Today the UK online paper The Independent published a piece called Paedophilia a ‘sexual orientation – like being straight or gay’ written by Ian Johnston. It mentions me and my Salon pieces, but I’ll get to that in a bit. I want to examine this article in a little more detail than I normally do, especially as it links back to an older piece that is specifically about my two essays in Salon. It’s about a question presented to a psychologist who works with criminals, particularly sex offenders, on Reddit. The question he was asked is, “can paedophiles actually change?” You can read his reply to this and other questions here.
First off, I’ve never been a fan of putting quotes in a headline, as it tends to come off sarcastically whether the writer intended it that way or not. In this case it’s a little tough to tell, but I’m leaning heavily toward it being intentional, especially as he continues this trend in the article itself. For example, the very first line in the piece is this:
Paedophilia is a “sexual orientation” like being straight or gay, according to a criminal psychologist.
It seems Johnston may doubt the psychologist’s conclusion, and yet, the net effect of putting the phrase ‘sexual orientation’ in double quotation marks (as opposed to using single quotation marks as I just did, which are generally employed to emphasize or draw attention to a word or phrase, except in a headline) in the body of his article actually seems to cast aspersions on the whole concept of sexual orientation itself. This is nothing new, but frankly, it feels a little infantile at this point. Fine, we could argue over the finer points of the phrase ‘sexual orientation’ and whether it is largely a political designation or a scientific one, but can we all just agree that no one would willingly choose to be attracted to children? Honestly, why in the hell would anyone ever choose that for themselves? My life has been an absolute hell because of it, and while I’m not eager to kill myself, there are plenty of days when I look forward to death. You have no idea.
Anyway, Johnston goes on to say . . .
The idea that sexual attraction to children is an “orientation” is highly controversial as it suggests that offenders cannot change.
There are a few problems with this statement. The first is putting that word ‘orientation’ in double quotes again. Such tactics are subtle, but they can have a sort of subliminal effect on the reader who lives in a culture where air quotes are commonly paired with facetious statements. Johnston may not even be aware that this is what he’s doing, but it says a lot about his underlying thought process nevertheless. Yet he strikes me as a pretty smart fellow, so I am more inclined to think this is intentional on his part. It allows him to voice his opinion in what is ostensibly a hard news piece without actually doing so directly.
Another problem with this statement is that he provides no context or evidence as to how he arrived at the notion that identifying pedophilia as a sexual orientation suggests that child molesters cannot be rehabilitated. This is simply his opinion. Indeed, there is tons of evidence that sex offenders have the lowest reoffense rates of all types of criminals. And it leads to the third problem, the one that I have identified many times as the most common mistake the media commits in addressing these issues: the conflation of pedophilia and child molestation. I don’t think I need to go over the problems with that again, do I? It’s simple: not all pedophiles are child molesters, and not all child molesters are pedophiles. The majority of child molesters, in fact, are situational offenders. They should be the easiest to rehabilitate because their offenses are not based on actual attraction to children, and the numbers back that up. But even with true pedophiles who offend, they are not doomed to a cycle of abusing kids if they have a strong circle of support and accountability and they are willing to seek help. Whether they’re willing to do that or not will depend a great deal on how society reacts to them and how it addresses this issue going forward.
But Mr. Johnston didn’t get it all wrong, and he does give the psychologist’s viewpoint fairly accurately. The Reddit user, who goes by amapsychologist there, is quoted in the article as saying,
I believe Paedophilic Disorder is a sexual orientation with individual[s] that are attracted to child features. In other words, an individual with paedophilia has the same ingrained attraction that a heterosexual female may feel towards a male, or a homosexual feels towards their same gender.
It should be said that this is not an unusual viewpoint in the medical field at this point. More and more doctors are beginning to recognize that pedophilia is a sexual orientation as they understand the term. This does not inherently mean that they believe it is genetically inherited, which seems to be the assumption of many who oppose the use of the term in application to pedophiles. I’ll come back to this point because it is relevant to something further down in the article. The piece then goes on to discuss how the psychologist treats offenders not by trying to eliminate their sexual attractions but by teaching them to live healthy and happy lives within the law. It is quite a humane approach in comparison to how most SOT programs try to rehabilitate sex offenders.
Skipping ahead a little, we come to the part where Johnston talks about my Salon articles. Here he links to an older Independent piece penned by Doug Bolton, Self-confessed paedophile Todd Nickerson tells critics: ‘You’re the real monsters’. That article—and today is the first I’ve heard of it, I should note—is unusual in that it is more about my second piece than my first, and that headline is a direct reference to the headline of my piece, I’m the pedophile, you’re the monsters.
Before I go on, I need to clarify something. I didn’t write that headline, nor did I write the headline for my first piece. Anyway, my original title for that second piece was something like Was writing the VirPed article worth it? Yep! Notice the difference? My title was quite positive and upbeat, no name-calling or confrontational language at all. You see, here’s something a lot of people don’t know about the news business: editors often write the headlines, not the journalists. Editors want something splashy and attention-grabbing in the headline, even a little edgy, but sometimes that can be frustrating for the writers. This was one of those times. Though I didn’t write it either, the headline for my first article was clever and thoughtful. I quite liked it. This one, which played off of the currency of the first one, was . . . well, let’s just say it isn’t what I would’ve chosen.
So, in Bolton’s article, he says:
In the article, he explained how he believes his molestation as a child is the reason he is now sexually attracted to young girls, and mentioned his membership of the ‘Virtuous Paedophiles’ forum – an online community of paedohpiles [sic] who have vowed never to act on their sexual urges.
This is a reference to my first piece, but I feel the need to correct him because this is not what I said at all. Here’s the relevant passage:
It’s easy to assume that pedophilia is always the result of some early sexualization or abuse, and certainly there seems to be a connection in some cases. However, evidence suggests there’s no magic bullet that pedophilia can be traced back to. For every pedophile who was sexually abused as a child there’s another who wasn’t. Likewise, most abuse victims never manifest pedophilic desires. Some researchers surmise that pedophilia can be traced back to genetics. Others believe the cause is congenital, and still others that it’s environmental. Personally, I think the ultimate cause is likely some combination of those, and that it varies from person to person.
As you can see, I never claimed my own (singular) instance of abuse as a child made me into a pedophile. My official position is that it likely played a role in the ultimate development of my sexuality but that, in itself, it was probably not the cause. But I really don’t know. I base my perspective on a number of events in my life that I remember as being significant to my early sexual development. The rest of that article is pretty much spot on, but I felt compelled to address that one error at least. Now back to the Johnston news story.
I really only want to remark upon one more part of Johnston’s piece, the final paragraph, which reads:
In 2013, Donald Finklater, of the child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, said: “There may be some vulnerabilities that could be genetic, but normally there are some significant events in a person’s life, a sexually abusive event, a bullying environment … I believe it is learned, and can be unlearned.”
Again, the fact that Johnston gave this guy the final word in his article says a good deal about where his sympathies lie, I think. I don’t know anything about the Lucy Faithfull Foundation though I am sure I would agree with most or all of their positions and goals. But it’s clear that Finklater is talking out of his rear end here. What does “some vulnerabilities that could be genetic” (see what I did there?) mean? But more importantly, saying that it is learned and can therefore be unlearned displays a woeful degree of ignorance about how the brain works. There is a vast difference between the malleability and learning curve of the child’s brain and the high degree of fixedness in an adult’s.
Indeed, this is one reason why it’s so important for us to protect children from exploitation. But it’s funny how a lot of these same people insist that child molestation, even those cases that are non-traumatic or uneventful for the child at the time, always causes horrible lifelong trauma, but something as all-consuming and personality-integrated as one’s sexuality can be “unlearned.” Maybe, maybe not. But I will tell you this: I spent a couple of years trying to remake myself into someone I wasn’t, and the end result was a nervous breakdown and years-long bout of clinical depression that I still haven’t quite gotten over and maybe never will. So with all due respect to Mr. Finklater, I’m calling bs on this.