The sexual proclivities of the human being have always been of interest to me. It’s odd, don’t you think, that the natural urge to reproduce that we share with all animals can, when coupled with imagination, produce startling diversity. One of the first proper psychology books I picked up was Richard Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, a landmark work that has since been largely forgotten despite being one of the most important scientific works of the last half-millennium. It was Krafft-Ebing who first developed the idea of a “fetish”, using the original sense of an object that was a focus for devotion. It was Krafft-Ebing, incidentally, who determined that homosexuality was not fetishistic, in contrast to Freud’s later theory, but a legitimate sexual orientation. He was also the first psychologist to suggest that damage to the frontal cortex, which acts as a behaviour inhibitor, was the basis for most sexual crimes. He was, in short, a genius, and an overlooked one at that. My own interest in psychology owes more to him than it does to Freud and Jung.
The following may be offensive to some readers. So what else is new?
All of this is preamble, because I’m still summoning up the nerve to write about something we’d rather not think about, not just as people but as a society in general. Krafft-Ebing was also the first to categorise paedophilia as a fetish, and this as been on my mind a lot recently. You see, I think we have a problem.
You might have heard of Operation Yewtree, a UK police investigation looking into sexual offenses committed by prominent male celebrities in the Seventies. Already having fingered (if that’s not too heavy a pun) Jimmy Saville, one-time DJ and television presenter, others have been taken in for questioning. Careers will, no doubt, be ruined. Some already have been: the comedian Chris Langham was at the centre of a 2007 court case that means he will never appear anywhere near the spotlight again, the Radio 2 presenter Paul Gambaccini, who I’ve been listening to since I was old enough to turn on a radio, was recently arrested. Yesterday there was a news story of 341 arrests relating to a global ring of paedophiles. The legal casus belli is straightforward: these people have broken the law, horribly and repeatedly. They should be jailed. The moral aspect is trickier: there are many of these people about. The stories of abuse go on – there are hundreds of them – and what strikes me hardest is that this is a bigger problem than we are prepared to admit.
This a big and thorny issue and one that it’s hard to examine objectively. The notion – the very idea, even in an abstract sense – that any of this is going on is hard to think about at all. It, almost by definition, invokes disgust. That there are people who are attracted to children is beyond the scope of thought for most of us. The natural reaction is to bridle with revulsion, of course, and turn away. These people need to be locked up, forever and ever, obviously. No questions asked.
And therein lies a problem: when disgust and fear block out thought, we tend to act as inhumanely as those that invoke those feelings in us. Fear and disgust are the product of lack of understanding, and understanding is the key to curing.
Let me explain where I’m coming from on this. There was a time (not so long ago – ask your grandparents) when the very thought of a grown man in flagrante delicto with another consenting man would cause sensible, intelligent human beings to clutch their muslin and flee from the drawing-room. Homosexuals were insane, and there was no doubt about it. Worse still, they were criminal, an affront to the laws of man and God. An example: for his passionate tryst with Bosey, Oscar Wilde served time in Reading Gaol. Another example: for being exposed as a homosexual, Alan Turing, inventor of the computer, cryptologist and mathematician extraordinaire was stripped of his honours and chemically castrated. He committed suicide with a cyanide-laced apple. And these were for peaceful, loving acts between consenting adults.
The gap between homosexuality and paedophilia could not be wider, so don’t make the mistake of thinking I equate the two. What they have in common is public outrage, illegality and that greatest of evils, moral crusadership. For the better part of half a millennium homosexuals were the worst kinds of deviants, insane, criminal and blasphemous. It was only in understanding homosexuality, for which we have Krafft-Ebing to thank, that we started to realise that nothing untoward was going on at all. In understanding, we achieved a higher morality.
Because- and this is the point I’m really trying to make – there is no greater evil in the world than the Moral Crusade. The Moral Crusade, and its rallying cry of “We must protect our children!” has historically perpetrated the worst abuses of all. The Moral Crusade, from Savonarola to Mary Whitehouse, McCarthyism to the Westboro Baptist Church, has always been carried out by the most ignorant and dangerous among us. In seeking to root out evil, disease and perversion, the Moral Crusade will happily send millions to the gas chambers, stamp out human rights, freedom and hope, and reduce the better part of our shared culture to ashes in order to protect us from deviant ideas. In seeking to preserve sanity, decency and normality, the Moral Crusade will visit the greatest insanities, indecencies and abnormalities on the human race.
No greater example of this can be found than the history of the Catholic Church, an institution that has always reserved for itself the highest moral authority, yet under whose auspices acts of terrorism, treason, sedition, murder, theft, blackmail, physical and sexual abuse (often of children), torture, misinformation, cover-ups, and conspiracies have been carried out for the best part of two thousand years. But that’s a conversation for another time.
The point I’m making is that our ignorance of an issue is the very thing that turns us into moral crusaders and actively impedes any progress. There is no doubt in my mind (and there shouldn’t be in yours) that the abuse of children is wrong, morally and legally. As somebody who subscribes to the old Liberal attitude towards morality – as the rapper Prophit would have it:
“drink whatever you want
smoke whatever you want
do whatever you want
with whoever you want”
where the with is essential, because it means anything consensual – I’m an advocate of all the freaks doing whatever they want with anyone who’s similarly up for it, as it were. Abuse or the non-consensual, of any kind, is the only thing that’s truly unacceptable. Yet the fact remains that there are worrying numbers of men and women who find children appealing.
Our problem – if you’re willing to accept that there is one- is that our first reaction on meeting the unknown is to fear it. This is more or less the standard human reaction, and one that served us well when our world was full of leopards and bears. Happily we no longer live in leopard-festooned lands so, mutatis mutandis, perhaps a new attitude to the unknown is needed. There is plenty in the world to shock, horrify and disgust us, but we are sufficiently armed with enough intelligence to see these things for what they are, rather than what they appear to be. I’ve noticed that Moral Crusades always gain steam when fighting perceived threats, rather than actual threats. An example: the Western steam-rolling of the Middle East in the pursuit of terrorists was all well and good when the threat seemed great, but once we realized that Al Qaeda was four guys and a Kalashnikov the moral crusade lost most of its potency. Similarly, we’ve got it into our heads that paedophilia represents a massive threat to our children, but as the rapper Scroobius Pip points out:
“Thou shalt not think any male over the age of 30
that plays with a child that is not their own is a paedophile.
Some people are just nice.”
And what I’m suggesting is that, rather than leap into our moral armour and charge away we should take the time to see these desperate, sad individuals for what they are – the same twisted wreckage we all are, seeking some kind of emotional or sexual gratification. The essential difference is one of degrees: your average man might find a grown woman in a school uniform sexy – and they do – so what separates that man from one who lusts after someone younger?
The question is, can we examine these people without lapsing into disgust and horror? Is it possible to view something as central to people as sexuality as dispassionately and clinically? Is it possible to turn the outraged question, “what is wrong with these people?!” into the more compassionate and intelligent “how can we cure these people?”.
I’d like to think that it is. This next statement is the one that I had most difficulty writing, because it invites a whole bunch of negative interpretations. It is possible to pity a person with whom one has nothing in common. It is possible to move beyond fear, moral panic and personal opinion and view the situation rationally, pragmatically and intentionally. It requires two things that escape Moral Crusaders: firstly, it requires the moral high ground, and secondly, it requires courage. It requires courage to explore the unknown. It is easy to see everything unknown as scary. This is, appropriately enough, what children do. The dark is scary. There are monsters under the bed. The boogyman is out there. There are paedophiles waiting around every corner. This is how children, who understand little enough of the world, see the unknown. The long road to adulthood begins with penetrating that unknown and understanding it.
I reserve the right to my opinion that paedophiles are more Nabokov than Nightmare On Elm Street. I might feel different if I had children of my own: the protection of one’s own sprogs is hard to be objective about. It’s certainly a flat fact that paedophilia and the abuse of children is bad, wrong and dangerous. But like most mental illnesses it probably has its roots in abuse, neglect and maltreatment. Those who perpetrate it are not monsters, boogymen or the truly evil, but men and women with something seriously wrong with them. They aren’t grand-masters of cybercrime. They aren’t waiting in the parking lot for unattended children. They aren’t hiding razor blades in sweets. More likely they are engaging in self-flagellation, berating themselves for being so twisted. Like most of us they are fucked up, lonely and unhappy. Theirs is a disease of the mind that may be curable. The disease that creates Moral Crusaders has, sadly, no cure.