What Do You Mean, You Don’t Know?

At this point in Western history, an adult who recognises they are attracted to the young is positioned inside their society negatively, especially those societies shaped by Anglophile traditions. The challenge is how to move beyond a negatively framed way of seeing oneself and the desires that are at the core of who one is.

An earlier post on this site argued minor attracted persons (MAP) can look to how others  talk about how they see themselves. Navigating life often involves learning from others – so the idea that the group you belong to needs to reinvent the wheel and solve all problems from within seems to me an unhelpful expectation.

Competing Responsibilities Sociology Conference, 2014

Competing Responsibilities Sociology Conference, 2014

The post I  refer to had a context – a talk by Prof. Nikolas Rose titled “Making us resilient: responsible citizens for uncertain times”, which was the keynote address at a sociology seminar titled Competing Responsibilities: The politics and ethics of responsibility in contemporary life.  His talk did not reference the life situation of the MAP. Rose encouraged people to look for more positive ways of framing talk of the self. A key term he used for that process was the word resilience which he used inside the title of his talk. I argue MAPs need to look at this concept as part of crafting a responsible and ethical way to live their life in 2015. I know Prof. Rose does not agree with this idea because I asked him. His message was directed at people who are not minor attracted; he wanted them to focus on developing resilience, as a positive response to modern life. The ‘resilience’ message is a valuable one for everybody – including those who are minor attracted.

Behaviourist models of human sexuality centre on risk and risk management; prison based programs for those convicted of child sexual abuse and community based versions of the same programs are often informed by behaviouristic models. I argue these programs restrict how individuals see themselves. I need to be very clear here and assure the reader my objective is to promote a process where a person sees it as their responsibility to live and craft an ethical life. It goes without saying MAPs, whether they have convictions for sexual abuse or not, are not asked to contribute to how they manage their lives – they are told how to live, how they must live.

That call for all of us to live ethically – if one is informed by Western philosophical ideas – reaches all the way back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. According to that tradition what I am talking about is how to live a good life. Despite the long time-lapse between those philosophers and where we find ourselves, that challenge has not gone away.

Not limiting itself to commending Prof. Rose’s call to resilience, my post also hinted that valuable insights may be gleaned from writers who comment from within diverse worlds: psychoanalysis, Marxism, philosophy, history, critical theory, etc.

My reading in recent years has included a number of writers and social theorists: Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Roundinesco, Slavoj Zizek, and Alain Badiou – a predominantly French group of intellectuals who published and debated their ideas of freedom, ideology, knowledge, emancipation, health, and sexuality.  What makes this group especially interesting is the way they bring together disparate disciplines in crafting their texts and their ideas.

The major voice informing this post is Slavoj Zizek. Of particular interest is his talk of knowledge, in particular his recommendation that we look into what he calls the science of not knowing as a part of a general theory of epistemology.  What is striking is the paradoxical way Zizek talks, and it is perhaps this feature that draws his audience  into what he has to offer.

Slavoj Zizek's talk on "Not Knowing" (YouTube)

Slavoj Zizek’s talk on “Not Knowing” (YouTube)

In his video clip, “Ideology and Modalities of Not Knowing. 2014”, Zizek explains “Ideology is not only what it says, it is also the complex network of solicited transgressions”. He offers an example from his army training.  There were things that were prohibited and there were accompanying messages about those prohibitions: if you did not transgress those prohibitions, then you would be viewed as an idiot.  He offered the example of how a soldier would be told, Don’t get drunk.  That soldier, if he did not go drinking with his comrades on a regular basis, would be viewed as failing his fellow officers and even as being unpatriotic.

Zizek argues all human communities have rules.  Accompanying those rules are what could loosely be called meta-rules – a guide to how the rules can be broken and under what conditions.  He takes a special interest in these meta-rules – and so do I.  Zizek begins by asking how the rules help reveal how ideological systems work, then via a question from his audience he explains how this rules/meta-rule idea can be seen when talking about knowledge.

In this post I am taking a further step – how might one talk about the rules/meta-rules relationship when looking at human sexuality.  I see here an opportunity to use Zizek’s thinking as a tool box rather than simply quoting what he says about sex.

The behaviourist will tell you that the key issue is: for the pedophile to not have sex with children.  A behaviourist perspective will focus on the management of sexual arousal and the management of risk.

Zizek’s argues there is a crisis that needs responding to – but it is not the crisis we read in the media. My interest is to ask the question, using Zizek’s toolbox, if we have a crisis for human sexuality – one of the issues being sexual contacts across generations – then how would it be talked about? My rendering of this issue does differ from how the behaviourists frame the discussion.

Zizek offers his view on the question of rules with the added point that the ‘not knowing’ feature of his epistemology includes modalities. The first one involves these rules paired with other rules – usually unspoken and unacknowledged – telling us how rules can be broken and in what circumstances. A second modality, another version of the same thing, is where you are offered an opportunity but the unspoken rule is you must not take it. Now let’s  unpack how this modality runs when talking about sex.

Zizek gave an example from his days in the army. At the beginning of their training a soldier is taught various things and after a short period of time there might be a public ceremony where they would make a public statement about becoming a member of the army.  They would also be offered the chance to sign the book stating their commitment. Of course the signing is positioned as a moment of free choice. This opportunity includes the ability to say no, I won’t sign.  Zizek recounts an army cadet who asked was he free when signing and was told yes. He then said “I don’t sign”. The trainers were angry; they felt the cadet had ‘broken a central rule’. They issued a written order – sign the book freely. The situation looks absurd, even humorous, but the important point is the army officials were very serious. For them it was no joke!

The behaviourist approach regarding minor attraction is to focus on a prohibition – you must not have sex with children; and more than this, in your thinking about them, you must not explore that idea as positive. For the behaviourist – and others, I suspect – this is how they would frame today’s crisis: don’t have sex across generations. Using Zizek’s talk of rules we can frame the situation differently. Yes, there is a crisis but it is not this one. The real crisis is the possibility that people might be given the choice – that you actually are free to decide, and it is this, I argue, that frightens people. This is our current crisis; you have an opportunity, you are expected to say no, freely, but now it becomes necessary for us to acknowledge some may say yes.

This post is not offering is a full history of all human choices regarding this matter; that would be bold and an unfair request for a reader to make. What is offered is a way of seeing how this practice of not knowing has been brought into the light.

Zizek mentions how the issue of not knowing has been highlighted by the Wikileaks situation and the disclosures by Edward Snowden.  Zizek argues that while some detail is being made available to us, it has not been a process where at one time we knew nothing and now we know it all.  He argues the crisis for democracy is the cessation of the ability to say we don’t know.  Zizek puts it to us we always suspected our leaders acted the way Julian Assange and Edward Snowden position them.  The crisis is now we can’t say we don’t know.  To cement his argument Zizek links this situation of the crisis to Jacques Lacan’s view that most of us ‘don’t want to know’.  Lacan questions the assumption that  we are all curious animals who, at our core, desperately want to know things.  Lacan argues, in some areas of life and in certain situations we desperately want to send the message, “I don’t know” or “I did not know this”.  This is, in Lacan’s view, a crisis situation for many.

For Western cultures in the period before the 1970s the situation ran along these lines: a person is offered opportunities where they could have sex with children, but these are opportunities to which the person must always say no.  In this period there were people who said yes.  The meta-rule required that this be part of what is not known.

At that time there was no imagined future where one might be offered a real choice in this matter; nor was it perceived there was a new wave of social optimism unfolding where such choice could be publicly acknowledged.  Furthermore, before the 1970s this view was the preferred understanding of how everything worked.  There was an overarching set of rules, one where you were told what you could and couldn’t do.  Interestingly we felt free, but it was deemed a freedom we must not act on.  We were free, as long as we never said no to the prohibition.  Just like Zizek’s cadet who was ordered to freely sign the book, this was all done freely.

With the 1960s and 1970s I argue freedom and our general social fabric experienced a jolt – we asked in a very broad way, are we really free?  The disruption of two world wars, shifts in bodies of knowledge about sexuality, gay liberation, the rise of equal rights for women – the mix is complex.  We had preferred not to know we were being told what to do, we considered ourselves free and indeed expressed strong political, philosophical and even religious ideas about why this mattered.  But with the 1970s, to keep that old view about ourselves became harder to sustain.  It was this that defined the crisis for Western societies and Western cultures.

"... very few victims reported any fear, shock, force or violence at the time the abuse occurred." p.22

“… very few victims reported any fear, shock, force or violence at the time the abuse occurred.” p.22

I argue intergenerational sexually-expressed friendships were impacted by those shifts.  Along with the narratives of sexual emancipation came narratives of abuse and exploitation.  Those stories have multiplied greatly, and have become increasingly valued narratives inside our culture.

The prominence given to the ‘sex abuse industry’ tells us that it is more than merely one discourse among many; it behaves as if it is the benchmark against which all narratives of this sort are measured.  In terms of what this post argues our current position is not one of “now we know all”; what persists, in fact, is our version of not knowing.

We have always known, or at least suspected, that some of those relationships between the young and the older involved consent, friendship and reciprocity.  To this knowledge we say “I don’t know.”

My text speaks to the narratives which, for a short time, emerged but seem to have subsequently been shut down. There were friendships in which rules were broken.  We knew some adults had sex with children.  Public accounts of allegations of sex with children in day care centres multiplied.  Groups were formed – like the Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in England.  It became increasingly difficult to hold to the view, “We don’t know”.  By the 1990s, with the help of the media, we were telling ourselves our eyes were opened, and now we knew better.  The knowing, however, focuses on abuse narratives.  The knowing, I argue, still retains a piece of the earlier modality.  To this day, in public discourse, we act as if we don’t know about the non-abusive and non-exploitative intergenerational exchanges.

The sexual profile of the pedophile has never been so much a part of media talk and most recently there seems to be a desperate desire to explain the origins of the pedophile sexual orientation just as there were similar efforts to explain the homosexual male in the 1990s.

The ideological grip of heterosexism has been dislodged.  Sexual variety is experienced as part of the way things are.  The idea of ‘what is normal’ functions to limit what we say yes to, but we can’t say that variety and complexity experienced at the level of the individual as desire, is unknown to us.

The real root of our crisis I argue is the possibility of a different life, a different set of choices.  A minor attracted person can and even should be encouraged to make a life; that life can and should be ethically crafted; that life can and should be seen as free.  It is not about permission to have sex with children.  We have always known for some the choice might well be to say yes to opportunities to form friendships and be ‘all that one can be’ and respond to that call to ‘be one’s best self’.  This aspirational view ultimately doesn’t tell us what to do.  As societies and cultures we are confronted with people who on the face of it are not like us – but they are in fact just like us – the gay male, the lesbian, the minor attracted, the diversity is striking.

We can’t say we don’t know any more.  Everyone is in fact called to be ethical, free, responsible members of our societies and cultures.  Our understanding of sex, sex roles, gender and gender identity offers a more detailed picture of sexuality.  Human desire is part of an ethical journey for same-sex couples, for heterosexual couples – these are our new version of normal.  But for  the individuals inside our societies for whom age is a component of how desire functions, for this group we must now wrestle with how to manage this also.

"Future can be a reference to the one who comes, whose  arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future."

“Future can be a reference to the one who comes, whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future.”

I am not arguing all this is settled, or that it is straightforward.  What is interesting and challenging is that here one can take the notions of rule and knowing used by Slavoj Zizek and attempt a process that could be called a type of unmasking.  Zizek argues that in politics we can’t go back, we can’t really say we do not know our leaders spy on us and tell us lies.  I don’t think that situation is quite the same in the area of sexuality.  The preference to not know something – all the while of course we do actual know – can be very strong.  For quite some time we might choose to tell ourselves that minor attraction is beyond our understanding; that, I think, has to be left to what is our future.  My preference is for an an inclusiveness; that preference is a possible future.  That comment offered by Jacques Derrida seems worth citing: our real future, the one that matters, remains what is likely to be unexpected and unplanned

Further Reading:

  • Clancy, S. A. (2009). The trauma myth and the truth about the sexual abuse of children – and its aftermath. New York: Basic Books.
  • Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge.
  • Ditum, S. (2015, 13 April). Why are we so desperate to find a genetic explanation for sex offenders? [Newspaper article]. New Statesman (United Kingdom), Online Magazine ed.
  • Dunham, A. (2014, 18 August). ‘Paedophiles should commit suicide’: Expert. The Local: Spains News in English (Spain), Online Newspaper ed., sec. Society. Retrieved from http://www.thelocal.es/20140818/paedophiles-should-commit-suicide-official
  • Hunter, J. (2008). The Political Use and Abuse of the “Pedophile.” Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 55(No. 3), 350-387. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00918360802345073
  • Rose, N. (2014, 15th to 17th August). Making us resilient: Responsible citizens for uncertain times. [One of two keynote talks.]. In Keynote Talk. Competing Responsibilities Conference, Rutherford House, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • Seto, M. C. (2012, Feb). Is pedophilia a sexual orientation? Arch Sex Behav, 41(1), 231-6.
  • Sharpe, M. Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). In J. D. Fieser, Bradley (Ed.), Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.
  • Sonenschein, D. (1998). Pedophiles on Parade: Volume 1 & 2, ‘The Monster in The Media’ and ‘The Popular Imagery of Moral Histeria’. San Antonio, USA: Sonenscheirn, David.
  • Zizek, S. Ideology and Modalities of Not Knowing. 2014 [You Tube item]. In European Graduate School Video Lectures. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBa-pCmuBHU#t=15
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