Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Act Naturally

with 13 comments

Okay, let’s cause even more trouble, and try to be a little more articulate about what I was trying to say yesterday.

First, an aside–I’m with Mique, but  I go farther, in my distrust of psychologists as experts.  There are branches of psychology–brain science studies, genetic mapping–that have call to claim status as a science, but I don’t think ordinary clinical psychology does. 

Clinical psychology seems to me to assume its conclusions far too often–to begin with “theories” of human nature based on anything but actual human nature, and then to reinterpret whatever it sees so that it fits those theories. 

And they’re notoriously bad at predicting anybody’s future behavior.  One of the things never mentioned about the priest “pedophilia” scandal is that what the Catholic Church did was to take the advice of the best psychological experts of the time, who tended to insist that victims (as young as six!) were conplicit and that offenders could be easily cured with anyting from “counseling” to aversion therapy.

And I’m not necessarily opposed to sex offender registries if they’re restricted to actual child rapists, or rapists.  I do think it might make more sense for us to simply keep the guys in jail longer.  If we want them away from the general public, they’re more likely to be contained there than in a house on the next block that everybody knows belongs to a “sex offender.”  This guy in Ohio managed to live fifteen ears and rack up at least ten kills over the course of fifteen years while on the registry the whole time.

The real issue here is the way we look at sex–all sex, not just the bad sex, but all of it.  Sex is the last bastion of the romantic fallacy for most of us.  You remember the romantic fallacy.  It’s the idea that anything that’s natural must be good.

I remember sittin in a classroom listening to this idea for the very first time and thinking about hurricanes.   It seemed obvious to me even then that ten seconds worth of thought would be all it took to disprove th is kind of nonsense.  Hurricanes are natural.  Tsunamis are natural.  The E. Coli virus is natural.

With sex, though, we’ve gone farther than to say that anything that’s natural is good.  We’ve managed to become so essentialist that we’ve begun to equate sex and identity.  Sexuality, we say, is the most important thing about us.  We have to be able to be “who we are” and that means we have to be able to be open about our “sexual orientation.”

And that gets us into some problems.

The first is that pedophilia is in all likelihood a sexual orientation.  In other words, I think the guys who say they have “always been this way” are probably telling the truth. 

And let me be clear here–by pedophilia I mean the drive to have sex with PRE-pubescent children.  True pedophiles are blessedly rare, as far as we can tell, but that doesn’t make what they feel “unnatural.” 

Nor can we easily blame the phenomenon on a “mental illness” caused by having been abused oneself in childhood.  Most of the abusers we catch at least claim to have been abused in childhood, but not all of them do–and what is more important, most children known to have been abused in childhood do not grow up to be abusers themselves.  There’s no verifiable cause and effect relationship here. 

Which means that the very first thing we have to do is to accept the fact that some things are both natural and unquestionably, irrevocably wrong.

The way we get around this problem is to invest the wrongness of a sexual act in the consent of the parties to it.  But although this covers true pedohilia, it doesn’t cover the drive to have sex with adolescents nearly as well.

The reason it doesn’t is that an attraction to adolescents is not only natural, it’s got the driving force of one hundred thousand years of human evolution behind it.  Speaking strictly from a biological standpoint, the optimum age for women to have children is between the mid-teens and the early twenties.

We try to get around this by saying that the power differential between old and young is too great, or by  saying that somebody who is fifteen cannot really consent to sex.   But we’re conflicted about both these claims, and everything in the culture makes that conflict–and the resulting ambiguity–clear.

Take, for instance, the standard works of fiction used in high school sex ed classes, and some literature classes, dealing with homosexuality.  A remarkable percentage of them, and an even larger percentage of films, depict the relationship between an adolescent and an older man, as if this were the standard history of discovering a gay sexual orientation.

It’s possible to argue that that is the standard history of discovering a heterosexual sexual orientation, at least throughout most of the history of human beings on this planet. 

And we acknowledge the centrality of female adolescent ssexuality and its attraction for older men in virtually everything we do.  Lots of people, especially feminists, complain that the image of women in advertisements and entertainment is false and unrealistic–but it isn’t.  That “look,” the slim thighs and narrow hips along with large breasts, is in fact what girls look like when they first hit puberty. 

What’s more, it’s not entirely clear that a sixteen or seventeen year old girl can’t meaningfully consent to sex with a thirty year old.   It would depend on the girl, of course, but n oting magic happens when she turns eighteen.

The reasons we want to prohibit these relationships has nothing to do with consent, or with harm as it’s usually understood, but because we want our girls to stay in school, get educations and become lawyers, which is harder to do if they’re getting married straight out of high school to the local doctor, or even if they’re just shacking up with him. 

What all this means is this–we cannot get the kind of sexual ethic we want by relying on the “natural” and “consent” foundations which is all we’ve given it.  Assuming the centrality of sexual orientation to identity is a disaster.

When pedophiles say they “can’t help it,” are they telling the truth?  Probably not.  Most of us can in fact “help” our sexual behavior.  Men and women have committed themselves to chastity for lifetimes, in the face of strong sex drives, too. 

But we live in a world in which the ability to control sexual behavior is not only denied, it’s largely denigrated.  Not only can’t we control ourselves, we are told, but we’re being hateful and intolerant if we expect anybody to control themselves.

Except we don’t say anybody.  We say teenagers–teenagers hae sex, what else do you expect them to do?  And we say gay people–it’s natural to them, so they should be able to express themselves sexually just the way heterosexuals do.

Now, you’re talking to somebody who sees nothing wrong with homosexuality, and who supports gay mariage.  But I don’t do it because homosexuality is “natural” (it is, but so is pedophilia, bestiality, and all the rest of it).  Nor do I do it because life isn’t worth living if you can’t “be true to yourself” when it comes to sex.

If these are the only bases on which we can approve or disapprove sexual behavior, then we will in the end have no grounds for forbidding the things we don’t want. 

If we do want to forbid those things, then we have to start by acknowledging that some of the things that are natural to us should not be done anyway, and that a climate in which some knds of sex are forbidden even though they’re both natural and consensual, is an environment in which we will have fewer actual active sexual predators.

Written by janeh

November 4th, 2009 at 8:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Responses to 'Act Naturally'

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  1. No trouble from me. I think you’re making a lot of sense.


    4 Nov 09 at 9:21 am

  2. I liked the bit where Jane said she was with Mique. :-)

    There was a very fascinating interview of Gore Vidal in the Atlantic magazine that I read just the other day here:


    Apart from massaging my prejudices about the Kennedys to my considerable delight, he has interesting things to say about sexual behaviour and attitudes, including about Bill Clinton’s little episodes with Monica and about the Polanski rape thing.

    I’ve always enjoyed reading Vidal’s books although politically we’re poles apart, but he brings a whole different perspective to both of those issues that I’ve not seen expressed before. Of course, I disagree with him absolutely on the Polanski issue insofar as I care very much about the sexual exploitation of minors. I think it’s disgraceful and symptomatic of our societal problem that anyone could think that any 13 year old girl deserves his condemnation as just another a “whore” even if she did, in fact, go after an innocent Polanski as he seems to imply.

    How do we resolve these vexed issues?


    4 Nov 09 at 10:06 am

  3. Were these psychology experts at the time Catholic? Were they consulted merely to provide validation to the acts of pedophilia of various priests to
    cardinals, bishops? If a 13-year-old is not to be condemned for having sex with Polanski, why then would it be an ok thing if the girl is 15?

    “If we do want to forbid those things, then we have to start by acknowledging that some of the things that are natural to us should not be done anyway, and that a climate in which some knds of sex are forbidden even though they’re both natural and consensual, is an environment in which we will have fewer actual active sexual predators.” Sounds a lot like “just say no.” How well did that work?


    4 Nov 09 at 12:00 pm

  4. I don’t know if the psychologists who treated pedophile and homosexual priests 20-40 years ago were Catholic – I suspect some were and some weren’t. That there was a time when people thought that various forms of counselling or more direct aversive or castration would cure pedophiles (and a lot of other people, too) is, I think beyond doubt. Psychological and medical dogmas change a lot faster than religious dogmas. In addition, there were different views on lot of aspects of sexuality then. One thing that troubles me is the way it’s assumed that a victim of child sexual assault is forever damned. It’s exactly like the idea that a girl who had sex before marriage was ‘spoiled’ forever and would never be able to have a marriage with any decent man. It ramps up the emotion and enables us to target the offenders – but it makes the unfortunate victim forever an object of pity at the very least.

    Another change over the years has been the general assumptions about how people deal best with trauma. Now, it’s absolutely de rigeur for any victim of any trauma to ‘let it all out’, talk about their experience at length, and go through lengthy court cases or investigations to ‘get closure’. It’s not all that long ago that it was thought best to allow such trauma – especially in children, who were seen as resilient – to heal quietly, naturally and privately. Publicity and court cases were avoided partly to minimize the stigma, but also to minimize what was seen as additional trauma, not a healthy search for closure.

    Personally, I prefer the old ways, but I’m willing to assume that which way of dealing with a trauma works best is partly dependent on the personality of the victim. But we have one size fits all – and we’re judging things that happened decades ago by our current ideas without even thinking that in another 30 or 40 years there’ll be another consensus on the right way to deal with pedophiles and victims.

    You do realize it was Vidal and not Mique who condemned the girl? He (Vidal) was running in circles that, ummm, emphasized the satisfaction of sexual desires, and it’s not surprising he doesn’t consider sex with a 13-year-old as a crime, any more than the men who pick up underaged hookers in any city’s rougher areas do.

    As for ‘Just Say No’, I don’t know the details, but i did get the impression it wasn’t taken very seriously.

    Being serious about restricting access to some things can reduce some social problems at the risk of increasing others. Look at gambling. The fewer restrictions you have on it, the more people you have with serious gambling problems. The more restrictions you have on it, the fewer problem gamblers you have, but you get an increased chance of illegal games run by organized crime, and all the corruption and brutality that goes with it. You can’t have something that’s perfect, where only people who can handle it gamble and there is no criminal involvement. We have to decide as a society, and right now, we’ve decided that the pleasure of the majority and a (perhaps) slight reduction in organized crime, or their conversion to legal businesses is of more importance than an increase in the number of people driven to suicide, crime and poverty because they can’t handle this aspect of our society.

    A lot of things work this way. We have criminalized sex between adults and 13-year-olds (although we really shouldn’t be calling it pedophilia). But we (that is, parts of our society) think that anyone more or less physically mature should be able to have sex and/or sell sexual services.


    4 Nov 09 at 1:24 pm

  5. As much as I didn’t like the “just say no” to drugs campaign launched by Nancy Reagan, not all people considered it insignificant. It expanded nationally and internationally and spread to saying no to sex before marriage etc. And statistically, drug use did decline in the ’80s. Whether this was connected to the “just say no” campaign is hard to establish. I don’t think trying to convince not to have sex with children when they feel a particular urge to do so because it’s the wrong thing to do works any better than “just say no” to drugs. I honestly don’t think morals or ethics are a factor. Longer jail terms, yes. Exiling convicted sex offenders or predators to some godawful living situation (in some county here in Florida they have to live under the interstate overpass) is equally not the answer. I also have doubts about the success of sex offender registers in detering the crime. John Couey, the rapist and murderer of Jessica Lunsford in Homosassa, FL, was a registered sex offender.
    There is no one thing that will work in all situations just as there is no one thing that works to stop an alcoholic from drinking. And I agree with Janeh that the idea of a person’s identity is defined by his sexuality and that suppressing sexual urges is not possible is fallacy.
    I did realize it was Vidal who was making the statement about Polanski’s victim. I was just asking a question. I do agree that all children who have been sexually abused don’t need to “let it all hang out.” Good for some, not for others.


    4 Nov 09 at 3:39 pm

  6. Hmm. I wrote this once and it went somewhere. Perhaps the natives of Aldebaran will enjoy it.

    “Just say no” isn’t the issue, jem. I think it’s more the control of impulses we all demonstrate. People have always had urges or needs, and people have always had to control their actions in response. Many have remained monogamous or celibate lifelong, despite great temptation and urges. That’s the kind of control of behavior we’re talking about.

    Perhaps pedophiles or others with sexual orientation that involves real harm to non-consenting partners cannot change or control their urges. We probably wouldn’t expect a heterosexual to change their orientation…why should we expect anyone else to? But we all can, and we must control our actions.

    “I couldn’t help it” is the reaction of an immature mind. Of course we can help it, if we care to.

    Bringing about the empathy of maturity for those whose nature it is to harm others is a significant problem. We have to make them know they hurt others by expressing what they are, and make them feel that it’s better to deny themselves than to cause that harm. That’s really rough, particularly when the reward is entirely negative (not being arrested, not being ostracized) and the consequence of following the urges feels sooo good. In many cases these people do not and cannot care what others think or feel. They never will.

    Heck, enough hetero men and women can’t keep it in their pants when they know full well that family and friends and careers will be harmed when they’re discovered. But they pursue that sensation anyway. Sex is such a powerful urge most people seem not to feel they should be in control of that behavior. I think if we had more examples of people actually controlling themselves, it might help.

    Thoughts are inviolable. Urges are yours forever. Actions, however, belong to the universe, and carry consequences, always. Sometimes, those consequences should include never being allowed to act that way again. However that is accomplished.


    4 Nov 09 at 3:44 pm

  7. While I haven’t seen the movie, “An Education” as reviewed by Roger Ebert here http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091021/REVIEWS/910219994
    appears to be an exploration of this very topic – a sixteen year old girl seduced by a 30 year old man. Is she a victim? Is he a predator?

    By conicidence I spent an hour this morning with my Ethics students trying to define pornography. We are in search of that nebulous thing that determines what makes an act good or bad. Sex, I think, is neutral – a physical thing; however, we infuse it with so much more. The one thing my students did agree on – hands off the kids. Unfortunately they couldn’t agree on when we cease being children and enter into the age of understanding or consent.


    4 Nov 09 at 4:26 pm

  8. While I thought “just say no,” DIDN”T WORK (still think that, actually, my comments in my other two entries do say that)there was an impression among people who agreed with it that it did work. “Just say no” is impulse control in that you make a conscious decision not to do something even if you want to, Lymaree. Saying that “we must control our actions” implies that the person considering this action has the same moral code as those telling him he “must.” I don’t think that’s an assumption that can be made. And how, exactly, would the consequences of giving in to urges result in “never being allowed to act that way again?” In some Muslim countries, for example, females who have sex outside of marriage are stoned. Not that I think you are suggesting that but it probably would result in their never being allowed to do that again.


    4 Nov 09 at 5:54 pm

  9. Some of us don’t have the impulse control necessary to avoid trouble, and end up in prison. A portion of that group never seem to learn impulse control, and are in and out of prison all their lives. I think we have to accept that.

    I think it helps in building a stable society if most of the people in it share a moral code (or most of one), and Jane will doubtless argue that such a moral code can be deduced from a study of human nature. But you don’t really have to do that. If we decide to make and enforce a law that states that it is illegal for anyone to have sex with someone who is under the age to make a legal contract, say, it doesn’t really matter if we do so because we think no one should have sex outside marriage, that we want all our children to concentrate on preparing for a career or that we think thing all children are damaged by such sex. We can still stop most people from doing it, and isolate the ones who do for any period of time we care to name. And we can do so regardless of whether or not the guilty person agrees with the reasons most people accept for making the action illegal.

    There are a number of books about the predatory young girls, as there are on the Mrs. Robinsons. Josephine Tey did one. I think we’ve all known young women – mid to late teens – who were happily sexually active and some of whom didn’t mind at all approaching older men for sex. Or worse. The problem is that the reverse – the older man who manipulates a younger and more naive girl into providing sexual services – is also common, and we’d like to protect their victims. We can generally say that the older person is the most responsible for the relationship – but in reality that’s not always the way things work.

    It would be wonderful if we could figure out a way to protect boys and girls against sexual exploitation while ensuring that they don’t learn to exploit others themselves and also of course, ensure that they find suitable marriage partners…of course, that’s a fantasy. I think our society is, if anything, worse than average at achieving that sort of goal, but maybe that’s just because I can see the worst aspects of my own society more clearly than I can of some others.


    4 Nov 09 at 6:31 pm

  10. “If we decide to make and enforce a law that states that it is illegal for anyone to have sex with someone who is under the age to make a legal contract . . .We can still stop most people from doing it, and isolate the ones who do for any period of time we care to name. And we can do so regardless of whether or not the guilty person agrees with the reasons most people accept for making the action illegal”

    We have these laws and attempt to enforce them but the rape and assault on children 12 and under still happens far too often, which ever set of statistics you choose to accept.


    4 Nov 09 at 7:39 pm

  11. “We have these laws and attempt to enforce them but the rape and assault on children 12 and under still happens far too often, which ever set of statistics you choose to accept.”

    Sad, but all too true. I think it only goes to prove that new and more draconian laws cure nothing by and of themselves. Those who would never at any time have dreamt of doing any of the stuff forbidden by such laws will continue not doing any such stuff, no matter what. Others will also carry on as before, doing the first thing that enters their tiny minds regardless of, indeed probably entirely unconscious of, any legal sanctions. Perhaps there will even be a third group composed of those who might never have thought of committing such an act but who will now, having been made aware of the possibility, happily do so simply because it’s been legally forbidden. I’m convinced that much of the excesses of the 60s and 70s was a direct result of conservative over-reaction to the childish experimentation of the emerging Boomers.


    4 Nov 09 at 8:04 pm

  12. One abused child is too many, and like Mique I have no expectation that such situations can ever be eliminated.

    I do think that their incidence can be increased or decreased by changes in either or both of cultural mores and laws.

    Legal changes in age of consent have had an influence. So have socially-accepted views on the propriety of, say, dressing pre-pubescent and early adolescent girls in revealing clothing. I am NOT going back to the old idea that a girl is ‘asking for it’ if she dresses a certain way – the responsibility for his actions remains with the aggressor. I’m saying that a society that says ‘no sex until ‘ and praises 5-year-olds dressed up like adult beauty queens and 12-year-olds dresses like the less particular type of street prostitute is sending a mixed message to its members, and may be putting more children at risk of abuse than one in which adult-style clothing is reserved for mid- to late- teens, or even adults. it’s not the children’s fault; it’s because pedophile’s appetites may be stimulated and their behaviour encouraged.

    Of course, if we go to the other extreme and keep all pre-pubescent girls in their parents’ house until they marry, and while that would protect them from non-family predators, it won’t protect them from their family members, and would have an effect on their ability to become self-supporting adults that we would probably find unacceptable.

    It’s all about balance. No, we will never have NO abuse, although we should aim for that. Any abuse is too much. But we can increase or reduce the amount by the way we structure our society and the attitudes and actions we condone.


    5 Nov 09 at 7:36 am

  13. I think folks are lumping all psychologists into the “bad, one-size-fits-all” kind of psychologist. And I also think folks forget, or don’t know, how much has changed very quickly with regard to pedophiles. Even 20 years ago — Jane is right — the prevailing view was that kids were lying or complicit, that pedophiles could “change their orientation,” and that nice family men didn’t molest kids. I don’t think my sister-in-law would say that none can change their orientation, but she would say that in her clinical experience, none of her patients seemed capable of it. But they are a varied lot. A lot of them are married and have fairly satisfying sex lives with their wives (which surprised me at first). Some really only want to have sex with kids. Therapy depends (obviously) on each individual’s case. Most of them maintained that “they couldn’t help it” and a lot of the therapy dealt with that. This might seem like an inappropriate analogy, but it’s the same sort of thing as teaching self-control to a binge eater. At first they also maintain “they can’t help it.”

    I’ve been thinking about Jane’s last question — can we decide that some things are natural and consensual, but bad anyway? Over the centuries we’ve done that with men. Men’s sexuality was “natural,” but had to been reigned in by marriage and monogamy. Women’s sexuality was largely NOT natural and always had to be reigned in. Today I think most people would agree that some natural and consensual acts are not very good for people. Teenagers have a naturally high sex drive, but getting married at 14 is generally not accepted. But beyond that, we really don’t agree on which natural and consensual sexual acts should be banned and which — not. Some parents don’t mind if their teenage kids have protected sex with “serious” boyfriends/girlfriends. Some don’t mind if their teenage boys do, but not their teenage girls. Some don’t want their kids to have sex until they’re in college, and some really want their kids to be virgins until they’re married. And I think many in the latter categories would agree that teens are hypersexual, God made them that way, but all the same…

    I also agree that we have gotten weird: on the one hand, we want kids to stay kids for a longer time than in all of human history; on the other hand, we let/encourage little girls (and maybe little boys) dress like 30yrolds.

    BTW, as someone who worked in health communication, I can say with certainty that the JUST SAY NO campaign didn’t work. But other campaigns to convince teens to delay first sexual experience or avoid drugs HAVE worked. The Dutch, who get a lot right in this area, managed to run sex ed programs and media campaigns that resulted in kids starting sex LATER. It depends on how well the campaign is designed and how it runs. JUST SAY NO didn’t work because 1) kids need skills to say no and 2) people generally do something because there is a benefit, and there was no pay-off in the campaign slogan/materials.


    5 Nov 09 at 8:22 am

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