Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is pedophilia ever acceptable?

A new book by Susan Clancy, The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children--and Its Aftermath (Basic Books), addresses the explosive issue of sexual relations between adults and children--that is to say pedophilia in the strict sense of the word. An experimental psychologist, Clancy has indicated that the book’s title was imposed on her by the publisher. In fact, she does not regard the behavior as never traumatic per se, but only that sometimes it is not. So it is not actually a myth.

An earlier study (Clancy & McNally, 2005-2006) yielded some of the data on which the volume is based. [SA Clancy and RJ McNally (2005-2006), “Who needs repression? Normal memory processes can explain ‘forgetting’ of childhood sexual abuse,” Sci Rev Ment Health Pract. 4(2):66-73.] This study's finding that 92% (25 of 27) of the subjects were confused recurs on page 38 of the book. The question remains, were they o n l y confused, or was the confusion acccompanied by more specific harms? This is not an either-or matter. Instead, the feelings of the child are probably, in most instances, overdetermined, creating a mingling of effects.

This title, The Trauma Myth, which Clancy should not have approved, has elicited some possibly unwarranted criticism. Even so, though, a number of serious difficulties persist.
In the earlier study, "subjects were asked to rate their CSA [child sexual abuse] on a 10-point scale (1=not traumatic at all, 10 = extremely traumatic." Clancy and McNally report that the average rating was 7.5 (2005/2006, p. 69). This finding indicates that many subjects thought that the abuse itself, not what they learned about it years later, was traumatic. Perhaps not extremely traumatic, or life-threatening, but traumatic all the same.

Other researchers have pointed to the large volume of psychological research documenting many short-term effects, some quite damaging, of sexual attention imposed on children.

Ellen P. Lacter of San Diego has been working in the field as a practicing psychologist for 24 years. During that period she has seen many abused children, together with adults who say they were abused as children. Lacter holds that cases of children registering only "confusion" (in Clancy’s sense) during the time frame of their abuse are quite rare. She finds that, in addition to confusion of various types, they experienced some combination of the following factors:

1. Physical pain, in some cases extreme.
2. Actual disgust with regard to the sexual acts, the presence of abuser genitalia. and emissions.
3. Fright in cases of extreme force, restraint, or restriction of the child's breathing, gagging, etc.
4. Dread based in threats to self, loved-ones, pets, and other cherished persons and things, to ensure compliance and/or to prevent disclosure.
5. Fear based in the abuser overriding their attempts to escape, ignoring their pleas for the abuser to stop, and so forth.
6. Fear, shame, and guilt, based in an awareness that private parts should be covered, and an awareness that the abuser was making great efforts to hide the abuse, to keep it secret, and to ensure that they kept it secret, causing the child to understand that these acts were harmful and morally wrong, feelings sometimes reinforced with physical violence.
7. Betrayal and hurt in cases of abuse by loved ones, based in a sense that the abuser was requiring them to engage in harmful and immoral acts, and in many cases, reinforced that family members were knowingly allowing the abuse to continue.
8. Guilt and shame for not escaping or physically fighting off the abuser.
9. The feeling that one is an "accomplice," based in receiving gifts and special privileges from the abuser. It seems that Clancy portrays these "gifts" as "benefits" that the child derives from sexual abuse. This equates child victims with prostitutes who trade money for sex. Yet children cannot make valid "contracts" to be sexually exploited. In many cases, sexual abuse is imposed on children against their will and with no understanding of the meaning of sexuality. Abusers then use gifts and favors to further manipulate and entrap children.
10. Anxiety-producing sexual arousal during the abuse, even in cases in which the abuser took precautions to prevent or minimize the perception of pain.
11. Residual sexual feelings and responses that caused great anxiety, crying, tantrums, accompanied by unanswered pleas to caregivers to, "make it [the sexual response] stop", and the like.
12. Rage at the abuser for inflicting the above.
13. Social, behavioral, and cognitive (including academic) problems driven by the above.
14. Actual physical damage, including damage to internal organs, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and in some rare cases, death.

This weighty catalogue brooks no light dismissal. Still, one may grant that there have been instances in which confusion is the dominant, or perhaps even the sole emotion experienced by the child who is the recipient of such attentions. There are even cases where the young person has clearly initiated the activity. In these instances, the subsequent embarrassment and mental anguish that result seem to be largely the product of the later intervention, or fear of such, by other individuals. Still, this simple sequence--confusion, followed by subsequent disclosure and unpleasantness--does not hold true of many, perhaps most cases. In these instances, the problems are experienced ab origine, as it were, at the time that the adult intrudes upon the child’s world.

Taking a larger view, Clancy is simply repeating a line advanced by Dutch propedophile researchers fifty years ago, who emphasized the negative effects of disclosure and social framing, when the occurrence becomes transposed into the larger universe of social disapproval.  I grant, though, that Clancy's views may have some plausibility because, unlike the Dutch boy lovers and their latter-day followers, she is not an interested party.

The overarching problem with this line of argument, whether advanced by the Dutch pedophiles or by contemporary researchers like Susan Clancy, is that it is pars pro toto--a fallacy.   For the sake of argument, let us grant that some, perhaps many cases of adult-child sex may be harmless, even beneficial.  The trauma that results in such instances is in large measure the result of the shaming ensuing upon the disclosure of the behavior.  

Yet for this view to gain traction, it would have to be shown that the trauma  a l w a y s   results  s o l e l y   from such exposure.  In fact, I don't think Clancy maintains this.  

Per contra, there is a large residue of cases, a class that is scarcely statistically insignificant, in which the child or adolescent experiences revulsion in the course of the behavior itself.  One can feel disgust at any age.

What the propedophile advocates stubbornly refuse to acknowledge is that adult-child affection takes many forms--from simple hugging, which is probably OK, to forcible anal entry, never OK.

Most of the studies reflect events that have occurred in the everyday world. The penal setting of reformatories presents another set of problems, as noted in two recent article by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow in the New York Review of Books for March 11 and March 25 ("The Rape of American Prisoners" and "The Way to Stop Prison Rape").  It stands to reason that some who seek sexual contact with minors will gravitate to jobs in reformatories in which young people, usually boys, are confined.  In the Texas institution cited, one supervisor was viciously predatory, the other, who gave cake and fine treatment, arguably was not. We have recently learned of horrific cases in Australia where young British children, taken to that country against their will and placed in the "care" of pedophile predators, were relentlessly and repeatedly raped. The British Parliament has recently apologized for this hideous program.

Still, as I say, pedophilia takes various forms.  The refusal, on both sides, to acknowledge this behavioral pluralism continues to be an obstacle to advancement of understanding.

However, even if one were finally able to secure agreement that sometimes pedophilia is harmless or neutral, and sometimes deleterious, this more nuanced view would not help the pedophiles and their defenders.  To assist their cause one would have to show that it is  n e v e r   harmful.  As we have seen, that is impossible

Of course some advocates of pedophilia will advance the bad-apples excuse. The proverb on which this kind of assertion is based is "One bad apple spoils the barrel.” So if one removes the bad apples from the bunch, the remaining apples will be just fine. Yet, as with teachers’ unions today, the pedophile advocates do not want a n y apples removed. It is all just fine and dandy. There the parallel breaks down, though: teachers’ unions are powerful, pedophile advocates are few and vulnerable.

Setting that comparison aside, the bad-apples excuse is now employed in a different sense, implying that, statistically, a problem is rare, amounting to an anomaly. A recent example is the conservative defense of torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where it was claimed that the misconduct was limited to a few low-level rogue actors who got out of hand. This is the bad-apples excuse that is now so commonly encountered. We now know that Abu Ghraib this was not so, for under the Bush administration torture was applied broadly and systematically.

The question to ask about pedophilia, then, is how frequent is abusive behavior? Setting aside the question of whether children can give informed consent--and most observers believe that they cannot--how frequent are cases in which the adult pedophile forces his attentions on his underage partner?

Because of the secrecy that enshrouds the practice, there are no reliable statistics. As with the Catholic-clergy situations, most instances escape detection, at least at the time they occurred. To judge from the cases that have come to light, the abuse involves more than just a few bad apples. It may well encompass the majority of cases of sexual activity involving a adult and a child. This is surely true where the horror of forced anal penetration occurs.

At all events, even if only 10% of the boys and girls involved in this behavior were harmed, most observers (except for the special pleaders, the pedophiles themselves) would say that that is far too many.

The No Harm Principle has been eloquently stated by John Stuart Mill in his essay "On Liberty." "The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

As we have seen. pedophilia does not meet this test, as the activity, unlike, say, adult-adult homosexual conduct, fails to withstand Mill's test. By and large, pedophilia does cause harm to the child. The “anything goes” umbrella proffered by its advocates must needs wither when confronted with this principle.

Accordingly, the following question is mandatory. Why should we tolerate the practice at all? Some young people have sexual urges, to be sure, but they can surely postpone enactment of them until they are older. For their part, pedophiles must either redirect their desires to other adults or practice celibacy. If they fail to do either, legal remedies become unavoidable.



Blogger Gary Smith said...

Here is a very interesting book on just this topic, but from a slightly different angle. I would especially like to read your take on The Turn of the Screw and Lolita.

2:41 AM  
Blogger Gary Smith said...

I just now noticed that the book I recommended has an unholy price on it. Sorry about that.

2:45 AM  
Blogger Gary Smith said...

I think we must make a distinction between what happens in the everyday world of real life and what happens in literature, the quasi-religious literature that descends from High Romanticism, where every taboo is broken, must be broken, in a Dionysian orgy.

8:18 AM  
Blogger JohnPierre said...

I have counselled hundreds of prostituted boys 7-17 years old and almost 90% of them never admits that their sexual experiences were harmful. In fact, even the double standard of our society does not consider boys as victims but instead when something wrong happens - boys are blamed of the behavior instead of their supposedly sex predators.

Though they do not admit that their abuse had harmed them in any way, yet they admit that they have ever experienced: - robbing, murdering, extorted, and mauled theese partners in their lifetime.

Aren't these manifestation of negative psychosocial sequel of sexual exploitation of children?

5:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You chose Ellen P. Lacter as your expert?

Ellen P. Lacter? As in witch-hunter Ellen P. Lacter (

And you thought that would contribute to a quality piece of work?

Was it not possible to find someone who didn't come from the loonie wing of psychology?

Ellen P. Lacter.

The rest of the essay was lost on me after that.

You might as well have got David Icke to contribute.

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really, a poor attempt at justifying your own prejudices. All you come up with is that 5% harm is too many. Well, yes. But that thinking justifies any kind of response from the authorities.

Take another topic: traffic deaths. Every child killed on the road is none child too many. Easy solution: ban all motor vehicles. Don't be silly, you say, that would be far too drastic, and would greatly inconvenience society.

Well, what about Minor-Atracted Adults who don't harm children? You are treading on dangerous ground by suggesting that they should deny their innate sexual orientation even when it causes no harm to a child.

Please, try again, with a more objective approach.

4:28 AM  

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