What Makes Cameron Tick? (A Final Stab At It)

Jim Burroway

May 22nd, 2012

[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.”

The back cover of Sexual Gradualism with Cameron's bio (Click to enlarge).

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.

Bose in St Peter MN

May 22nd, 2012

Fascinating, Jim… plenty to chew on there.

Does the book indicate what kinds of resources he drew from? I’m curious about how much of this might have been developed independently vs. in collaboration or consultation with experts in child development or sexuality.

[This comment is in response to the earlier draft which was mistakenly published. In answer to your question, the book does not reference any other study or expert, and there is no hint of collaboration or consultation with anyone — Jim Burroway]

Timothy Kincaid

May 22nd, 2012

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.

Well there ya have it. I never saw, or even heard, my parents having sex. Mystery solved.


May 22nd, 2012

What if Cameron’s right? God damn! Apparently I’m a natural at homosexuality. It didn’t take any practice at all. Far from being introduced to it or encountering approval of or association with it, homosexuality was always portrayed as the very worst thing possible and utterly reviled by anyone I knew whenever it was mentioned. And yet I excel at it.

If only that were true of tennis. I might’ve won Wimbledon. Instead, I wasted time and money on practice and lessons. There was some improvement over time but it was clear to me after a while it was going to take a hell of an effort even to win a junior tournament.

If only there was a contest in homosexuality. I could’ve been a contender. Perhaps if Tennis was entirely condemned, I might have discovered a natural talent.


May 23rd, 2012

Timothy YOU crack me up, “Well there ya have it. I never saw, or even heard, my parents having sex. Mystery solved.”

And Neil, I am rolling on the floor laughing my guts out, “What if Cameron’s right? God damn! Apparently I’m a natural at homosexuality. It didn’t take any practice at all.”

I’ll write more later but man this shit is c-r-a-z-y. It’s really perverted. Can you imagine this,

“Mom I think I am ready to give my first blow job, but I am nervous, I don’t want to make a mistake.”

“Not yet Suzy you are not ready yet. Let’s talk again after Bob leaves tonight. I ran out of time, no cookies tonight but I bought a pound cake”

Cameron is batshit crazy.

Priya Lynn

May 23rd, 2012

I actually think Cameron was on to something with this sexual gradualism idea. I don’t agree with all of the specifics he put forward, but I think the idea in general is a good one.


May 23rd, 2012

Well done guys! Too often we as a community (especially in the blogosphere) dismiss these fools as crazy without trying to truly understand their motivations. If we’re going to counter their messages we have to understand why their message resonates in the first place.

I would posit that Cameron’s worldview is not that far off from the worldview of many of the religious right or anti-gays out there. Not that bit about gradualism but the bit about all sexuality being about physical performance.

Not that they’re all victims of sexual abuse just that Cameron’s been tremendously influential. My own mother insisted I tell her the name of the man who molested me as I was coming out of the closet(there was none, just the assumption that I had to have “learned” how to be gay; after I insisted that there was no man they blamed the soft-core I’d found on the internet; again insisting that there is a cause or a teacher).

Plus such a worldview fits so neatly with the “love the sinner” attitude or the “there are no gay people just gay acts” position of many in the evangelical community.

It sort of makes a perverse sense from the perspective of a closeted society. Didn’t the gurl who ruined Stella’s Groove say he didn’t know he was gay? In the 70’s from the outside looking in (and especially as a victim of homoerotic child abuse) it would appear that gays are made rather than a natural variant of human sexuality.

But in a post-closet society it doesn’t make sense at all.

Too many of us young gay men have come out of the closet not because we discovered our sexuality through positive experiences with men but rather through negative experiences with women. I kissed a girl and I didn’t like it. In fact it made me feel guilty. And without the shackles of the closet we are all sharing our stories.

The world has changed and Cameron and his ilk refuse to see it or don’t know it.


May 23rd, 2012

Priya Lynn, no. No. This is crazy shit. Parents do NOT “Help” their children step by step through their sexual journey by providing a clean bathroom and cookies and wanting to know the blow by blow details and giving feedback.
That is voyeurism Priya Lynn.

That is sexualizing your children.

Children should NOT know the details of their parents sex life and Parents should NOT know the details of their children’s sex life. Children are taught the basics of, what is the right word (?), Biology, and your values are imprinted on them, and then that is it.

Talk about and give birth control, yes if you think it is right for your child. But to go step by step and set boundaries about when you as a parent judge your child mature enough to move from fondling to nude showers, NO, hell NO. They do NOT need you to teach them, they will learn all of this on their own. You are not in fact teaching them or setting boundaries you are practicing voyeurism, a peeping tom.

This is why you send them *away* to college so that you are shielded from knowing what they are doing as they fumble through this growing up process. This is why you absolutely NEVER surprise visit your child at college, because in fact, you don’t *need* to know, and it is better if you do NOT know, about this journey/transition your child goes through.

At this point it is THEIR life and not yours to butt into. If you did your job when all is said and done they will turn out okay, even if there are some bumps in the road.

Priya Lynn, our sexual maturation is our own personal journey, to have a parent insert themselves under the guise of “teaching or boundary setting” is wrong, it is just plain wrong. It IS voyeurism. Please re-think. Please.

Priya Lynn

May 23rd, 2012

Straightgrandmother, I don’t think people’s sex lives are a taboo topic or that there is anything necessarily wrong with parents giving their children advice about their sex lives in the same way they give their children advice about a wide array of topics.

As I said, I don’t agree with all the specifics Cameron laid out, for example, such discussions wouldn’t be appropriate for every teenager and the teenager would ultimately have to have the say as to whether or not such parental involvement was welcome. As well, for many teenagers there would be no need of this “sexual gradualism” as they wouldn’t want, or be in a position to have a sexual relationship.

It would probably take me 15 to 20 hours to work out what I think is wrong with the specifics Cameron laid out and what I think would be acceptable but I have no interest in investing that much time in this topic but I do think that in general this could be a helpful idea.
There are many potential emotional and physical pitfalls in entering into a sexual relationship and I think the idea of providing some instruction and support in the subject is a good one.


May 23rd, 2012

Straight Grandmother, I’m on your side. Not only did I not know the details of my kids’ sex lives, I did not and still do not want to know them, any more than they want to know what their father and I do in bed.

This does not mean we never discussed sex. But we kept all talks focused away from the individuals in the room. Watching TV and movies was a great way to give opinions about the characters on the screen, presenting values without insulting or prying into the life of any real person. Every few years, I’d buy a book appropriate to where I thought a child was developmentally and leave it sitting in the recipient’s bedroom. They never acknowledged receipt of these but they kept them and I could see they were read. (This was obvious from the fact that they sat on the bookshelves, spine inward. I never pointed out that tactic only called particular attention to those volumes.)

They are now adults, and I’m content with seeing they are reasonably happy and perfectly healthy, and occasionally being introduced to an individual who I’m allowed to infer is a current sex partner.

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