Thursday, June 4, 2015

Pedophilia: My desire to understand it was shattered by horror

    I wanted to understand pedophilia. It took about two days of studying it in a "rational" way before I could tell it was MESSING ME UP. Although it is an 'orientation'-- a sexual preference -- it resembles a disease in many ways, and I can see why its mindset is contagious.
    I have always tried to confront my prejudices -- to inform myself, to see things from the other person's perspective, and thereby to feel compassion rather than revulsion or hatred. This nonjudgmental approach has helped me to become more empathetic.
    So when I decided to do a blog post about the phenomenon of pedophilia, I didn't expect to emerge from my investigation more disturbed and sickened than ever.
    My initial effort to document and comprehend this phenomenon, "Pedophiles R Us," can be found at 

   I have been uneasy for years about my overwhelming disgust toward pedophiles. Why should I disdain  someone who is awash in feelings he didn't choose to have? 
     I have learned time and again that if you truly understand a person, and what has made him who he is, it's very hard to pass judgement upon him. It's the "there but for the grace of God go I" effect.

    I despised racists all my life until a black friend told me a few years ago that he feels sorry for them. I was taken aback, and intrigued, that he could be so forgiving. To have been raised with such hatred as they have, he said, must be a terrible burden. I realized that I was lucky -- not superior -- in having been "programmed" by my parents to love all races rather than programmed in the other direction. I, too, am now able to (kind of) feel sorry for racists.
    In my prison reform work, I developed relationships with murderers, armed robbers, rapists and drug dealers. As  I gradually came to know about their circumstances, their formative years and the messages they had gotten, as kids, from parents, teachers and the culture at large, I realized that I was in no position to pass judgment on their characters, values or choices in life. I had no confidence that my choices would have been any better if I had endured what they had. I came to know and care about them as human beings.
    I  expected to have this same uplifting experience as I examined the phenomenon of pedophilia.

    I didn't. It hurt me. I am feeling quite ill and altered by the experience. 
     And I didn't even go very deeply into the subject. I didn't view any child pornography whatsoever. Even the descriptions I read were quite vague, although the material has become more twisted and violent than I had realized. I accessed very little pedophile propaganda and avoided pedophile chat rooms and web sites, except for NAMBLA, which was both informative and nauseating.
    I was focusing more on scientific/psychological studies and statistical data: A tame, detached perspective on a gut-wrenching topic. 
    But in my attempt to occupy the mind of a pedophile, to feel what he feels and to see things as he does -- which is how I try to become more educated and tolerant -- I had the sensation that I was coming down with a disease. I never thought you could take intellectual honesty too far, but maybe I was wrong.
    Instead of feeling more compassion for pedophiles, I felt less respect for the rest of us. My reading led me to believe that we are quite a sickening species. I would rather be an elephant or a gorilla. I think they have quite a bit more dignity than we do.

    Actually, it's unfair to paint this so broadly. What I mean to say is that I ended my research concluding that men are pathetic (except for my man) (and, of course, Ralph Nader).
    I do believe it's not their fault, but my innocent effort to educate myself about pedophilia left me feeling that men are really, really messed up (at least many of them are, and most of them are on the verge). It appears that they always have been, hauling around way too much sexual energy to serve any socially useful purpose. It seems that just beneath that very thin veneer of normalcy and decency that we see in our husbands and sons, there is a dark psyche that has nothing to do with "love-making" and everything to do with what hip-hop songs refer to as the "dirty" and "nasty" aspects of sex. I wonder why this evolved in our species. As porn consumption proves, "tittillating" footage of plain old coitus or nudity is essentially a gateway drug. Susceptible people -- and there are millions of them -- move on to all sorts of weirdness and brutality before they have a chance to put the brakes on. 

     I apologize for being so melodramatic, but this how I am genuinely feeling in the aftermath of my well-intentioned investigative reporting. Actually, I assume that if women had sex drives that were as strong as men, we would be affected just as they are by the tender allure of "fresh meat."

     I no longer feel motivated to "understand" pedophilia on a deep, true level. For the time being, at least, I don't want to feel compassion for those who are behind it. (UPDATE: I am back to wanting to feel compassion, and when I keep my distance from the subject, I do) It will require a more forgiving and tolerant person than I (and one with a stronger stomach) to do that, and I trust that it's being dealt with by others. I failed.
    (UPDATE: I am back to wanting to feel compassion, and when I keep my distance from the subject, I do)
    Another aftermath is equally disturbing. In the process of searching for photos to illustrate my earlier post on pedophilia, I looked through Google images of "beautiful children" and "cute kids." Without realizing it consciously, I was scrutinizing them as if I were a pedophile, gauging which ones were most appealing. 
    Before long, what I saw was not beautiful children. I saw PREY. I saw luscious skin and full lips and baby-fine hair. I saw eyes that said, "Get over here!" (see above) or "This will be fun!" or "Let's snuggle!"
    As I scrolled through the images trying to decide which ones to use, I felt as if I were in a pedophile's marketplace, filling up my shopping cart with the ripest fruit. This happened almost immediately. It was a guilty and shocking sensation.
    Later that day, I drove past a billboard featuring the poignant face of  a desperately impoverished but adorable black boy. The word that came instantly into my mind was "sodomy," thanks to the account I'd read about the American priest in Haiti who "grooms" boys to be "beautiful lovers."
    I realized that I'd better wrap up my work on this subject matter as soon as possible and find something less devastating to write about. 

    My psyche was proving not to be very strong.
     The kids in all those Google pictures began to look deliberately seductive to me. They seemed to be looking at the camera -- at the viewer -- with an alluring directness that was chilling. Many of them -- and these were just little kids -- seemed to know they were attractive and were attempting to use it in a manipulative way.
    Were they just imitating the provocative images that are everywhere in our come-hither culture? 
    Or was I seeing something that wasn't there, having been warped by my research?

    I was left feeling that their beauty was no longer delightful. It was dangerous. Their innocence wasn't radiant and pure. It was an invitation. It was all getting so messed up in my mind that a photo of a naked baby, with an adult's hand (presumably a parent's) placed gently on her stomach, seemed menacing to me. My reaction was, "Call the cops!" 
    I have never felt that way before about such a picture. I normally would have found it sweet and tender.  

    I doubt that I'm unusual in having developed an unfortunate response to such words as coach, priest, Scout leader or mentor. The first thing that comes into my mind is "molestation!" I've seen references many times to the fact that men in these perilous times have to be very careful about how they relate to kids, how close they stand to them, how they shouldn't even pat them on the shoulder or say, "You surely are a pretty girl."
    It's so sad. The whole "stranger danger" paranoia is tragic. We should be able to enjoy kids, and they should be able to enjoy us, but the chilling effect that pedophilia has had is indisputable.

     We rail against sex abuse and demand harsh punishment for offenders, even as we permit (and are consumers of) the sexualization of children. 

    But as I thought more about it, it became clear to me that no one needed to sexualize me as a child. I was sexual, without knowing it. I really didn't realize it until I began writing this post. I remember being a young girl. I am just now recalling -- for the first's weird -- that there were men in my life when I was as young as six or seven who were (almost certainly without realizing it) sending signals my way. In some cases, the attraction was reciprocal. 
    I didn't know what sex was (I thought it probably involved tickling), but I was aware that I had a "special feeling" for particular men -- a couple of my dad's friends, elementary school teachers, a neighbor, even the crossing guard. Art Linkletter gave me a bit of a a tingle:
He said the darndest things, with that coy smile.
and so did  Bert Parks: 
There he was, Mr. America, so suave and devil-may-care.

    Bob Barker, of "The Price is Right," was a deliciously naughty man, and I could feel it even when I was a third-grader:
He was dreamy, but the price was wrong.
    I can still remember the vibe they put out there, and I felt fluttery in the mild, vague way that I assume is quite normal for children. Thank god they didn't exploit my feelings. They could have said, "Let's play a secret game," and I would have been flattered and excited.
    I remember the dread I felt when men drove me home at night after I had done babysitting duty for them and their wives. We sat too close, it was too dark, and some of the questions they asked me made me uncomfortable. I was greatly relieved when I got old enough to earn money in a different way. Then, I entered the realm of sexual harassment -- and back then, it wasn't against the law.

    I belatedly came to understand that, as an adolescent and teenager, I was actually the instigator in some instances of an inappropriate dynamic between myself and grown men. I regarded my behavior as "joking," but now I can see that it was unwitting flirtation. 
    When I was fifteen years old, I had a horrible summer job as a telephone solicitor, and I was fired by my boss's wife after she came across some notes that he and I had written to each other. I didn't think of our interaction as sexual, but in retrospect, I understand that it was libidinal energy -- which I had turned into a sort of "prankster" persona -- that fueled the whole thing.
    She was right to be pissed off. But I didn't realize what I was doing until a university administrator pointed it out to me when I was a freshman. He noted that even though I didn't let anyone touch me -- and even though I claimed to find the erotic realm  "disgusting" --  I obviously had a lot of "psychosexual energy." I didn't fully understand what he meant for years.
   In sharing these rather embarrassing aspects of my past, I am not trying to implicate children in their victimization. But one of the most problematic aftermaths of sexual abuse is guilt on the part of the child. 
    In order to treat this guilt, we have to accept that in some of these relationships -- not the violent ones, obviously -- the victim may experience some degree of emotional or physical pleasure. Of course, this is extremely confusing for the child and prevents him or her from realizing  that all of the blame resides with the perpetrator. It may also make him or her far less comfortable in coming forward.
    We can't help the victims unless we accept that children are sexual beings, but they need to be assured that their feelings don't make them guilty of anything. They are innocent, no matter what they did or how they felt.

    Even as I admit defeat and walk away from my effort to be more objective and understanding about pedophilia, I think it's worthwhile for all of us to face up to our attractions and put them into context.
    Have you ever been powerfully drawn to the silken, creamy beauty of a 16-year-old boy or girl? How about a 14-year-old? Or 12, or 10?
    How low does your libido go? Where should we draw the line at which sexual interest becomes taboo?
   Pedophilia is sickening. We are united, it seems to me, in our abhorrence of the victimization of children. We demonize pedophiles because they're demons.  
    Or are they?

    Can we intelligently condemn someone because of urges and obsessions that surge through him without his consent?
    Have you ever imagined how it must feel to have intense sexual feelings and needs that are criminalized, and that are despised by virtually everyone?
    What must that do to your psyche? How do you endure living with your shameful lie? How do you cope with the inability to act upon your urges and to achieve the release, intimacy and romance that you desperately need?
    We have tried to pretend that this attraction is isolated among a sick, detestable coterie of creeps, when in fact the sexualization of children, and the sexual abuse of children, is all around us. The data indicate that a broad swath of us is highly susceptible.
    Obviously, we should hate what they do (if in fact they do anything -- most don't), but maybe we should stop hating them.
   I believe, that we need to find better ways to control, treat and accommodate those who are in the grip of this obsession.   
    This issue is addressed in an informed, sensitive  fashion by Margo Kaplan, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Law, Camden (  
   "The fact that pedophilia is so despised is precisely why our responses to it, in criminal justice and mental health, have been so inconsistent and counterproductive. Acknowledging that pedophiles have a mental disorder, and removing the obstacles to their coming forward and seeking help, is not only the right thing to do, but it would also advance efforts to protect children from harm," she writes.

    "Pedophiles R Us" offers a journalistic inquiry into the phenomenon of pedophilia, its spread due to online access, and the vulnerability of "normal"  -- even particularly upstanding -- men to its allure.

    "The Filthy Boys" gave me a new perspective about S&M on a memorable Christmas Eve (