many different methods for assessing sexual identity. Among them are: They admit to themselves that they're gay; they consider themselves gay; they describe themselves as gay; they realize they're gay; they have an identity of being gay; they label themselves as gay; and they know they're really gay.
He notes that this current generation of teens label themselves at a much earlier age than in the past. It has decreased by five years among males and more among females--from ages 21 down to 16. A second trend is that sex differences in the age of self-identification have largely disappeared.
The author notes several problems with studies purporting to show the age at which teens identify as gays. One is that researchers confuse sexual identity with sexual orientation, "calling it one thing and measuring the other." (p. 165) Another problem is that many samples are unrepresentative.
He says that female teens are now more likely to use labels other than gay to describe their sexual feelings. "Indeed, only a minority of same-sex-attracted women say they are lesbian. Bisexual is more often preferred," said Savin-Williams. (p. 168). Females also refer to themselves as ambisexual; bi-queer; fluid bisexual; heterosexual-identified bisexual; pan-sexual; polyfide; and more.
Bisexuality is another identity that is resistant to categorization into heterosexual or gay identities. According to current literature, says the author, bisexuals are considered to be in transition to heterosexuality or homosexuality. He notes that many teens are also rejecting the bisexual term as well. They see it as too limiting.
Rejecting Deficit Models Of Gay Teens
Savin-Williams wants researchers to reject the deficit/troubled teen model when they study gay teenagers. "It is not too late for social scientists to reclaim the study of gay adolescence and assert their place as the proper and rightful scholars for developing knowledge about same-sex attracted adolescents. The first step is for them to apply appropriate levels of methodological rigor and sophistication in their investigations. The second is to appreciate the diversity of same-sex attractions and individuals." (p. 186)
Savin-Williams also urges scholars to "break traditional barriers that prohibit a forthright, positive discussion about sexuality with adolescents. (p. 190)
He says the message that scholars should send is that gay teens are diverse and can develop into resilient, coping, healthy adults. "We can deliver this message without ignoring those who are suffering, sometimes to the point of ending their lives. ... It is this message that we need to articulate loudly and clearly, and to support in the pages of our professional journals and in the media. Perhaps then teenagers--and others as well--can hear it and believe it." (p. 193)
Savin-Williams concludes his polemic in favor of unrestrained sexual activity for gay identified teenagers by stating: "It is my fervent hope that what is being achieved in the real world [in the entertainment industry] can be achieved in scholarship. I hope to see the elimination of same-sex sexuality as a defining characteristic of adolescents in my lifetime. If it can be relegated to insignificance, the lives of millions of teens will be dramatically improved." (p. 223)