Shame, Fear, Love, and the Gospel
Do you know what real shame is? Living a life based on fear that someone will find out who you really are? I never chose to be this way. I'm illegal. Not that I've done anything illegal, because I haven't. But if people found out about my feelings, I fear the police would search my house looking for evidence, and interview people I know, sure that I had. Even if they didn't investigate me, people's knowledge about me would ruin my life. I could lose my job, any chance of working again in my field, my friends, my family, my church, and my main source of happiness. I would be the object of hatred and contempt by everyone, especially those in the church. So I live a lie.
I used to think the Gospel was irrelevant to me, but now I think it uniquely addresses my situation. But in order to come to that conclusion, my understanding of it had to change. My current understanding would shock many Christians. Their gospel shuts me out of the kingdom of God. I wish I could talk to people about this, but I am too afraid. Yet it's at the root of my faith. If you can't be honest with fellow believers, who can you be honest with?
I need to tell someone about my situation. I want to end the hatred that society has for people like me. Shame and hatred kill. Out of fear, I haven't told anyone face to face. At least not yet. For now, apparently, the internet is the only place where I can be totally honest.
I always seemed like a very normal child: I had a good group of friends, I enjoyed school and did very well, I never got involved with drugs, alcohol, or harmful behavior, and I was never abused physically or sexually. But at home, there was little love or emotional security. My father rarely encouraged, comforted, or supported us children, and I often felt humiliated by him. Because I was able to do well academically, I found my refuge in schoolwork. I think I shut myself down emotionally. I didn't have much emotional self-awareness or realization of what I was missing from my parents until I was almost 30 years old!
At age 11, I gradually came to realize I was attracted to boys instead of girls. Now here's the strange thing. I was attracted to girls in elementary school; in fact, I had two crushes on girls. But without being aware of the process, apparently my orientation changed over time. By the time I turned 12, I was really noticing boys my age, older ones in high school and college, and even some men. Of course, at that age, the cruelest insult was to be called a "faggot" or a "fairy". Even though I didn't realize it then, my life was pretty much centered around hiding this secret, and the fear that I was inadequate as a human being.
It was during my freshman year of college that I made the commitment to follow Jesus and was baptised. In college I majored in an academic subject I had loved ever since first grade. I also loved teaching others what I knew. I remember being intrigued by the profession of teaching when I was in elementary school, and I loved to play school with neighborhood kids. I was usually the teacher. During my sophomore year of college, I decided to pursue a teaching certificate.
Sometime during the years of college, graduate school, and teaching, my interest in men and older boys faded without my really realizing it. It wasn't until my mid 20's that I realized I was really only attracted to boys between the ages of 12 and 15. I am a homosexual ephebophile. I use the terms pedophile and ephebophile to refer to anyone who has an emotional-sexual attraction to children and adolescents (respectively), not necessarily to those who sexually abuse them. I have never touched a boy in any way that was even remotely sexual. In fact, I have rarely touched a child in any way during my entire life.
LOVE AND SEX
People think pedophilia is all about sex. That when we say we love a child, we're just saying it to lure him into our clutches so we can abuse him. For years, I thought my feelings were only sexual. But after years of repressing my emotions, my emotional side seemed to gradually emerge when I was in graduate school. During the past twelve years (I am now in my 30's), I have come to realize that my real desire is to befriend a boy, spend time with him, play and joke around with him, do things for him, talk to him about all kinds of things (especially deep things), protect him, support him, accept him with all his faults, make sacrifices for his well-being, and yes – cuddle with him. I think that is what love must be. People say my love is not really love. So what is real love, then? How is it different from what I have just described?
My sexual feelings for boys are only a part of a larger set of feelings of attraction, which have emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual components. I get tremendous enjoyment from discussing ideas with boys, and I would love to get into deeper spiritual things, maybe even have a positive influence on a boy's spiritual growth. According to their website, the American Psychological Association defines sexual orientation to be an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectionate attraction. Because this so accurately describes my feelings for boys (and because of the total absence of such feelings for women or men), I refer to them as an orientation. Obviously, it is not the usual homosexual orientation. As I understand it, most homosexuals, like most heterosexuals, are not attracted to children or adolescents. But like majority heterosexuality and homosexuality, my feelings of attraction are consistent and enduring, they involve many feelings besides sexual ones, and according to the psychological community, attempts to change them rarely if ever succeed.
On the internet, I have read about many men who have the same feelings I do. They are pedophiles and ephebophiles who call themselves boylovers. Many of them have the kind of loving relationships with boys I wish for but have never had. I often think I've never really loved or been loved. Sure, I have friends and relatives who are warm toward me, but I'm afraid they'd hate me if they knew the real me. My father tells me now that he loves me, and he regrets how he treated me, but as of yet I still have trouble seeing him as a loving or lovable person. But the amazing thing is that in spite of (or maybe because of) receiving so little love, I want to give it so badly. I want more than anything to love a boy intensely, tenderly, unconditionally. And I will gladly refrain from sex in order to do so. I would be lying if I said I do not have sexual feelings. But I have never even begun to act on them in the presence of anyone else, including children and adolescents. I have self-control.
I have learned that only a minority of those attracted to boys are molesters. Most are decent, moral people. I found that hard to believe at first. But it makes sense logically. Through no choice of our own, our orientation is different. Why does that necessarily imply that it's stronger and uncontrollable, or that we are inherently morally flawed? I know there are lots of news reports about pedophiles who molest children. But there are also news reports about blacks who commit murder, and heterosexuals who rape women. That doesn't mean all blacks are murderers or most heterosexuals are rapists.
The problem is that pedophiles and ephebophiles who do not molest are usually not in the news. That is, until someone discovers that an upstanding man in the community is one, and the public assumes he has forced or manipulated a boy into sex. It's remarkable how often these people are so well-respected until their secret is discovered. Of course, the assumption is that all of the man's good works are just a charade to hide the real monster that he is, thus suddenly invalidating every good thing he has ever done. People now assume that everything in his life revolves around his desire for sex with kids. Isn't it possible that he really is the same good, moral person they knew before, with an orientation he did not choose? The truth is that, like homosexuality, pedophilia and ephebophilia can happen to anyone, not just those "sleazy" types. You could just as easily have been a boylover as I am.
The love I want is considered illegal and immoral. Imagine that you faced that situation – that your love for your spouse or boy- or girlfriend was considered perverted and disgusting. That everyone assumed that the purpose of all of your actions was to satisfy your selfish sexual desires. Dating, doing things for the other person, spending time with her, buying her things, telling her you loved her, and even getting married were all simply ways of manipulating her into having sex with you. Imagine that as soon as anyone found out about your feelings, you would face the possibility of being rejected by everyone you know, harassed by strangers, and placed under police investigation. You would never be allowed to interact with someone of the opposite sex again, for fear you would rape them. What would you do?
I currently teach at a conservative Christian school. If anyone found out I was a boylover, they would probably assume that I took that position in order to have sex with kids, even though I've wanted to be a teacher since I was six years old. Most people would think that it is dangerous for me to be a teacher. It is no more dangerous than a heterosexual man with a job where he comes into contact with many women. The fact is that my sexual feelings are only a part of a much larger set of loving feelings for boys, similar to the feelings straight men have for women.
I had considered therapy to change my orientation. Since I believed the cause of my ephebophilia was the way my father treated me, I thought therapy would help me to work through that. But I have learned that no one really knows how orientation develops and what determines it. Many boylovers grew up in "normal" homes. Not only that, talking to friends has caused me to think that my childhood was not so abnormal. Many people who lived through similar or worse childhoods grew up as heterosexuals (including my brother and sister).
But the real problem is that there is no "cure." Both boylovers and non-boylovers admit that. There are no scientifically documented cases of successful attempts to change someone's romantic orientation – whether it be homosexual, pedophile, or ephebophile. I have read about numerous boylovers whose "therapy" taught them to hate their feelings and themselves, and destroyed their capacity to love. They have spent years rebuilding their self-esteem and ability to love others.
One purpose of therapy for pedophiles is to help them control their sexual desires so they do not abuse children. This is an excellent goal, but it is one intended for offenders. Getting this form of therapy for me would be like a heterosexual who has never raped getting therapy so he doesn't rape in the future.
I did not always realize that. For years I feared I was a latent child molester; that for some reason I had an unusual amount of self-control that only temporarily prevented me from abusing. Hearing all the stories on the news, I thought that over time my feelings would grow so strong that I would lose control. But then about a year and a half ago I found the boylover sites on the internet. My fear, and the shame that accompanied it, began to subside. I realized there were many others like me. And they were not predators or molesters. Reading the web sites created by boylovers and boys who loved them changed my attitude about myself completely.
As these things started to sink in, I came to realize that I was not a monster, in spite of what society tells me. But one event really drove that home. I had posted on a chat board for boylovers about the development of my own sexual orientation, and several boylovers responded about their experiences. One day at school, mulling over what they had written, I kept imagining what I'd tell a straight person what I know about the development of sexual orientation. I'd say: It's very mysterious and no one seems to really know what's going on. For some people, orientation is set at birth, for others it changes over time. For some people, it's affected by sexual experiences with others, while for others it's independent of, or even resistant to, them. Some (like me) don't even have experiences, yet their orientation still seems to change before it finally settles down. For some it may be affected by parental upbringing, for others maybe not. Some people have multiple orientations, while others only have one. Most if not all have no choice in their orientation.
But the fact is that like any human characteristic, like any aspect of human development, there is variation in sexual orientation. It's a fact, a part of nature. To place intense shame and self-loathing on people because of this natural variation – which one has no control over – is absolutely wrong. The belief that pedophiles or ephebophiles are any more prone to abusing than straight people are to raping is illogical and ignorant. This hatred and ignorance destroys lives; it kills people emotionally, spiritually and often physically. This is truly evil.
After school, as I was planning lessons for the next day, my mind again turned to these thoughts. I imagined detractors responding to my line of argument by saying that I was trying to "legitimize pedophilia." Then I realized that it was actually arrogant to presume that any person can legitimize or delegitimize something that is a fact of nature. It's like claiming that the sky shouldn't be blue, or that all people should be right-handed. This is the way God created the world. Who are we to question? Of course, even I have questioned God, in extreme anger and aguish. Then a verse from the Bible came to mind. It had been the main theme of the chapel service at my school the previous week! "But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'" (Romans 9:10)
Suddenly I felt completely free from shame. For that moment, I felt a sense of peace and even joy. This was one of the few times in my life when I really felt the Holy Spirit speaking to me. "The truth shall set you free!" It was like I understood that for the first time. Everything seemed so clear, certain, obvious, and simple. How could other people not realize it? Well, because they haven't lived with what I have. Realizing I had only ten minutes to finish my schoolwork before a meeting with some students, I returned to my lesson planning.
Another incident occurred a couple months later that helped me to know that I could never hurt a child. I had purchased a fairly mainstream European movie entitled "For a Lost Soldier" – based on a true story about the love between a Canadian soldier and a 12 year old boy during World War II. As an adult, the boy remembered it as a very beneficial experience. There was a love scene in which the soldier passionately kissed and caressed the boy's face. I loved that scene, and thought how much I longed to do that. But a few days later, when I watched it again carefully, I was intensely saddened to see what was really going on. The boy had a look of fear on his face, the soldier put his finger in the boy's mouth for him to bite down on, and the man lowered himself down on the boy's back as the boy cringed in pain. The next day at school, I could not get this scene out of my mind, and tears sometimes came to my eyes as I thought about it. The boy had been willing to endure pain and go along with a sexual act that he really didn't want, in order to receive the affections of the soldier. That was abuse, and I could never do that. Even if I knew the boy would still love me afterward, as occurred in the movie, I could never take advantage of his love like that.
THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY
My school leans toward fundamentalism. I have become increasingly concerned with its emphasis on personal righteousness and underlying attitudes of hatred toward all kinds of groups, including liberals, atheists, evolutionists, feminists, abortionists, and of course, homosexuals (and by implication, boylovers). So I decided to address this problem at chapel one day. I spoke on Jesus' command and example of loving everyone, whether they disagree with us, their beliefs are wrong, or they're involved in immoral activities. I did mention homosexuals, but I dared not bring up boylovers, of course. I also did not address the senselessness of hating celibate homosexuals (never mind celibate boylovers), even if one believes it's okay to hate people who do immoral things, and one thinks homosexual activity is immoral. I was afraid that I would be suspected as a homosexual. God forgive me for my lack of courage. I think that if the school board thought I was homosexual (let alone a boylover), they would fire me on the spot, even if they trusted that I was celibate.
I only had one parent express a "concern" about what I said at chapel. He said his son was confused about the point I was trying to make, that maybe I was saying we should accept homosexuality. I said we must love the sinner and hate the sin, and if we fail at either, we're not being faithful. I'm guessing that if one parent has suspicions about me, then others do.
In a way I hope they do and that they come and speak to me. If I had the courage, I would ask them what the real "essence" of Christianity is. Is it thinking and doing the right things, while "those other people" think and do the wrong things, and ranting against and rejecting (secretly hating) those other people? Jesus spoke out against such spiritual arrogance (Luke 18: 9-14). This attitude seems to be based on fear, not faith: fear that the wrong things (actually, Satan) will suck us or our children into sinful behavior, or destroy our faith. People seem to be afraid of people and ideas that challenge their beliefs. They are afraid of the unclean; that is, homosexuals. They fear that their kids will become homosexual because they are near one or because someone says it's acceptable.
I would tell parents that to me, this whole approach is what the Pharisees did: they relied on obedience to the law to gain salvation, and they promoted hatred and rejection which shut out certain people from the kingdom of God. Jesus' words against them were very strong (Matt. 23). The essence of Christianity is that God loves and accepts all of us sinners so much that he substituted Jesus' death for our punishment, so he sees us as righteous. Out of thanks for this, we love him, want to obey him, and show his love to others. The kingdom is open to everyone who believes and repents. Jesus loved and ministered to all those rejected by Jewish society – the prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, adulterers, and lepers. This message was quite disturbing to the Pharisees, and that's why they accused Jesus of being Satanic, and had him killed.
I would not be able to tell parents everything I believe and remain in this community. I would not mention how Jesus said nothing about homosexuality or boylove, but spoke harshly against the Pharisees. I would not tell them that I believe all people, including homosexuals and boylovers, have a need for intimate emotional relationships. Or that I am not convinced that consensual homosexual activity is wrong in the context of loving monogamous relationships. Of course, I am disturbed about not voicing my opinions truthfully, and don't know how much longer I'll be able to stay in this community. I have already withdrawn subtly by changing my attendance to a more liberal church outside the community.
But I also think sometimes my faith is weak. I don't think I love or worship God enough. And I continue to wrestle with my understanding of the authority of scripture. I really don't think anyone believes the whole Bible is inerrant. Many say they do, but they still ignore or explain away many of its teachings. I am concerned that I do the same thing. Where do I draw the line? Recently I was reading Romans 13 and got to verse 13: "Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery . . ." As with all references to sexual immorality, I assume that it refers to sex outside heterosexual marriage. Homosexuals would probably say not necessarily so; that immorality refers to sex outside a committed monogamous relationship, or if it does include homosexual behavior, it's just a reflection of society's views at that time. If this is true, then I have to wonder if this reasoning could also apply to sexual relationships between men and boys where the boys want them and are mature and informed enough to know what is involved. So many things seem uncertain to me. But there are two things I am certain of: any action that would hurt a child is wrong, as is promoting shame for sexual orientation.
I do not advocate for the right of boylovers to have sex with boys. I realize the potential for great harm in such activity. I do believe that the following needs of boylovers should be recognized by our society:
(1) The need to be accepted as human beings, made in the image of God, and therefore to be treated with dignity and respect, rather than to be seen as inhuman monsters who deserve to be harassed or assaulted because of feelings we do not choose to have.
(2) The need for our experiences and opinions to be heard, rather than dismissed as dishonest or deluded simply because of our orientation.
(3) The need for our character to be judged on the basis of our actions, not our orientation.
(4) The need to communicate with and seek help from therapists, pastors, and supportive non-boylovers and boylovers without fear of investigation or harassment by law enforcement authorities or reprisal by employers.
(5) The need to receive compassion and support when we face difficulties in life, whether they are due to our orientation or not.
(6) The need to seek and live out God's will for our lives, as fully accepted members of the church.
(7) The need to form healthy, responsible relationships with people of all ages.
All of my dwelling on my boylove feelings strikes me as selfish. What I need to do is to stop feeling sorry for myself, and throw myself into helping others. I can use this capacity for love God has given me to minister to others, and thereby find fulfillment. But society won't let me. Or is it my own cowardice?
Christians frequently cite Romans 8:28 and say that everything happens for a reason. That God has a plan for each of our lives. So what's his plan for mine? Why am I an ephebophile? It's certainly his will that I love people. And I find it extremely easy to love boys. I am deeply motivated to do almost anything that would help a boy in need. I have a special empathy for men and boys who feel intense shame and worthlessness, especially surrounding their sexuality as a result of society's condemnation.
Most people would say it's too dangerous for me to relate to a boy on this subject. But I know that if a boy were feeling shame for his sexuality, the worst thing I could do would be to molest him. But I could love and accept him totally and unconditionally. If I were to do this, and someone suspected or knew the truth about me, they would assume I was after sex, and I would be separated from the boy. What a waste it is to have so much love to give, with boys who need it so badly, but to be unable to give it because of society's attitudes. It seems that the only way I can ever do what I'm on earth to do is to keep this a secret.
On the other hand, I have a growing desire to let someone know the truth about me. I'm getting frustrated by my inability to be honest with anyone in the church. I would like to worship God with people with whom I can be honest and who will still love and accept me. I would like to receive the support and compassion that the church claims it will give to those who are honest about the difficulties they face. I would like to educate people. For them to know me as a decent person and then to find out I'm a boylover could be a real victory against ignorance, hatred, and bigotry. I also want to tell people how I have grown closer to God over the past few months, and how his love has helped me deal with my situation. I want to learn how I can honor God by expressing my love for boys in ways that benefit them. These desires lie at the heart of my faith. So I am talking with my pastor about some of the issues of faith and love I have been thinking about, hoping to grow close enough to him that I can trust him well enough to come out to him in the near future.
But I still fear that telling people about myself would eliminate any opportunity to give out this love God has given me, and to experience the joy of giving it. It is very painful to hear a romantic song, or see a couple holding hands, knowing that it is so easy for straight people to form the relationships they want, but so fraught with risk for me to even form the type of close non-sexual relationships with boys I want.
These fears and conflicting feelings lead me to consider therapy. I would like help in dealing with society's hatred and condemnation. I frequently find myself frustrated and angry. I would also like help dealing with people's reactions if I do come out to a few of them. I want to learn how I can have a fulfilling life with satisfying relationships. I want to learn how I can meet my emotional need for a close loving relationship with a boy in a socially acceptable way. Finally, I would like to get to know myself and my motives better. But it is difficult to know whether a therapist will treat me as a human being sincerely struggling with a difficult situation, or as a potentially dangerous offender. The latter approach would be harmful to me. I know there are both harmful and helpful therapists out there. How do I know ahead of time which is which? I do not relish the idea of giving identifying information to a therapist who may feel it necessary to report me to authorities or to my employer.
Right now, I continue to teach at my conservative Christian school, hoping that I can grow in my ability to show love and acceptance to my students, and hoping that I can fight against hatred and bigotry through my actions and words. I also hope that if there is a boy who is in desperate need for love, who feels deep shame about himself as a human being, that he will somehow sense my love and will be able to trust me enough to come to me for help. I do not pretend to be a psychologist, counselor, or theologian. All I want to do is love him. To show him that Jesus can take away his sense of shame, and that he is loveable and acceptable to me and to God. That he can become a new creation in Christ. Isn't that the message of the Gospel?
"No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." —1 John 4:12
Mark Distefano is the pen-name for a secondary-level teacher at a Christian school in the United States. He is active in his church as a pianist.
© 1998 Mark Distefano