Wednesday, July 10, 2019

What's in a Name? (Quite a Lot)

At first I thought this was just a minor quibble, but then I realized it was more important than that.

Dan Savage answered a letter this week from a gay man who likes what might be described as "destruction porn" (look at the column for more information), and finds that there's a lot of online manga porn in that mode, but its protagonists are depicted as "giant prepubescent boys."  Does this count as pedophile porn, even though he's not attracted to prepubescent boys?  Dan provided a definition of pedophilia: "Pedophilia, according to the best and most current research, is a hardwired sexual orientation—one that can never be acted on for moral and ethical reasons."

I've argued before that "sexual orientation" is the wrong word for pedophilia, first of all because the term refers to which sex one is erotically attracted to, and children are not a sex.  This is a consequence of the ambiguity of "sex," which can refer to the configuration of one's reproductive organs or to copulation.  Off the cuff, I propose something like "erotic fixation."  "Erotic" refers specifically to desire, so it's less ambiguous than "sexual," and "fixation" has the virtue of implying that the condition is fixed, not easily mutable if at all.  "Orientation," despite what we are often told does not have such an implication.

But, second, the problem isn't a purely semantic one.  When my city tried to add "sexual orientation" to its human rights ordinance in the 1990s, religious bigots objected that it would protect pedophiles as well as homosexuals.  They could, and I believe did, point to statements in the sexological literature which declared pedophilia a sexual orientation.  Whoever wrote the proposed amendment had forestalled this by defining sexual orientation as referring to homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual.  The amendment passed, but was overruled by a state law prohibiting municipalities from adding to the state human/civil rights law.

I submit that it would be a good idea to stop referring to pedophilia as a sexual orientation because of the confusion generated in many people's minds by the term's ambiguity.  This confusion extends not just to the ignorant and uneducated, but to educated people who are in a position to make policy, including judges and sex researchers.  (I winced at Dan's remark about "the best and most current research," because so much of the best and most current research on human sexuality is wrong-headed and just plain wrong.)  In the long run it could be used as a weapon against civil rights protection, and if you think things couldn't go in that direction, you haven't been paying attention for the past few years.

It's timely to bring this up because of Jeffrey Epstein's arrest, which has generated a predictable shitstorm in the Force, with many references to him as a pedophile.  I've noticed that when people are challenged on the accuracy of that word with regard to men who pursue adolescents, they often defend themselves by admitting that they're not using the word accurately but like who cares?  I think they like the clinical feel of the word while getting off on its emotional boost.  It's not necessary to label Epstein a pedophile to see him as a vicious abuser who should be behind bars.  But as with the rape of adults, there's a lot of outrage that I find suspicious.  Everyone will be furious about rape and the abuse of children in theory, but in actual cases they lack conviction.  The Roman Catholic coverup of priests' abuse of children is a prime example: the Church is second to none in denouncing immorality, but when it came to a paradigm case (thousands of them, in fact) of conduct it officially condemns in the strongest terms, it couldn't follow through.  The Penn State scandal of recent memory is similar: devoutly Catholic men in positions of responsibility simply seemed to sleepwalk when confronted with the abuse of children.

So I was pleased to read this tweet last night, criticizing a "class analysis" of the Epstein case: "we non-rich have our shares of pedophiles among us and plenty of families without epstein money have found ways to bury sexual abuse without a powerful prosecutor at their disposition".  She's exactly right.  The radical feminist movement of the 1970s paid a lot of attention to the sexual abuse of children, with many women reporting their own horrifying childhood experiences, encountering a wall of denial from the adults around them, including parents, when they tried to complain.  It was largely and predictably ignored by mainstream society.

Much of the reaction by commenters to vanessa bee's tweet was just as clueless, basically: wait, what? what are you talking about?  Bee continued trying to explain: "yes, the scale, the SCALE, obviously. i’m just saying poor & working class people do this shit, too. and put other things ahead of their class, partisanship, or safety of kids, in order to cover up other people’s abuse."  Children are blamed in the same terms as adults, too: seductive little Lolitas who've been "sexualized" by their mothers, etc.  As the Epstein case proceeds, we'll certainly see more attempts to blame the victims.