Friday, September 07, 2012

Gawker and the scientific case for treating pedophiles humanely

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White flower (St. Bernard’s Lily)
I got nuthin’, so here’s a flower

It’s been a while since I’ve (presumably) creeped y’all out with this subject matter, but long-time readers may remember that pervasive social stigmas faced by discouraged sexual minorities was an early running theme on this blog (whatever that might say of me). It’s now time to jump back in, not because some other travesty of justice or reason has transpired, but because Cord Jefferson at Gawker has penned a lengthy, detailed and wonderfully insightful piece on the changing scientific views of pedophilia and how those stuck with this most unfortunate sexual attraction truly aren’t the devils that our society makes them out to be.

The whole thing is a definitive must-read, but here are just a few highlights, starting with describing just some of the endless difficulties these people face in their everyday lives:

Then there's the problem of finding homes for pedophiles who are arrested and eventually put back into communities. In Florida, where Miami-Dade County has grown increasingly restrictive about where people who commit sexual crimes can live, the department of corrections has started housing a small group of pedophiles under a bridge, like real-life trolls. Elsewhere in America, with neighborhoods both informed and alarmed by a growing number of sex-offender tracking sites, it's now become easier than ever to harass and intimidate a pedophile in your neighborhood until he moves away. But to where? Nobody seems to care as long as it's not near them.

In an ABC News article from 2003, a corrections officer from Los Angeles told reporter Michael S. James that imprisoned pedophiles "usually don't make it" without protective custody. Leslie Walker, a prisoner's rights activist, told James, "[Child sex offenders] are at risk of being murdered, having their food taken, having their cells defecated and urinated in. Their life is truly a living hell." Good, most people will say.

I take it “most people” haven’t received the memo about how the precepts for being a decent human being include acting like one even towards those one wouldn’t consider to be decent human beings.

The article then focuses on the number of (mostly Canadian!) researchers who are growing convinced that rather than being a mental illness or some other potentially treatable (or even curable) disorder, true pedophilia – as defined as the exclusive sexual attraction towards prepubescent children (as opposed to hebephilia or ephebophilia, and unlike those who engage in pedophilic acts whilst still being attracted to adults) – is in reality more akin to an actual sexual orientation in shape and function, with the accompanying limitations:

[I]t is a fact that real pedophiles account for only 20 percent of sexual abusers. If we know that pedophiles are not simply people who commit a small offence from time to time but rather are grappling with what is equivalent to a sexual orientation just like another individual may be grappling with heterosexuality or even homosexuality, and if we agree on the fact that true pedophiles have an exclusive preference for children, which is the same as having a sexual orientation, everyone knows that there is no such thing as real therapy. You cannot change this person's sexual orientation.

What Van Gijseghem meant by "real pedophiles" is the definition most of the scientists I spoke to use and the definition we'll use throughout this article. That is, people—the overwhelming majority of whom are men—who have an unwavering sexual attraction to prepubescent children. When you start to read a lot about pedophilia, you realize that the dialogue gets muddied because so many laymen use the term "pedophile" to mean anyone who sexualizes a child. But a 21-year-old who has intercourse with a 16-year-old, while not a good decision maker, is probably not a pedophile. Nor is someone who, say, exposes himself to a 5-year-old boy necessarily a pedophile. They may have committed a pedophilic act, but unless they have a clear preference for undeveloped children the way heterosexual men have for women, they are not pedophiles.


Van Gjiseghem says what he and his colleagues mean by sexual orientation is a person's inborn and unalterable sexual preference, irrespective of whether that preference is harmful to others or not. Currently, there is no significant longitudinal evidence that pedophiles can be made to not be attracted to children, and thus it can be defined as their orientation. And if pedophilia is a sexual orientation, that also means it's futile to send pedophiles to prison in an effort to alter their attractions. Doing so is akin to sending a homosexual child off to a religious-based institution that claims it can "pray the gay away."

I just had to emphasize that last bit. While I think it would be more apt to compare “gay deconversion” bullshit to modern chemical castration therapies forced upon sex offenders by the courts, and that locking pedophiles in prison is more like doing the same to gays and lesbians, the point stands: The notion that anyone who’s known to lust after children can somehow be changed, short of essentially rewiring their brains, is ludicrous and counterproductive, causing far more harm than otherwise, and often to innocent people who were basically caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One thing that perplexes me is how those demonizing pedophiles so often act as if it were their own fault for having their particular sexual proclivity in the first place. Logic and common sense alone dictate that with all the castigation, ostracism and life-threatening risks that pedophiles face merely for existing, it’s inconceivable that anyone would elect to have such a cursed life, or else that they wouldn’t find a way to change their attractions in droves if it were at all possible. Does anyone really believe that some would choose to only be interested in having sexual contact with only people in the world who, by very definition, are strictly prohibited by both law and culture virtually everywhere on the planet?

The article also devotes much space to explaining the ins and outs of modern psychological and neurological research into the matter, and it’s all fascinating and never feels overly lengthy or tedious. One key excerpt is this:

"There doesn't seem to be a pedophilia center in the brain," says Cantor. "Instead, there's either not enough of this cabling, not the correct kind of cabling, or it's wiring the wrong areas together, so instead of the brain evoking protective or parental instincts when these people see children, it's instead evoking sexual instincts. There's almost literally a crossed wiring."

Sounds rather more plausible than some people getting their rocks off by choosing to be a part of the single most detested minority on the face of the Earth.

There’s a lot more to the original article, so I’ll just conclude by mentioning a key point that I’ve been arguing for years:

Every expert with whom I spoke wanted to get one thing straight: Being a pedophile is different from being a child molester. Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, who occasionally fields letters from people fighting off pedophilic urges, calls these people "gold-star pedophiles." In April of this year, for instance, he got this letter from a man who was attracted to children but claimed to have never acted on that desire (emphasis Savage's):

You know when Dan says to someone with a weird (to others) fetish, or some kind of physical peculiarity, or whatever, that they should "hold on, there's someone... plenty of someones... out there for you, give it time, put yourself out there," and so on? That doesn't apply to us. Not only should we not put ourselves out there... but I walk around every awful day of my life knowing that THERE IS NO ONE OUT THERE FOR ME.

There are among us men who live their whole lives wanting to have sex with children but never doing it. America might have more of these men [as opposed to actual molesters] if we eased our taboos on anyone even admitting an attraction to kids.

It rather gets my goat to see nearly everyone in the world, including those who really should know better, continually refer to child sexual abusers with the umbrella term “pedophiles”. Sexual attraction and sexual assault are not even remotely similar, much less equatable, and this remains true regardless of who or what people are sexually attracted to. As psychologists have agreed on for years, rape is usually primarily about power and domination, with sexual release being only a secondary and often negligible factor. This doesn’t change regardless of the age of the aggressor or the victim. It’s irritating how the same people who fully understand and apply this concept to sexual violence between adults seem to forgo it the moment the victim is of a younger age.

In the end, it’s all about behavior over desire. Just as someone can (with varying degrees of success) resist cravings for food or cigarettes, it’s possible for individuals with attractions they can’t control to nonetheless control whether and how they act on it. All that’s required for having more “gold-star” pedophiles who refuse to harm children is making various venues of support available to them. Anyone can only take so much strain until they snap. It’s society’s job to provide them with the help they need (and in many cases, desire), not to continually try to stamp them out under the apparent assumption that sufficient levels of violence and hatred would magically cure them of their ingrained afflictions.