Practical Ethics, a blog appearing under the auspices of Oxford University, recently carried a piece titled Pedophilia, Preemptive Imprisonment, and the Ethics of Predisposition, inspired by the trio of articles (Guardian, New Yorker, LA Times) discussed here last month in Three reasons to be cheerful. This blog item, by Kyle Edwards, is interesting, but my main focus today arises out of the comment thread that followed, especially as regards contributions made by Kyle’s pseudonymous namesake Ethan Edwards.
Ethan Edwards is a virtuous paedophile. Or at least, that is what he and another guy, Nick Devin, call themselves, based on their resolve never to “abuse”. They even have an organization, Virtuous Pedophiles, founded last summer. The goals “are to reduce the stigma attached to pedophilia by letting people know that a substantial number of pedophiles do not molest children, and to provide peer support and information about available resources to help pedophiles lead happy, productive lives. Our highest priority is to help pedophiles never abuse children.”
Heretic TOC and fellow heretics here are of course also determined never to “abuse” children, but unlike Virtuous Pedophiles we take the view that sexual contact between an adult and a child who is a willing participant is not intrinsically abusive and may be a very positive experience. We must refrain from such contacts because they are currently illegal, not because we think – as Virtuous Pedophiles clearly do – that they are always immoral and wrong.
Fine, we know there are plenty of minor-attracted people who accept society’s low opinion of paedophilia. Doubtless there are many who beat themselves up about their feelings even if they “do nothing wrong”. Responses of that sort should prompt our sympathetic interest. That is one reason why I have personally given what modest assistance I can to a couple of guys in the UK who are developing a British equivalent of B4U-ACT, an American organization which engages with mental health professionals in order to work towards better, less stigmatizing counselling and treatment for minor-attracted people, especially those who are struggling to cope with their feelings. These professionals, it has to be said, include those who have an anti-abuse agenda, but we should not forget that some paedophiles, in their frustration, do give way to coercive tactics, and they do need help to stop that.
I have also enjoyed good relations with B4U-ACT in the US, one of whose members until last year was Nick Devin, who has also been known to me for well over two years as a fellow participant on the Sexnet forum. My contact with Nick was cordial to start with, but I have found it increasingly difficult to sustain this sense of goodwill over time, as it has become gradually more apparent that his views and mine are not so much a bit of a mismatch as diametrically opposed. The problem, from my point of view, is not so much that Nick is a self-flagellating subscriber to puritan sexual ethics. No, it’s more that he has turned out to be rather smugly self-congratulatory, and all too ready to flagellate not himself but those of us who view the relevant ethics differently. His buddy Ethan turns out to be another halo-burnisher. Nor am I alone in this assessment: as one friend put it to me, Virtuous Pedophiles would be better named Sanctimonious Pedophiles.
Their most revealing and charmless aspect, though, is the finger-pointing. Not only do they claim the moral high ground, they have no qualms over bad-mouthing fellow minor-attracted people, including those whose only crime has been to take a reasoned, principled view of the issues that differs from their own. In a website FAQ they say, “We believe that sexual activity between adults and children is wrong. Because some pedophiles have a selfish interest in having child-adult sexual relationships accepted, we think that their arguments should be greeted skeptically.” In the Practical Ethics exchanges, Ethan even used our determination to stick to our guns against us. Whereas some would discern moral courage in taking a stand against the crowd, Ethan says: “I suspect a correlation between how sensitive a man is to the feelings and needs of children and how sensitive he is to criticism and hatred from society around him. A man who doesn’t care about everyone hating him might also not understand the complexities of children and how harm still lurks even if the child doesn’t object.”
My full reply to this baseless and offensive accusation is still there on the thread, for anyone interested to see: you may actually be surprised by my attempt (futile, I now fear), to be conciliatory. At this point I’ll just confine myself to one salient observation: virtue is traditionally seen as the opposite of vice, and Virtuous Pedophiles appear to be defining themselves as directly oppositional to “vicious” paedophiles who do not share their views. That would be all you heretics out there, as well as me. Vicious! Purveyors of vice! These Virtuous Pedophiles are not merely sanctimonious and holier than thou; their language also reveals them to be virulently, vehemently, viscerally judgmental. They speak of being hated on all sides themselves, while apparently unable to see that they are giving out their own message of hatred against us, a hatred which seems every bit as passionate and forceful as the worst we hear from the most committed anti-“abuse” fanatics. Indeed, with their insistent crusade of Virtue against Vice they resemble the zealots of the old Social Purity movement.
Nick and Ethan both appear to be so heavily invested in their determination to be “virtuous” that they cannot bear to contemplate alternative conceptions of what a good life and a good world might look like. Hence their strong emotional need, if they are to see themselves as virtuous, to cast us radicals as vicious. It looks as though they are caught up in what Freudians would recognise as a classic projection of evil onto the demonised Other.
So much for their attitude, which is deeply unprepossessing, but not necessarily of great importance unless their dour doctrine can gain some traction. Will it? And to what effect? I aim to return to those questions in due course.