Talking About Pedophilia

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A magazine called Gawker recently published an article by Cord Jefferson entitled Born This Way: Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want to Have Sex with Children. As you might imagine, a lot of the comments following it were caustic. Understandably so. Pedophiles may be the people it’s least possible to sympathize with. The article points to evidence that the condition has to do with brain structure: as many as one third of pedophiles are left-handed, and they also tend to be less intelligent than average–at least the ones scientists have studied.

The author suggests that being a particularly despised minority makes pedophiles despise themselves, which of course isn’t good for them, and may also make them more likely to offend. Many will object that pedophiles OUGHT to despise themselves, and with good reason. The other thing that Jefferson is suggesting is that what he calls the “true pedophile” has a sexual orientation, so that his (offenders are almost exclusively men) desires will always be towards children. Jefferson suggests it might be beneficial if pedophiles could admit their desires without inciting horrified reaction. There may be something to that point of view, but the problem is that child molestation is one form of sexual activity that objectively causes damage to the child. With other sexual practices, if they take place between consenting adults, they should be nobody else’s business. Sex with children eliminates consent from the whole equation, though at least some molesters like to believe otherwise. One of the residents of a nursing home I used to work in was reportedly a molester, who had reportedly told someone working there that his victim “wanted it.” It may have made him feel better to believe that, but it’s highly unlikely.

It’s quite possible that there’s a physiological component in pedophilia, but like several other disorders, it very likely has a constellation of causes. But Jefferson didn’t address the hypothesis that molestation is the result of a cycle of abuse: that abusers may often abuse because they were also abused. That may not be the only cause either, but it’s not a factor that should be ignored. As several people responding to the article pointed out, it’s not like being left-handed makes you an abuser, and that while a higher percentage of abusers were left-handed, the majority were still right-handed. The author said that left-handedness indicates that the right hemisphere of the brain developed earlier than the left, which is less common, but all that means is that some people develop differently than others. The differences aren’t necessarily pathological. Lower intelligence scores and left-handedness indicate SOMETHING, but it’s difficult to say what.

Other countries, the article says, have groupls something like 12-step groups for alcoholism and other forms of addiction for pedophiles. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing, and it may well be that there are pedophiles who struggle with their desires for their entire lives and never harm a single child, but it’s hard to say how many of them there might be. Are these a majority, a large minority, or a vanishingly small minority? We know that there are molesters who are sociopaths, who abuse children without any pangs of conscience, simply because they enjoy it. And there was a program on a major TV network a few years ago which showed pedophiles being lured into a situation where they were shown to be what they were. The surprise wasn’t that there were some people willing to take such a risk, but that there were so MANY of them, and that they can come from all levels of society.

Cal Thomas, a columnist who at times delights me with his wrong-headedness, blamed the Penn State scandal of last year on tolerance of homosexuality. Not all pedophiles have desires directed only at children; some are functioning heterosexuals, in other contexts, so that criticism was at least beside the point, if not a mere appeal to bigotry. The fact is, we don’t know what causes pedophilia. We may have some strong suspicions–victims of abuse growing up to be abusers is at least pretty plausible–but it’s an area that would reward more scientific investigation. The scientific data so far is interesting, but the meaning remains pretty nebulous. The article suggests that poor nutrition, lack of good healthcare (especially pre- and post-natal), and pollution may all play a part. The answers to really difficult questions are complex, and this is one of them. The most important answers science could give us would be ways to better to protect not just our own, but all children. Child abuse (even exclusing sexual abuse) is all too common, and doesn’t say anything very good about the human race. How do we change that? Science may be able to come up with part of the answer, but I doubt it can provide all of it.

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