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Et Tu, New Publisher?

June 11, 2009

Nearly four years after an academic journal nixed plans to publish a piece about sex between adult and adolescent males of antiquity, the controversy is erupting again. This time, however, it’s not conservative critics yelling the loudest. A group of classicists, now twice thwarted in efforts to publish on the provocative subject, have taken aim at one of the world’s largest publishers, saying Taylor & Francis Group has placed reputational concerns above the legitimate scholarly pursuits it ought to promote.

The story dates to 2005, when Haworth Press announced amid heavy criticism that its Journal of Homosexuality wouldn’t publish an article or book chapter about sexual relationships between men and boys in antiquity. Critics had learned of a particularly controversial piece in the forthcoming collection, which would argue that such relationships “can benefit the adolescent” in certain circumstances, prompting allegations that the author was advocating child molestation. Those allegations were trumpeted first and loudest by the Web site World Net Daily, whose readers vigorously complained to Haworth.

Scholars have for decades explored the implications of "pederasty," a common practice in ancient Greece wherein men and adolescents, who were frequently slaves, had sexual relationships. The difference in the journal's piece, however, was that Bruce Rind, a former professor of psychology at Temple University, appeared to suggest such relationships might be healthy -- even in modern times.

Photo: Canino Collection, 1848

 

For all intents and purposes, Haworth’s decision to refuse publication appeared to end the story. With little fanfare, however, the publisher subsequently entered into a quiet deal with several authors, saying Haworth would be willing to publish a revised collection on the same subject, according to the authors. But fast forward to April of this year, after Haworth was purchased by Taylor & Francis, and a deal that was years in the making had come undone. The new publisher now says it wants nothing to do with such a hot potato.

Beert Verstraete, a co-editor of the now-nixed collection, says Talyor & Francis has shirked its responsibilities.

“Legitimate scholarship can be controversial; that does not mean it should be banned or censored,” said Verstraete, a professor of classics at Acadia University, in Nova Scotia. “I know that the publishers are within their legal rights to refuse publication, but I think they have a moral obligation -- an ethical obligation -- as far as the free dissemination of ideas.… They have violated those principles.”

When Haworth Press initially declined to publish the collection, the publisher conceded the critics might have a point. Kathryn Rutz, then-vice president for editorial development at Haworth, said Rind's chapter “could be interpreted as advocating adult and adolescent sexuality.” Taylor & Francis, however, has been more vague about its reasoning, declining to answer specific questions and offering a broad statement instead.

“We appreciate the opportunity to consider the articles for publication, but chose not to proceed,” Kevin J. Bradley, president of U.S. Journals for the publisher, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. We did research on the origins of this special issue as well as the reaction to it in 2005, and those issues formed a part, but not all, of the decision-making process.”

Bradley did not elaborate, however, on any reasons beyond the previous controversy for not publishing the collection.

New Version Would Likely Draw Critics, Too

The flashpoint of the 2005 controversy was an abstract published on Haworth’s Web site, promoting a forthcoming chapter in the collection to be written by Rind, who had already become a lightning rod for his views. In 1998, he was co-author of a paper that suggested child sexual abuse might not be as harmful as is generally believed, prompting resolutions from the U.S. Congress that specifically condemned the findings.

As it turns out, it was only Rind’s work that Haworth worried about publishing. Indeed, in 2005 -- again with little fanfare -- Haworth published the collection Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, but left Rind’s work out of it. The thinking, however, was that Rind would revise and expand his work for another collection, which would also feature articles by other authors who would critique or challenge Rind’s assertions.

The new collection was submitted recently to Taylor & Francis under the title Sexual Intimacy Between Adult and Adolescent Males. Absent any allusions to antiquity -- and leaving little to the imagination -- Verstraete concedes it was a provocative title, particularly given the past controversy.

“We were quite ready to change the title and make it less suggestive or perhaps euphemistic,” he said.

While the themes of the two collections may have been similar, Verstraete assures that Rind made notable changes and expansions to his previous work. The unpublished piece, which Verstraete did not share with Inside Higher Ed, was careful to explore pederasty without advocating it, Verstraete said. To hear Verstraete’s description of the article, however, there’s some reason to think the same critics would pounce on the new collection.

“It looks at such relationships in a historical context -- looks at other cultures,” Verstraete said. “It also allows for the possibility -- and in fact these possibilities do exist -- that certain of these relationships may not be harmful to the boys. But that’s done within carefully construed parameters.”

Other pieces within the collection include a gay anthropologist’s first-person account of adolescent sexual experiences he had with a grown man.

“I think he was 13.… The relationship was not in any way traumatic for him, and he still thinks back with great affection to the man with whom he had the relationship,” Verstraete said. “There are other stories like that that are brought forward in the leading article by Bruce Rind.”

Rind could not be reached for comment.

Scholars in a Quandary

The hope of the collection was to find sincere rebuttals to Rind’s work, and Verstraete says he searched for scholars who would be particularly critical. While he was able to persuade a couple of such scholars to participate, many politely refused to be involved or simply never responded.

Even some of those who are concerned about Taylor & Francis’ decision are ambivalent about rallying too strongly to Rind’s defense. The leadership of the Lambda Classical Caucus, a self-described “coalition of queer classicists,” has sent a letter to the publisher asking for a broader explanation of its decision. But Kristina Milnor, co-chair of the caucus, concedes that for every member who is worried about censorship is another deeply worried about the implications of Rind’s scholarship.

“Among our membership there are certainly people who say [Rind’s position is a] perfectly reasonable position to adopt, but there are people who say essentially this man is advocating for child abuse,” said Milnor, an associate professor of classics at Barnard College.

The Lambda Classical Caucus is an affiliate of the American Philological Association, which describes itself as North America’s “principal learned society” for classics. While the association has not taken a formal position, some of its members have been particularly critical of Taylor & Francis’ decision.

Thomas K. Hubbard, a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a letter to the philological association's leaders, calling for the association to “threaten some kind of action” against the publisher. He suggested, for instance, that it would be “unfortunate” if an “ACT-UP style” protest were to break out at the association’s next annual meeting, where one of the publisher’s affiliates routinely rents a display booth.

“Such corporate censorship poses a threat to the most fundamental values of free inquiry and expression, which should be subject only to the quality-control of academic peer review and not to political meddling by outside pressure groups or weak-principled corporate managers who feel a need to kowtow to such pressure groups pre-emptively,” Hubbard wrote.

“The net effect is to discourage discussion or publication on certain topics deemed even potentially ‘controversial,’ ” he continued. “This creeping marginalization of edgy topics cannot be healthy for the free development of scholarly inquiry in our field or any other.”

 

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