The pedophile as a folk devil

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Sixteen-year-old Cory Walgren committed suicide on January 11, 2017. According to Michael Tarm, Associated Press legal affairs writer, his suicide occurred "three hours after a dean and an in-school police officer at Naperville High School, told the honor-roll student he might face a child pornography charge." He was being questioned about some consensual sexual activity he and his girlfriend had engaged in, and a video he had made of it.

We are told that anyone under 18 is a child, and that children can't consent to having sex. But when I use the term "consensual" I don't mean that he understood all of the possible consequences of engaging in sex with his girlfriend. Nobody of any age could have consensual sex with anybody if that were the standard. The human condition is that none of us can know the full consequences of anything we do. I just mean "mutually desired." Using this more common understanding of the term, obviously children can consent or not consent to sexual activities just as they can consent or not consent to eating liver. But what about that other problematic word: child? Our society has had a lot of difficulty determining whether teenagers are adults or children. After a somewhat confused discussion of the issue, we seem to have arrived at the following consensus:

  • Teenagers are adults when it comes to liabilities.
  • They are children when it comes to rights. [...]

Cory committed a crime for which he faced the possibility of being punished by consequences that he believed were worse than death. At 16 years of age Cory was faced with the possibility of joining the ranks of the most hated social pariah in our society and facing a lifetime of never being accepted as a normal citizen with the respect and rights that ought to be a part of citizenship. It was not irrational to think that this might be a fate worse than death. [...]

The source of the danger is an individual or a group of individuals who are seen as engaging in immoral and dangerous activities, and perhaps influencing other to do the same. The perpetrator of the evil, in sociological theory, has been labeled a "folk devil". He is a larger-than-life character who becomes endowed with a quasi-mythical quality. He is a less-than-human monster. A moral panic is initiated by "moral entrepreneurs" who kick off the fight against this evil with a call to arms. The mass media plays a central role in educating the general public to the nature of the presumed evil with a harangue of alarmist articles and stories that present a simplistic and grossly inflated view of the danger. [...]

People who are identified as "pedophiles" are the most hated and persecuted group of people in our society. They constitute one of the biggest groups of incarcerated people in our grossly overpopulated prisons. More than any other group in our society, they are subjected to hate-speech, at which nobody blinks an eye. We trash the constitution in order to lock them up for life in fake mental hospitals. Yet there is surprisingly little interest in who they actually are or what they really do. It is almost impossible to tell, for example, what actually happened in the latest story about a new sex-offender being discovered and arrested. The language is vague and stereotyped. Words lose their everyday meaning. "Rape" for example, may refer to a mutually desired but illegal act.

First of all, how many pedophiles are there? In an article titled Every Fifth Boy and Man Is Pedophilic or Hebephilic, Filip Schuster asserts that "22% of adult males exhibit an attraction to children under thirteen years of age that is equal to or greater than what they feel toward adults". This conclusion is based on seven studies that use a plethesmograph (an instrument that measures the circumference of the penis) in their research on how men respond to sexual stimuli of various kinds. The studies use the academic definitions of male sexual orientations: a hebephile is a man whose primary orientation is to boys or girls in the age range of nine to thirteen and a pedophile is a person who experiences a strong attraction to children under nine. But in this article I am concerned with the pedophile as a popular folk devil. In the public's mind and in the mainstream media the term pedophile is generally used to designate people who are attracted to pre-pubescent children which in general would be people who are under 13 . What Schuster's article makes clear is that approximately 22% of all men fit into this category. [...]

It is my speculation that, in reality, some degree of mutual sexual attraction between children and adults is a universal aspect of human nature, and that the moral panic is precisely about that fact. Real damage is being done to individuals and to society as a whole because of this moral panic. The time for a fact-based discussion of the topic is long overdue.

Would Cory's sexual behavior with his girlfriend have been harmful to either of them had no videos been taken? Would it have been harmful had he been 22 and she 16? What if the girlfriend was a boyfriend? Or suppose a 32-year-old man took a shower with an 11-year-old boy, and they both enjoyed it? If a boy enjoys cuddling with, and being caressed by, a man, is he being harmed? Is that what we mean by "rape"? Our society appears to be committed to not engaging in a discussion about what kinds of mutually desired sexual and quasi-sexual activities are actually harmful, and why, and how harmful, and what should be done about it. We need an honest and realistic discussion a fact-based discussion not just screaming about how the pedophiles are at the gate. Why is it so difficult to have a reasoned discussion about this issue?

Let me give a brief example of the kind of situation that would need to be thought about: Heinz Kohut, the founder of "Self Psychology" and one of the most important psychological theorists of the 20th Century reported that "I had this private tutor, who was a very important person in my life. He would take me to museums and swimming and concerts and we had endless intellectual conversations and played complicated intellectual games and played chess together." They also did sexual things together, which they both enjoyed, but Kohut felt the sex was more or less incidental. The important thing for him was the relationship. He said "I was an only child. So it was in some way psychologically life-saving for me. I was very fond of this fellow." Heinz was about 10 or 11 at the time. He describes his years with his tutor as being perhaps the happiest ones in his life. (Strozier, 2001. "Heinz Kohut: The making of a Psychoanalyst." PP. 95 and 9 Is this what we are in a panic about? What would have been the consequences for Kohut and his friend had they been discovered and had his friend been sentenced to 30 or 40 years in prison after being publicly vilified, and then condemned to be on the registry our modern pillory for life after being released?

The moral panic that began as the Satanic panic and which continues in full force as the pedophile panic is clearly the cause of the sex-offender registry, and all of the draconian laws and procedures to which Cory feared he would be subjected. It was those laws and procedures that led to his suicide.

source: Article 'The Pedophile as a Folk Devil' by James Hunter;; OpEdNews; 29 September 2019