On Twitter I made a point during a discussion with a non-pedophile that child sexual abuse doesn’t always cause harm (a point I repeated in my 11 terrible myths about pedophiles that need to be challenged post). To be sure, it does cause harm enough that it perfectly warrants banning it across the board, but it seems some of my comrades at VirPed were a bit bothered by this point anyway. This is perfectly understandable, since it not only makes our job to win sympathy a bit tougher when we say things like this, but also I have no doubt that many of them genuinely believe this is the case. Even so, I have a problem with the 100% harm position for several reasons.
First, because it is simply wrong. There have been several studies that have arrived at this position, among them the notorious Rind Report. This was a meta-analysis (basically a bunch of similar studies using a lot of different populations) conducted by Bruce Rind and his fellow researchers back in the ’90s; it’s controversial, and for good reason. It is certainly a problematic study, no question—you know it’s problematic when it’s the go-to study for the pro-contacters. But it did provide some useful information, like the fact that not everyone who has experienced sexual abuse feels they were harmed, and there’s a lot to be said for how we feel about our childhood experiences. Our beliefs about ourselves do have an effect on our psychology. I’ll come back to that point because I think it’s important. What I want say now is that I am not aware of any (good) studies on sexual abuse that ever concluded a 100% rate of harm from it.
Indeed, you have to question anything that makes an all or nothing claim about anything to do with human beings. In my college Social Problems class we once had a debate about abortion. We broke into two groups, a pro-choice group (headed by moi) and a pro-life group (headed by a conservative Catholic kid)—my team ultimately won the debate because I called into question a point the opposing team made in which their team captain, quoting some pro-life doctor, tried to say that there was never a case in which a mother’s life was threatened enough that it would require an abortion. I took this clearly false claim and ran with it, hammering home the fact that when it comes to humanity, there are never any absolutes, no 0% or 100% for anything with respect to homo sapiens, ever. Obviously, even without any evidence in front of me, I knew that life-threatening pregnancies had to have arisen at some point.
The same applies here: just through reasoning based on all that I know about humans, I know there must be cases where sexual abuse has occurred but the child was never traumatized or even harmed. In my own case there was never trauma, though given my own sexuality and all the problems it has caused, I won’t go so far as to claim I was never harmed. But I’ve encountered at least two people over the years who made exactly this claim. Both were pretty well-adjusted women as far as I could tell, so I had no reason to question their claims. One of them was related to a high school friend of mine (and this was well before I ever outed myself, so she could not have been influenced by my status as an out pedophile); the other was a woman I read an online article by who made this point and who did not know me at all.
So, in my estimation, there is always something to be said for truth. I know the position that adult-child sex is always harmful has become almost sacrosanct and unchallengeable in debate (it is always bad science when someone stakes a claim on a position that can never be openly challenged; how much more so when that claim is about a species as infinitely variable as humanity!) but that doesn’t make it true. The big problem here is that if the court of public opinion refuses to allow a point to be discussed honestly, it can have a chilling effect on good research. But science should serve no master but unapologetic, untainted Truth. It was the famous protestant Renaissance poet and essayist John Milton who said it best. In his Areopagitica, one of the earliest and best arguments in favor of free speech and a free press, Milton said,
Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?
Milton is saying that when we censor or control a concept, even in the service of a noble goal, we are casting doubt on the ultimate validity of truth itself. Sure, we live in a postmodern age, but I do think there is such a thing as truth and such a thing as falsity, and by fleeing to the politically and morally expedient all-or-nothing argument, we have effectively claimed that some truths are too volatile to tell people. It is an inherently pessimistic viewpoint because it assumes that some people cannot handle reality, and that the few who know the truth put society in jeopardy by being too honest about what they know. I didn’t really want to make this political, but let’s be honest: the people most apt to subscribe to this viewpoint are social conservatives. Yes, the political wing that most frequently positions itself as the populist one also believes truth should be tightly controlled, and some of it forbidden to the masses, which is, of course, fundamentally hypocritical. So, I cannot in good conscience contribute to this already perniciously widespread mindset by opting for the easy or convenient argument to bolster my point. I just can’t do it.
But that’s certainly not the only reason to adhere to the truth here. I said I would return to my point about how our beliefs can impact our psychology, and here is where I will do so. The fact is, our feelings about ourselves, and even our memories to an extent, are shaped by our current worldview, and that in turn is heavily influenced by mass public opinion, no matter how much we may fancy ourselves immune to it. The man or woman who isn’t afraid to regularly peel back the veneer of his own comfortable illusions and mental biases (which we all have) generally comes closest to the truth as it is, not as they’d like it to be. Knowing this, I must conclude that to spread the message of absolute harm is to doom those people who would otherwise count themselves among the lucky ones who escaped their experiences unscathed to a reassessment that fits in snugly with the Sacred Tenet, and thus probably to needlessly condemn them to feeling harmed.
No doubt there are those who truly were harmed by their sexual abuse, a lot of them in fact, and this is why the risks in engaging in such behaviors are simply much too high. But it ultimately serves no one to subscribe to a view—any view really—that a social condition must be absolutely one way or another. This position is simple, elegant and agreeable, yes, but simple, elegant and agreeable are rarely accommodating of truth. We live in a complex universe, and we humans are arguably the most complex part of it. If humanity was always predictable, stock markets would never fail and we would always know when a disgruntled person is going to pick up a gun and murder his fellows in a school, mall or theater. I know that we like to believe that there are certain things about humanity which are undeniable, but the fact is, there just aren’t. Not a single one, save that we all fall under the banner of Man.
What we must guard against is creating a psycho-cultural black hole, a belief so widespread and powerful that no one who encounters it (particularly in a vulnerable state such as childhood is), no matter how briefly or tentatively, can come away from it unwarped, or worse, remain captured in its darkness altogether. But I fear that this issue has become precisely that, a kind of irreligious religion for which those who would otherwise move easily beyond their experiences are forced by cultural expectations and extreme social pressures to either conform to the belief that they were indeed irreparably harmed, or face a destructive downward spiral of guilt, self-doubt and cognitive dissonance. Either way, as things stand now, it is a no-win situation for anyone who has ever been sexually abused in any capacity. If that weren’t bad enough, I’ve had some of the most vile characters I’ve encountered on the internet tell me, upon my informing them that many abuse survivors actually wished me well after my articles came out, that they were glad those people were molested! If that isn’t evidence of the blind emotionalism on which we are currently embroiled, and which sees no irony in such a statement, then I don’t know what is. No, we must challenge absolutist assumptions like this whenever they arise, or we risk hurtling headlong into that cultural black hole without any hope of ever redeeming either truth or peace-of-mind.
The final reason I insist on this point is because I believe it serves those abusers who have won over their victims. Consider: if one holds the belief that all sexual abuse meets a particular type, that type being inherently coercive and always unwanted by the child (which is to say, the type which would seemingly always result in harm), then we will be blind to sexual abuse of a completely different temperament that is happening right under our noses. If we continue to think that a child who is happy and excited to be around someone must therefore be free of victimization by that person, then we gravely misunderstand the nature of how a good deal of abuse actually plays out. We must be very careful about any assumption that a child abuser can easily hide behind to mask his actions, and this assumption is just such a one. We must shake the notion that all abuse can be easily characterized by its horrible results both short-term or long-term, and that any evidence for the lack of these must certainly imply innocence. Likewise, the converse of this belief—that all sexual abuse leads to a tortured mind and soul—must also be held in suspicion, for it is the flip side of the same coin, leading to incorrect conclusions that may jeopardize children.
Of course, we must always make it clear that there are many documented cases of genuine harm, enough so that any adult who engages in sexual behaviors with a child does so with grave irresponsibility and wanton immorality, because the risks to the child of being harmed are extremely high—high enough that we can accept it as almost an absolute, which is sufficient reason not to do it, and to faithfully keep it illegal on the books and taboo in our hearts.