I originally wrote this to explain what is needed in research that focuses on protecting children. Instead, it has become an open letter to the scientific community around a particularly sensitive topic, since I guess that is where my creative juices were at today. Enjoy.
Emotional Subjects Can Mean We Avoid Logic
But you knew that already, right? As people have pointed out many, many times, the topic of child sexual abuse is one that is very emotional for many people. All I have to do is say “child rapist” and you see red. Yes, that includes myself. I was sexually abused as a child. I developed a sexual attraction to children when I hit puberty. Both of those things were beyond my control, and I get angry at those that sexually abuse children. I get even angrier when I see that the United States government, and governments around the world, are not doing enough to protect children from sexual abuse before it happens in the first place.
I could be your stereotypical victim that seeks harsh punishment for all sexual abusers. I could sue the people who abused me. I could do any number of things that would be driven more by emotion than their actual effect on reducing sexual abuse. However, I have chosen to take a hard look, not only at the science and research around this issue, but at the logic we use on this issue. In many cases, that logic fails because it is based in emotion. In most cases, the policies we have formed, with the best of intentions, are completely inadequate to protect children.
Emotion is a wonderful and terrible thing. It can drive perfectly sane reactions, like drying the tears of a hurt child, or a quest for justice in a hit-and-run accident. However, it can also cause harm, like the jealousy-driven murder of an ex-lover who was cheating, or snubbing an employer and hurting one’s prospects of future employment. Emotion can be both incredibly helpful, and amazingly destructive.
Researchers Need To Take Notice: Science First
Many researchers do not focus exclusively on the science. Some researchers, in their quest for more funding, instead focus on topics that the public will accept. In turn, the news media drives this by publishing studies that are more widely received by the public (currently, health-related topics and unusual or cute animals seem to be the two major areas) and avoiding studies that may cause disagreement or unrest.
A prime example of this is the news four years ago that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health Disorders, Fifth Edition, would be referring to pedophilia as a sexual orientation. There has been much debate among scientists about exactly how pedophilia should be defined and labeled, and when that debate hit the public eye, the backlash was (and still is) intense. In fact, this backlash forced the American Psychiatric Association (which publishes the DSM-V) to give a press release saying they will no longer consider pedophilia to be a sexual orientation, and that classifying it as such was a mistake.
There is a need, now more than ever before, for the science to ignore political, emotional, and public leanings and simply state what the facts are. All too often, on the topic of pedophilia and beyond, scientists are letting the fear of public response dictate not only what they work on, but what they conclude in their findings. This seems particularly true for social sciences like psychology, sociology, and criminology. The facts simply do not matter anymore, what the public reaction to what the facts seem to say is more important for some researchers.
What You Label Things Does Not Matter As Much As What They Mean
What you call a sexual attraction to children really does not matter: The fact remains that some people, mainly men, have a sexual interest in children that they did not choose and cannot change. I believe it is easier to call this pedophilia, because that is how the term is understood medically. Whether that attraction is classified as a paraphilia, a mental disorder, or a sexual orientation likewise does not matter: The fact is, those with this attraction (like myself) never chose to have it any more than someone with depression chooses to be depressed. Their depression, like an attraction to children, does not make them inferior.
In some cases, that attraction has no deleterious effect on mental health because it does not cause distress, it does not cause anxiety, and it does not lead to harmful behavior. We need to find a label for when it does have that deleterious effect, and the DSM-V has one: Pedophilic disorder. We need to find a label for when it does not, and one already exists: Pedophilia. We have and readily use labels for when someone, whether they have this attraction or not, becomes sexual with a child: Sexual abuse, child rape, etc. The observation or effect you are trying to describe is always more important to communicate than the label with which you use to describe it. However, the use of an improper label can miscommunicate what you are trying to describe.
While the label is less important as what it describes, it can still lead to an inability to comprehend what is being described.
Where Logic Comes In
To be fair, logic has already come into play. I think by now you realize the point I am making here: The label we use, while important and can lead to miscommunication, is not as important as fleshing out the implications of what we are saying with logic. Labels help this “fleshing out” process be shorter and easier to read, but when there are disputes about these labels, it can complicate this process tremendously.
There is the rub: Researchers have differing opinions on what terminology to use around a sexual attraction to children. Do they call it a mental illness, a disorder, a paraphilia? Do they differentiate between offending and non-offending persons with this attraction, and if so how? Should they consider the attraction a sexual orientation, and if so, how will the public understand that? Should the difficulties that arise from having the attraction include sexual behavior with children, and should such behavior be indicative of a mental illness? If you look at what Psychology Today has to say about these issues, you get a different answer than if you looked at WebMD’s answer that quotes a sexologist, and both of those are still different from other sexologists on the matter.
These are very straightforward questions that can be answered quite readily by logic. No one would presume that all heterosexual men are liable to rape women, unless they want to sound ridiculous. No one would presume that the presence of rape fantasies is indicative of a mental illness, nor would anyone presume that just being a heterosexual man constitutes a mental illness. Being troubled by being heterosexual, and fearing one’s behavior towards women may be cause for a mental health diagnosis, but absent such fears and feelings being heterosexual seems to be a perfectly natural occurrence.
The same simple logic applies to a sexual attraction to children. If someone can refrain from acting on this attraction and is not troubled by it, there is no cause for considering them to be mentally ill. If someone with a sexual attraction has not abused a child, they should not be suspected of such merely for having the attraction. One should not need the consensus of the scientific community in order to come to these conclusions, yet the feedback from differing researchers and organizations has not been in agreement.
As people with sexual attractions to children, no matter what you choose to call us, the scientific community needs to apply its famed approach to our attractions. Recruit us for your studies, and hunt down the funding. The scientific community must research not just those with attractions to children that have acted upon these attractions, but those who have not. They must look at the labels and determine which is most appropriate for each classification, and they must come to a consensus regarding whether or not someone is mentally ill for having a sexual attraction that does not lead to harmful behavior or mental health issues, or if those mental health issues are separate from the attraction itself.