Why is the sexual molesting of a child such a third-rail issue -- third-rail meaning that it is so intense, carries so much energy, that it cannot be discussed and attracts ferocious violence to the point that some people suggest the unlimited reaction of would-be protectors is more a source of trauma to the victim than the original offense. At the same time it is fascinating. Confessionals of all sorts are published everywhere, all following pretty much the same accounts. Failure to recognize what was happening. Shame and secrecy. Confusion. Uncontrollable rage for revenge. Unproven theories. Gradual entry into a state of forgiveness -- “letting it all go.”
I don’t have any answers so I’m going to make a list of stuff that interferes with finding them. Why can’t we think clearly about relationships that involve age disparity? I’ve been quite open, even proud, of my own “teleiophilia,” sexual desire for older people and marriage to a man 26 years older than myself. It was a decade before the age dissonance made a difference. Until then it was rather like marrying someone from another country. In truth, my “turn-on” is guys in their fifties, when they are mature, skilled, and as powerful as they ever would be, but a little “tenderized” by life. Now I’m too old for them. They are the age my sons would be. That’s material for a novel, maybe.
But what has obsessed people of all sorts has been a very specific phenomenon -- a person, usually male -- with any of a variety of self-defined gender identities, ages, or social situations from VERY powerful to loser -- who cannot control his sexual desire exclusively for pre-adolescent, or early adolescent children. This desire drives such a person to act in socially transgressive ways somewhere between merely affectionate along the spectrum to violent and deadly. Snuff films, what a turn-on.
Though most of the published accounts emphasize how damaging this can be to the child -- which I do not question -- other victims seem to go along without much trouble, just seeing it as part of life or finding other ways to compensate for it. The code word is "resilience." It all varies by time, place, and person.
Around the actual incidents or string of events is a bubble of variations of all sorts. Consider President George Bush resting his unwanted hands on Chancelor Angela Merkel’s tense shoulders. A gesture of power that incorporates sexuality. Not pedophilia, since Merkel is no child, only a small woman, and it was a gesture in public, but it was transgressive. Consider JonBenet Ramsey, child beauty queen murdered in her own home. Was she targeted because she imitated an adult sexual woman? Consider Matthew Shepherd, a child-man who was not a pedophile, but gay. Did his attackers get a sexual thrill from killing him? Sure.
This list is a bit of a hodgepodge because I mean to come back to it after I’ve done more research and thought about the whole thing more, but it seems to me that a big part of the reason it’s hard to think about sexual desire for children is that it’s woven into everything, not at all a free-standing act that can be easily defined by statutes.
1. One of the main reasons pedophilia is such an intense issue is that it is confused with homosexuality, which has been criminalized for many years in some places -- with the endorsement specifically of the Roman Catholic church, where it has become associated with celibacy. The cases of priests preying on altar boys encouraged this. The setting, costumes and role-violation are so vivid that they overwhelm tales of clergy who merely seduce adults. (I can name both men and women “of the cloth” whom I know and who did this. I only know one who was caught and punished. They generally just move on. But anyway, that’s not pedophilia.)
2. Pedophilia is widespread: they say one in six men and one in four women ends up molested to some degree. These estimates are thought to be low. Probably in its mildest forms, sexual desire for children will always be present. At what point does it become a transgression? What will suppress or lessen it? When is it criminal? The law wrestles with this and usually stipulates ages, which might or might not work.
3. When is “gazing” a sexual act? In a continuum, looking at children is considered “kiddie porn,” even if the child is dressed and playing in public, then in posed photos, then nude, then engaged in interaction with others (maybe another child, maybe an adult), even as a cartoon depiction or dolls acting out. It is not the child, but the gaze of the consumer that makes it porn. The consumer may be aroused by being watched by a child, particularly if sexually exposed, or even depictions of the child staring at something not normally seen. Forcing a child to be gazed at can be transgressive.
4. Research used improperly has led to a “vampire myth”, that anyone who has been sexually abused will become a sexual abuser or that all sexual abuser were abused themselves. This is only true in a small percentage of cases. Nor is it true that non-sexual criminal acts in childhood will continue into adulthood. We just like to stigmatize young people by predicting and labeling, with the result that it can become self-fulfilling prophesy. This makes us feel as though we’re in control of something far too complex to understand, much less control.
5. Pedophilia (pedopredation) can be mixed with violence that is non-sexual, and sexual transgression that is non-violent. The judgmental rage against a pedophile has a sexual element, a shot of testosterone/adrenaline.
6. The role of the victim is always questioned (esp from inside the victim), and victims can be stigmatized, as are females in general, by the idea that they somehow tempted the perp or found the violation a turn-on.
7. The larger culture is ambivalent: access to children is a valuable privilege, a powerful source of advantage, useful as blackmail. It can be portrayed as rare and "special" when in fact it is everywhere and not at all confined to upper classes. Surely a man who beats his own children and defends that as necessary discipline -- getting a sexual high out of it that might even cause him to sexually violate the child -- is a kind of pedophile.
8. Gender bimorphism means that the response to children is divided. Boys are encouraged to see age gaps positively, esp. if the violator is female. (Cougars come off nicer than dirty old men.) Girls remain property so the crime is against the father-owner of the girl. In some cultures pregnancy and virginity become issues, but not for the child -- for the father’s loss of value in ownership.) In the case of boys, they are an extension of the father and a guarantee of family succession, so wrong use of the son is the same as doing it to his father.
9. Secrecy has many dimensions. Some people don’t even let themselves know, both victims and perps. Divisions between kinds of populations (black/white, Indian/white) exist in circumstances when secrecy is the only protection against a seizing and punishing authority, including in the prison population. Ambivalence about secrecy undone -- is it better to have no secrets or should some things never be revealed?
10. We don't confidently know how to address healing. Should it be talked out? Are there special skills for doing such a thing? Must it be direct and dramatic? Confrontive or consoling? Does it require professional intervention?
11. Offenses are often within families. Pre-existing dynamics can become tornadoes. Legal considerations like divorce and child-custody are affected.
12. Aftermath of war in which rape as well as the deaths of children have been a major component. Some see the sudden flare of concern about pedophilia after WWII as shaped by the idea of the monstrous invading other, intent on destruction. Today’s chronic wars mean chronic and unpredictable rape, child abuse, trauma of all kinds including loss of a home, constant hunger, broken sleep.
13. "Stranger danger" is the continuing insistence that the perpetrator is unknown, though research indicates the perp is usually familiar, and often trusted, maybe imprudently like boyfriend babysitters. “Blended” families mean there are strangers within the circle.
14. Difficulty of child testimony. How does one access what a kid knows when they may not have understood what happened, may try to please the interrogator with answers they think are wanted, can’t quite distinguish between movies and reality, are just plain scared?
15. Mixture with religion, satanism, moral panic. The misunderstood and unknown have always been associated with danger and therefore evil, which raises superstition about what causes it, what to do, and inner searching about blame -- “What did I do to cause this?” Secrecy means suffering alone with fantasies or displacing them onto imagined causes. "God is watching you." "The Devil will get you."
16. Mixture with drugs and cyberspace. Drugs are already demonized. The Internet seems mysterious and uncontrollable and -- in fact -- is packed with sex and porn. Advertising fulminates with the same. It works. Screenwriters are paralyzed without it.
17. Some research is suggesting that “hard-core” sexual desire for children is inborn and associated with other genetically determined aspects: left-handedness, short height, dyslexia, and other anomalies. This suggests a glitch in brain wiring, but does NOT prove it. The idea is dangerous, but it cries out to be investigated objectively.
18. If it is true that sexual desire for pre-adolescent children (adolescents are cultural icons for desirability) is hard-wired, and that some people wired that way struggle to manage that desire (the "virtuous pedophile" movement is now becoming more public), then how do we help them? If pedophilia is a brain “dysfunction” caused by gestational distortions, inheritable deficits in the carrying mother, or is a product of the environment like alcohol or addiction during gestation or afterwards, or possibly from distortion of the man’s sperm as he ages, what are we going to do about it?
19. Like other differences in genetics, DNA issues can be attached to specific populations, esp. the dark ones, so that all the other stigmas (poverty, lack of education, poor nutrition, disease) are joined by yet another unjustified burden. Sterilization is being mentioned. An old dragon stirs.
20. Frequency: there are one-time offenders, like the man who initiated intercourse with a seven year old, realized that she was physically too small, saw the impossibility of the situation, saw himself, and never did such a thing again. Statistics suggest that most violators abuse more than a hundred children, but statistics never record those who were not caught. It is suggested that statistics are distorted because people with deficits are easier to catch. Powerful pedophiles go on for years before being caught, if then. Check the newspaper.
21. The majority of known offenders are old guys with low self-esteem, a history of transgression (cheating on wives, diverting funds, alcoholism), and fear of non-performance criticism. This suggests that at least some of the time it’s not a DNA mutation but just common ordinary stupidity and maladjustment. It is worth being assaulted in prison?
22. Self identity is who the person thinks they are, versus being defined by society according to the age of the victim. What does it mean to see oneself as sexually desiring little children. Can it be romanticized? Did Nabokov capture it? But Lolita was adolescent, in transition.
Dominique Swain and Jeremy Irons -- maybe too pretty, the two of them.