From Judith Levine's Harmful
to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex
The Pedophile: The Myth
Hear the word pedophile and images and ideas flood to mind. Pedophiles
are predatory and violent; the criminal codes call their acts sexual attacks and
sexual assaults. Pedophiles look like Everyman or any man–"a teacher, a
doctor, a lawyer, a judge, a scout leader, a police officer, an athletic coach,
a religious counselor"–but their sexuality makes them different from the
rest of us, sick: pedophilia is listed in the American Psychiatric
Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the
canon of psychopathology. Pedophiles are insatiable and incurable.
"Statistics show that 95% of the time, anyone who molests a child will
likely do it again," declared an Indiana senator proposing community
notification laws for former sex offenders. "The only molesters who can be
considered permanently cured are those who have been surgically castrated,"
Ann Landers once wrote.
Pedophiles abduct and murder
children, and people who abduct and murder children are likely to be pedophiles.
"The pedophile who kidnapped Adam from a mall and killed him in 1981 . .
." began a feature on molesters by Boston Herald reporter J. M.
Lawrence, following Jeffrey's killing. He was referring to the still-unsolved
abduction-murder of six-year-old Adam Walsh, whose case helped spur the creation
of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and (some say) the
career of his father, John, now the host of The FBI's Most Wanted. Even
if a child survives a liaison with a pedophile, we believe, he will inevitably
suffer great harm.
"The predatory pedophile is as dangerous as cancer. He
works as quietly, and his presence becomes known only by the horrendous damage
he leaves," stated the children's lawyer and sex-thriller writer Andrew
And pedophiles are legion,
well-organized, and cunning in eluding detection. "I believe that we're
dealing with a conspiracy, an organized operation of child predators designed to
prevent detection," Kee MacFarlane, director of the Children's Institute
International in Los Angeles and a premier architect of the satanic-ritual-abuse
scare of the 1980s, told Congress in 1984. "If such an operation involves
child pornography or the selling of children, as is frequently alleged, it may
have greater financial, legal, and community resources at its disposal than
those attempting to expose it."
Ten years later, after a far-reaching
national network of state and federal agents had been put in place to track them
down, pedophiles were still strangely invisible. "There really aren't any
figures. It's a hidden offense that often doesn't come to the surface,"
said Debra Whitcomb, director of Massachusetts' Educational Development Center
Inc. in 1994, referring to the "child sexual exploitation" on the Net
that her organization had just received a $250,000 government grant to combat.
Perhaps it is no wonder that in a
Mayo Clinic study of anxieties reported to pediatricians, three-quarters of
parents were afraid their children would be abducted; a third said it was a
"frequent worry," more frequent than fretting over sports injuries,
car accidents, or drugs. And no wonder Jeffrey Curley's murder, the crest of a
wave of highly publicized criminal brutality, revived the crusade for capital
punishment in Massachusetts, or that it was in this movement, as a spokesman for
state-administered revenge, that his father, a firehouse mechanic named Bob,
briefly found voice for his unutterable grief.
The problem with all this information about pedophiles is that most of it is not
true or is so qualified as to be useless as generalization. First of all, the
streets and computer chat rooms are not crawling with child molesters,
kidnappers, and murderers. According to police files, 95 percent of allegedly
abducted children turn out to be "runaways and throwaways" from home
or kids snatched by one of their own parents in divorce custody disputes.
Studies commissioned under the Missing Children's Assistance Act of 1984
estimate that between 52 and 158 children will be abducted and murdered by
nonfamily members each year. Extrapolating from other FBI statistics, those odds
come out between 1 in 364,000 and fewer than 1 in 1 million. A child's risk of
dying in a car accident is twenty-five to seventy-five times greater.
butcheries are even rarer than abduction-murders. For instance, in 1992, the
year a paroled New Jersey sex offender raped and killed Megan Kanka, the
seven-year-old after whom community-notification statutes were named, nine
children under age twelve were the victims of similar crimes, out of over
forty-five million in that age group. As for Adam Walsh, invoked by the Boston
Herald as the Ur-victim of molestation murder, no defendant was ever
indicted in his disappearance.
According to detectives in Hollywood, Florida,
where the crime occurred, Adam's father spread the rumor that the abductor was a
pedophile, most prominently in a much-quoted book about child molesters,
although there was neither suspicion nor evidence of sex in the case.
Molestations, abductions, and
murders of children by strangers are rare. And, say the FBI and social
scientists, such crimes are not on the rise. Some researchers even believe that
some forms of molestation, such as exhibitionism, might be declining.
There are, moreover, few
so-called pedophiles in the population, though it is hard to say how few.
"I write '1, 5, 21, 50' on the board and ask my students, 'Which is the
percentage of pedophiles in the country?'" said Paul Okami, in the
University of California at Los Angeles psychology department, who has analyzed
the data on pedophilia in America. "The answer is all of them." That's
because a "pedophile," depending on the legal statute, the perception
of the psychologist, or the biases of the journalist, can be anything from a
college freshman who has once masturbated with a fantasy of a twelve-year-old in
mind to an adult who has had sexual contact with an infant.
As for the "pure"
clinical species, Okami believes that the proportion of Americans whose primary
erotic focus is prepubescent children hovers around 1 percent. Estimating from
lists of so-called pedophile rings, arrest records, and his own experience,
David Techter, the former editor of the Chicago-based pedophile newsletter Wonderland,
put the number at "maybe 100,000." Criminal records do not
indicate there are large or growing numbers of pedophiles. Even as the age of
consent has risen and arrests for lower-level sex crimes have increased
dramatically, arrests for rape and other sex offenses, including those against
children, still constituted only about 1 percent of all arrests in 1993.
Pedophiles are not generally
violent, unless you are using the term sexual violence against children
in a moral, rather than a literal, way. Its perpetrators very rarely use force
or cause physical injury in a youngster. In fact, what most pedophiles do with
children could not be further from Charles Jaynes's alleged necrophilic
abominations. Bringing themselves down to the maturity level of children rather
than trying to drag the child up toward an adult level, many men who engage in
sex with children tend toward kissing, mutual masturbation, or
"hands-off" encounters such as voyeurism and exhibitionism.
Indeed, say some psychologists,
there may be no such thing as a "typical" pedophile, if there is such
a thing as a pedophile at all. Qualities by which social scientists and the
police have marked him, such as his purported shyness or childhood sexual
trauma, do not bear out with statistical significance. More important, sexual
contact with a child does not a pedophile make. "The majority of reported
acts of sexual abuse of children are not committed by pedophiles," but by
men in relationships with adult women and men, said John Money, of Johns
Hopkins, a preeminent expert on sexual abnormalities.
They are men like Charles Jaynes, who wrote in his journal about a fast crush on a "beautiful
boy" with "a lovely tan and crystal-blue eyes" and in whose car
police found literature from the North American Man/Boy Love Association
(NAMBLA) but who had an adult girlfriend and was rumored to be lovers with
Sicari, who also had a girlfriend.
In other words, there may be
nothing fundamental about a person that makes him a "pedophile."
So-called pedophiles do not have some genetic, or incurable, disease. Men who
desire children can change their behavior to conform with the norms of a society
that reviles it. Pedophilia can be renounced; in the medical language we now use
to describe this sexual proclivity, it can be "cured." Indeed,
contrary to politicians' claims, the recidivism rates of child sex offenders are
among the lowest in the criminal population.
Analyses of thousands of subjects
in hundreds of studies in the United States and Canada have found that about 13
percent of sex offenders are rearrested, compared with 74 percent of all
prisoners. With treatment, the numbers are even better. The state of Vermont,
for example, reported in 1995 that its reoffense rates after treatment were only
7 percent for pedophiles, 3 percent for incest perpetrators, and 3 percent for
those who had committed "hands-off" crimes such as exhibitionism.
The Enemy Is Us
All this rational talk may mean nothing to a parent. Nine in forty-five million
children are raped and murdered: slim odds, sure, but if it happens to your
baby, who cares about the statistics? Still, most parents manage to put
irrational fears in perspective. Why, in spite of all information to the
contrary, do Americans insist on believing that pedophiles are a major peril to
their children? What do people fear so formidably?
Our culture fears the pedophile,
say some social critics, not because he is a deviant, but because he is
ordinary. And I don't mean because he is the ice-cream man or Father Patrick.
No, we fear him because he is us. In his elegant study of "the culture of
child-molesting," the literary critic James Kincaid traced this terror back
to the middle of the nineteenth century. Then, he said, Anglo-American culture
conjured childhood innocence, defining it as a desireless subjectivity, at the
same time as it constructed a new ideal of the sexually desirable object.
two had identical attributes–softness, cuteness, docility, passivity–and
this simultaneous cultural invention has presented us with a wicked psychosocial
problem ever since. We relish our erotic attraction to children, says Kincaid
(witness the child beauty pageants in which JonBenét Ramsey was entered). But
we also find that attraction abhorrent (witness the public shock and disgust at
JonBenét's "sexualization" in those pageants). So we project that
eroticized desire outward, creating a monster to hate, hunt down, and punish.
In her classic 1981 study, Father-Daughter
Incest, feminist-psychologist Judith Lewis Herman suggested another source
of self-revulsion that might lead us to project outward. Child abuse, she said,
is close to home, built into the structure of the "normal,"
"traditional" family. Take the family's paternal authority enforced
through violence, along with its feminine and child submission, its prohibitions
against sexual talk and touch, and its privacy sanctified and inviolable, she
said. Add repressed desire, and the potential of incest festers, waiting to
Herman's work was at the front
edge of a horrifying suspicion, the truth of which is now firmly established.
Even if child-sex crimes against strangers are rare, incest is not. Like
pedophilia, it's hard to say how common it is, since incest figures are almost
as muddied as those of adult-child sex outside the family. On one hand, child
abuse statistics are notoriously unreliable; for example, of the 319,000 reports
of sexual abuse of children in 1993, two-thirds were unsubstantiated.
expansion of the definitions of family members, the ages of people considered
children, and the types of interactions labeled abuse have jacked up incest
figures. So has the popular suspicion of incest as an invisible source of later
psychological distress, especially among women. Since the 1980s, self-help
authors have claimed that you don't even have to remember a sexual event to know
it occurred. "If you think you were abused and your life shows the
symptoms, then you were," wrote Ellen Bass in The Courage to Heal.
The symptoms of past molestation listed in such books range from asthma to
neglect of one's teeth.
On the other hand, professionals
under the influence of Freud have denied the existence of incest for decades,
interpreting children's reports of real seductions as oedipal fantasies, and
still may count only cases involving physical coercion, discounting the
inestimable pressures on children to yield to a parent's sexual advances out of
dependency, fear, loyalty, or love.
At any rate, reliable sources
show that more than half, and some say almost all, of sexual abuse is visited
upon children by their own family members or parental substitutes. The federal
government recorded over 217,000 cases in 1993 (fewer than the media hysteria
would indicate, but still plenty). Research confirms what is intuitively clear:
that the worst devastation is wrought not by sex per se but by the betrayal of
the child's fundamental trust.
And the closer the relation, the more forced or
intimate the sex acts, and the longer and later in a child's life they persist,
the more hurtful is the immediate trauma and longer-lasting the harm of incest.
Incest is a qualitatively different experience from sex with a nonfamily adult;
almost inevitably, the former is a lot worse.
Even those who don't buy
Kincaid's claim that the cultural "we" are drooling over the
prepubescent Macaulay Culkin cavorting through Home Alone in his
underpants or Herman's metaphor of the family as incest incubator might be
surprised to find that their own secret yearnings could be illegal. The vast
majority of so-called pedophiles do not go out and ravage small children.
So-called criminals are most often caught not touching but looking at something
called child pornography (which I will get to in a moment).
And their desired
objects are not "children" but adolescents, about the age of the model
Kate Moss at the start of her modeling career. "The clients are usually
white, suburban, married businessmen who want a blow job from a teenage boy but
don't consider themselves gay, and heterosexual men who seek out young
girls," said Edith Springer, who worked for many years with teenage
prostitutes in New York's Times Square. "I have never in all my years of
therapy and counseling come across what the media advertise as a
Psychologists and law enforcers
call the man who loves teenagers a hebophile. That's a psychiatric term,
denoting pathological sexual deviance. But if we were to diagnose every American
man for whom Miss (or Mr.) Teenage America was the optimal sex object, we'd have
to call ourselves a nation of perverts. If the teenage body were not the
culture's ideal of sexiness, junior high school girls probably would not start
starving themselves as soon as they notice a secondary sex characteristic, and
the leading lady (on-screen or in life) would not customarily be twenty to forty
years younger than the leading man.
I asked Meg Kaplan, a widely respected
clinician who treats sex offenders at the New York State Psychiatric Institute's
Sexual Behavior Clinic, about the medicalization and criminalization of the
taste for adolescent flesh. "Show me a heterosexual male who's not
attracted to teenagers," she snorted. "Puh-leeze."
Rather than indict our Monday
night football buddies, rather than indict the family, though, we circle the
wagons and project danger outward. "Screen out anyone who might be damaging
to your child. Whenever possible, assume childcare responsibilities," the
FBI's Kenneth Lanning advised the readers of Life. "Tell your kids
that if an adult seems too good to be true, maybe he is."