Some of the most provocative questions in the world of social science, and some of those most hotly debated in the popular media, surround the concepts of “nature and nurture”. There is now an abundance of evidence that heredity tells at least part of the story with respect to almost every aspect of human behavior. The question of innateness, which often suggests immutability, seems to have important implications for public policy.
Recently, the Toronto Star highlighted the work of a Canadian researcher who has spent the last decade gathering evidence for the innateness of pedophilic attraction. He argues, in agreement with many other scientists, that pedophilia is a “biologically rooted condition that does not change”, even if certain other factors also play a role. In fact, the word “orientation”, popularized in the last decade for other reasons, is now being used by these scientists to describe the condition, which seems mostly to affect men.
The fifty year-old “minor-attracted” man interviewed in the Star article has founded a website, “Virtuous Pedophiles”, as a support group, the goal of which is to prevent child abuse. Never having acted out his desires, he believes that the attractions felt by people like him are real, but can be resisted. This man in particular has managed to live a normal life, and is married with children.
There are comparable examples of resistance to natural inclinations: there is some evidence that certain people are more disposed to commit violent crime, and some who are more tempted by adultery, or drug use. But we have heard from enough repentant sinners and recovered addicts to know that these natural urges do not automatically overpower the human will.
In the context of accepting the existence of these powerful, but not irresistible innate urges that are not identically distributed amongst everyone, we can attempt to answer the question posed by the Star: “if some men are born pedophiles, what should society do with them?”
One answer is that of the status quo: that is, to marginalize the behavior—and those who admit their affinity for it. This answer sounds cruel on its face, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. The molestation of children is an act so depraved, at least in our current judgment, that its prevention might justify a high social cost (in the form of discomfort for natural pedophiles). It is an empirical question worth studying as to whether a more sympathetic policy would cause more or less child abuse, but it is at least plausible to think that the legitimacy that accompanies consideration would remove one barrier that currently exists between such people and their potential victims. And to the extent that pedophilia is not entirely natural, but also includes an environmental component, there is a possibility that public acceptance would create or increase an attraction to children among those who would otherwise be able to ignore the feeling.
But the modern answer does seem more and more to involve a degree of sympathy for pedophiles, on the basis of the unchosen nature of their condition. Some scientists and academics have begun to argue that the behavior is wrong, but that the pedophile deserves no reproach if he does not act on his inclination. This attitude, if it were to be embraced more broadly, would involve the therapy and treatment of such people, minority status for pedophiles, and perhaps a broad social conversation on pedophilia, the sort of which might lead to anti-discrimination laws and changes to child pornography statutes, such as a legitimization of virtually created smut (the Virtuous Pedophiles website links to a report arguing that porn use decreases the likelihood of child abuse).
An even more liberal-minded answer to the Star’s question might involve a more comprehensive acceptance. The newspaper quoted an internet user as writing: “It should be clear to anyone with any grey matter that pedophilia is just another oppressed sexual orientation or interest, and age doesn’t somehow magically make consensual sex between two people into something evil.” This argument is almost so repulsive as to be beneath rebuttal, despite its familiar tone and reasoning—legal child abuse is unthinkable to us, and we hope it always will be.
On the topic of the formerly unthinkable, the Star article points out: “One of the concerns with labelling pedophilia a sexual orientation is the potential for parallels to be drawn with homosexuality. Seto is quick to point out the difference between orientation based on age, and orientation based on gender.” There is of course a difference, as most everyone would agree, and the difference has become clearer over the last half century, as homosexuality has moved from one realm of discourse to another. As we watch the new movements of the pedophilic orientation over the next fifty years, we might find the lines blurred once again, for different reasons.
The costs of coming to this point, however, would not only be broad and societal: some of the most vulnerable members of our society would be affected explicitly and horrifically. This is unacceptable. If there is a carnal nature to man, then the carnality should be sacrificed despite its naturalness—not spared because of it. Pedophilia makes clear that “it’s natural” is no unconditional justification for acceptance, and demands of us the moral courage to condemn a defect that may indeed be innate within some people. If, by the force of our collective conscience, we feel compelled to move with sympathy on the issue of pedophilia, we would be well advised to move with extreme caution, so that our good intentions do not indiscriminately extend themselves into civilization-altering acceptance.