10:55:00 AM

The fairy tale of sick celibacy

One of the positives to come out of the current hysteria is the opportunity to discuss the aetiology of sexual abuse. Does celibacy create sexual deviants? 

Historically this doesn’t seem to have been the case. Some would argue this merely reflects the oppressive and secretive nature of abuse prior to our more open age. Maybe. But this kind of argument is just a bit too convenient to be sound. In any case, there are no current statistics showing paedophilia to be more common among the Catholic clergy than among other professions. 

Really, the argument about celibacy and paedophilia should end there. Unfortunately, there is a familiar tale that psychology students of the seventies were weaned upon, and it persists:  The idealistic young person find himself attracted to the Church, is sheltered from any experience of the world by some reactionary Catholic institution. At some point of awakening he finds companionless and condemned to a lifetime of frustration. The frustration thus bears itself out in all manner of perverted ways.

It is a tale commonly trundled out in popular dramas, in media exposes, and by ex-members of the clergy. And it is a fairytale.  

The fairytale assumes a particular meaning to sex that is worth examining. For the purposes of illustration, instead of asking ‘What is sex?’, we can ask ‘What is sex like?’.  According to the tale, the celibate priest is like an addict deprived of his drug. He experiences withdrawal, exhibits drug seeking behaviour, and simply cannot control himself when presented with an opportunity. The problem with this analogy is that it presumes that human beings are born in a state of sexual addiction. The fact that we could think this of ourselves, even implicitly, is a sad reflection on society.  

Of course sex can be an addiction. We know that addiction can lead people progressively to riskier and more morally and socially unacceptable practices as it deepens. But this is almost the reverse of the celibacy argument. By this model, to claim that celibacy makes you a paedophile is akin to saying that choosing to rescind violent video games will make you a murderer.  

If we want to truly understand the causes for the rise in paedophilia amongst all professional groups in the western world in the past 50 years, we do need to switch to a more panoramic view of the changes in society in that period. A saturated sex diet may spare some but for others it could be -- has been -- disastrous. 

Phillip Elias is a resident medical officer living in Sydney
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