Prefatory notes—I wrote the first draft of the following essay about the horror of pedophilia in late 2016 or early 2017 and posted it on Medium and Quora, where it got quite a bit of attention. Since I deleted my accounts on those sites last winter, this essay (and a number of others) have been unavailable. But I want this and a number of other essays to keep circulating, so I’ll be posting them here on my blog. The following essay in particular seems important in light of the Jeffery Epstein imbroglio.

But it wasn’t the Epstein case, or any particular case, that originally led me to write about pedophilia. It was, rather, a long-standing interest in applied ethics in general, together with the (to me) jaw-droppingly incredible fact that people defend pedophiles. (As was the case with philosopher G.E. Moore, a lot of my philosophical writing is basically in reaction to absurd positions that other people take.) When I first encountered this rhetorical phenomenon in 2002—that was when pedophiles first descended upon Wikipedia—I simply couldn’t believe it. My naive incredulity disappeared through repeated encounters with pedophiles in connection with Wikipedia. In fact, I came to believe I had an obligation to do at least a little something about it, which is why I reported Wikimedia Commons’ pedophilia pages to the FBI in 2010 (which took no action that I know of).

All that said, this is no more a pet cause than any others in applied ethics. I have also written about the evils of murder, racism, antivitism (a neologism of mine), censorship, violations of privacy, and other topics in applied ethics. I especially like my essay on “Our Moral Abyss.”

I have rewritten the essay slightly, and follow it with some replies that I made to comments by real, live pedophiles (they’re online and quite shameless, if you didn’t know) that I hope will clarify my arguments.


First, let’s talk about what the word “pedophilia” means. People who write about pedophilia insist that the word means (a) sexual attraction to prepubescent children (or, sometimes, any children below the age of consent). But, of course, people often use the word to mean (b) actual sex with children, i.e., what is more correctly described as child sexual abuse or (these mean the same) child rape.

I want to state very clearly and defend the thesis that pedophilia in both senses is not just “bad” but deeply evil. This is not a thesis about either psychology or the law, but instead about morality.

It’s distressing how poorly the evil of pedophilia seems to be understood. So let’s try to get very clear, beginning with (b) actual sex with children.

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.


The moral horror of child sexual abuse

Sex with children is a horrific evil because it traumatizes the child for life. In this regard, it may be compared to torture and rape of adults; even after the act is over, it continues to wound. It fills the child with undeserved shame and low self-esteem for life. For some adult survivors, this pain becomes so unbearable that they take their own lives. It permanently alters the child’s understanding of sex. Some suffer (and that is the right word) from nymphomania, and some become completely closed off to all sexual relationships. Horrifyingly, it also makes victims more likely to be abusers when they grow up.

Child sexual abuse is an act so damaging and degrading, and at the same time shockingly selfish, that it deserves to be called evil, if anything is evil: for some moments of pleasure, the adult causes the child life-long trauma.

I want to assert very clearly and forcefully that anyone who presumes to evaluate the morality of child sexual abuse without discussing the horrible facts about these consequences is, by that omission, perpetuating the evil. I would argue that every discussion of the subject should make unequivocally clear that, however “pedophilia” is defined, sex with underaged children is a horrific evil and is intolerable. This would not be so important if pedophilia were widely understood to be a terrible evil, if it did not have its shameless advocates; but since such advocates do exist, it is incumbent on the rest of us to remind those who might be at all confused on the point of these basic facts.

Another shockingly incorrect stance on this topic is that sex with prepubescent children is wrong only when the child “doesn’t consent.” This needs only one reply: the trauma described above will happen whether or not “consent” seems to be given by the child. And, of course, children are not capable of consenting, because they don’t understand the nature of the sex act or its consequences. Anyone using such phrases as “if the child consents” is using the language of pedophilia apology and is very highly suspect.

There are other reasons why sex with children is wrong as well, and they bear briefer mention. Children can be physically injured by sex. It can result in pregnancy among girls as young as 12 (sometimes younger), and in STDs among both boys and girls, which only compounds the horror. Child rape is one of the most egregious violations of the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It deeply damages families and family life. And of course it is against the law, and age of consent laws exist for very good reasons, as I hope I’ve explained.


An evil mental disorder

Some writers demand that everyone use the words “pedophilia” and “pedophile” according to senses defined by psychiatrists. But, just as we may opt not to extend our everyday use of “fruit” to tomatoes, even though biologists tell us they are fruit, so we may opt to continue to use these words in their popular senses.

As a philosopher, i.e., someone trained in the definition of concepts and argumentation over how to apply words, I want to advise the opposite: you may and should continue to use the word as you always have, at least in most contexts. A pedophile, in this popular sense, is someone who sexually abuses children, or who tries to, or who wants to. To be clear, I’m not saying that these ought to be the scientific or clinical uses of the terms. I’m saying that the everyday use, which I am discussing here, need not mirror the clinical use.

The medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation.

But now let’s do talk about the clinical sense: the desire to have sex with children. This, too, is a moral evil.

Some will bristle at that mere claim. They act as if the fact that psychologists write about, and treat, pedophilia means that, since pedophilia is just a medical condition, it is off-limits for moral evaluation. This argument is so obviously fallacious that it actually serves better as a reductio of the premise; in other words, the medicalization of a condition clearly does not preclude its moral evaluation.

Others will say that mere desires obviously can’t be morally evaluated. Admittedly, among the people who write about this subject, it is a less popular stance to say the desire and not just the act is evil. But it is worth pointing out that, if you were to take a poll — I couldn’t find any, probably because it seems so obvious — you would discover that the vast majority of people find the desire to have sex with children to be very bad indeed, and I’m guessing most people would have no objections to placing the label “evil” on it.

I am not saying this is an argument for the claim that desire for sex with children is evil. But it puts in context the frankly bizarre and disturbing practice of some to treat pedophilia as merely a psychiatric disorder, as if it were not a very deeply serious problem for other people as well. Let us grant that pedophilia, in the sense of desire for sex with children, is indeed a psychiatric disorder; indeed, there seems nothing well-ordered about it. But most of us simply couldn’t care in the slightest that it is a psychiatric disorder, i.e., we don’t care that there is something wrong with the brains of pedophiles, except insofar as such people pose a threat to our children. Pedophilia as a disorder per se rightly strikes us as a threat, and such a monstrous threat that it is evil.

So, yes, well spotted, pedophilia is a disorder. But that does not stop us from condemning it as something quite evil, not just a clinical condition like, say, high blood pressure. I do so condemn it, and so should we all.

Mind you, I don’t mean to say I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for the psychological condition of a person who wakes up one day finding himself wanting to boink little boys and girls. It is, rather, that I greatly prioritize the health of families and communities far above whatever pain an illicit desire might cause such a person. In fact, the priority of the former is so much greater that I can say that the only significant reason that most of us need care about the mental health of a pedophile is that, through caring, we might perhaps prevent child sexual abuse. There is no other important reason.

If this still isn’t clear, think of it this way. I suppose there are people who want very badly to rape women. They fantasize about it, they watch rape porn, they might have come close at times. Some have actually done it, although others have never done it. Call such a person a rapeophile. (Arguably, an extreme form of a DSM-5 category, sexual sadism disorder.) Now, if pedophilia is a mental disorder, I think it is safe to say that rapeophilia is one too. To be sure, being a rapeophile might cause a person great mental anguish; it certainly should. But in this situation, whom do I care more about: the rapeophile, or women who might possibly be in danger from the rapeophile? Obviously, the latter — even if the rapeophile has never acted on his desires.


How can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control?

But, some critics will say smugly, you’re missing an obvious objection: how can pedophilia be evil if is beyond a person’s control? The short answer is that it’s not entirely beyond a person’s control. But let’s back up a bit.

As a philosophy instructor for many years, I taught undergraduates the common maxim that one cannot be responsible if one lacks freedom; if we ought to do something, or not, then it must be the case that we are free to do it, or not. How can we be obligated to do something that isn’t in our power?

When psychiatrists inform us that pedophilia is a mental disorder and when certain (I think quite contemptible) activists insist that pedophiles cannot control their desires, these claims are sometimes used draw the definitely false conclusion that pedophilia, in the psychiatric sense, is not bad.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature.

I deny the premise. I claim that pedophilia, or the desire to have sex with children, can be controlled. Alcoholism too is a mental disorder and it can be controlled, albeit with great difficulty. That is why I maintain that alcoholism is quite morally bad. Many people—many recovering alcoholics—agree wholeheartedly with me. All acknowledge at least that it is an addiction, and few would object to the good advice that we should not allow ourselves to sink into that awful swamp before it gets that bad. Indeed, I would say, we bear a huge obligation to ourselves to avoid it. But admittedly, once we are addicted, it becomes more understandable if we do not heroically and suddenly de-addict ourselves. Still, we also bear a very heavy burden to lift ourselves out of addiction as well as we can, and, after the fact, we can still be blamed for allowing ourselves to become addicted. We will bear this burden until the addiction no longer afflicts us; and then we will still bear the burden of not letting ourselves sink back into it.

Desires and compulsions are not unalterable facts of nature. That’s a fact.

And this fact is, as it turns out, a deeply important point that must not be passed over lightly, much less dismissed. It is entirely unrealistic—as well as cynical and corrupting—to deny the adjustability of desire. After all, a great deal of morality and psychiatry both, as well as rehabilitation in criminal justice, are concerned with adjusting unwelcome desires. To treat desires and compulsions as unchangeable forces of nature is essentially to give up on moral improvement, psychiatric recovery, and criminal rehabilitation.

Universal experience teaches that intense desires do not simply arrive full-blown in our heads. They creep in, as it were, experienced as mere possibilities. We consider them, perhaps briefly, musing. If something is quite taboo — for example, murder, sex with a sibling, or using the “n” word — then most of us will drop the idea immediately, and the desire has little chance to germinate.

Let’s suppose there is a person who, for whatever reason, has unusually weak self-control. If this person finds himself with a desire, he has no filters to rein it in; it doesn’t occurs to him that he should not reject it. Instead, he nurses his desire. He thinks about it. He considers and discusses with himself; he imagines; he plans, but without acting on the plans.

Suppose that person is a pedophile.

The pedophile then, finally, decides that he has a problem, that it might be wrong for him to have these desires. Is such a person not morally culpable, foolish at least if not actually evil, for allowing such desires to fester unchecked? Why wouldn’t he be? Think about any illicit or undesirable desire you might have had in the past — for too much porn, dessert, alcohol, drugs, game time, or whatever your vice might be. It can be hard to stop yourself from indulging in bad habits. But do you not also remember when you developed those bad habits, and when you could have much more easily reined them in?

Why should the desire for sex with children be any different? Don’t just claim that it is different; explain very carefully how and why it is different. It isn’t.

Someone might argue that I am comparing bad habits like overeating or drinking too much alcohol — and those are actions — with an undesirable desire, which the pedophile we’re talking about doesn’t act on. If he never indulges the desire, why think the mere desire is bad?

This is a fair question, but there is a clear answer. The thoughts are bad, of course, because people who lack the self-control to order their thoughts often lack the self-control to restrain the behavior that the desire would lead to. We do not leave children alone with people who confess that they have pedophilic desires, because desires might lead to action.

The desire is horrific because the action is horrific. Would we not also be horrified by someone confessing he thinks constantly about raping women? I certainly would be.

This is the main reason, then, that pedophilia in the clinical sense is horrifically evil: it can, and sometimes does, lead to a horrifically evil action. It is idle and sophomoric to insist that, after all, it might not lead to that action. A person who lets such an evil desire fester and grow strong has for that very reason demonstrated a lack of self-control. The risk is significant, and it is a risk of a great evil.

The desire is horrific because the action is horrific. Would we not also be horrified by someone confessing he thinks constantly about raping women? I certainly would be.

Let me consider one final reply. What if someone claims to have this desire but that it is fully under control — that he would never rape a child, and would only ever fantasize. Putting aside worries about the risk, surely mere fantasizing hurts no one.

Well, no; it is not fantasizing per se that makes pedophilia so evil. It is, first and foremost, the risk. And anyone who is so out-of-control as to permit these feelings to fester in himself is a risk, so far as the rest of us know, no matter what he may say. And while the fantasizing might not hurt anyone, it certainly does increase the risk.

Pedophilic feelings have other ill effects. They can cause someone to go looking for child pornography, which creates a market for actual child rape. Even drawn child molestation can increase the chances of a desire for the real thing, thereby creating a market. After all, if a pedophile enjoys looking at drawn pictures of children being molested, surely he or she might get even more excitement from actual photographs.

It is also an undesirable desire because the pedophile must never act on it. It is, for that reason, in addition to be horrifically evil, also pointless.

Let me clarify one last point. In this section I’ve been arguing that pedophilia, considered simply as a desire for sex with children, is horrifically evil. But I am not saying that psychiatrists or clergy or others who are working directly with pedophiles should be highly judgmental. I have no opinion on that; I suppose psychiatrists should do whatever in their clinical experience reduces the disorder fastest and most permanently, while remaining humane, of course.


Stop the pedophilia apology

If you look online at discussions of pedophilia, one of the first things you will read about it is not how evil child sexual abuse is. Instead, you will read that pedophilia is just a feeling, and feelings can’t be controlled, so pedophiles aren’t bad. The fact that this is the popular narrative horrifies me, and I think it should horrify you. The narrative is not only quite wrong, for reasons I’ve already explained, it is also quite dangerous.

Even those who agree that sex with children is a great evil unwittingly contribute to the problem, if they speak as if pedophilic desires were unalterable facts of nature. When a behavior seems to spring from a desire or a psychiatric diagnosis, modern thinkers are in the unfortunate habit of treating the desire or diagnosis as, indeed, incapable of change, when they certainly are not.

There’s a funny thing about free will: the more we believe that something is in our control, the more control we have over it. By contrast, the more we believe that something is out of our control, the less we will be inclined to do anything about it. It is as if a belief in free will gives us free will.

Therefore, I’m afraid that those who characterize pedophilia as an unchangeable desire are actually directly contributing to the problem. It would be like telling alcoholics that they cannot escape their alcoholism. If they believed that, then why would they even try? And just imagine saying that aloud to “rapeophiles”: “Too bad you have a desire to rape women. Now that you have it, make sure you don’t act on it.” We can’t imagine anyone with such a complacent attitude in the #MeToo age. Why countenance such an attitude toward those who desire to rape children? Are children less worthy of protection than women?

If your illicit desires are unchangeable, if you bear no responsibility for them, then why fight them?

Heeding this message — and also horrifically — many pedophiles regard their condition as just “another sexual orientation” that may be responsibly indulged (i.e., only in fantasy). One can find a sympathetic group for practically anything online, including pedophilia. I’m sorry to report that, in my experience, pedophilia propagandists are online, active, and emboldened.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

Their propaganda is disturbing. Consider: There is the plea that we should “understand” pedophiles first and foremost, often with no attention to the risk to abuse victims. There is the drive to consider a deep moral evil and societal cancer as primarily a matter of clinical study and treatment, with the implication that moral evaluation is somehow unscientific and reactionary. There is, incredibly, “activism” on behalf of “age of consent reform,” as if advocacy on behalf of one of the most horrific crimes imaginable were somehow “progressive.” And there are aggressive demands of tolerance of drawn depictions of child molestation — created by and for pedophiles — because it is a “victimless crime.” Never mind that what is depicted is, for all decent people, one of the most heinous of crimes, worse than rape because it is the rape of children. Never mind that the consumers of such depictions are pedophiles who must restrain themselves from that crime. These abhorrent practices normalize pedophilia.

If there is one reason that we should insist that pedophilia is a criminal behavior as well as a disorder, and that it is a horrifically evil one at that, it is that we should take a stand against those who would, quite deliberately, try to normalize it. If it is normalized, this will embolden the weak and the malevolent to indulge their desires. We have less to fear from those who are strong-willed enough not to act on their desires. But the world is filled with weak and malevolent people who are only too ready to indulge their desires when an opportunity arises. There is no social or individual benefit to be gained from normalizing pedophilia. If there is one thing that deserves to remain taboo, it is this.

Pedophilia must never be normalized. Have no compunctions about calling it evil; it is important that we do call it evil; we prevent this evil from spreading by identifying it as such.

fin


Note: what follows are some replies I made to pedophiles, yes, real-life pedophiles, who commented on the Medium copy of the above article. I’m not including the pedophiles’ replies because I did not save copies of what they wrote when I left Medium.

Reply #1

This is a reply to a teenage self-confessed pedophile who said he’d never acted on his feelings and that I was very mean for lacking empathy for his plight.

I’m writing so that unformed minds, who might be confused by the likes of you, won’t be. I have absolutely no desire to have “empathy” for pedophiles, any more than I want to have empathy for rapists. Frankly, I think child molestation is considerably worse than rape of adults; it is a truly horrific crime. “Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons” is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than “Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.” The only reason to empathize with such a person’s pedophilia is to prevent crime; and the way that crime might be prevented by empathy is not by making the criminal (or would-be criminal) feel better about their criminal ideation but by coming to understand their patterns, motivations, and other things that allow us to (a) catch and punish criminals and (b) aggressively prevent actual child abuse.

If any teen of mine confessed to being sexually attracted to little children, I would (a) explain in great detail why pedophilia is not just a little bit wrong, but horrifically evil (and probably make them read the essay I wrote, and demonstrate excellent understanding of it) and (b) immediately seek professional help from a therapist who agreed with me that pedophilic desires must be treated as criminal ideation, with a goal of eliminating them as much as possible.

It’s silly and absurd to be accused of having a “look-how-morally-upstanding-I-am” tone as I patiently explain how evil pedophilia is. I have also carefully and patiently explained why murder is wrong, and nobody accused me of being self-righteous. That’s because normal people don’t think they’re particularly great because they don’t commit crime. For normal people, that’s just the baseline.

But I will, of course, show no compunctions about telling pedophiles directly and without regret that you are not just “sick,” but deeply morally corrupt, and I don’t mean a little bit or in a hip and edgy way (like, e.g., drug abuse seems to some people), but in a straightforward your-heart-is-black way. Pedophiles are evil. They don’t need empathy. They need therapy in the way that muggers could use rehabilitation — not because we feel sorry for the pedophiles (or muggers), but because society desperately needs them to refrain from their evil behavior. And the notion that pedophilia is a sexual orientation that needs to be normalized is horrifying and beyond obscene.


Reply #2

This is a reply to a European graduate student in the humanities, I think, who thought he was being clever by making sophistical replies to the arguments in my essay. These are my rebuttals.

Matt, as you are speaking as a pedophilia apologist, and as you are speaking to someone who believes pedophilia (in both senses defined in my original essay) is evil, you have no credibility or authority. So when you adopt a tone of condescension, you merely come across as ridiculous. I’m still laughing at you. And this is why I’m not going to reply to your laughable attempts at zingers; they just make you look creepier.

Here are a few replies:

I wrote: “Non-Offending Minor Attracted Persons” is no more legitimate than, and no more deserving of empathy, than “Men Who Want to Violently Rape Women But Restrain Themselves.”

You responded, irrelevantly: “Exactly how is it not legitimate? Are you suggesting that it is impossible for a pedophile to control their actions? You’ve already argued that they can in your previous article.”

“Rapeophilia” — defined, say, as the exclusive or predominant desire to rape women — is about as legitimate as pedophilia, defined similarly but with regard to children. So imagine someone came up with “Non-Offending Rape Attracted Persons,” or NORAP, and said the various sorts of things about their desire to rape women that you say with regard to attraction to children. They just need help; they shouldn’t be ostracized; they should be “understood”; don’t judge them as a potential rapists because most of them don’t rape; etc. Well, it’s pretty damn obvious that saying these things in defense of a fictional NORAP category is no different from saying similar things in defense of NOMAPs (i.e., pedophiles). Considering that defense of rapeophilia is utterly illegitimate, we can also say that defense of pedophilia is utterly illegitimate.

Now, I’m glad that you at least pay lip service to the notion that pedophiles can control themselves. But I say more than that they can stop themselves from raping children. I say, furthermore, that they bear a heavy burden to deny and rid themselves of their desire to rape children, which they should have denied and repressed the moment it appeared. Instead, they went with it. It is playing with fire to indulge potential criminals by saying that their desire to rape children is a “sexual orientation” on a par with heterosexuality or homosexuality, by saying that there’s nothing wrong with fantasizing, etc. Imagine a group of people, the worst of whom are regular rapists, who say, “There’s nothing morally wrong with people who can only get off on rape fantasies. They can’t control themselves. We should understand them. Some women actually secretly want to be raped, you know — but of course, we believe rape is very, very wrong. (Except, of course, for the people who think it’s just fine, right?)”

You’re not even nearly as clever as you think you are. You’re an idiot. Your bias in favor of people who commit horrific crimes has made you unable to understand basic reasoning. I don’t have many opinions about the best way to rehabilitate pedophiles. I know I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t generally opine about such things. But I do have an opinion about social mores: it should never be an acceptable part of society to encourage adults to accept within themselves their attraction to children. That is, and should remain, one of the strongest taboos we live by. I don’t know or particularly care what therapists say to pedophiles in their therapy sessions.

I also have an opinion about the goal of therapy is the same as the goal of therapy with rapists or alcoholics or drug addicts: to rid themselves of the desire. In this regard, it’s very, very different than the goal of therapy for homosexuals. Most people think we shouldn’t try to “cure” homosexuals; I’m one who thinks we shouldn’t. In that regard, homosexuality can be regarded as a sexual orientation whereas pedophilia and rapeophilia cannot. Similarly, wine tasting and being a whisky connoisseur can be regarded as more or less healthy pastimes; alcoholism isn’t, and alcoholics bear the heavy burden to rid themselves of their compulsion.