Over at Slate Magazine Jennifer Blayer published a really interesting article a few days ago called “How can we stop pedophiles?” I thought to myself “I really should blog about that. […] But not today.” However, when I saw the same article republished in the National Post a day later I decided I would take it on as a point of discussion.
We start with the fact that few deviant dispositions have the social stigma pertaining to pedophilia. (Given that fact, it is a matter of perpetual puzzlement for me that Gary Puckett’s song “Young Girl” was such a big hit back in the sixties.) It is this stigma which brings us to the central problem of pedophilia, namely that there seems to be no space in the social sphere between demonization and acceptance. It is as if your only choices are joining the torch wielding mob or sending in your annual membership dues to NAMBLA. The brilliance of Blayer’s argument is found in recognizing that there is a vast and crucial territory between these two extremes, it is the territory of firm condemnation of the behavior combined with a compassionate treatment of the disposition.
The article centers on the story of “Spencer” (need I say “not his real name”?), a man who found himself attracted to other ten year old boys when he was ten and still found himself attracted to ten year old boys when he was twenty. The following excerpt from the article summarizes the main argument nicely:
Spencer is in his early 30s now, with neatly coiffed brown hair and sharp features. He’s bright, friendly, and breezily self-deprecating. (Regarding his parents’ painful realization that their son was a pedophile who hadn’t finished college, he observes, “For a Jewish family, you don’t know which is worse.”) He emphatically states that he understands the law and that he has never molested a child. He considers himself a “minor-attracted person,” a term that some prefer to “pedophile,” and what he and others like him have been quietly promoting is the idea that society needs to recognize that they exist, that they are capable of controlling their sexual desires and deserve support and respect for doing so.
“It doesn’t protect children to have a stigmatized group of outcasts living on the fringe of society,” Spencer told me. “Anyone who’s serious about protecting children from abuse has to be just as serious about the needs of minor-attracted people.”
He doesn’t mean their “need” to have sexual contact with children, but their need for safe avenues to seek therapy, feel understood, and thrive as non-offenders.
Like many people, before reading this article my first emotional reaction to the term “minor-attracted person” would have been a mixture of revulsion and outrage. It sounds like this is an attempt to remove the social stigma of pedophilia, the first step to social acceptance of pedophilia. But such a reaction would be to ignore the stated view of Spencer and Blayer’s article.
Imagine that you have a ten year old son who has gone beyond plump and portly to being downright fat. Assuming that you want to get him on the straight and narrow (and thin) you might take the avenue of shaming. “Hey Tyler, look at your belly. That’s disgusting. Being fat is gross. Why don’t you shape up?” No doubt many “old school” parents have taken that approach. And where did it get them? Tyler, hiding in the backyard, hugging his knees to his chest while hot tears roll down his cheeks as he eats another Pop-Tart. In other words, it doesn’t work.
By demonizing pedophiles you tacitly encourage them to hide their dispositions rather than confronting them and learning how to overcome them in a non-judgmental, therapeutic environment.
I think here of my own evangelical community which has made leaps and bounds in recent years in learning how to confront the problem of addiction to pornography within the church. To take one example, the book Every Man’s Battle: Winning the War on Sexual Temptation One Victory at a Time has become a big seller as thousands of men are joining small groups and working through the principles in a non-judgmental setting.
The fact is that sin is sin, and we all have a dispositional tendency to do it. What we need to do is create honest communities that can retain condemnation of the sin whilst treating the disposition to sin non-judgmentally. There is a middle ground between the roving mob and NAMBLA membership, and it is ironically the ground that is best both for society and the pedophiles — or “minor-attracted persons” — within it. I’ll end by returning to a passage I’ve quoted before, the closing of Roger Ebert’s review of the powerful film “The Woodsman” (featuring Kevin Bacon as a pedophile named “Walter”):
“It has relevance for members of the audience who would never in any way be even remotely capable of Walter’s crime. We are quick to forgive our own trespasses, slower to forgive those of others. The challenge of a moral life is to do nothing that needs forgiveness. In that sense, we’re all out on parole.”