[Note: An earlier draft of this post was mistakenly published on Monday night when the blogging software had a hiccup. (My inbox was also suddenly flooded with emails generated by comments from the day before.) Not sure what happened. Anyway, here is the final final stab at it.]
Back in 1978, before Dr. Cameron made a name for himself in anti-gay circles, he tried his hand at being a sex advice author. Ann Landers he wasn’t. In Sexual Gradualism: A Solution to the Sexual Dilemma of Teenagers and Young Adults, Cameron proposed a “middle way” between the what he saw as the libertine left and the puritan right. With his system of “sexual gradualism,” he suggested that parents school their children in the fine art of slowly escalating their teens’ sexual activity through eight “levels” of physical intimacy:
Level 1: Being near another. If you like a person, you try to be near that person. Just sitting close to someone you admire, perhaps just barely brushing against that person or touching him or smelling him or feeling his warmth is one level of sexual intimacy. (The male pronoun will be used throughout for the sake of grammatical simplicity and flexibility. Women are not being ignored. How could a book on sexuality be written without them?)
Level 2: Holding hands, touching arms, hugging and the like.
Level 3: Kissing (not differentiating between open and closed mouth or active and passive tongue kissing.) Kissing, which is a fairly casual level of intimacy in our culture, is probably among the most harmful practices in which our culture indulges. I know of no absolute way to compare the amount of disease attributable to sexual intercourse as compared to mouth to mouth exchange. But I would suspect there are far more dangerous diseases communicated by way of the mouth than the genital track. As kissing is an integral part of our culture, however, and because gradualism is not attempting to modify society in this particular, it is Level 3.
Level 4: Breast fondling, manipulating, sucking, kissing and so on.
Level 5: Mutual hand exploration of the genitals including mutual masturbation, fingering, touching, rubbing.
Level 6: Total nudity, perhaps in a shower or a bathtub accompanied by such things as physical stimulation.
Level 7: Oral sex — that is, kissing of the genitals, etc.
Level 8: The final level of sexual intimacy – sexual intercourse. The actual insertion of the penis into the vagina. [Page 7]
First of all, how fascinating is Cameron’s disdain for kissing? But more so, how surprising is it that the man who would later become an important figure in conservative circles would approve of oral sex among teens? In a concession to more conservative parents, Cameron reserved the last level, “the actual insertion of the penis into the vagina,” for those who were married. But levels one through seven were not just fair game, they constituted a road map for teens (and their parents) to follow since, as he reasoned, teens were going to have some sort of sex anyway. The problem was, as he saw it, the split between liberal and conservative sexual ethics was “a ‘go/no-go’ system. Either a person has to abstain from sexuality… or he has to ‘go all the way.’” Gradualism was his way of letting teens have as much fun as possible without going all the way:
But a key tenet of gradualism is that there is a lot of fun, excitement, and pleasure to be had at all levels of sexual involvement. From Level 5 upward, the possibility of complete and satisfying sexual release is about as high as at Level 8 (for some people even higher).
Many of us have come to believe that we have not really “made love” unless we engage at Level 8. But there is every reason to believe that people can and do “make love” at Levels 3 through 7. Making love with someone you love is a joy. The level at which we make love is, to a considerable degree, irrelevant. It is reasonable for teen-agers who are in love to make love with each other. However, as this study will bear out, it is unreasonable for teen-agers to make love through intercourse (Level 8) outside of marriage. [Page 11, emphases his.]
Cameron’s “conservative” position is that the child’s virginity must be preserved for marriage — a virginity defined strictly on the basis of whether the child has broken the penile-vaginal boundary. But to preserve that conservative position, he adopts a decidedly “liberal” policy of not just allowing, but encouraging just about every other form of sexual expression short of the actual deed. This is Cameron’s “third way.”
Sexual Gradualism isn’t strictly a physical how-to guide through the levels: he dedicated a few pages to the emotional aspects of dating, falling in love, and sexual intimacy. But he quickly moved on to the practical tips of going from one level to the next: plan it out, talk it out, bathe properly. And he encouraged parents to help prepare the right setting for that special time when their teen is ready to literally take it to the next level:
Gradualism would best be practiced in the home. A responsible set of parents might allot a room, privacy, access to a bathroom, a television and snacks for their teen-agers to practice gradualism. Providing privacy and encouraging them to develop in friendship and perhaps sexuality without fear of adult interference is civilized and civilizing. .. Thoughtful parents might provide a teenager with access to comfortable gradualism, knowing that the teen-ager might indulge in sexual practices.
Some parents may shudder at the prospect, but they should remember that the minute a child or a teen-ager leaves in a car, he or she is able to to do anything desired. … If a parent has raised a child who is going to violate prohibitions of one kind or another, denying him access to the parents’ home is likely to do little in the way of interfering with his sexual activity. The parent who teaches gradualism to his children is actually making promiscuity less likely. If you want people to behave in a given way, you must be quite explicit about that behavior. [Pages 24-25, emphases his.]
… Some will object. “My goodness. Aren’t you just inviting them to ‘go all the way’ by providing them with a room and a bathroom and all this privacy?” If you just provided room then the answer is,” Probably!”
Sex education is best taught in the home. Only in the home can a young person receive advices and instruction from people maximally concerned with his well being. If parents provide both explicit instruction in gradualism and the opportunity for its expression, they are increasing their influence and control over the sexual development of their children. Obviously this is accompanied by some risk, but the trouble that youngsters can get into on their own is almost always greater.
Whenever practiced, gradualism covets pleasant, safe surroundings. Lovely sex is enhanced by beautiful settings. Similarly, it is difficult for sexuality to be marvelous in squalor. Sexuality is a difficult process in and of itself, without compounding its difficulty by unpleasant surroundings. [Page 26.]
The extent to which Cameron thinks it’s appropriate for parents to become involved with their children’s sex life is remarkable in many ways. Cameron is far better known today for his prominent role in the very socially-conservative anti-gay movement, and I have a feeling that this book would have been anathema to his compatriots at the Fuller Theological Seminary where he was teaching at the time, let alone among those at the Family Research Council and others who continue to use his work to this very day.
But this book is also notable for something else. It suggests that Cameron may very well have struggled with appropriate boundaries between adult “mentors” and children. To be sure, it is sound advice for parents to take an active instructional role in educating their children on relationships and sex. But Sexual Gradualism goes further. It suggests that the parents’ role extends to ensuring their children have an understanding on good sexual performance and technique. It stops short of suggesting a show-and-tell session, thankfully. But suggesting that mom prepare a snack tray of milk and cookies whenever young Stephanie has her boyfriend over for a shared shower and a blow job is generally not the kind of sexual advice that comes from someone with a healthy respect for boundaries.
Boundaries are often an issue with victims of child sexual abuse. As I wrote last week, the therapists I talked to abut the subject say that one of the common effects of such abuse is that the abuse victim often doesn’t see his or her sexuality as something he or she owns. From a very early age, that that person was taught that his or her sexuality belongs to someone else. We think of sexuality as something very intimate and private, but to a child who has been sexually abused, it is neither. Instead, it is very public and it is other people’s business. And for the better part of the past 35 years, Cameron has made other people’s sexuality his business.
Today when we think of Cameron, we think of a man obsessed with homosexuality. It’s tempting to see if there are any clues to explain his unabashed hatred of gay people in Sexual Gradualism. But Cameron’s later obsession is mostly absent in this book. Sure, hints pop up here and there, but this is 1978; the book’s disapproval of homosexuality doesn’t particularly stand out from other texts of the day. But there are a few passages which can be seen as a kind of foreshadowing:
Probably there would be little argument that children ought to be getting into Levels 1 and 2 somewhere between the ages of 10 and 15. One to gradualism’s precepts is that active heterosexuality inhibits the formation of homosexuality (or bestiality or any other non-erotic sexual outlet.) [Page 32]
If gradualism were adopted as social policy and taught in the home, the school, and the church, I believe we would go a long way toward providing a more rational and orderly kind of sexual experience for the children and teen-agers of our society …As already mentioned, another advantage of gradualism is the insulation value it provides against homosexuality. Human sexuality is learned. As with any other learned activity, the first time something is practiced, and in this case the first time sexuality is practiced, it has a great deal of importance. With sexuality, as in any other area, just because a person’s first experience or set of experiences is of one kind or of one orientation, it will not necessarily turn out that their orientation will be just that way in the future.
However, social scientists are also aware that the first activity or the first set of activities is of considerably greater importance than succeeding activities. By gradually introducing, in word and deed, a young person to the opposite sex, establishing firm parameters as to what is to be done and not to be done, by being explicit, and further, by explicitly directing that young person toward the opposite sex, gradualism steers in a heterosexual direction.
I can think of no greater compliment to the example of a happily married couple than gradualism in directing the child’s interests to the opposite sex. For weal or woe, many of the marriages inthe United States and Canada are not so ideally put together.
Gradualism serves as a second line of defense against the often homosexual reaction to inadequate or substandard heterosexual expression on the part of the parent. Gradualism clearly will work best when parents display general love and physical intimacy with each other in front of their children. … Do parents treasure the hope of their children acquiring a heterosexual orientation? The best defense against homosexuality is a vigorous, active heterosexuality, at the onset of sexual experience. [Pages 36-37, emphases his.]
If the book appears internally schizophrenic by offering a sexually permissive solution to a conservative value, the psychic split is highlighted further by the fact that in the very same year he published Sexual Gradualism, Cameron also published his first anti-gay tract. The summer issue of the obscure Human Life Review featured his article, “A case against homosexuality,” a rambling thirty-three snoozer which is essentially Cameron’s first draft for the more than forty anti-gay papers to follow. The Human Life Review is published by the Human Life Foundation, which publishes not only articles against abortion and euthanasia, but also on “how moral relativism has pervaded our political process as well as our educational system” and other topics which “reflect a society sharply divided on the most basic moral questions.” How does he publish one article in a journal that decries “moral relativism” while simultaneously writing a book that positively revels in it?
Here, I think is where we get to the question I posed in the title of this series. This is where we begin to understand What Makes Cameron Tick. And I will point you to the one thing that has always been consistent in everything Cameron has ever written or espoused. Again, we find it in Sexual Gradualism:
Human sexuality is not “natural.” In fact, I have found it most useful to consider human sexuality as totally learned. There is nothing absolutely biological about human sexuality. Learning to be a good lover does not come “naturally.” Nor is there anything particularly natural or normal about human sexuality. We cannot trust to “mother nature” to deliver our children into sexual bliss, or land them safely on the sexual shore.
On the contrary, the kind of sexuality that our children will exhibit is not due to their genetic make-up, is not due to their hormonal balance, and in fact, has precious little to do with biology.
In many ways the performance of sexuality is analogous to playing tennis. People are not born good tennis players, and they are not born good lovers. On the contrary, learning to be a good tennis player takes many, many hours of practice, thought and hard work. Similarly, learning to be a good lover takes many hours of practice, thought, and application.
To the degree that the general populace buts “sexual naturalism” and excuses their sex practices as being due to faulty heredity or hormonal imbalance, society limps sexually. [Page 49, emphasis in the original.]
Did you catch that? To Cameron, sexuality is “the performance of sexuality,” or, more precisely, the performance of the sexual act(s). It is merely the summation of the words spoken, the moves practiced, and the actors hitting their marks. It is all action, and all actions are learned, and the better practiced actions are better learned (like tennis!). Elsewhere in Sexual Gradualism, Cameron describes his proposal as a systematic process for discerning one’s “proclivities” — one of his favorite words that he uses whenever he wants to avoid the deeper aspects of sexuality: love, passions, attractions, romantic attractions, and the inner sense of self in relation to others. “Proclivities” is also a word that he typically uses to dismiss the “tendencies” (another of his favorite words) of gay people. To Cameron, the very idea of an orientation is a fraud. Sexuality isn’t related to what once senses in himself or herself as a component of their innermost being. It doesn’t even begin to approach that level of intimacy. Instead, sexuality is the performance of acts, of habits and proclivities that the individual is taught.
And Cameron feels that he understands this mechanism very well. Here is what he wrote in 2002 about how gay people supposedly pick up their “habit”:
In reality, sexual abuse of a boy often leads the boy to discover that sexual activity with another boy or a man can be pleasurable. That is why molestation of boys by men is so dangerous. Except in a few isolated instances, molestation does NOT lead to “gender identity disorder” in boys. Rather, it sets up the makings of a very bad habit — a habit that can turn the boy away from responsibly contributing to society through his sexuality to engaging in sex only to satisfy his desires.
…With rare exception, gays don’t do these things because they are “confused as to whether they are a man or a woman.” They know that they are men, they have just learned to enjoy sex with other men. They are not “sick,” nor typically in great psychological distress. Rather they have acquired an evil habit, a bad habit, a socially injurious habit.
This is Cameron’s great consistency, and it’s the rare consistency which pre-dates his turn to rabid anti-gay extremism in 1978. Cameron’s conviction is that sexuality is synonymous with “performance of sexuality,” and that all performances are taught, and the best performances are the result of persistent practice by wise and understanding teachers.
Again, this only begins to make sense in light of what Cameron describes as his own sexual abuse as a child. It’s hard not to read, “The best defense against homosexuality is a vigorous, active heterosexuality, at the onset of sexual experience” in Sexual Gradualism without recalling the onset of Cameron’s own sexual experience: he was abused by a man, then he was molested by a woman. He then decided that his “proclivities” lies with women. But in his mind, if he hadn’t been “taught” by that woman he may have picked up the “bad habit” of becoming a homosexual man. “Had that continued,” he said last week, “I don’t know where I would have ended up. But I do know that the culture was directed toward heterosexuality overcame whatever feelings I had.”
The fact that Cameron once suggested that parents take an unusually active interest in their children’s sexuality (or their sexual performance) strikes us as more than just odd. It’s creepy. But to him, it’s just a part of growing up. Adults taught him a lot of sexual practices when he was a child. And in 1978 it did not seen so odd to him that he should not want to pass what he learned on to others.