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Who is Hurting the Children?
The Political Psychology of Pedophilia in American Society
Michael J. Bader, Tikkun magazine, Berkeley, CA
As a psychotherapist who has treated dozens of victims of child sexual abuse, I understand how traumatic it is when an adult molests a child. The child usually feels invaded, exploited, confused, and frightened, and the psychological damage can be even greater if, during the abuse, the child is even the slightest bit aroused. When someone who is supposed to protect you instead hurts you, or hurts you in the guise of loving you, your very sense of reality can become compromised. Victims of sexual abuse often blame themselves for their own victimization, and even come to feel that love, itself, is dangerous. The psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold has described traumas like this as "soul murders."
We have to begin a conversation about the underlying anxieties that continually lead us to find scapegoats for our own pain and suffering, whether it is the pedophile, Saddam Hussein, communists, "bra-burners," or homosexuals.
We have to ask ourselves:
And, yet, as a psychotherapist I find myself disturbed by what seems to me to be our society's fixation on pedophilia, not because such abuse doesn't deserve attention, but because the intensity of this attention dwarfs that paid to nearly every other type of damage done to children today, damage that is often much greater than that incurred by at least some children who have been molested.
Nothing, however, stirs up more passionate outrage than sexual abuse. Witness the media coverage of the current scandals in the Catholic Church. When defrocked priest John Geoghan of Boston was sentenced to ten years hard labor for one incident of fondling a ten-year-old boy at a public swimming pool, the punishment was generally viewed as perfectly fitting the crime
Death itself is often considered the only appropriate punishment for child molesters, who are viewed as so despicable that they draw the violent contempt of even the most sociopathic criminals while in prison.
When it comes to the sexual abuse of children, something seems out of balance in our collective scales of crime and punishment. The California judge who heard the case of accused child molester Jerome Wilhoit told his courtroom during Wilhoit's arraignment that if someone had molested his own daughter, his attitude would be, "you touch her, you die." The trial was on the front page. The fact that Wilhoit was not only acquitted on all charges but later judged to be "factually innocent" didn't quite make it to page one.
We all remember the infamous case from the 1980s involving the McMartin Pre-School, a case lasting six years, costing the State of California fifteen million dollars, and in which over 400 children were interviewed by so-called "experts." The defendants were acquitted on all counts. And who is not aware of the danger posed by satanic cults that kidnap and use children for dark sexual purposes? No one, except perhaps for the FBI who has yet to find hard evidence of the existence of even one of them.
I realize that for every instance of a false accusation based on false memory, there are dozens of cases of unreported abuse, and that the advent of child abuse reporting laws in the 1970s and 1980s were an important victory for child protection advocates and for feminists seeking to bring domestic violence of all kinds out of the patriarchal closet in which it had always been hidden.
Nevertheless, I think that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Obviously, child molestors need to be apprehended and punished—and treated whenever possible—in order to protect their current and future victims. But our collective outrage at sexual abuse so dwarfs our recognition of other forms of childhood trauma that such outrage begins to look like more than a simple concern for the real victims of the pedophile.
For example, if you ask most psychotherapists to describe the most common and devastating traumas they see in the lives of the children they treat or in the childhoods of their adult patients, sexual molestation would not usually be at the top of their lists. In statistics released by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002, over 60 percent of the officially reported cases of maltreatment of children involved neglect, while barely 10 percent involved sexual abuse. In my own practice, I see the damage done by neglect and other forms of emotional deprivation much more than I do the trauma of sexual abuse.
"Neglect" is a simple label for a complicated situation. It doesn't only refer to the absence of a parent but to the presence of a disturbed attachment as well. At the least, children require consistency and empathy. By virtue of either psychological or social pathology, many parents can't provide a secure and protective connection to their children, systematically ignore their children's emotional cues, resort to violence or shaming as forms of discipline, or use their children to mirror and remedy their own attachment needs.
This results in a situation every bit as neglectful of the child's needs as one in which the parents are simply absent. Such children grow up with terribly low self-esteem, lack the ability to comfort themselves, and feel guilty and responsible for their own suffering. They have a hard time feeling real empathy for others, including their own children, and can't create and sustain a loving relationship. They feel disconnected and undeserving of the good things in life, develop depressions and severe anxiety disorders, and may often turn to drugs or violence in order to numb these feelings. These handicaps usually last a lifetime and are inevitably passed on to the next generation. The human devastation created by these sorts of dysfunctional families is profound.
Further, social and economic hardship in a culture that only celebrates financial success surely worsens the harm done to children by unhealthy attachments. While emotional neglect and abuse definitely span all social classes, the strains of economic insecurity, poverty, and racism, along with the absence of social support and services—including those aimed directly at children—for poor and working families inevitably leads children unprotected and psychologically vulnerable.
Twenty-seven million children—37 percent of all children in America today—are categorized by the Census Bureau as "near-poor" or poor, defined here as a family of three earning $27,000/year or less. Nine million children are without any health insurance. Many of these children are being psychologically damaged each and every day by an environment that cannot see them, cannot hear them, cannot take care of them, and isn't interested in trying.
I'm not necessarily equating the psychological harm of poverty and illness to that of sexual abuse, but I am pointing out that when pathological caretaking meets a social environment filled with hardship and devoid of support, the psychological damage that befalls such children is accentuated. And, yet, the children imperiled by neglect, indifference, and poverty don't appear on milk cartons, they aren't plastered on the front pages of our newspapers, or appear as the lead story at CNN. Typically, no one goes to jail for the crime of
Why does the act of sexually molesting a child seem to command our collective outrage and desire for vengeance while acts of ignoring, humiliating, or starving that same child do not? Why is the sexual innocence of children passionately defended while their innocent victimization by abusive or neglectful families and an insensitive social order evokes only an arms-length sympathy?
Some social critics like James Kincaid have suggested that we romanticize the sexual innocence of childhood in order to deny our awareness of the nuances of erotic desire that do exist between adults and children. Since the time of Freud, the sexuality of children has been hotly debated.
Most experts—and many parents—would agree that children are sexual beings, that they have the capacity for sexual pleasure, even if they don't always understand how to regulate it. And there is equally no doubt that adults sometimes have sexual feelings for children. Any parent who has watched a son or daughter come of age is aware of how powerful this pull can be and to what lengths both parties go to avoid this embarrassing tension. Certainly there can be no doubt about the sexual energy inherent in adolescence, since it is constantly exploited by advertisers who use images of nubile girls and boys to sell everything from jeans to Pepsi.
Since our consciences are especially intolerant of incestuous forms of sexuality, the scene is set for us to externalize the conflict and direct our punitive judgments at the pedophile rather than our own impulses. We defensively sanitize and desexualize ourselves and our children in order to reassure ourselves and others that we are free of any desires even remotely connected to childhood sexuality.
Nevertheless, I don't think that this theory of guilt and projection adequately explains the vituperative intensity of our society's hatred of the pedophile. Instead, I think that our defense of childhood virtue and innocence is so extreme because it bundles with it all of the ways that we, ourselves, feel—but cannot acknowledge feeling—afraid, rejected, unfairly taken advantage of, betrayed, subordinated to the self-interests of others, and helpless. At the deepest level of our psyches, we cannot compassionately face our own innocent victimization and, instead, project it onto the picture we create of the sexually virtuous and naïve child.
Both our innocence and its denial began in our childhoods and continue throughout our lives. We were innocent as children in the sense that our familial environment impacted us more than we impacted it. In spite of the fact that children bring temperamental and genetic givens to the family, the power relationships between parents and children are unequal. Parents have an awesome power to define what is real, what is moral, and what is possible. They help us acquire strengths but they also inflict, wittingly or unwittingly, psychological injuries.
And yet, as children, we take responsibility for what befalls us.
We resist acknowledging our own innocence. It is said that people would, by and large, prefer to be "sinners in heaven than saints in hell." For this reason, abused children often report that they provoked their parents' violence and adults often qualify accounts of their own early beatings with the caveat that they were "difficult" children.
Thus, even as children we can't let ourselves feel innocent because then our caregivers would have to be guilty, and that recognition is intolerable. It would mean that we are not protected, that the attachment necessary to our psychological survival is absent or even dangerous, and that the beings upon whom we helplessly depend might, at times, mean to harm us. It is not even necessary that these perceptions be objectively true—children often think ego-centrically and assume that their parents' behavior is always provoked by or in response to them—because it is the subjective experience of parental failures and pathology that is frightening and leads to self-blaming.
Children, therefore, are highly motivated to deny their own innocence in order to retain some semblance of parental virtue, protection, and love, and they continue to exhibit this tendency as adults. In fact, in my clinical experience, even those patients who appear to blame their parents for everything under the sun feel secretly and irrationally guilty, a feeling that they then try to drown out by their externalizations and repetitive demands that the world indemnify them for their injuries. These patients are desperately trying to fight against their self-blaming, regain the moral high road, and salvage a drop of virtue by pointing the finger outward rather than inward.
In adult life, we continue our self-blaming and denial of innocence in many ways. Though we may become "independent," we never lose our need to feel protection and love. We look to our society to provide that loving connection, and succeed in finding it mainly in our circles of families and friends. In relation to the larger culture, however, we suffer from the American meritocratic assumption that everyone is responsible for his or her own social position and that, therefore, those who feel discontented, marginalized, devalued, or thwarted have only themselves to blame—and they do so.
And yet American society is not actually a meritocracy in which limitations on our social and economic standing reflects a personal failure any more than our suffering as children resulted from being "bad." Our society has a class structure, as well as racial and gender biases, and thus our self blame is as misplaced in public life as it was in our early familial life.
While we may not be able to view ourselves as victims deserving of protection, we have no trouble affording this status to sexually innocent children. The child molester, after all, is doing something so unnatural, so forbidden, that even the most harshly zealous advocate of personal responsibility has to admit that these particular little victims didn't deserve what they got.
We can identify more easily with the sexually innocent child and feel the correspondingly appropriate protectiveness because, unlike our own victimization, there is no doubt whatsoever that sexual abuse of a child by an adult is undeserved.
In other words, we develop an enchanted view of the sexual innocence of childhood in order to locate a part of ourselves in a place that is finally above reproach.
As opposed to the intimate violation of trust and betrayal inherent in the sexual victimization of a child by an adult, the corrosive effects of rejection and neglect, as well as the traumas of social deprivation, seem to be more general and abstract.
As a result, it is easier to distance ourselves and mute our awareness of the equally horrible suffering and truncation of psychological growth attendant on these non-sexual violations. Instead, we can deny and minimize it by thinking such things as "well, I had it tough, too, but managed to survive," or by cynically dismissing problems of attachment as the type of issues about which 90 percent of New Yorkers talk with their psychoanalysts.
Ideals about "personal responsibility" are often promoted nowadays as antidotes to the ethos of the Sixties and Seventies in which people allegedly looked for handouts, expected government to take care of them, blamed the dominant culture for every injury, slight, or disadvantage that befell them, and, if they could afford it, leapt onto the couches of their therapists blaming Mommy and Daddy for everything. However, my experience as a psychologist teaches me that people usually shift into a blaming and complaining mode when they're trying to feel less guilty, less responsible, and less self-blaming.
People complain about and attack institutions that discriminated against them, not in order to absolve themselves of personal responsibility, but to counteract the corrosive effects of self blame. Most people have such an ingrained sense that they are responsible for their own suffering, such skepticism about their own legitimate claims of innocence and victimization, that blaming "the system" and demanding restitution of some kind is a progressive and liberatory step—even if sometimes hyperbolic—toward a more balanced view of the causes of their condition. Unfortunately, the ideology of self-blame and meritocracy still haunts us.
The hyperbolic responses that we see toward sex with children are important to understand and modulate in order to develop a clearer and more socially-critical picture of the damage done to children today. While these exaggerated responses are not universal but only a tendency
they are crucial for the Left to confront because inflammatory rhetoric about sexual predators is increasingly part of a more general attack on sexuality by the religious Right.
Judith Levine's recent book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex, brilliantly analyzes this movement in all of its incarnations:
Levine, herself, was demonized by the Right, as was her publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, before the book had even hit the stands.
The attack on Levine is only one of many attacks on writers and researchers trying to openly discuss youth and sexuality. The religious Right is creating a panic about children's sexuality and an insistence that women and children need special protection because they are "naturally" averse to sex of any kind. In the guise of protecting children, programs are advanced that attempt to re-impose a conservative puritanical morality that views sex as dangerous, and only valid in the context of a heterosexual marriage.
The propensity in the general population to panic about the vulnerability of children, and to be receptive to the Right's repressive solutions, is not a result of stupidity or even sexual intolerance. It has to do with our own collective attempt to organize and give meaning to feelings of anxiety and helplessness that result from living in a world in which we have little power, feel disconnected from others, and resigned to our fates.
The threat of sexual promiscuity among our youth and the danger of sexual predators lurking around our children's playgrounds gives us a focus for our fear and an outlet for our outrage.
The Right capitalizes on this wish and says that the fault lies with the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including
It promotes the myth that if we could only go back to the days when everything was safe, predictable, and under control (including women, gays, and rebellious teenagers), all would be well.
We have to counter this ideology by addressing the sources of the popular panic over the sexuality of youth. Children are being abused in this society every day, but not primarily by pedophiles. Children do deserve our protection and empathy, but adults deserve it too. Exploitation in any form is morally unacceptable and we can't privilege its sexual forms in decrying it.
Pedophiles do need to be incarcerated and treated, but so do the white collar criminals who are causing far more harm to far more people, children included. Children—and particularly adolescents—are sexual beings and they need to be taught how to protect themselves and enjoy themselves. We have to stop demonizing sexual pleasure and start embracing its healthier forms and helping our kids learn how to do so as well.
On a deeper level, of course, we have to begin a conversation about the underlying anxieties that continually lead us to find scapegoats for our own pain and suffering, whether it is the pedophile, Saddam Hussein, communists, "bra-burners," or homosexuals. We have to ask ourselves:
A progressive movement has to answer these questions in order to fight against the inevitable tendency in our society to scapegoat people and groups who deviate from the norms of the dominant culture. Such a movement has to articulate the centrality of connectedness in human psychology in order to critique its absence in our families and culture.
We have to learn to talk without embarrassment about the importance of creating an ethic of caring before we can argue that neglect and indifference are evils that need to be confronted in our personal and well as our public lives.
We need to counteract self-blaming and broaden the concept of innocence to include all of us—not just our children—before we can help people see that the most common forms of exploitation today are not to be found in child sexual abuse but in the social inequities, insecurities, alienation, and bureaucratic indifference that stem from the dominance of the market in our society.
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