CN: Discussions of CSA, SA, Violence, Homophobia, Ableism, and so on.
Pedophilia is a difficult topic to discuss for a multitude of reasons. I myself know countless people who have been harmed by childhood sexual assault, and it’s not uncommon for people to kznow someone. Five years ago, when I took Human Sexual Behaviour, the statistic in Ontario, for example was that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 4 boys, would be sexually assaulted before the age of 16. It’s a subject that touches too many lives, much like sexual assault in general. The topic generates a lot of legitimate emotions which can make the discussion even more delicate than some.
One of the reasons why the subject of pedophilia is so difficult, it because it spans several different intersectional issues that make it difficult to discuss without potentially stepping on another sensitive area. It’s important not to do unintentional harm, and yet the myriad of intersecting ways in which the discussion of pedophilia can go makes it difficult to discuss the issue without seeming to make a statement that either upholds rape culture, equates pedophilia with homophobia, gives into ableism by either blaming a crime on mental illness or by calling a crime what might be the result of a mental illness – all of which are legitimate concerns.
Since intersectional thinking is difficult – looking at the endless ways that different issues can impact one another could rival a spider for the intricacy of the web – the discussion is often incomplete and someone can be seeming to say something they have no intention of saying. Additionally sometimes important information is left out, eliminating the distinction between certain ideas.
Recently, the subject of pedophilia was once again brought into public attention by the recent suicide of a tv celebrity facing sentencing for possession of child pornography. As in usually the case when someone popular and privileged in the right ways comes up in this type of case, the usual questions began appearing which can ultimately be represented by the questions: is pedophilia a mental illness? And if so, can pedophiles be held responsible for offending? If they are responsible – aren’t we being ableist for criminalizing something that is the result of mental illness? If they are not, aren’t we being ableist by blaming a crime on a mental illness? But then also if not, then aren’t we participating in rape culture? And if it is not a mental illness, then is it a sexual orientation? And if so, then how does it differ from homosexuality and isn’t making the comparison between homosexuality and pedophilia a form of homophobia?
In my Human Sexual Behaviour and Psychology classes, we learned a bit about pedophilia, and many of these same questions came up. It can be difficult however, to answer the various intersections because they deal with different areas: psychology, law, ethics, morality, sociology, and social justice (which is an area of sociology really but frequently is left out of most people’s considerations.) Additionally, I have had experience working in law offices, and I’ve been studying social justice for several years, meaning I have some of the knowledge bases necessary to help separate out the various differences and issues. I will do my best to try and address as many of the intersections as possible, however, it is possibly that I may have missed something or forgotten to include something that creates the impression of apologetics. If that’s the case, please let me know in the comments.
Before I begin, a disclaimer – much of the information I have comes classes, articles, experiential knowledge through jobs I’ve had or through people I know who have direct relevant experience either by being a victim, a relevant professional service provider, or the relative/friend of a victim who as involved as the events transpire and witnessed them (events here meaning specifically like… the pedophile being caught, the victim coming forward, the legal case, etc. etc.) Most of my information comes from multiple sources at once, meaning it may have been communicated to me in highly clinical terms, in legal terms, or in highly emotional terms. I am attempting to organize all this information into a more clinical factual explanation devoid of emotional manipulators in order to make it easier to digest. If it comes off as particularly cold, know that it’s an attempt at making the topic less psychologically draining for myself and other people for whom these topics may be a trigger. It is not meant in any way to undermine or ignore the high level of psychological impact that these subjects have. Again, if you have concerns, please let me know in the comments. (PS. If you want me to see a comment but don’t want it posted publicly because you want to share private or personal information, please put (Do not post) at the top of the comment. Note however, that I reserve the right to post any comment that I deem as being harassment or an attempt at hiding your bigotry publicly. All comments go first to moderation for approval and so I can read your comment and not post the content.)
To start off, we have to create a distinction between pedophilia and acts of pedophilia. During every day discussions, the two are things are unanimously represented by being termed pedophilia, so that calling someone a pedophile becomes an accusation of a crime.
Pedophilia is an attraction to – both physical and psychological – to children below the age of majority. Officially, it is actually an attraction to prepubescent children, and someone attracted to pubescent children or early adolescence (11-14) is considered a Hebephiliac, and someone who is attracted to adolescence in later puberty (15-19) is considered an Ehebephiliac, however for the purposes of this discussion, it is easier to use the term pedophilia as a catch-all term for all three, especially since that’s how it is used colloquially.
Acts of Pedophilia in turn, would be the active fulfillment of those desires, either in the form of sexual contact with the object of their desire, or by consuming pornography (visual or otherwise).
To put it extremely simply, Pedophilia is what goes on inside your head and Acts of Pedophilia is what goes on outside your head.
If you’ve been paying attention to discussions of sexuality over at least the last decade, you know that who we desire is a spectrum. It is similar for example to gender preference with regards to desires in that the majority of the population either by inclination or social pressure, is skewed in one particular direction, with many people falling somewhere between fully one side or the other.
Even many people who are aware of the fact that it is a spectrum however, still have a tendency to assume that the spectrum wavers between two points, when in reality sexual orientation and/or preference is a spectrum between a whole set of different factors. The easiest way to prove is by pointing out that a gay person isn’t automatically attracted to every person of the same gender out there, just as a straight person isn’t automatically attracted to every person of a different gender than they are. Our sexual interest can be dependent on a multitude of factors such as gender, age, physical characteristics, and so on. What’s more, even within each of these factors, there is a range of attraction. Very few people are say, only attracted to a person of one specific age and that’s it. It’s more likely that their attraction falls on a scale. Moreover, it can happen that the scale might have a gap somewhere.
Pedophilia is when the scale of attraction with regards to age starts at a point much younger than the average.
The fact that sexuality exists on a spectrum is not in itself a statement on the morality of any sexual desires. The fact that the average in heavily weighted in one direction over the other is again, not a statement on the implicit morality of existing outside the average.
Where we begin to assess morality has to do with who is involved in the “transaction” (looking for a cold term to represent this simply to keep it clinical).
In the case of two average adults, both parties have the theoretical capability to consent. Therefore it is possible for consensual and non-harmful transactions to take place. As such an orientation that involves two adults is not in and off itself immoral regardless of gender.
In cases of power dynamics being severely skewed where a person is perceived as being unable to give consent as a result, then we recognize that the transaction is immoral, regardless of the gender of the partners. For example in the case of a boss who has sex with his employee, where the employee has reason to believe they will lose their job if they do not agree to the transaction, then true consent cannot exist. To put it in a contractual sense – a contract signed under duress is not legally binding.
In the case of a child and an adult, we recognize instantaneously that the power dynamics are so skewed, that we deem the transaction as being immoral and a crime. Children are dependent on adults for their survival. They are legally not allowed to make contracts on their own. Parents make medical decisions for their children. There are levels upon levels of power differentials and conflicts of interest that make true consent impossible. Therefore no transaction between a child and an adult can be considered unharmful and so the inclination itself is immoral regardless of its prevalence.
Is a person instantaneously a bad person for having these desires? No. Like with many sexual preferences, having these desires in and of themselves, is something the person was born with. It is not something they chose. However, unlike other sexual preferences, it is not possible to fulfil those desires without causing harm. It is this last detail, in combination with the naturally occurring distress that comes from an inability to express ones desires AND the social distress caused by having them, that takes pedophilia from just being a sexual preference but also being classified as a mental illness.
The pathology of pedophilia however, does not actually include among its “symptoms” impaired impulse control, an inability to understand right from wrong, or losing control of ones actions. This means that when a pedophile commits acts of pedophilia, they are doing so with full conscious knowledge that their actions are wrong, are able to control their actions, and are able to distinguish right from wrong. This is what is meant by Mens Rea – criminal intent – the knowledge that their action was wrong and the intent to do the act despite that fact.
This is why although it is a mental illness, this fact is irrelevant when determining whether a criminal act occurred. Just because you want to do something wrong, doesn’t mean you aren’t able to stop yourself from doing it.
This same consideration – the irrelevancy of a mental illness unless it eliminates Mens Rea – is why it is ableist to bring up mental illness in relation to crimes. It creates the perception that the crime occurred as a result of the mental illness when in reality, the crime occurred because the person who committed the crime made a choice to commit the crime. The fact that they have a mental illness didn’t make them any more or less predisposed to make one choice or the other. The predisposition to make the choice they did came from other sources.
This consideration also applies to whether people with pedophilic desires should all be kept from being around or ever having their own children?
This is a really difficult question so I want to give a short answer and a “if we only treat it as a yes and no question answer”, in which case the answer is yes.
As previously mentioned, pedophilic desire exists on a spectrum. This means that while there are people who have a sexual preference exclusively for children, there are many for whom the preference is part of a range that includes both a young age. This is also where it becomes more important to get into specifics. I mentioned previously for example that a pedophile has a physical and psychological desire for underage persons. What I was trying to do is create a distinction between an autonomous physical response that is not controllable, and an active conscious desire.
The reason I was trying to make that distinction is because realistically the average population does include a preference that includes the later years of adolescence. The colloquial term is jailbait – literally attractive young persons who are “bait” for encouraging the predator to risk “jail” for a taste.
It’s the way porn sites justify calling something “teen” porn, while the girl is still eighteen or nineteen, thus legal but still a “teen”.
If you were to show someone a picture of a conventionally attractive girl in a sexualized pose and or outfit and were to tell them that the girl was 20 and asked them if the girl was attractive, they would show a physical arousal response such as pupil dilation, increased breathing, all the physical indicators that someone finds someone attractive, and the answer given would likely be a yes. If you showed them the same picture though, but told them she was 15, the physical response would likely be the same, but the answer given would likely be a no.
This is because there is SOME element of truth to the idea that there is a biological preference for younger sexual mates. Where people who use that as a reason to advocate for eliminating protections for underage minors from sexual advances from older people, get it wrong, is in thinking that an evolutionary imperative is the same thing as a moral one. While physically, for example, a girl of 15 might be capable of having sex, doesn’t mean she is any better able to navigate the power dynamics that exist sufficiently well to be in a position to truly consent.
Where most people differ from pedophiles however, though given the statistics certainly not enough of them, is that although they might physically and instinctively find a certain person attractive, the social pressure to not find the person attractive is so intense that the psychological revulsion overwhelms the physical arousal.
Some of the people who exist on this side of the spectrum of sexual preference still have the vast majority of their sexual desire be teleiophelic (attraction to adults). Meaning the desire may be just an occasional (oh they’re attractive) type. The pressure to offend is minimal and so there seems little reason to consider them a risk EXCEPT because of our existing rape culture, while the pressure to offend might not exist, there is enough entitlement bred into our culture with regards to sexual contact, that even someone with minimal actual desire for children, would still find themselves willing to offend simply because they believe they are entitled to experience the fulfillment of those desires. (literally the short skirt excuse).
Because we have such a hard time understanding the interplay of entitlement with sexual desire spectrum as a society, this gives rise to the difficulties we have in understanding the difference between something that inborn and something that’s chosen.
If you are a man, and you get aroused by a woman in a short skirt – you still make a choice of whether to act on that desire or not. That’s what makes assault assault. It’s not the desire that’s wrong. It’s the belief that you have a right to act on them despite the harm it would cause. Society justifies the harm done by minimizing the harm done and equating desire with need – literally – I want it therefore I have to have it.
We know however that desire and entitlement are not the same thing. We know that just because you want something doesn’t mean you need it. You need food, you want a cookie. A free and just society gives people the opportunity to strive for their desires, but never at the cost of causing harm. A person should be allowed to be able to have a cookie, but never at the cost of someone else starving to death.
Getting to have sex is a cookie, but society treats women and the objects of sexual desire as being objects in an of themselves in that it eliminates the objectified person’s right to having needs and wants of their own.
A person’s desire for sex with a specific person, does not negate that person’s right to deciding what happens to their own body. It doesn’t negate the NEED for that persons consent. You might want sex, but you NEED consent. True consent.*
Your desire to have sex might be inborn, but actually acting on that desire is a choice you make.
This same argument was used against homosexuality however it ignores the question of whether the transaction causes harm. No one is harmed by two adults having consensual sex which is why the choice to engage in consensual homosexual sex is not immoral and especially not illegal. Someone IS harmed by two adults having non-consensual sex, which is why rape is a crime.
Children are both legally, socially, and so on, unable to consent, therefore all sexual acts between them and another person are non-consensual legally and morally. The adult is making a choice. A choice they are ABLE to make. If you will… they are consenting to committing a crime.
Are there people who experience pedophilic desires who are likely perfectly safe around children? Yes, there are. However, the question of whether they are depends less on the desires they have but rather on the level of entitlement they feel.
Levels of entitlement felt are directly related to levels of power. This is why we say that all rape is about power, even in cases where the rapist may even be unaware that what they are doing is rape. This really belongs as its own post and I will do my best to get to it, but I feel like I can’t leave this completely unexplained either. A short summary of what I mean by this – Consider one of the most contentious debates over whether a sexual encounter between let’s say for example: a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman is an act of rape if the woman is drunk. The answer is yes it is rape, even if the man in question would be horrified at the prospect that he is committing rape.
This is because, legally, you cannot consent to a contract while under the influence of an impairing agent. Now where this gets complicated for people is that many of us have engaged in sexual encounters where we were drunk and not really in a position to legally consent and yet were still in control enough to feel capable of making that decision, and we carried no visible or conscious damage from the encounter. Perhaps the encounter was even enjoyable. Perhaps it was even the start of your best relationship ever.
It is still technically rape and it is actually directly tied in to the rage that you are feeling right now in response to this if you are objecting to this idea. The initial rejection is, “So I can hook up with a drunk girl, she can be totally into me, we can have amazing sex, and the next morning she can decide its rape, or even three years from now, and that’s it. I have to accept that?”
When put that way, it seems unfair, but that’s because the framing of the assumption is wrong.
The assumption is that she decides that it is rape, when in truth, the decision that is being made is whether or not to overlook that it was technically rape.
This is where rape culture comes in and basically what is meant by it.
Our society is so predisposed towards the idea that (generalizing by gender here for the sake of simplicity. Remember, longer post hopefully coming to expand on this part. But I’m at 6 pages already, have pity on me and you the reader lol) a MAN’s right to have sex is so much more important than a WOMAN’s right to choose who she has sex with and what happens to her body, that there exists tremendous pressure for a woman to ignore the fact that the sexual interaction was not truly consensual, that not only will she ignore the fact, but in many cases will get actively angry at the suggestion that it could have been.
The pressure is so ingrained in our society that not only are men willing to take the risk that it won’t be overlooked that the encounter is non-consensual, but they don’t even consider it a risk. They take the belief that it is not a risk so far as to fool themselves into thinking that the risk doesn’t exist because the encounter doesn’t count as non-consensual.
In the same way, the levels of entitlement felt in relation to the subject of a person’s desire, will determine whether someone with pedophilic desires will act on those desires. The desire might be the triggering impetus towards the temptation to offend, but the ultimate act is one of power and the level of desire felt become irrelevant – legally and morally.
This is what all acts of sexual assault have in common: no matter the triggering temptation to offend – anger, desire, reinforcing social dominance, and so on and so forth – the ultimate choice to act is made because the perpetrator chooses their sense of entitlement to give in to their temptation outweighs the rights of the victim.
As long as a person is in control of their actions then they making a choice to act. If they are not in control of their actions, then they need to be given the assistance necessary to regain control. In the case of a person’s desires overwhelming their actual ability to control their actions. Where it actually is a case where the person was completely unable to control themselves and not just completely unable to resist the temptation. Then in those specific cases the person should be given assistance to regain that control – in the form of therapy and following evidence based techniques, and in the meantime, they should be kept from having the possibility to offend in whatever way causes the least amount of harm.
An important reminder here that eliminating the physical ability to engage in penetrative intercourse (aka castration) is NOT actually a successful method of preventing sexual assault since the desire and entitlement are still present and there are other methods of engaging in sexual assault that have nothing to do with penile penetration.
The answer to the question of whether is pedophilia is a mental illness, a sexual orientation*, or a crime, is ultimately: D) All of the Above. (* where sexual orientation is meant only in the terms of where a person falls on an individual factor-spectrum, thus meaning only to imply that certain sexual preferences are inborn and not at a matter of personal choice and not meant in any way an implication of relative morality)
In a perfect world we would get someone the therapy necessary to be in control of their actions, pair it with a world that has eliminated rape culture and the power dynamics that propagate it, creating both the ability to control ones actions and the incentive to maintain that control and not enough entitlement to make the incentive seem irrelevant, thus actually reducing the rates of offence.
In this imperfect world, there needs to be work done to make it possible for people to seek therapy safely without risking their lives but also without risking the lives of those most at risk. At the very least we should make it possible for the most vulnerable to be able to seek therapy, though sadly, those most likely to seek therapy and help in preventing offense are also those already least likely to offend all by themselves were it not for other action-triggers that come into play here. But one of THE most influential things that can be done to reduce the rates of sexual assault of minors, is to dismantle rape culture – the name given to the social scripts that are representative of the lines of power that are so ingrained in our society as to be practically invisible in how they work if not in their results.