Pedophilia takes a cautious step forward toward respectability

I sometimes quietly thank my lucky stars that I am not growing up today. It all seems very complicated. The main thing is that boys are expected to be dexterous at video games and I am all thumbs. The last time I played “Resident Evil”, for instance, hardly had I entered the first portal before I was knocked off by squadrons of flesh-eating zombies. I certainly would have developed a devastating sense of inferiority.

Another technological hazard is the morally devastating rubbish dished up to high school kids on mobile phones and the internet.

Not that things were all that innocent in my day, mind you. The dirty book du jour was Lolita, a 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov. It is still kicking around. A memoir of Iranian repression called Reading Lolita in Teheran even spent 100 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Looking back, the popularity of Lolita was and is shocking. For it is a novel about paedophilia in which a middle-aged literature professor strikes up a relationship with a 12-year-old girl. Stanley Kubrick turned it into a prize-winning film.

With all the fully justifiable outrage over sex abuse by scout masters and priests and swimming coaches, how was it possible for Time magazine to praise it not long ago as a “tragic, twisted epic”? The subsequent success of Reading Lolita in Teheran suggests that Lolita has become a symbol of intellectual freedom in some quarters.

There’s a sick contradiction in attitudes to perverse sexuality in today’s culture: the public believes that practice is repugnant, but academics are hard-pressed to explain why.

Let me explain. The principle by which the New York Times, CNN and Twitter make decisions on sexual morality is autonomy – do whatever you like as long as you do no harm.  

The chattering classes agree that there is nothing wrong with sex between consenting adults. Marriage vows are no longer a boundary. But paedophilia (which, for the sake of argument, includes hebephilia or sex with young teens) is deemed wrong because children cannot give informed consent.

However – depending on the jurisdiction – children do give their consent to contraception, abortion, transgender medication, double mastectomies, and so on. In Belgium and the Netherlands, they can even consent to euthanasia.

So -- what if a 12-year-old clearly gives informed consent to have sex? Wouldn’t that legitimate paedophilia? I won’t press the argument any further, as it makes me nauseous, but there it is. Boundary-less autonomy has already normalised homosexuality, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, and the ghastly therapies of transgender medicine.

Rave reviews for Lolita show that this was the position of intellectuals during the heyday of the sexual revolution in the 60s and 70s. In 1977 some of France’s leading intellectuals – including Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre -- signed an open letter calling for the decriminalization of sexual relations of adults and children. It doesn't seem to have hurt their reputation at all.

And now paedophilia may be slowly climbing back to respectability.

The University of California Press recently released a book titled, A Long, Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity. The transgender author, Allyn Walker (they/them), is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University, in Virginia.

Or rather, was, because “they” was stood down after a public outcry over the book.

The term “minor-attracted people” is a rebadging of non-offending paedophiles – people who are deeply misunderstood and unjustly stigmatized, according to Walker.

Because this is such an inflammatory topic, I mustn’t add fuel to the fire by misrepresenting Walker’s views. “They” insists time and again in A Long, Dark Shadow that “they” is not arguing in favour of paedophile relationships. “The idea that I’m somehow condoning child sexual abuse is absolutely outrageous,” Walker told the Washington Post. “I really think it’s a coordinated effort about attacking the LGBTQ community” and academic freedom.

I think that Walker is being sincere. “They” is not condoning child abuse; as a queer academic, “they” is curious about the coping strategies of non-offending paedophiles. Like traditional Christian moralists, Walker tries to distinguish between the impulse and the action–an impulse is not a sin; only a willed action can be a sin.

However, Walker is a queer moralist, not a Christian moralist, and “impulse” is where “their” moral analysis turns into an ethical time bomb.

While a Christian moralist might observe that a non-offending paedophile is resisting a temptation to do something bad, Walker argues that he is repressing a sexual orientation. And this is the real problem with “their” book. It describes paedophilia as an immutable sexual orientation. If it were an illness, perhaps it could be cured, but it is not – paedophiles are stuck with their stigmatized orientation.

Walker writes that “they” has special insight into the anguish of paedophiles:

the fact that I am queer that gives me meaningful understanding of others who are treated with suspicion and stigma based upon a sexual orientation that cannot be changed.

Paedophilia is an embarrassment to the LGBTQI+ crowd, whose status is threated by association with potential child molesters. Walker writes:

The tendency of queer communities to distance themselves from MAPs indicates either agreement with that erroneous belief or a willingness to prioritize the wellbeing of some queer people at the expense of others.

However, the LGBTQI+ crowd will never, ever, suggest that paedophiles try conversion therapy. That would imply that their own sexual orientations could be changed – and that is heresy. Paedophiles currently occupy the only space in the LGBTQI+ community which is doomed to live in life-long frustration.

But this is simply not a tenable position in an era of ever-expanding sexual rights. Another ethical principle of the chattering classes is William Blake’s shocking maxim: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” (Blake died nearly 200 years ago, in 1827, so sexual anarchy is hardly new.) My prediction is that it will be argued that paedophiles, at least the non-offending ones, have a “right” to act out their desires.

How this will be achieved is anyone’s guess. Perhaps child pornography will be legalised. Perhaps the government will subsidize the production of sex robots. Perhaps the law will take a more “enlightened” view of the age of consent. But no doubt Allyn Walker and “their” colleagues will find a way forward.

The publication of A Long, Dark Shadow is a sign that we are approaching the end game in the sexual revolution. As soon as our culture separated sex from procreation with widespread use of the Pill, sexuality lost its natural purpose. Everyone was free to follow their desires. The only remaining taboo is paedophilia. Can it possibly last?


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