Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On pedophilia

The world's media and the world's cops (aka Interpol) are currently hunting a high-profile pedophile suspect. Paul Neil, a 32 year old Canadian English language teacher is currently hiding somewhere in Southeast Asia. Bizarrely local Canadian media outlets published the photo of a house where the suspect's mother and brother are currently renting a flat. So, in case I steal a car tomorrow, they'd probably also publish a photo of my parents' house, just so that you know where they are, so they may be punished for my alleged deed. Beats me ...

Anyway, pedophilia: I am almost certain this is one of those blogs I will regret to have ever written, but then, that hasn't stopped me in the past. So, some disclaimers first: Kids don't do it for me, never have, never will. I think legislation outlawing pedophile sexual activity (ie between adults and prebubescent children) is a desireable thing. It's probably also sensible that modern psychiatry has decided that pedophilia is some kind of mental illness, though, just like with other calls they made in terms of DSM inclusion, their coin flipping activitiy could have ended with a different call just as easily.

Having said all that, it gets more difficult to get one's head around the question of what it is that is bad about pedophilia. Fair enough, most of us, myself included, think it's kinda 'yuck'. Beyond that though, what are the main ethical reason against pedophilia (not in the sense of sexual orientation but in the sense of action)? It seems to me that we should reject pedophilia as a reasonable (as in: acceptable) sexual orientation, because children are unable to give informed, voluntary consent (the famous autonomous choice in other words) to sexual interactions with adults. The meaning they'd give to such acts are different to the meanings we ascribe to them (regardless of whether the actual action includes painful penetrative sex or not), and given the power differential between them and us, they're probably not really in a situation to say 'no'. So, this probably is sufficient to outlaw pedophile sex acts.

Still, I have some nagging doubts ultimately about the intellectual integrity of either of these arguments. If the first part of the argument constituted a correct interpretation of the situation, could that not also be read as a case against putting it on the 'shameful' list? Subject to no bodily harm occurring, I wonder whether the real harm doesn't occur when the kids learn from us how badly they have been abused. There is evidence that (some) kids actually enjoy the sexual activity with adults, and that how badly they have been abused only dawns on them much later in life. Well, this makes me wonder, of course, how this pleasurable activity was turned into a horrific experience of abuse retrospectively many years later. I wonder how much of our cultural bias against such activities is actually contributing to this re-interpretation of the initial pleasant experience. Prior that that some kids didn't even think of their experience in terms of abuse. Would they not be better off then not to find out? I wonder how harm minimisation could be most efficiently executed under the circumstances.

The second half of the argument seems even weaker. It is self-evident that there is a substantial power differential between an adult and a child. This power differential renders probably much of what goes on between the adult and the child involuntary. No doubt, prima facie that makes it a bad thing. The thing is, tough, that that is also true for relationships between adults. Power differentials exist in all relationships. Economic, psychological and other dependencies exist in the real world. They can be strong enough to render consent involuntary. We have no laws to protect weak willed adults, financially impoverished adults and the like from exploitation (sexual or otherwise) by other adults. It seems to me that if the second half of the argument rests on the non-voluntariness, to be consistent, we would have to cast our legislative web wider to include many relationships between adults, too.

I kind of hope that some readers of this blog might rise to the challenge and deliver deadly blows to these two counter arguments.

It has been argued that pedophile sex tourists roaming developing countries are particularly despicable characters. The argument goes that in addition to the already mentioned two arguments, they abuse the particular vulnerabilities of impoverished peoples for their own purposes. It has also been reported that dire poverty drives parents in some developing countries to sell their kids off to pedophile networks. - I do think the exploitation argument is sound and there can be little said in defense of such kinds of sex tourism. That's the easy one. It's an argument that has also been deployed in the context of child labour. Except that in the child labour scenario quite a few people (many of whom no doubt well-intentioned) defended child labour by pointing out that, yes, these kids are being exploited (and that's undoubtedly bad!); BUT, they go on to argue, what's the alternative? Surely most parents wouldn't sell their kids as workers to some company if they had a viable alternative. So, here's the conundrum, while the companies exploiting such dire need arguably behave unethical, those trying to make the best of out it (eg the parents) under the circumstances, quite possibly did the ethically right thing.

I still recall as if it happened yesterday, oodles of years ago, when I was a student at Monash I had a shouting match type conversation with a guy who admitted to going to Southeast Asian countries as a sex tourist targetting 'young people' as he called them. I went on and on about how terrible his behaviour is and and that he should not be doing this etc. Then he came with the argument that if he, and many other white males like him, didn't go and didn't buy 'young people' for sex, nobody would be any better off (he implied that they might starve) and arguably some would be worse off. He railed against us do-gooders who didn't understand the dependence of many many people on characters like him. I can't say that I like him much more now, just thinking back about this episode, but it seems to me that those campaigning against sex tourism need to do better than they do currently, in terms of offering viable alternatives to those in dire need. Otherwise there will always be an obliging response to market driven demand, no matter how hard we politically correct folks waive our hands. I know that some NGOs offer such programs, BUT surely if there were sufficient alternative out there, the needs of sex tourists would not be met any longer in developing countries. As we all know, this isn't exactly what's happening in the real world.


  1. Well, we do have laws applying to adults in some contexts. Quid pro quo sexual harassment may not be a criminal offence, but it will usually give rise to a civil claim and often to a heavy pay-out. In such contexts, I suppose we prefer to use the civil law because it gives greater flexibility for the victim and because there may be grey areas - but those considerations might not apply where we are talking about children, who are hardly in good positions to think about such things as whether they want to sue.

    It may also be that some of the circumstances of sexual abuse of children are so horrific that we'd rather ban any "nicer" cases, if they exist, than to tailor the law narrowly and risk any "nasty" ones slipping through.

    Finally, there's a difference between consenting to something in non-ideal circumstances and "consenting" to an act whose fundamental character you fail to understand.

    All that said, the strongest arguments against pedophilia may well not catch a lot of what is currently regarded by our society as pedophilia. I fully believe that the current laws are in fact over-broad and catch situations that are not especially harmful. For example, I can never understand the extreme outcry whenever a randy 15 or 16 y.o boy, who probably understands exactly what he is doing, is caught having sex with an attractive 30 y.o. woman. I see no rational basis to see the boy as a victim, such that the criminal law should be involved. (It may be professional misconduct if the woman is the boy's teacher, but that's because such closeness suggests the likelihood of favouritism, a quite different issue.)

    Oh well, now I've said something that you're not really allowed to say. :)

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