There is a process unfolding in England and America which demonstrates how willing we are to do things to each other that are both dark and crushing, at the same time choosing not to see what is actually happening. It is that reaction of hate and crushing condemnation of those attracted to the young is what this post reflects on.
Public sex offender databases have been set up in both countries. In America, for example, there is what has become known as the Megan’s Law legislation, which was created in response to the murder of Megan Kanka. The legislation requires law enforcement authorities to make information available to the public regarding registered sex offenders. There are stories where young ‘perpetrators’ are punished repeatedly; unsurprisingly there are voices that cry out “stop this harm, now!” England has its own version which it calls Sarah’s Law, which enables a member of the public to ask the police whether an individual (e.g. a neighbour or family friend) is a convicted sex offender.
It is important to recognise that a shift has begun to happen – a move away from punishing offenders who are young. Anthony Jones, a maker of documentaries and films who has moved into the field of forensic research, writes on the issue of Sex Offender Registries in America. His LinkedIn profile offers glimpses of his work. His latest post, “Megan’s Law is going after the youths of America”. Jones joins the voices of others: “US: Raised on the Sex Offender Registry”. The central message is the call to stop being inhuman to the young, and it is a call that may well move American society to change.
Will this call to be humane lead to the same call regarding the adult? I for one hope it does. It may well be a case of one step at a time.
Labels can have power. Stanley Cohen, in “Folk Devils and Moral Panics”, which first hit the bookshops in the 1970s wrote about biker groups and young males who were seen as socially disruptive and dangerous. Today the label pedophile is out there on its own, it can’t be trumped as far as what it can do to the person who has this label put on them. I ask myself why, and read widely to gain a handle on this question.
Roger N. Lancaster wrote Sex Panic and the Punitive State in 2011 and it was reviewed by Judith Levine – “First, They Came for the Sex Offenders”. She views Lancaster’s text as “a riveting history and virtuosic analysis of the way America’s thirty-year panic about child sexual abuse has fuelled an ever-increasing appetite to ‘protect, punish, and pre-empt’ crime and has served as the model for the creation of ‘something resembling a police state in the United States.”
This week – May 15, 2015 – Stephen Kershnar is publishing his latest book, “Pedophilia and Adult-Child Sex: A Philosophical Analysis“. He makes the comment our views of adult-child sex should be based on the “outcome of the empirical investigation of its degree of harmfulness”. I read Kershnar’s words and put them with what is offered by Judith Levine in her book, “Harmful To Minors: The Perils Of Protecting Children From Sex”. The negative impact on children – the harm done – where we see this happening may well speak most to what is done by those who seem so deep in the grip of a will to punish and exclude, rather than in the actions of the adult who is labelled sex abuser and pedophile.
We find ourselves, three years after Levine’s review, four years after Lancaster’s book, thirteen years after Levine’s own book, and thirty three years after Cohen’s, and things seem to be even worse.
Usually when I write my style resists being overly direct or harsh. My background as a Family Therapist, my efforts to look at texts offered by sociologists, and my philosophical preferences, all influence how I put words on the page. At this point allow me to move into another style.
The most convincing explanation for the hate and malice is remarkably simple – the label pedophile is the ‘pissing-pot’ of the 21st century. It carries all the shit, hate, and malice, modern society feels about itself. Gone are the days when one can talk in derisory ways about a person of colour. You can’t talk about marginalised groups as freely as one might have in the past. The United Nations and other international bodies are letting you know: do that and we will take you down. In this modern life of political correctness the label pedophile remains the one label you can use to destroy a person utterly, and odds on you won’t be attacked when you use it.
This comment seems harsh, but an overview may well put what is argued inside a context that gives it credibility. The path into this situation where one is blocked from attacking and dehumanising individuals and groups has a long history. Western culture has been shaped by many factors and one of them is religion. Both the Ancient East and Christianity have played a role in how Western cultures deal with sin. Walter Kasper in his 1976 text on Christology, Jesus The Christ, explains how this idea of atonement worked in the East.
“The individual is deeply involved in the community by reason of a common origin and a common destiny. His evil deed is always a burden on the whole people. A sinner was regarded as a common danger in a very direct and realistic sense. Therefore the worshiping community had to dissociate itself from him solemnly and demonstratively and break off solidarity with the wrongdoer. That was done by excommunication and cursing. Only by that kind of atonement could the people be reconciled with God. Atonement however was also possible through vicarious actions. The best known atonement ritual was the transmissions of the sins of the people by imposing hands on a goat and driving it into the desert thus burdened with the sins of all (Lev. 16.20ff).” (Kasper, p.215)
For Christians Jesus was considered to be part of an atonement process that was exhaustive – he stood in for others. That one action – a life and its death – made any further acts of solidarity with the sinner superfluous. No one else need die on a cross. Jesus was more than a person, he was a life-process. All people’s wrongdoing was taken upon him – a laying on of hands linked to a wrongful execution – in this case one did not have a goat but a person – in this way Christians argued things were put right, and it happens only once. No other individual need ever do this again. It is not an alibi – it requires the person walk the Christian path, but it is not magic, and nor does the individual make it happen. This is seen as God doing what humanity on its own could not. A second image was the idea the person was walking into the tomb of Jesus (Paul in his Letter to the Romans). The individual is still required to commit to this new self but the atonement aspect is achieved via what can be called ‘the Jesus narrative”.
It is useful to unpack this Christian view not to argue a Christian account is superior to other religious narratives; it is rather that people need, just as we do now, to deal with this issue of keeping communities connected while at the same time addressing wrongdoing and harm done by one to another. The point here is that we can and do find a way – many ways, different ways – to manage what seems irresolvable. There are secular versions of just this issue in literature if we go looking.
The pedophile is considered a sinner if he has done wrong – sexual abuse of a child. There is a second view, even more punitive, where the person’s sexual orientation is viewed as ‘inclined towards evil’. Take note, the official Catholic commentary on the homosexual man uses just such language. In both cases the pedophile benefits from this theological repositioning. The individual as a sinner is reconnected to the community via this atonement relationship.
Sadly that theological view all too often did not inform what happened for homosexual man in Western culture. Between the close of the Second World War, moving through Stonewall, and all the way to the decriminalising of their consensual sexual relationships, many gay men – perhaps most – did not receive that message of connection to the worshiping community. Catholicism has a‘message of ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’. It was not a convincing message and many homosexual men realised most Christians did not live as if they understood Walter Kasper’s emancipatory message of atonement for everyone.
I do not see Christianity boldly saying how the pedophile has real solidarity with the worshiping community today either. I dare say the minor attracted person sees Christian communities as no different from wider society with its talk of exclusion and punishment – ‘pissing on him in public’ with no fear of criticism. In media items Catholicism finds itself accused of having pedophiles in its ranks – inside its very highest levels. The Catholic movement keeps saying this cannot and must not be. Like everyone else down through the ages Catholic priests have committed sins. Graham Green’s novels about priests who love but remain heroes of his books are something I would want to promote. Modern accounts of ‘pedophile priests’ are seriously at odds with what Green offers. Unlike any other accusation the label pedophile is certain to lead to the revoking of his status as an ordained Christian leader. It seems unlikely these men could slip quietly into the pew beside other members of the congregations they once led.
I keep plugging the idea that we can make a better world, that humanity can move forward. The riddle for me is not the issue of how we can make the world better; it is more about why we don’t. I look at this label issue and ask how can we address not only the person of colour, the migrant, the marginalised groups in whichever society we live in; I also believe this process of making a better society and a better planet needs to include the minor attracted person. Whatever the psychological and sociological ‘usefulness’ of a pissing pot, I want it gone. In this post I write about one way that might help that happen – via art, what we admire, human creativity.
Consider what happens inside the experience of a parent who gazes on their child’s crayon drawing, or the person who listens to a Tchaikovsky piece being played by their local orchestra to celebrate Christmas. We are looking at human creativity.
What is valued here is not merely the object the individual makes – the child’s drawing may end up on the fridge door; and Tchaikovsky’s music for the serious listener is more than some tune one hums in an elevator. In addition to the object itself what is valued is the person who creates the item. A circle is closed as we move from the art object to its maker and finally we come to acknowledge what is valued include us – we who watch and listen.
Recently I wrote a piece about Alan Turing. In the recent film about him can trigger in gay and homosexual men a deep sense of pride; his creativity and his stature are experienced by many gays as more than an affirmation of his code breaking skill; it is a valuing of the man who acted, and ultimately a valuing of all gay men. Of course I am going to argue we all benefit, gay and non-gay alike – humanity moves up a notch.
Not all homosexuals are code breakers, not all gay men are geniuses.
A person who I have never written about but has been celebrated and discussed a great deal recently is Lewis Carroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). On his website, Tom O’Carroll offers a very interesting text: “Which is to be master – that’s all”. It looks at how Lewis Carroll is positioned today, and yes some see him as a pedophile; some do not. Lewis Carroll, Tchaikovsky, and Turing are people who can be labelled genius.
John Money, a New Zealand sexologist, coined the term pedophilic genius. He argued some individuals who display genius do so in a way that is driven by and intimately linked to their experience of themselves as sexual beings. One man who I think shows this kind of giftedness is Michael Jackson. Recently I was offered a link to a BBC documentary that discusses another man who was unmistakably a genius and who like Jackson has been linked to a deep personal love of boys. It is the story of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek and his work with the disease Kuru, gaining a Nobel Prize in 1976. The media piece by the BBC is titled “Storyville The Genius And The Boys”. Gajdusek’s life began to be rewritten following a claim in 1996 by one of his adopted sons that he had had oral sex with him.
Recently I learned from more than one source that Alan Turing’s sexual interest was not as ‘orthodox’ as “The Imitation Game” portrays, nor is he as good a fit for the modern gay man as some would wish. Comments made by people who worked with Turning and knew him well suggest he may have been minor attracted.
My point here is not to say, look, some of our great men and women were sexual deviants, let’s trash their art and what they have done. Nor am I inspired to drive a stake into the hearts of those who admire Michael Jackson, Lewis Carroll, Alan Turing, Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, or Tchaikovsky for that matter – he to had sexual affairs with boys. At the centre of what I offer here is the existence of these men’s work, the experience of our admiration for them as people. Both the objects of art and the men themselves help us stay away from a descent into rage and hate when we look at the minor attracted person. Moral outrage sometimes resembles self destructiveness more than an appreciation of what matters in life.
Note I am not arguing for a notion of privilege to operate – I am not saying let the gifted individual be abusive and harmful in their relationships with others because their talent lets them do what others must not. Alibis are just that – distractions, deflections. My point rests in considering what we can do that is of lasting value and affirms that every person matters. I am not talking of rape, non-consenting sexual encounters, or the simple satisfaction of one person’s desire to gain what they want for themselves.
What I have offered resembles a discussion of ‘virtue ethics’ and ‘traditional ethics’. Post-modern discussions tend to not look like either. A postmodern discussion is more likely to look at how celebrity works. Michael Jackson had his music fans, Lewis Carroll has those who read his stories such as Alice in Wonderland, Gajdusek as a Nobel Prize winner and much respected researcher had a fan club that included both the subjects he studied – the people he studies and helped, as well as large numbers of scientific colleagues who valued what he did. Celebrity seems very central to our modern life.
I could point backwards to the last post about what is known by us but offered up as unknown. Many fans of Michael Jackson will let you know they don’t want to know. There is a lot that can be said on this point.
The experience of great art and objects brought into existence by gifted people makes us connect with a part of who we are that can help us be our best selves. We have the capacity to be destructive in way that matches what we find in the art and genius provided to us by individuals. For me the riddle is not can gifted person be a pedophile, my mind is locked onto the deep puzzle of how people can be so destructive and so damaging when they encounter this sexual orientation.
This feature of our societies and cultures looms large in my mind. The list of cases that speak to what I refer to is long: Sandusky, Rolf Harris, New Zealand’s Peter Ellis (who has just had yet another request for the legal case against him reopened turn down by the New Zealand Justice Minister), Michael Jackson (whose legal success is not seen by all as a convincing message “this man is not a pedophile”), Arthur C Clarke (again positioned a pedophile despite no legal outcome establishing grounds for this view). You can decide that what makes these men’s lives compelling was that they were drawn to the young; you can just as easily say what makes these lives scary was our management of those men’s lives.
I want to believe, perhaps despite what I see, that what we can do that is good and noble is going to help us turn our societies away from our dark side and motivate us to bring us back to a point where human solidarity and our best selves wins out in the end.
When one realises that more and more adults fill our prisons, live under bridges in the ‘wealthy’ spaces of America, are under the expanding threat of civil commitment and life-long social exclusion, all seems lost. Will we really change and make the turn from our efforts to exclude and punish because a truth about ourselves becomes visible to us via narratives that have at their centre a child – the young sex offender?
- Cohen, S. (1972). Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Third Edition). London and New York: Routledge.
- Dougan, P. (2015, 21 April). Per Ellis to consider Privy Council appeal [Newspaper article]. New Zealand Herald (Auckland, New Zealand). Retrieved from http://m.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11436262
- Jones, A. (2015, May 9). Megan’s Law is Going After the Youth’s of America! [Post placed as part of a LinkedIn profile.]. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/megans-law-going-after-youths-america-anthony-jones?trk=prof-post
- Kasper, W. (1976). Jesus The Christ. England and USA: Burns and Oates; Paulist Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Christ-Walter-Kasper/dp/080912081X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1431497886&sr=1-1&keywords=jesus+the+christ+by+walter+kasper
- Kershnar, S. (2009). The Moral Status of Harmless Adult-Child Sex. In Sex, Discrimination, and Violence: Surprising and Unpopular Results in Applied Ethics. Lanham; Bouler; New York; Toronto; Plymouth, United Kingdom: University Press of America Inc. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Discrimination-Violence-Surprising-Unpopular-ebook/dp/B00C1OK9WM/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1431554985&sr=8-5&keywords=kershnar%2C+Stephen
- Levine, J. (2002). Harmful To Minors: The Perils Of Protecting Children From Sex. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.
- Levine, J. (2012, February). First, They Came for the Sex Offenders [Book review of Sex Panic and the punitive state by Roger N. Lancaster.]. In Http://monthlyreview.org (Review). Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, 63(9). Retrieved 13 May, 2015, from http://monthlyreview.org/2012/02/01/first-they-came-for-the-sex-offenders/
- Lancaster, R. N. (2011). Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Panic-Punitive-State-Roger-Lancaster-ebook/dp/B004LROCFC/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1431493515&sr=1-1&keywords=sex+panic+and+the+punitive+state
- Money, J. (1990). Pedophilia: A Specific Instance of New Phylism Theory as Applied to Paraphilic Lovemaps. In J. R. Feierman (Ed.), Pedophilia: Biosexual Dimensions (pp. 446-463). New York: Springer-Verlag.