Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

A Thought Experiment

with 5 comments

Okay, before I get started on this, to answer jem:  I have no idea if the psycholigist the Church consulted in the Sixties were Catholic or not, but I do know that standard professional opinion at the time was that a) people who were attracted to pre-pubescent children could be cured and b) people who were attracted to adolescents were the victims of those adolescents, especially if the adolescent was a girl. 

And I’m not lumping all psychologists into the “bad” category.  I’m just saying that I don’t think psychology is science, and it does more than bug me a little that it’s treated as science–and its practitioners treated as experts–for the purposes of public policy and criminal trials.  Too much of clinical psychology is about social control–about upholding predetermined standards of “normal.” 

But to get to the thought experiment.

First, let’s assume we could study a range of societies.

On one end–in Society A–we have a completely sexually repressed society, where sex is only accepted (SOCIALLY and MORALLY, not just legally) when it occurs between two formally married people who are trying to have a baby.  All other sex–including sex between those same two married people, after the woman’s menopause or when she’s known to be barren–is condemned.

On the other end–in Society Z–anything goes.  No sex is condemned.  Ever.  At all.  Have sex with chickens.  Nobody will think anything of it. 

Now, no society is either like Society A or Society Z.  Our societies come somewhere in between, and most people don’t want to live on either of the extremes. 

But I think we can posit the following, and that the factors as outlined will be true.

1) Assuming a steady number of pedophiles (say, 10) in each of the societies, a higher percentage of such pedophiles will be active in Society Z than in Society A.  That is, if pedophilia is a sexual orientation, pretty much the same percentage of people will be born pedophiliac in each of the societies, but more people with that orientation will actually go out and do something about it in Society Z than in Society A. 

2) This is because laws are all well and good, but what really makes for a brake against any kind of sexual activity is:

          a) how much sexual activity is socially accepted PLUS

          b) what the rationale for allowing that sexual activity is PLUS

          c) whether people with still-disapproved sexual orientations are isolated, or can find a community to support them in defining their activity as “normal”

And here, I think, is where we have our problem.  I don’t think that there are still lots of active pedophiles even though we now have laws against pedophilia.  I think we now have stronger laws–and more laws–against pedophilia because there are in fact more active pedophiles, and there are getting to be even more all the time.

I also think that if the only thing we do about the situation is pass more laws, the percentage of pedophilias who act on their sexual desires will increase until it approaches 100%.

In Society A, of ten pedophiles, one will act on his impulses and cause harm to children.  In Society Z, nine will act on their influences and harm children.

In other words, climate matters.  The more loose, open, accepting and tolerant a society is of different kinds of sexual behavior, the more people with desires that same society still defines as “wrong” will act on them.

Think of it as collateral damage.

At the moment, we live in a society that manages to hit all the buttons in terms of what’s likely to cause trouble.  Yes, this society condemns pedophilia, and sex with adolescents as well, but

1) it tolerates and even accepts more and more marginally popular forms of sexual activity every year.  Sexual activity that was utterly condemned a decade ago is now perfectly acceptable, giving the not complete ridiculous impression that other activity–condemned today–may very well be accepted tomorrow.

2) the reason given for this increased toleration and acceptance of various kinds of sexual activity is that sexual orientation is ingrained in each of us, we don’t choose it and can’t help it and therefore condemning it is tantamount to racisim.

3) and in the Internet, we have an international community of pedophiles who support each other in their desires (and activities) and who make it possible to be a pedophile in 2009 without feeling isolated in the least.

In other words, as a society, we’ve reach about Society W on the scale from A to Z, but on the Internet, we’re all the way to Z.

I don’t think laws control behavior all that well, especially sexual behavior.  But I do think climate controls a lot, or at least provides a heavy-duty defense against undesirable manifestations of “the natural.”

We can pass all the laws we want, but the percentage of pedophiles who act on their pedophilia will continue to grow as long as the social climate is largely hostile to the very idea of sexual deviance–which it is. 

The issue then becomes where on that continuum do we want to be–how much sexual freedom from individuals do we feel is important enough to justify risking more active pedophiles and more harmed children?

And that is the only decision we can make.  Even Society A won’t eliminate all active pedophiles.  And most of us don’t want to live there, and for good reason.

But I do think that the consequences of more sexual freedom are inevitably more harmed children, and a lot more harmed adolescents.

I also think that we understand that, underneath–that’s part of the reason we get hysterical and rigid as we do with things like sex offender registries.  Some eighteen year old sleeps with his fifteen year old girlfriend and we ruin him for life–and that really is what it is–because we don’t want to have to look at the possibility that our tolerant attitudes to many marginal forms of sexual behavior is in and of itself a cause of very bad things.

And I’m blitering now.  But maybe I’m a little clearer.

Maybe the question is this–how much of our own freedom are we willing to give up in order to limit that collateral damage? 

What if I could prove that society’s acceptance  of your relationship with your fully adult nonmarried lover causes the pedophile down the street to feel entitled to have sex with eight year olds?

I have a sneaking suspicion that, at the moment, the answer to how much we’d be willing to give  up in our own behavior is–nothing.

Ack.  I keep getting tangled up in the grammar of how to ask the question.

Written by janeh

November 5th, 2009 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'A Thought Experiment'

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  1. Mostly, you can’t even ask the question (that is, what restrictions are we willing to accept in order to reduce the chances of harm to others), because we’ve got a couple of generations behind us of people who are absolutely convinced that the greatest good is the happiness of the individual – and that’s ‘happiness’ as defined by the individual. What with those people, and the ones who want to enforce their political utopia on everyone else, we’re in a real mess.

    Just think of various social issues – predatory sexual behaviour, yes, but drug and alcohol use, gambling, alternate ways of child-raising – divorce, single parenthood etc, the ‘right to die’ etc – and think of the reaction to anyone who suggests that maybe some restraint should be used, or expected, or – shock! horror! – required in decisions about such matters. Such people are treated as nasty uptight bigoted hypocrites who are equivalent to the political revolutionaries and terrorists. Maybe a few of them are. But there’s something odd about such attacks when you consider who is actually protesting so loudly. The people who enjoy and benefit from easy an uncritical access to gambling, drinking & broader sexual experiences, and who are unwilling to consider that their behaviour might have an impact on more vulnerable members of society are positioning themselves as the victims of the New Puritans> That seems wrong. And narrow-minded, but of course and ethics that is focused entirely on the individual can only be narrow. What would they give up? Nothing. Because to give up anything conflicts with their view of their rights as individuals.

    And yet…and yet…without a recognition of the individual and rights (real ones, the negative ones) we end up with totalitarianism.

    And I didn’t mean to lambaste all psychologists. In fact, it’s the unquestioning acceptance by some lay people of various pop psych popularizations that annoy me a lot more than the professionals. But even the professionals are, I think, doing art as much as science. There’s an awful lot that’s not known with any real certainty about the mind and personality and society. I knew someone – not a psychologist, but someone who had PhDs in a physical and a social science who said studying atoms and molecules was easy, because all the atoms of the same type behaved the same way in the same situation. Studying people was much, much harder because they didn’t.


    5 Nov 09 at 10:47 am

  2. Just a note: After having located, from an internet search, information verifying that the prevalent idea among psychologists re sexually abusive priests in the ’60s was that they could be cured, I came across an article [in the National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2009, Bishops warned of abusive priests] stating that in the ’50s, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, an order established to deal with problem priests, regularly wrote to US bishops, Vatican officials, and the Pope that he was convinced of sexually abusive priests’ inability to change and felt they should be laicized immediately. He also searched for an island to purchase to isolate them. So, the Church can’t say they were totally ignorant on this issue.

    Strict laws or acceptance of sexual abuse of children? I feel that the more numerous the laws passed forbidding it and the greater the penalties the more abusers will go underground, as many of them do now, if you can believe statistics regarding exclusive websites. Forbidden fruit is a simplification, but the same idea holds. Total tolerance for all kinds of sexual behavior? The more you get the more you want? Don’t know.

    Giving up individual freedom regarding our own sexual practices so that more children won’t be harmed? Janeh is probably right, no one will want to do that. In a way, it’s something like the Patriot Act which violated all kinds of individual privacy in an effort to curb terrorist acts.


    5 Nov 09 at 3:13 pm

  3. Fully agree overall. A few stray points:

    Sexual mores are only a sub-set of a more general problem. The more someone can see that moral codes have changed or are changing, or that they are different elsewhere or among other people, the harder it is to hold any particular line. We’ve reached the point where as a society, we have no basis for reaching and enforcing moral judgments. “Tolerance” is not a complete moral code, and what we have now will not last. Whether it be Mormons or the Movement, I expect someone to set and enforce a standard–probably within my lifetime. I may not like the standard, but that’s different.

    Pedophiles on the Net is another special effect of a more general condition–in this case the communications revolution. It lets all the pedophiles get together and agree they’re persecuted unjustly, of course–but it does much the same thing for anyone else. If there are 10 people in the world who think the moon landings were faked or that Turkish is the original human language, now they can tell each other they’re right, and trade their “evidence” around. hence the golden age of conspiracy theories and obscure hobbies. You don’t have to have another pin collector in your town. If there are a dozen in the world you can start an on-line magazine and agree on a vocabulary.

    These both may be examples of Jane Jacobs’ argument about “new work” originating in cities and migrating outward. Time was the deviants from any norm needed to live in large urban areas to find more of their own kind–which may have drawn some and reinforced others. Now the goth, the mystery fan and the psycho can all receive just as much information and encouragement from others of their kind in tiny rural communities as they could in Manhattan.

    Whether any of that represents a happy ending sort of depends.


    5 Nov 09 at 5:44 pm

  4. Jane, what you call “climate” is what folks in health communication – behavior change communication, a phrase that will probably bug everyone – is called “social norms.” Social norms are the Holy Grail of communication, because once you establish one, or once one gets established, society does most of the work. A good example of this is smoking. In most strata of the US, there is now a strong social norm against smoking. It’s not just that people know it’s harmful – they’ve known that for 50 years – it’s that people who smoke are ostracized and marginalized; they’re perceived as bad people. (The excepted strata are the poor, people with addictions, and some groups of “creative” people, like writers and actors.)

    There is no reason why a society can’t condemn pedophilia while accepting homosexuality, or condemn homosexuality while accepting extramarital affairs, or condemn pedophilia while accepting teenage heterosexual sex, etc etc etc. I’m not a specialist in sexual anthropology, but I’ve seen all of the above in my travels and work. Human beings are very curious about what they accept and reject.

    But the question you pose is interesting: is the problem in the US that we have accepted sexual behavior on the basis of its being “natural”? If the criteria for acceptance were “anything that is not harmful to one of the participants,” the problem might begin to disappear. I think that is part of our criteria, but perhaps not the main part. (Not sure.)

    I agree that Internet is part of the problem – the capacity to create a “virtual community” that is both anonymous and global. It allows people to consolidate their misconceptions and justifications. Here the problem is that that anonymity and global reach can also be very helpful. It allows, say, new moms to get support and vent and feel less alone, or it allows people with certain rare diseases to communicate, share information, etc.


    6 Nov 09 at 4:39 am

  5. I think many people – not just in the US – argue that what’s ‘natural’ must be right and good – it’s a kind of watered-down inheritance from the romantics. But a lot of them…us, really…also think that their ‘rights’ outweigh any other consideration when deciding on a course of action – and we tend to define ‘rights’ very badly.

    Any time someone wants some particular thing – a characteristic, an action, a way of life – recognized and accepted in the wider society, they define it as natural, but they also define it as a human right. And then they start campaigning in a single-issue, ‘identity politics’ sort of way that has a very narrow focus.

    Or they don’t, they go their own way quietly, until they are challenged by the outside world, as in the case of the polygamists in Bountiful, BC, Canada, and *then* they start with the rights and such.


    6 Nov 09 at 7:00 am

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