Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Ariel Castro Thing

with 3 comments

In case some of you don’t know who Ariel Castro  is, he’s the man in Ohio who kidnapped three women and then kept them all captive in his house for a decade.  He was finally discovered, and the women were finally released, about a month or so ago, when one of those women managed to alert a neighbor that she was in danger and needed the police.

These days, I keep a kind of running mental scorecard on how long it takes for people to start blaming it all on”child abuse.”

I don’t count the amount of time it takes for the perpetrator’s lawyers to start blaming it all on child abuse.  Child abuse is the go-to defense  in all these cases, and I assume it’s going to show up as soon as the accused can no longer protest his innocense.

The Ariel Castro case being one of those where protesting innocense was never feasible–the police broke into the house, found the woman, found two other women, found a child, found whips and chains–I figured he was going to be claiming child abuse sooner rather  than later.

I start paying attention when regular, everyday people start blaming it on child abuse, and, sure enough,  right after the news that Castro had been sentenced to life imprisonment hit the Internet yesterday, FB was awash in  posts declaring that nobody ever does anything like this if they haven’t been abused as a child.

Sometime people declare that nobody ever does anything like this unless they’re “mentally ill,” but it’s important to note that the two  “diagnoses” aren’t mutually exclusive and can often be found together.  Lots of people say that only “mentally ill” people do these things and that nobody is “mentally ill” unless they’ve been a victim of “child abuse.”

People who are not prone to blame violent crime on mental illness or child abuse tend to think that the people who do are trying to excuse the perpetrators, but I think that’s wrong.

More than one of the posts I read yesterday was careful to insist that what Castro had done was wrong and that we should say it was wrong and make sure he gets locked up, preferably forever.

Rather than an attempt to find an excuse for the perpetrator, I think that what we have here are attempts to excuse the human race as a whole.

 To say that everybody you’ve ever heard of who’ve done this kind of thing has been a victim of “child abuse” is to say that there is nothing inherent in human nature that is violent, or predatory, or likely to do things that are wrong.

In this case, it is especially to say that there is nothing inherent  in human sexuality that is violent or predatory or wrong–that without “child abuse” or “mental illness” or both, nobody would ever get a sexual kick out of raping or torturing or murdering or oppressing.

The most obviously annoying thing about this is that it’s one of those arguments about elephants all the way down–even if you could plausibly blame the whole thing on “child abuse,” you’d still have to explain how the first case of child abuse came to be. 

If abusers only abuse because they were themselves abused, then why exactly did the first abuser start abusing?

And if the first abuser started abusing for some reason other than having been himself abused, why isn’t it possible that some abusers now are abusing when they  haven’t themselves been abused?

The bigger issue, though, is the refusal to believe that anyone, anywhere, might ever be born with an innate taste for–well, distasteful and antisocial things.

This is the nut of what I think of as the safe sex argument–sex is completely safe, and would be all sweetness and light and self fulfillment, if we were only all raised right.

A corollary to this is the idea that sexual tastes that we like are “sexual orientations,” while sexual tastes that we abhor are–well, mental illness, or the result of child abuse, or virtually anything else.

This is clearest in the case of pedophilia in both its proper (children under 12) and extended (all adolescents) variety.

True pedophilia (again, children younger than puberty, or under 12) shows all the hallmarks of a sexual orientation.  It has existed in all times and places.  It seems to affect a fairly fixed percentage of the population.  People who are found to have it consistantly describe themselves having “always” felt that way, of  never being able to remember a time when these had not been their desires.

Calling pedophilia a sexual orientation, however, gets us into a lot of trouble.  We want to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, and if we call pedophilia a sexual orientation then–what would happen, exactly?

Our present attitudes about sex between somewhat older persons and pubescent or near pubescent  adolescents are positively bizarre, because in that case we have now criminalized behavior that was considered perfectly normal half a century ago, and not only normal but the norm fifty years before that.

I noticed it a while back when I was rereading Gone With The Wind.  There were all these upper class families, giving barbecues and balls and tea parties to introduce their marriageable daughters to eligible young men.  The daughters were fifteen.  The eligible young men tended to be around 22.

In the case of violent sexual behavior, what we’re looking at is just the same old same old–men and women both have always had tastes for various kind of sexual violence, mostly because some of those things work.

Evolution selects for tastes that are more likely to get genes passed on than not.  Rape is by no means the most effective way to get your genes passed on, but it’s more effective than a lot of other things, and that probably  has more to do with the fact that it’s been around forever than “child abuse.”

If you’ve got a problem with that–with the fact (and it is a fact) that rape is perfectly natural–I’d suggest that you have a problem with the naturalistic fallacy.  Not everything that is “natural” is “good.” 

But the big argument against “this only happens because of child abuse” is the fact that incidents of this kind have been increasing, not decreasing, in the last half century.

In my childhood, it was generally assumed that spanking was good for children, and not the light symbolic spanking so many people are attached to now. 

Fathers routinely disciplined children with straps and paddles, and hit to hurt.  Schools paddled children as well, at least in some states, and caned them in Great Britain.  Children were shamed, forced to spend hours sitting in corners with dunce caps on their heads so that they could be exposed to the ridicule of fellow students.

Most of the things we now call child abuse were more prevalent then than they are now, but the prevalence of violent sexual behavior–and certainly of things like Castro’s–seem to have been  much less.

And no, “we”ve got better reporting” doesn’t even begin to explain it.

Crimes like Castro’s would have been front page news no matter when in this country’s history they  happened. 

And we did not catch Castro because we have such wonderfully updated techniques of discovery and policing.

The man kept three women imprisoned in a small house in an urban neighborhood for ten years.  His brothers and other visitors came to the house and didn’t notice.  His neighbors didn’t notice.

Those three women would be there still if one of them hadn’t managed to catch the attention of a passing person and convince  him to get  help.

The bottom line is this:  sex is not safe, and never will be.  Sexual desire is not safe, and never will be.

Some of us have desires whose execution in fact is bad for the rest of us, and even if we wiped child abuse off the face of the earth, that would still be true.

At some point, it would be good for all of us if we accepted that and tried to deal with it, instead of engaging in hysterics and fantasizing about a world without human nature.

Written by janeh

August 2nd, 2013 at 9:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Ariel Castro Thing'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'The Ariel Castro Thing'.

  1. A belief in the perfection of human nature (well, at least once one gets rid of the causes of imperfections like social pressures, illness, abuse, etc) is found ‘explaining’ many other things than illegal sex.

    I haven’t read much commentary on the case, but I did read an excerpt from something the man himself in which, in between bouts of admitting he did wrong things, he said he wasn’t a monster and most of the sex that took place in the house was consensual.

    I don’t know if I’d call it mental illness, but there’s something very weird about the mental processes of someone who could think that sex under those circumstances was consensual, even if during some of the incidents the victims didn’t scream and fight.

    And the broader the range of human behaviour in any area that is considered socially acceptable, the more frequent behaviour at what would have been the extremes becomes.


    2 Aug 13 at 10:45 am

  2. I caught the elephant problem long ago. But that said, we get two types of cases in which the defense invokes prior abuse–adults who have mistreated children and widows who killed their husbands. The Castro-style monsters claim to have been abused as children, and the widows claim the husbands they killed were abusive.

    I’d like to see a bit of evidence beyond the word of the defendant. Easy enough to claim you were abused when it might reduce your sentence or even let you walk. But it seems to be VERY rare for either type of defendant to present old police or hospital reports to back up the suddenly-revealed claim of mistreatment.

    But I’m a little bigger on outside testimony and physical evidence and weaker on the value of self-exculpatory statements than seems to be popular these days.


    2 Aug 13 at 2:38 pm

  3. Cheryl’s comment about “causes of imperfections like social pressures” is another elephant problem!


    2 Aug 13 at 5:40 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 800 access attempts in the last 7 days.