Saturday, January 29, 2011

After Catholicism: Pedophilia and Queer Theory

It is difficult to discuss pedophilia and pederasty without using terminology that is in itself judgmental.  "Sexual abuse", "perpetrator" and "victim" are the most common terms of reference.  Media reports related to adult men who are accused of having sex with boys almost always refer to the boys as "young boys" despite the fact that the "boys" in question are subsequently described as having been fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years of age.  In other contexts people of the same age would more likely have been referred to as "young men" or "teenagers".   Referring to them as "young boys" just adds to the sensationalism.  Proponents of what they term "boy love" and some queer theorists argue that even the terms "pedophile" and "pederast" are derogatory since they're pseudo-medical designations, much as "homosexual" was used for gays and lesbians.  However linguistically awkward it may be, I'm going to attempt to use less judgmental language.

The transition from writing about Catholicism to the topic of adults sexually involved with children is obvious.  The insistence on a celibate clergy and increasing homophobia in the Church continue to make the priesthood a refuge for those with confusion, discomfort and shame regarding their sexuality, whatever it be.  In addition, that refuge provides ready access to children and adolescents in what often remains a position of power and trust.  The current focus on screening homosexuals from seminaries adds to the problem.  Firstly, it will not be very successful in screening out candidates who, while identifying as heterosexual may, when under stress and unable to have an adult sexual partner, turn to children, whether boys or girls, to satisfy their desire.  Boys are the more likely choice in those situations because there is generally easier access to them and they are seen as less likely to report an approach. Secondly, such a policy re-enforces the likelihood that those who have a clear sense of their identity as a sexual minority and a positive self-esteem would not even apply to a seminary and were they to do so would most likely be rejected.  On the other hand,  those candidates with minority sexual identities who are most troubled, least likely to acknowledge their sexuality to themselves or others and least likely to have outlets for their sexuality would be most likely to be accepted.  Psychological testing of candidates is known to be rather ineffective.  Anyone with half a brain,  knowing the attitudes of the Church,  would anticipate the answers that an interviewer wants to hear.

As a psychotherapist and former worker in a youth protection agency I have considerable familiarity with the issue of adults who prefer to have sex with children or adolescents.  Professionally, in the eyes of those queer theorists who argue that such adults are amongst the last victims of sexual repression, I would be regarded as part of the apparatus of oppression.  They would claim that adults with a preference for sex with children or adolescents have been marginalized as sick and criminals when, in fact,  they do no harm.  Some would argue that children and adolescents can benefit from the sexual attention and relationship offered to them by an adult and that allegations of intrinsic harm are trumped up by child welfare experts and criminologists to forward their own industries of oppression.  It is that contention that I want to examine as objectively as I can.

First, some things that are known and very widely accepted by those who are knowledgeable about sexual encounters between adults and children.  The overwhelming proportion (80 to 90%) of such encounters occur either within the family or with an adult who is well known by the family. The fear of the stranger as a source of such an encounter only serves to take attention away from the family as the most likely locus.  Girls are more likely to be approached sexually by a male adult in almost the same proportions (80 to 90%).  Female adults rarely approach children or adolescents for sex, but it does occur. Male adults most likely to approach girls are usually in a primary relationship with a women, while those males who are attracted to boys typically have felt that attraction since adolescence and are frequently not in a primary relationship with another adult.  There are many exceptions to those generalizations.  The great majority of those who have been involved sexually as children with an adult do not go on to a similar involvement as adults, while most adults approaching children sexually have had similar experiences as children.  I'm going to focus on the issue of men who prefer to have sex with boys or adolescents because that is the topic relevant to the debate within queer theory.  Due to the increased vulnerability of girls in our society I'm not sure the same reasoning would apply to them.

One of the most important issues is just how one defines a child.  Usually, a child is understood to be pre-pubescent, younger than around eleven or twelve.  Informed consent is clearly related to the maturity of the individual and is loosely linked with age.  There is a considerable cultural and historical variation relating to the boundaries of age and the capacity to consent.  During the medieval period a person of twelve or thirteen could marry, become a knight and join a religious order.  The bar mitzvah as a celebration of the coming of age in Judaism occurs at thirteen.  Adolescence is a relatively new historical development.  Throughout most of human history and in many existing cultures people passed from child to adult with no intermediary step.  The variability and permeability of the boundaries of age and consent lead some queer theorists to argue that there should be no age of consent in the criminal law.

Societies supposedly pass laws penalizing adults having sex with children in order to protect children from being harmed.   In  Western societies the legal boundary between child and adult as applied to sex has crept steadily upward.   Post-pubertal individuals in their mid-teens are increasingly considered children in the context of their ability to consent to having sexual relationships with an adult.  Many, including myself, would contend that it's an error to automatically include post-pubertal adolescents in the categories of pedophilia and pederasty.  A different category, that of ephebophilia,  has been proposed that would apply to post-pubescent adolescent boys who have not yet fully matured into adults.  Such a classification of sexual preference would correspond historically to what was accepted as a positive expression of sexuality in classical Greece and is still practiced in some Mediterranean cultures.  I think that many, if not most,  heterosexual and gay adults would acknowledge finding some post-pubescent/not yet adult adolescents sexually attractive.  That experience is not uncommon, while finding a child sexually attractive is no doubt a considerably rarer experience.  Of course,  recognizing and acknowledging the sexual attractiveness of an adolescent is very different from wanting or choosing to engage sexually with the adolescent.

Which brings us to the subject of hurt to the child or adolescent who has been involved in sexual activity with an adult.  When I began to practice psychotherapy in the mid-seventies with a largely gay, male clientele,  Feminist Therapy served as a model for a progressive, liberation approach to therapy with gay men.   Feminist Therapy had become focused on the alleged prevalence and impact of sexual abuse on women suffering from mental health issues.  There was a belief that for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a person who was not an adult was in itself traumatic for the child or adolescent.  Counsellors and psychotherapists were taught to look for links between a client's presenting issues and the possibility of their having been "victims of sexual assault".   On the contrary,  what my clients who experienced sexual activity with an adult as older children and adolescents often told me was that  they enjoyed and sometimes had initiated those encounters.  Although I would probe for possible denial of the negative impact of those encounters on the client, I usually ended by accepting their own understanding of those experiences.

On websites with chat rooms bringing together adolescents and adults it is striking that there are as many adolescents as adults.  Although those adolescents must state they are eighteen in order to gain access to the sites, some look younger.  Commonly referred to as "Boys",  they range in age up to the early-twenties.  A few are clearly looking for money or a financially supported living arrangement, most are seeking either sexual experience or affection and love from an older man.  Those older men can be anywhere from late twenties to sixties and are referred to as "Daddies".  The adolescents who seek out and become members of such sites are obviously well aware of what they want.  They haven't been coerced.  While the claim might be made that they are somehow psychologically or emotionally damaged, I know of no research which would support that claim.

Indeed, recent, highly controversial, but respected research has indicated that assuming all incidences of child and adolescent sexual activity with an adult results in trauma is false.  One of those studies was the first scientific study in U.S. history to be declared false by Congress.  There are several elements that make it more likely that such experiences will result in trauma:  the younger the age of the child, the level of violence of the act itself, the coercion or threats leading to the action. the adult being a parent or person acting in a parental capacity.  However, to say that not all sexual activity between adults and children or adolescents results in trauma is not to say it results in no harm.  In my own experience, which is supported by those recent studies, that harm is likely to take the form of anger, shame, humiliation and feelings of betrayal.  If the adult involved in those encounters has an exclusive sexual preference for either boys or youths, there will come a time when he'll no longer find the boy or youth sexually attractive.  At that time the boy or youth is likely to either be put aside or even asked to participate in finding another, younger person for his adult partner.  Whereas previously the younger person was the object of attention, caring and, seemingly, love,  he finds himself rejected because he is entering puberty or is showing too many physical signs of becoming an adult.  Understandably, that experience of rejection is often accompanied by feelings of having been used and exploited by the adult and having allowed himself to be duped.  The result can be shame and injury to feelings of self-esteem and self-worth, along with self-destructive rage.

My conclusion would be that in situations of sexual involvement between adults and children there is a high probability that there will be harm.  In relation to adolescents it is just likely,  but in some circumstances (those involving threats, violence or betrayal) there will almost certainly be harm.  That puts such involvement on a different footing than gay sex between consenting adults, which in itself causes no harm and, in fact, can be shown to be emotionally and psychologically beneficial.  It undermines the contention that progressives should view "boy love" as meriting the same social and political liberation and acceptance as other sexual minorities are achieving.

What are the implications of that conclusion in relation to the criminal justice system?  If the goal of that system is the protection of citizens, then I think there would be a near universal consensus that there should be laws prohibiting sexual acts between adults and children at the lower end of the age spectrum. It is hard to imagine that anyone would want to permit adults to perform sexual acts on infants.   Moving up the age spectrum there would also be a significant consensus that children below the age of ten deserve protection.  However, as the ages are approached where children have very different levels of maturity and understanding, that consensus would begin to shrink.

Laws being what they are it is necessary to determine some, relatively arbitrary, point established by social consensus, which marks the line dividing when sexual activity between an adult and a child or adolescent ceases to be regarded as criminal.  I think that line should be at some point after the usual arrival of puberty as that is the age at which the context of the sexual activity becomes important in determining ability to consent and the probability of harm.  Determining the potential for harm of sexual activity between an adult and an adolescent becomes a complex judgment taking into account such factors as the relationship between the adolescent and the adult,  the maturity and knowledge base of the adolescent and any special vulnerabilities.   I think this is more the domain of education and mental health services than that of the criminal justice system.  It seems to me that the pressure to continually raise the age of consent is based more on moral and religious convictions than a determination of the probability of harm.  It would be quite hypocritical of a society which encourages older adolescents to join the military,  exposing them to severe injury and death,  then to criminalize a chosen sexual behaviour which has much less likely probability of  causing harm.

I realize as a psychotherapist it would be misleading to form generalizations of a group of people based on experience with  clients who come to you precisely because they are troubled.  Nevertheless,  I know of no expression of sexuality other than pedophilia where the object of desire has such a high probability of being harmed. That includes consensual sadomasochism.   Accordingly,  I think it is a mistake to view pedophilia or "boy love"  as simply a variant of sexual expression that is only penalized because we live in a sex-negative culture.  Its probability of causing harm increases as the age of the object of sexual attractions decreases and at some point on that continuum it is appropriately the subject of social disapproval and legislative sanction.

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