When Prostasia Foundation first published my interview with researcher Allyn Walker about their book A Long, Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity, we never expected such a fierce backlash to ensue. Although some criticism of Dr Walker’s research was motivated by overt bigotry, there was also real concern over their views that the stigma faced by those with an unchosen attraction towards minors should be reduced.
Stigma makes it more difficult to fight CSA
Many people viscerally believe that stigmatizing pedophiles is an important way to reduce child sexual assault. The argument is that by ostracizing people attracted to minors, by vilifying them, and even by threatening their lives, society shows that CSA is unacceptable and will be punished harshly.
The fact, though, is that stigmatizing pedophiles does not translate into condemnation of CSA. On the contrary, treating pedophiles as monsters who are chiefly responsible for abuse actually makes it more difficult to recognize and combat CSA. Study after study has shown that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, stigmatizing pedophiles does little to prevent harm to children, and in fact in many cases enables it.
Over 60 researchers and clinicians in the fields of sexual abuse prevention, mental health, human sexuality, and criminology attempted to set the record straight in a joint letter in support of Dr Walker that was sent on November 22, 2021. The letter affirms “De-stigmatization essentially involves increasing the public’s understanding about the population being considered.” So what is it that we misunderstand about pedophilia, and how does correcting that misunderstanding help to fight CSA?
Pedophilia and CSA are not the same thing
Part of the reason that people assume that stigmatizing pedophilia signals condemnation of child sexual abuse is that many people incorrectly believe that pedophilia and CSA are the same thing. In their book, Dr Walker notes that when they tell audiences that pedophilia and CSA are not the same, people will often reach for their phones to start googling, because they do not believe it.
When those audience members google, they find that Walker is correct. Pedophilia and CSA are not synonymous. Pedophilia refers to a sexual attraction to children. The term refers to internal feelings, not to actions. As bioethicist Brian D. Earp explains
Adult sexual contact with an underage minor is a crime and a serious moral wrong. Pedophilia, by contrast, is a psychiatric disorder involving primary or exclusive sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children (not just any person under the age of 18), which — if acted on — is a crime and a serious moral wrong. Actually, even then, it is the act that is wrong; the involuntary sexual attraction, so long as it remains disconnected from behavior, is probably not wrong in and of itself.
Many pedophiles never offend and never sexually abuse children. In fact, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Center at the University of New Hampshire, most people who sexually abuse children are not pedophiles. Instead, he says, most child abusers harm children, “[b]ecause they don’t have other access to sources of sexual gratification…—or that child may be very readily accessible, so someone who is a member of their family.”
Like many forms of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse can be about demonstrating dominance and power, rather than about sex per se. People who have no sexual interest in children may harm children because they feel they are entitled to, or because they enjoy asserting their power, or simply because they can. Stigmatizing pedophilia and conflating pedophilia and CSA makes it harder to see the majority of child sexual abuse which is committed by people who aren’t pedophiles.
Stigmatizing MAPs makes it more difficult for them to access treatment
Stigmatizing pedophiles makes it very difficult for pedophiles who do not want to harm children to get help and support. In The Long Dark Shadow, Allyn Walker interviews non-offending pedophiles who were reported to police by therapists, or who were disowned by family members when they came forward. These responses obviously make pedophiles very reluctant to ask for help, since they know that doing so may destroy their lives.
“The best prevention programs focus on the individuals at highest risk of offending,” writes Elizabeth J. Letourneau, Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. “But to get those individuals into an intervention, we must destigmatize the act of asking for help.”
Many forms of CSA are not socially condemned
Even people who agree with Letourneau on the need to encourage pedophiles to come forward and seek help may worry that there is a downside. We want to encourage people to get support so they do not offend. But at the same time, many people are concerned that lowering stigma against pedophiles will make child sexual abuse more acceptable. How can we destigmatize non-offending pedophiles while continuing to condemn child sexual abuse?
The assumption behind these concerns is that society currently condemns child sexual abuse. In fact, though, when child sexual abuse is not committed by pedophiles, it is often normalized, and the people who commit it face little if any condemnation or censure. They may even be celebrated.
As one example, a bill in Florida banning trans women from women’s sports allowed school officials to inspect student’s genitals in order to determine whether they were cis or trans. Forcing children to show their genitals to adults whether they consent or not would qualify as sexual abuse in most situations.
The bill was criticized as discriminatory, and the genital inspection provisions in particular were highlighted as outrageous. They did not thankfully make it into the final (still bigoted) law. Yet, few if any reports on the early bill identified it as constituting child sexual abuse. Florida legislators who voted for involuntary genital inspections of children were not fired, nor for the most part even named in the press. They were not reported to police as a danger to the community.
Stigma against pedophiles did not translate here into condemnation of child sexual assault. Florida legislators wanted to harass and abuse trans children, a group of people who are themselves marginalized and stigmatized. More, the legislators’ goal, supposedly, was clinical and legal, rather than sexual. The perpetrators and victims did not fit into the typical narrative of pedophiles harming sympathetic victims. Therefore, the Florida legislators could advocate for harming children without fear of being stigmatized. On the contrary, many legislators no doubt believed, with some reason, that advocating for the sexual harassment of trans children would endear them to a transphobic conservative base.
Spanking and CSA
Spanking is probably the most normalized form of violence against children in the US. It is currently legal for parents to spank children in all 50 states. In 19 states, it is still legal for public school officials to spank children without explicit parental consent.
Spanking someone is obviously physical violence; it involves striking someone. Writer Jillian Keenan makes a strong case that it is also sexual violence. She notes that images of erotic spanking date back to 490 B.C. There is also biological evidence that spanking is sexual for most people.
Nerve tracts that pass through the lower spine carry sensory information to and from both the butt and genitals. Some scientists speculate that these nerves can stimulate one region when the other is provoked. There’s also a blood vessel in the pelvic region called the common iliac artery. When blood rushes to a child’s butt—because, say, you’re spanking him—blood rushes down that artery. But the artery splits. Some of it directs blood to the genitals. So when you cause blood to rush to a child’s butt, you’re also causing it to rush to his or her other sex organs. The other time this kind of genital blood engorgement happens is during erection or arousal.
People are extremely resistant to the idea that spanking might constitute child sexual abuse—and no wonder, since around half of adults spank their children. One commenter at the Atlantic, for instance, insists that
The argument that spanking should be considered a sexual assault is preposterous. It is important to look at motive, as well as whether or not sexual gratification is being obtained from the act.
In other words, the main issue for this writer is the feelings of the perpetrator. If they’re a pedophile, obtaining sexual gratification from the spanking, then it’s sexual assault. If they’re just a parent trying to discipline their child, you can’t consider it sexual harm.
The problem here is that people who commit sexual assault almost always have an excuse. “I didn’t mean to hurt them.” “They consented.” “They wanted it.” Censuring motives rather than actions centers the perpetrator and encourages you to identify and empathize with them rather than with the victim.
There is an analogy with philosopher Kate Manne’s analysis of himpathy, or the excessive sympathy shown towards powerful men who commit sexual violence. As Manne writes, when men express misogyny or commit abuse, “the conversation tends to shift to his reasons, motives, justifications, or psychological ill health and away from the impact of his behavior on girls and women.” Similarly, in discussions of spanking, adults are eager to talk about the intentions and experiences of the spanker, and much less focused on the pain, fear, humiliation, and confusion of the child experiencing sexualized violence from a loved one.
When we do look at children’s experiences, the evidence is quite clear. Numerous studies have shown that physical punishment of children does not improve their behavior and “can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behavior, physical injury and mental health problems for children,” as the APA summarizes. A recent study using an MRI found that spanking may lead to changes in the brain consistent with severe physical and sexual abuse.
Some people who were spanked as children have talked about the intense emotional trauma they experienced as a result. One anonymous writer says “I remember running from my father in true terror that still sends chills down my spine, while he took off his belt in preparation for a spanking.” They add that “I spent a large majority of my childhood in fear that my father was going to sexually abuse me. There was no basis for it, or so I thought. It was a strange fear, and it made me feel small, ashamed, and confused.” They link that fear to being spanked.
Condemning actions, not stigmatizing individuals
Again, about half of parents in the US spank their children. Two-thirds believe spanking is acceptable. Many children who are spanked experience it as sexual violence. Many are traumatized. But we are reluctant to talk about spanking as CSA precisely because it is normalized.
More, the stigma around pedophiles is so intense and so violent that people cannot bring themselves to admit that people they know, and people they love, and they themselves, may have committed sexual violence against children. When we attribute CSA solely to monstrous and deviant others, it becomes impossible to criticize or acknowledge CSA committed by people who we consider good or well-intentioned. People will excuse or apologize for sexual violence against children because they do not want to see the perpetrators as members of a stigmatized group.
Stigmatizing pedophiles or MAPs makes it harder for pedophiles to seek help, which puts children at risk. And it distracts our attention from the most prevalent forms of child abuse and child sexual abuse, which also puts children at risk. As long as we are focused on stigmatizing pedophiles, we will fail to sufficiently recognize and condemn the actions which harm children.
If you or someone you know struggles with attractions to minors, you can find support and resources here.