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One Little Note

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And then I’m going to run off and actually do something with my day.

Lymaree said this:

I do think it is possible to isolate and limit an entire class of sexual behavior by defining it properly, and then by discouraging it extensively. And that class is sexual behavior involving the non-consenting. This covers child abuse, bestiality (I’m sorry, I don’t think your dog or your cow is capable of giving consent, even if they don’t turn around and bite your winkie off), and sex involving any sort of power-relationship that conflicts with free consent , such as parent/child (even where the child is not a minor any longer), boss/employee, officer/enlisted, teacher/student…you finish that list yourself. 

And I actually sort of agree with the first sentence.  It’s just that

1) I don’t think this defines it properly and

2) I don’t think just “discouraging” something extensively does much good–it can’t be just a matter of school classes, legal penalties and lectures in newspapers and on cop shows.  It has to go much deeper than that, to be almost non-verbal in its gut-level reaction, and there’s good reason why this standard as stated not only won’t, but can’t, deliver that kind of punch.

First, I’d like to point out that this is, in fact, the standard we have now, and it isn’t working.  

It’s not working because it is inherently self-contradictory.  Theoretically, the standard is “consent,”  but what it really is is “consent, except in those cases where we don’t approve of the sex, so then we’ll say you can’t really consent, and your consent therefore doesn’t count.”

On that list of relationships this statement finds “Not really consensual” is an awful lot of actually consensual sex–secretaries marry their bosses and graduate students marry their professors all the time. 

One can certainly find cases where people in authority abuse their power to coerce their subordinates into sex, but you can find just as many in which the relationship is perfectly willing and sincere on the part of both parties. 

That’s why so few states have been willing to use a power-model sexual harrassment standard, and why so many of the institutions that have tried to use one have found themselves in deep trouble, both legally and in the court of public relations.

If you’re serious about using consent as a standard, then you’re going to have to accept lots of the relationships you say you want to prohibit, plus at least some relationships between teen-aged girls and older men.  I knew two girls in high school who had relationships with men in their thirties.  Both of them will tell you that the relationships were good ones and that they still value them.  One of the two has been marrid to the man in question for over thirty years.

Consent is not a standard.  It is an attempt to get out from under the need to set standards. 

Certainly, no sex is morally legitimate if one of the parties to it does n ot consent.  But sex between adults and six yeaar olds is wrong for other reasons besides the lack of consent on the part of the six year old.  The problem is, if we articulate the other ways in which that sex is wrong, we risk impinging on practices we don’t want to judge, practices that are now considered perfectly okay for people to engage in, although they weren’t so considered thirty years ago.

For what it’s worth, I think that the standard as Lymaree stated it is not only the one we have, but the one we are going to go on having.

We care far more about our own sexual autonomy, and about being able to think of ourselves as “good” people because we are n ot “judgmental,” than we do about protecting six year olds.

Written by janeh

November 7th, 2009 at 8:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'One Little Note'

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  1. I’ve begun to be bothered by the eagerness with which everyone declares that they are not judgemental. It didn’t bother me at first, because I thought it mean ‘I don’t rush to judgement without any evidence and then display my judgement in the most hurtful way possible’. But now it seems to mean either ‘I don’t think anything you do or say is wrong’, which is absurd, or ‘I am not willing to form (or, perhaps, express) an opinion on anything you do or say’….why? Because I’m a nice person and not rude? Because I don’t know enough? Because I don’t have enough brains to decide whether or not something is admirable, disgusting, a matter of indifference? There’s a world of difference between tactfully refraining from expressing one’s opinion of something (where appropriate) and insisting that one is incapable of forming an opinion.


    7 Nov 09 at 8:33 am

  2. I think there are two fallacies in what you write.
    1) “I think pedophilia is MUCH MORE WIDESPREAD than it was even just a few decades ago.” No one knows how widespread it was a few decades or a few centuries ago. There was such a taboo about discussing it, and then children were not believed, that it was a virtually unreported crime. As I understand the research, there is no reason to think the percentage of pedophiles (not necessarily active ones) has changed over the years or varies among countries. This is just a common phenomenon that occurs every time a country publicizes X problem in order to fight it: you announce a campaign against domestic violence and the first year the numbers of people convicted of domestic violence skyrocket. It’s just because people are reporting it, because they know about a service that will help them, or a shelter they can go to. But it doesn’t mean there are suddenly more cases of domestic violence. (Statisticians have studied this and can predict it quite accurately.)

    2) “Pedophiles logically reason that a) a lot of sexual orientations that were taboo yesterday are okay now today and there fore b) their sexual orientation will probably be okay tomorrow, once they get through to these bigoted intolerant people that they shouldn’t judge and c) besides, sex isn’t controllable anyway, so they can’t be EXPECTED to control themselves.”
    This might be their public justification. This might be what they say to the shrink, to the judge, to the lawyer, and to other pedophiles. They might even tell themselves this when they are feeling bad. Because unless they are sociopaths (and I’m sure some are), they know it’s not true. When a grown man has sex with a pre-pubescent child, the child is terrified. The child screams in pain. The child fights and weeps and bleeds. Even if they follow this logic (and I’m not sure they do), they know it’s a lie as soon as they stop controlling their urges.

    So I don’t buy your paradigm: society says “it’s natural,” “we can’t be judgmental,” and therefore pedophiles use that to justify their behavior, and therefore there are more pedophiles.

    And therefore I just don’t get why society has to give up, say, extramarital affairs, in order to convince pedophiles to keep their pants zipped up and their hands in their pockets. No matter how many people say “you shouldn’t be judgmental,” no matter how many borderline cases there are (that you cite), no matter how many sexual practices many people condone, people are still perfectly capable of saying: I don’t care what two horny teens do, nor do I care what grown men do, or what married people do, but adults can’t have sex with pre-pubescent children.

    (Also, the way you describe “climate” is what communication folks mean by “social norms” – all that baggage, associations, and irrationality.)

    Sorry, but you haven’t convinced me.


    7 Nov 09 at 1:05 pm

  3. Oh, and another thing:)
    Pedophiles aren’t just getting ONE message from society. In addition to the “sex is natural” message, they see TV shows about the horrors of pedophilia (talk shows and cop shows); they see ads for helplines; at the doctor’s office they see flyers “What to do if you suspect your child has been sexually molested”; they see news shows and news reports; they see sex registry photos. They are getting a pretty strong message that what they are doing is wrong and illegal.


    7 Nov 09 at 1:30 pm

  4. I stopped following the reasoning in these posts quite a while back. I think it’s difficult to know if pedophilia is much more widespread now than in previous decades or centuries. It’s certainly more publicized.


    7 Nov 09 at 4:07 pm

  5. I agree with Jane on this one: consent is the standard we have now. It doesn’t work terribly well, and defining consent in terms of power relationships creates a number of difficulties.

    Part of the problem is–watch me make a fool of myself describing this–that the nature of the act is also a factor. People who don’t have a “thing” about alcohol can’t see spiking the punch bowl as really wrong–and people who think drugs have expanded their minds sometimes take a similar stance with marijuana or LSD.

    If this sort of sex is fine–wonderful, even–except for the consent, then it’s relatively easy to turn it around and see the problem as the non-consenter’s “inhibitions” and not that the rapist won’t take “no” for an answer. The Polanski case fits this nicely: if there’s nothing wrong with drugs and nothing wrong about sodomizing a girl a third your age–well, it isn’t as though she was hurt or anything. You wind up with the Whoopi Goldberg school of jurisprudence: the girl wasn’t battered and bleeding, so it wasn’t “rape rape.”

    I do not say the consent standard isn’t morally defensible. I tend to agree with the power-relationship standard. But I agree with Jane: neither will serve as a firewall.

    Partly that’s because sex is or can be a fairly complicated business: people give consent who by our normal standards aren’t able to, and people seek consent who by power-relationship standards need not do so.

    But I think at that point we’ve left the domain of the law and entered the realm of the novelist.


    7 Nov 09 at 9:09 pm

  6. jd

    8 Nov 09 at 3:01 pm

  7. I guess I’m completely flummoxed by “Consent is not a standard. It is an attempt to get out from under the need to set standards. ”

    To me, consent is absolutely a standard, and one which can be much more clearly defined than anything else I can think of. Unless you mean “arbitrary rules we all agree on just because” as a standard, I don’t get why consent doesn’t work.

    Clearly children too young for the physical act are also mentally too young to form consent. Clearly animals cannot form consent. In a power relationship, sometimes, yes, consent is possible, but not where there is *any* form of fear that refusal will result in bad consequences. That fear obviates the ability to form free consent. If the subordinate player can honestly say “I had no fear that refusal would cause my boss/superior officer/professor/whatever to sanction me in any way” then yes, there can be consent. But not otherwise.

    I recognize that power-relationship vs consent brings in all sorts of complications, but we don’t exactly have all the bandwidth in the world to discuss it here. The element of the fear of consequences for refusal is pretty clear-cut, though I recognize that it, like almost anything else, can be put to use for false or belated accusations that in themselves, are egregious. Perhaps it’s wiser for those in power positions to keep it in their pants. Or resolve the power issues before taking up romantic ones.

    And then there’s this: “It has to go much deeper than that, to be almost non-verbal in its gut-level reaction, and there’s good reason why this standard as stated not only won’t, but can’t, deliver that kind of punch.”

    I submit that in a society that would actually revere the right of every person to own their own body, consent would become an iron-clad, gut-deep, confused-with-instinctual standard. We don’t have that society now. There are all sorts of laws tampering with our rights in this area, and the new so-called health reform is going to do nothing but make that worse.

    Right now, the closest we have (at least in the culture I was raised in) is the prohibition against incest. And we all know how effective that is…not. In some (most) people, the thought of sex with one’s close family is sick-making, even when those family members are in fact grown and giving consent. I had a serious problem with this when my father & mother got divorced and he remarried…his first cousin. Took me years and some therapy before I could deal with it. The thought of sex with children is similar, for most of us.

    There are always going to be deviants, though. The problem of standards is not going to address deviants. I agree in large part with Robert when he said that there isn’t a huge new upswell of pedophila. There is new visibility and new communications about it, but not necessarily new numbers.

    New liberalism about formerly forbidden proclivities should NOT impinge on those activities that involve harm to the non-consenting. Consent can and should become the sacred “barrier that shall not be crossed” for all of us. How else can we draw a line?

    Just retreating to “everything other than post-marital sex for procreation is icky and forbidden and nice people don’t do it and no one else should either” isn’t going to create that “gut deep” barrier that might, I repeat *might* discourage the borderline pedophile. Nothing in the world other than incarceration or death is going to stop the dedicated and amoral practitioner. And I don’t see a conflict between “all types of sex where consent is possible and given is okay” and “sex with the unconsenting is absolutely forbidden.”


    9 Nov 09 at 2:49 am

  8. I’m not sure consent as a standard is really iron-clad and capable of becoming near-instinctual simply because you would still have problems with A & B consenting to something that C finds abhorrent, and therefore will find reasons around – think of the anti-smoking hysteria, where more and more places are becoming out-of-bounds for consenting smokers with less and less in the way of rational excuses. And I speak as a non-smoker who used to be an enthusiastic supporter of non-smoking, until everyone else in that category seemed to become absolutely rabid.

    But I want to go off on a bit of a tangent – I not only do not agree with the idea of the right of everybody to ‘own’ his own body, I think a society that ‘revered’ that right would be even worse than our own at putting the ‘rights’ and desires of the individual over the well-being of others and of society as a whole. I think that development is inevitable if, when making a moral decision, our first (and maybe only) criteria is ‘do I have the right to do what I want to do?’.

    Perhaps all this discussion about people who think they have the right to sexual fulfillment at the expense of children and youth has brought this to mind; perhaps I’ve been reading too much about euthanasia and suicide lately. Whatever brought it to the forefront of my mind, I think it’s a very dangerous argument for anyone in society who might someday be affected by someone else’s right to do what they want using or with their own body.


    9 Nov 09 at 6:39 am

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