Van Ree thinks along

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By: Maarten Admiraal

While nineteenth-century racial theorists discussed the race problem in their writings, in the twentieth century it turns out to be necessary to discuss pedophilia as a social problem. Especially after the Belgian Dutroux case, the controversy surrounding the subject seems to have reached an all-time high in Holland. Opponents do not hesitate to resort to stirring considerable sensation in order to silence advocates. When one has the courage to speak in positive terms about the quality of a relationship between a young person and an older person, one is lightly slandered and put on a par with potential murderers, or at best one is called a terrible pervert. The result of this is that the subject goes hidden behind a huge taboo, and that ignorance, fear and frustration reign supreme.

An example: the national paper NRC Handelsblad of February 23, 2001, carries an article about the former French student activist and current settled green member of the European Parliament, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. "Cohn-Bendit: pedophilia as provocation". We read that Bettina Röhl, a daughter of the German RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, blackened Cohn-Bendit using his book Der Grosse Basar, which appeared back in 1975. In it, Cohn-Bendit recounts, among other things, how he supposedly fondled his pupils as a teacher at an anti-authoritarian nursery school in Frankfurt, Germany. Some children would even have touched his fly. Today, Cohn-Bendit distances himself from those passages. He denies that there was any question of pedophilia or sexual relations. The passages were the alleged product of a desire for pure provocation. It doesn't really matter whether you want to characterize fondling as an expression of a pedophile identity. What's in a word.

What's interesting, however, is the article's claim that Cohn-Bendit calls pedophilia "one of the most abject crimes in existence". Such a statement is remarkable. Now I'm not an expert on Cohn-Bendit and his writings, but still it's odd that such a verdict should emanate from someone who was once a proponent of anti-autoritarian education and of democratization processes at universities.

The argument submitted by Cohn-Bendit to reject pedophilia is that he is far more aware of sexual abuse now than he used to be. It is not clear from the article what exactly he means, but at first sight this argument seems to be a result of the tremendous confusion that exists about this subject. In itself, pedophilia of course is no crime. At the most, certain sexual acts with children are against the law. Cohn-Bendit mistakenly uses the term pedophilia instead of sexual abuse.

Next, though, what is sexual abuse? It is common knowledge that in the present times, reports about the sexual abuse of children are blown to huge proportions. It isn't made easy for the public to take an informed position, based on facts, about relationships between young persons and older persons in general, and about sex with children in particular.

It is all too obvious that the media's role in this is substantial. The media are able to play on the spirit of the times. Where journalists and researchers used to restrict themselves to providing objective and reliable information, the weirdest stunts are now pulled to give journalism an almost annual facelift. Reality television, the "Willibrord Frequin method" [Frequin is a Dutch sensational journalist - translator], undercover journalism, and so forth. The public wants excitement and sensation. This requires issues to be magnified and fired at the public in a grand manner. Apparently, pedophilia is a subject that lends itself perfectly to this. In harsh times, children are more saintly than ever. They are the guardians of posterity and they are to be lavished with care and protection so that they won't make the same mistakes as their parents did. In itself, that's a noble objective, and possibly a justifiable position, but the way in which pedophilia is subsequently demonized and criminalized by the public borders on the insane. At first sight, this era seems to attach importance to relativism, tolerance and democratic values. But just wait until a pedophile moves into your street.

Are we not so tolerant after all? What's going on? Why is the repression of pedophilia harsher than ever, despite the fact that nowadays we seem more used than ever to disparate sexual phenomena? Are we not truly used to them? Do we not have a situation in which a kind of consumptive stupidity tolerates everything so far as it concerns adults? Adults are thought to be responsible for their own acts. Young persons, apparently, are not. After all, they are considered to be in need of sexual protection, and are believed to be unable to freely choose whether or not to have a partner.

An explanation for this facet of the spirit of the times seems hard to give. At a certain point, there are prevailing cultural norms. Where there used to be progressive writers, intellectuals and so on who accepted pedophilia as a free choice for people so long as it is practiced in a decent manner, it now seems that negative remarks are predominant among those same persons.

It can not even be excluded that people who usually think clearly are adamantly against pedophilia without having critically examined the arguments pro and con, and while refusing to do so. What is critical thinking? A form of thinking where thought isn't blurred by emotions; a form of thinking where independence and criticism, including self-criticism, are important virtues; a form of thinking where no rash generalizations are made; and lastly, a process uninfected by the madness of the day.

It is quite a feat to be able to say that pedophilia is not synonymous with sexual abuse. These days, many people - including the scientifically oriented - quite unthinkingly accept the supposition that it is. If one were to assert on the basis of research that a pedophile relationship does not necessarily cause abuse and damage, one should not be surprised if ones research result are sabotaged and if as a researcher one has to take cover. For this is reality: this is happening. This society is informed by panic and is highly influenced by "victimization" think. The way the American government smeared the research of Bauserman, Rind and Tromovitch should be telling (see OK 67, 69 and 70).

As is evidenced by his new book Pedofilie; een controversiële kwestie (Pedophilia: A Controversial Issue), Frank van Ree is not one of those who adopt a biased position and regard the issue with disgust and contempt. Van Ree has an eye for factual reality and is not dragged along by the "communis opinio". He sees that pedophilia is a problematic and complex issue, and finds that pedophile relationships are not necessarily harmful, but that adult partners have to be thoroughly aware of the times we live in. He's right.

He bases himself on his psychiatric practice and on the insights and research of others. "The dilemma is that each violation of a law and/or a taboo can lead to damage, while at the same time, respecting taboos restricts human freedom and can thus cause harm and suffering", writes Van Ree. By this he shows to have an eye for societal difficulties, but also for the development of the individual.

Van Ree sees that problems arise on various levels. Trouble already starts with words and their definitions. There is no consensus about them. What is sexual abuse? And what are we talking about when we say "children"? Van Ree examines these difficulties. For instance, he makes a useful distinction between a child and an adolescent, and between pedophilia (the attraction to children who do not yet show signs of maturation) and ephebophilia/parthenophilia (the attraction to boys or to girls, respectively, who are in the phase of maturation into adulthood). Currently, in many discussions no distinction is made between a young person of 14 and a child of 8.

Van Ree also subjects concepts such as power, sex and eroticism to a careful analysis. It is of great importance that these words be defined over and over again in a serious debate, because otherwise people will be fatally talking at cross-purposes. On another level, there is the question whether certain acts should properly be classed as sexual abuse. Van Ree is very clear in his condemnation of commercial child pornography, and rightly so. But he is not so unambiguous about the question whether certain sexual acts between an adult and a young person should in all cases be called sexual abuse. Again, rightly so. "Child sex with adults must be allowed; adult sex with children must not" (p.86).

It's a relief that a book like this appears after the monomaniac and laughable book by Ireen van Engelen [a private Dutch crusader - translator]. Van Engelen's book rather described the main character, Ireen, in search of her identity as an educationalist and a moralist. Nowhere was this book based on clear research, and in that sense, it could impossibly be taken seriously as an analysis of the phenomenon of pedophilia. It contained a lot of nonsense.

But a lot of nonsense is also being imparted about other subjects, while they are still not surrounded by such a panic. Therefore, if we want to understand pedophilia as a controversial issue, we have to apply a more general cultural analysis. In brief: Western man is the product of a Christian civilization in which a clear separation between body and mind came about in an early stage. Already in the fourth century, Augustine did this. Descartes founded his entire philosophy on the distinction. A philosopher such as the Canadian Charles Taylor considers romances and intimate relationships to be important sources for self-analysis, self-discovery and recognition. The big gap between thinking and feeling may be wider today than ever before. Bridging that gap is the problem that Western man is faced with, at least according to Charles Taylor.

Still, it's paradoxical. On the one hand, we have made much progress in our acceptance of minorities, also in the sexual field. Although the sociologist Hekma states in Van Ree's book that in his opinion far too little is "happening" yet (p.33), I believe that our revulsion from bodily things is slowly subsiding. We show this by overemphasizing them.

But there is still a strong public revulsion from relationships about which less is known. Qualitatively, the revulsion from pedophilia is no different to the people's revulsion from refugees etc. Xenophobia is a strong principle. Education by knowledgeable people is therefore of great importance. Currently, in 2001 there is still a great lack of clarity about what pedophilia is and what it isn't. Even at educational institutions there's little knowledge to be found about it. Frank Van Ree writes that in 1999 he spoke to a qualified psychotherapist who had to admit that not a word was said about pedophilia throughout his years of study and specialization (p. 54). This should make you think.

Here and there, Van Ree drops a stitch. Mainly, he's got a few of his facts wrong. He incorrectly writes that the Dutch "requirement of complaint" [no prosecution of sex between 12 and 16 unless a complaint is lodged by the young person, their parent, or child welfare - translator] was dropped in 1999. He also writes that in 1999 the House Justice Committee passed a bill according to which a boy or a girl between 14 and 16 could have sexual relations provided that their partner is not more than 5 years their senior. It may be that this idea was proposed at the time, but it has been known for a long time now that the minister of justice wants to drop the requirement of complaint and categorically criminalize sexual relations under age 16. It looks like this will happen.

In conclusion, we can say that fortunately, Frank van Ree did not allow himself to be dragged along by the current of negative thinking about pedophilia. He has preserved his critical independence. The book is a good impetus to a critical discussion of pedophilia.

Pedofilie; een controversiële kwestie. Analyse van een maatschappelijk vraagstuk
(Pedophilia: A Controversial Issue. Analysis of a Social Problem)
By Frank van Ree
Swets & Zeitlinger, 2001
Postbus 820
2160 SZ Lisse
The Netherlands
ISBN: 90 265 1688 6
Price: EUR 22.46

source: Book review 'Van Ree Thinks Along' by Maarten Admiraal; Translated from Dutch; OK Magazine, no. 78; August 2001