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Ethics and intimacy in intergenerational relationships

 ‘First, do no harm’

 By Dr Frans Gieles

In: Ipce Newsletter E 17, June 2004

Since the mid-1990s, Ipce members have held discussions about ethics. I have listened to the members. In this article, I will summarize the salient points of several opinions I have heard.


 “Ipce is a forum for people who are engaged in scholarly discussion about the understanding and emancipation of mutual relationships between children or adolescents and adults. In this context, these relationships are to be viewed from an unbiased, non-judgmental perspective and in relation to the human rights of both the young and adult partner.” (Ipce Mission Statement

 Human rights and a reasoned discussion are a fundamental basis for the following ethical ideas about intergenerational relationships. One of these rights is that of choice of contacts and relationships with other humans. Contact is necessary for humans, and relationships can enrich life for both partners. This is the basis of reasonable ethical thought about intergenerational relationships.   

How much intimacy a contact or relationship has is in the first place a free choice for both partners. This may differ according to the individuals and the situation. There is only one general rule or principle that counts in every relationship: Do no harm.    

But there is more to say. What follows are no general rules, nor commandments on tablets of stone for eternity, but guidelines or thoughts, points to take into consideration, together with the local mores, laws and customs in a given society and era. The result, an ethical idea about an actual relationship, will differ with the people and the situation.   

In the course of years, Ipce members have developed the following main guidelines or principles.  

Some main guidelines

1. Freedom of choice

 In any intergenerational relationship or contact both partners, the adult as well as the young person, have it in their power to regulate their own lives, their relationships and the grade of intimacy. 
Each partner has the right to self-determination and the responsibility to acknowledge this right in the other. Therefore, both partners in open communication will choose the grade of intimacy at any moment. 

In friendship relationships or contacts, both partners have the freedom to withdraw from the relationship at any moment. Love and dedication are unconditional; they bind partners who are free and independent.

In dependency relationships or contacts, (such as parent-child or teacher-pupil) love and dedication should also be unconditional, but freedom to withdraw does not exist in practice. So, extra attention should be given to the right to the self-determination and responsibility of both partners. Here, the grade of intimacy has two limits: complete distance is not possible nor wanted, complete intimacy will interfere with the dependency: complete intimacy asks for complete freedom, which does not exist in dependency relationships. 

2. The grade of openness 

Openness is a typical western value; many other cultures respect and maintain secrets. Openness within a relationship is a good value. Openness to the parents is strongly recommended.

Openness to others is a good value as long as they respect one's right to self-determination. So, openness to others may be good, but it is not always necessary and not always possible. For example, intimacy between males is still a great taboo, for instance, in most schoolyards. Or, in many families, the very existence of any form of sexual life in a young person is taboo.

Many young people prefer consciously to have their own secrets. They make their own choices and do not want to be protected. ‘Don’t treat me as a child’, they say. It is their right to have this freedom, the freedom to say no and the freedom to say yes. There is also a right of privacy.
The other side of the coin is that young people should not have to carry too heavy or unreasonable secrets. One has to take into consideration how the young person lives and how his environment may react.

3. Act in harmony ...

... with the stage of development of the child. 

4. Do no harm 

Harm can come from feelings of shame and dirtiness, learned from society. Harm can come from a society that uses power or violence to force the end of a relationship. One should consider this risk, as well as the risk of blackmail. The adult as well as the young person is vulnerable in this society nowadays.  Thus: do no harm nor take the risk.


Related articles

Gieles, Frans,  Warmth and intimacy, how about them? Published and reprinted since 1983 in Dutch magazine and book.
Child care workers wish to give the children a warm relationship and a climate of intimacy. But how is that possible? In their work in the daily life situation there are so many conflict situations. How can they handle conflicts and create a warm relationship and a good climate with the same children? These questions are answered from an action research project in which journals of child care workers are written, analyzed and discussed with the workers. The gap between workers and children can be bridged, and warmth and intimacy are possible if..

Gieles, F.E.J., "I didn't know how to deal with it", Young people speak out about their sexual contacts with adults, translated from the Dutch NVSH Lwg JORis Newsletter, april 1998.

Ree, Frank van, Intimate relationships between young people and adults - Are there criteria for a positive experience?  KOINOS MAGAZINE #24 (1999/4)
Both sexual abuse of children and consensual love relationships between young people and adults are found in all cultures and in all periods of history. Although research statistics show otherwise, at present the notion has taken hold in many countries that a difference in age inevitably results in damaging consequences. Some time ago, an extensive exchange of ideas took place in the newsletter published by the National Workgroup JORis (Younger-Older Relationships, intimacy, sexuality) of the Dutch Association for Sexual Reform (NVSH), about the criteria which an intimate relationship with a young person must meet in order to preclude harm at a later age, based on positions which had been formulated earlier by the Danish Pedophile Association. Remedial educationalist Dr. Frans Gieles took the position in this discussion that in the present situation adults should act with restraint in pedophile and ephebophile relationships, because they bear the responsibility also for the damage which social rejection (whether or not after the fact) can bring about. We asked the retired Dutch psychiatrist Dr. Frank van Ree about his view of this. Dr. Van Ree has written many publications and doesn't shy away from taking an independent position. As this article shows, he has passed on this way of thinking to his children as well.

Rind, Bruce, PhD., Gay and Bisexual Adolescent Boys' Sexual Experiences With Men: 
An Empirical Examination of Psychological Correlates in a Nonclinical Sample
, In: Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 30, No.4, 2001
Over the last quarter century the incest model, with its image of helpless victims exploited and traumatized by powerful perpetrators, has come to dominate perceptions of virtually all forms of adult-minor sex. Thus, even willing sexual relations between gay or bisexual adolescent boys and adult men, which differ from father-daughter incest in many important ways, are generally seen by the lay public and professionals as traumatizing and psychologically injurious. This study assessed this common perception by examining a nonclinical, mostly college sample of gay and bisexual men. 
[From the Appendix:]
"It developed over time and was great. We became friends and I invited him over once when my parents weren't home. I practically had to force sex on him because he was afraid about losing his job. Ended when I went away for the summer and he wasn't a teacher at my school no more" 


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