The Corner

Culture

On Salon‘s Much-Maligned Pedophilia Piece

At Salon today, a self-professed “pedophile” outlines his struggle with temptation. Here is the crucial part:

I’ve been stuck with the most unfortunate of sexual orientations, a preference for a group of people who are legally, morally and psychologically unable to reciprocate my feelings and desires. It’s a curse of the first order, a completely unworkable sexuality, and it’s mine. Who am I? Nice to meet you.  My name is Todd Nickerson, and I’m a pedophile. Does that surprise you? Yeah, not many of us are willing to share our story, for good reason. To confess a sexual attraction to children is to lay claim to the most reviled status on the planet, one that effectively ends any chance you have of living a normal life.  Yet, I’m not the monster you think me to be.  I’ve never touched a child sexually in my life and never will, nor do I use child pornography.  

But isn’t that the definition of a pedophile, you may ask, someone who molests kids? Not really. Although “pedophile” and “child molester” have often been used interchangeably in the media, and there is some overlap, at base, a pedophile is someone who’s sexually attracted to children. That’s it. There’s no inherent reason he must act on those desires with real children. Some pedophiles certainly do, but many of us don’t. Because the powerful taboo keeps us in hiding, it’s impossible to know how many non-offending pedophiles are out there, but signs indicate there are a lot of us, and too often we suffer in silence. That’s why I decided to speak up.

I’ve seen a good number of conservatives slamming this confession, often on the presumption that it represents an attempt to “mainstream” pedophilia. Respectfully, I have to disagree with this assessment. Naturally, I am as disgusted by the urges that are referenced in the piece as the next guy, and, despite the author’s heartfelt plea for “understanding,” I find it difficult not to harbor a real animus toward him. But I see no evidence whatsoever that Salon is endorsing or excusing child abuse, or that it is making the case that pedophilia is an “ingrained identity” and that its sufferers should therefore be free to act as they wish. On the contrary: The piece draws attention to the fact that some people live with these abominable proclivities — “a curse of the first order” and “a massive handicap,” the author calls them — and yet manage successfully to suppress them. Whatever one might reasonably think of the man and his afflictions, to draw the opposite lesson from his admission than the one he intended seems to me unjust. He is clearly not arguing that he should be let off the hook if he commits a heinous crime.

How should we treat such a person’s decision to talk about his affliction in public? Honestly, I have no idea. Social taboos are important, of course. But I do know this: Unless you believe that people “choose” to become pedophiles — and I don’t — the author seems to be doing exactly what he should be doing given his condition: Namely, a) accepting that he has an unimaginably serious problem, and b) doing his utmost to refrain from acting upon it. I am not a practicing Christian, but, as far as I can recall from my instruction as a child, the author is taking precisely the approach that Christians are supposed to take when they find themselves tempted toward sin. I suppose that it is possible that I am seriously mis-remembering the core tenets of the faith, but don’t followers of Jesus believe that everybody is born with impulses that lead them toward unacceptable behavior? And don’t they also believe that they are called to act chastely — that is, to avoid indulging those impulses and instead to seek a way to be freed from them? It was a while ago, I accept, but I cannot recollect any caveats being attached to these rules. Are we now to suppose that it does not apply when the propensity in question is sufficiently egregious? Is there a new-fangled carve-out for instincts that turn our stomach? If there is not, we might think twice before condemning a man for admitting he has a terrible, terrible problem — even if we can’t move ourselves far enough in the opposite direction to “understand,” to “support,” or to like him much at all (and I can’t).

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