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Understanding Pedophilia

Julia A. Ericksen, Ph.D., 
Department of Sociology, Temple University, Philadelphia, 
Pennsylvania 19122 
(e-mail: Julia@vm.temple.edu )


These articles make important contributions to understanding pedophilia -- a topic that is hard for academics to broach in other than the most horrified tones. As part of a review symposium on the work of Rind and his colleagues, I once made the mistake of calling the article "Sexual Liberation's Last Frontier." My university president was bombarded with letters, phone calls, and e-mails calling for my dismissal and accusing the university of harboring a dangerous pedophile.

Green and Schmidt follow the admirable but dangerous path of seeking understanding before judgement. 

is concerned with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and argues that pedophilia should be removed as a category. 
He uses four arguments. 

First, what we call pedophilia exists in many cultures and historical time periods. Green asks if all those who engage in the practice are pedophiles.
Secondly, he notes that except for symptoms that might be effect rather than cause, pedophiles do not differ from others on personality tests. 
Green's third argument is that many men in our culture find children sexually arousing. To call them all pedophiles would indict about one-fifth of all men. 
Finally, many pedophiles do not fit the DSM's own criteria that the sufferer be dysfunctional or at least distressed.

is concerned with pedophiles' civil rights, which he balances with the civil rights of children. He defines the term "pedophile," unlike Green, as 

"men whose sexual wishes and desires for relationship bonds and love are either primarily or exclusively on children who have not yet reached puberty." 

Thus, he excludes many of those Green considers.

Schmidt describes two discussions about pedophilia in our society. 

The first is "the child molester discourse," that is, the existing strong cultural assumption that all children suffer greatly and permanently from sexual contact with adults.


The second type is "consensus morality," that whatever two or more actors freely agree to is acceptable, which Schmidt considers to be the most useful basis for a civil society. 

Sexual acts between adults and children become problematic because of power imbalances. Children cannot freely consent to anything sexual. Schmidt notes that some pedophiles argue that they only want what the child wants, but points out that the powerful can manipulate desire and can never truly understand the desires of the less powerful. 

For Schmidt, in a society where sexual self-determination is the norm, pedophilia cannot be acceptable regardless of whether its defenders can produce evidence that it does not harm children. Schmidt asks us not to condemn the pedophile, but to view him with sympathy since he is subject to innate desires that may not be realized.

The positions advanced by Green and Schmidt are problematic, but in different ways. 

Green uses a straw man argument. 

The DSM is not an a-cultural, a-historical set of definitions. Normality is culturally and historically specific. Normal acts in other cultures, which we would label pedophilic, tell us nothing about our normality. Various cultures institutionalize many things, which we would consider as a manifestation of mental illness (believing oneself to be a God is one example). 

We can only decide what is pathological with reference to the social and political. Gay persons did not become normal because the DSM so declared them but because of decades of political struggle. And the battle is not yet won as the persistence of homophobia testifies. 

Furthermore, I assume the same lack of differentiation on personality tests applies to many DSM groups. The same criticisms about the DSM apply to Green's other arguments.

I sympathize with Schmidt's conclusion 

that when mutual consent is required in sexual relations, child-adult sex becomes problematic. However, I have less sympathy than he has with those who harbor such sexual desires. 

 I find his sexual category, "pedophile," problematic. The process by which some persons who desire children come to so label themselves is complex, as with all sexual identities. I doubt it is coterminous with Schmidt's definition. Some men who also desire adults, or have done so in their lives, will label themselves as pedophiles as a result of experience. Others whose desires focus on children may avoid the label pedophile because of its stigma. Furthermore, Schmidt assumes that sexual object choice is innate and unchanging.

More important 
than who the pedophile is and what rights he should have is the question of why so many men are erotically attracted to children. Cross-cultural data show us that objects of sexual desire are socially created. 
Pedophilia is demonized in this culture, but the fact that many men have such sexual interests is ignored. Such is the abhorrence that abused children learn their families do not want to know about the "monster" in their midst because to acknowledge it would bring shame on the entire family. This is why Megan's Law passed without a single dissenting vote in the House or the Senate, even though civil liberties groups opposed it. 
As data from national surveys show, many people, especially women, report sexual contact with adults while children. These figures are certainly underestimates, but they point to the existence of many American men who approach children sexually. Most are never penalized.

It should come as no surprise that men are sexually attracted to children, particularly to girls. In our culture, little girls are frequently eroticized from children's beauty pageants to the practice of using underdeveloped teens to model adult women's clothes.

Sexual discourse is a discourse around forbidden pleasures. 

Its forbidden nature is what makes sex exciting. Sex is about the right of the powerful over the powerless. This appears in "normal" gendered relations, in rape, and in the ultimate forbidden fantasy-sex with children. To treat the pedophile as a special category of person who can be held up to scrutiny is to miss an opportunity for understanding. The widespread sexual activity and desire on the part of men towards children tells us much about the nature of society itself.

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