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Pedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse Are Two Different Things — Confusing Them is Harmful to Children

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

Republican politician Roy Moore has been accused of initiating sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his early 30s. Social media sites have since exploded with comments like these:

Adult sexual contact with an underage minor is a crime and a serious moral wrong. Pedophilia, by contrast, is a psychiatric disorder involving primary or exclusive sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children (not just any person under the age of 18), which — if acted on — is a crime and a serious moral wrong. Actually, even then, it is the act that is wrong; the involuntary sexual attraction, so long as it remains disconnected from behavior, is probably not wrong in and of itself.

In short: pedophilia and child sexual assault are two different things, and conflating them is not a good idea. This is not just a matter of semantics. For one thing, confusing psychiatric disorders (requiring treatment) and sex crimes (which may or may not follow from such disorders) is likely to hamper clear moral reasoning. But more importantly, it may actually increase harm to children.

Consider the following: many people with pedophilia (1) hate their desires, (2) do not act on them for moral reasons (and should therefore plausibly be praised rather than vilified), and yet (3) often do not seek treatment precisely because they are aware that people in general cannot seem to tell the difference between:

(a) feeling involuntarily sexually attracted to young children (not wrong in and of itself), and

(b) molesting or sexually assaulting children (very wrong in and of itself, no matter the reason).

And here’s the kicker: failing to seek treatment for (a) is precisely the sort of thing that makes (b) more likely to happen. So, please, whatever your politics — stop saying Roy Moore has been “accused of pedophilia” (he has not). Say instead: “he has been accused of sexually assaulting a minor.”

The latter, not the former, is a sex crime and a serious moral wrong. If the goal is to protect children from harm, as it should be, then we should stop stigmatizing pedophilia per se and start stigmatizing (or keep stigmatizing) those who actually sexually abuse children for whatever reason, whether they happen to be pedophiles or not.

In other words, non-offending pedophiles should not be stigmatized so long as they do not offend, nor mistaken for sexual abusers. Instead, they should be encouraged to seek treatment for their disorder before they cause harm to children — which will only happen if we can keep clear about the difference between (a) and (b).

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Linguistic Frame Machines

    Alternatively, we could just respect the consent principle and not confuse consensual sex with “assault”, “abuse”, “molestation” or “rape”.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with consensual sex at age 14, whether with an adult or not. Legality is a different matter.

  2. It is quite curious how statutory rape laws and ages of consent differ across the world. In one country, sex with a 14 year old is perfectly legal, in another sex with a 20 year old not. Are we saying 14 yr olds from Canada are more mature and better able to consent than a 20 yr old who just happens to live elsewhere? The history behind ages of consent is a fascinating one and has nothing whatsoever to do with the wellbeing of children, being driven by several competing interest groups. Unfortunately, there are no global ethical guidelines and there are unlikely to ever be any except having 18 thrust upon countries that have a lower age of consent which could be argued to infringe on the sexual freedoms of those under 18 (though a Romeo and Juliet clause can assuage some of those fears). In some US states, it may be legal to have sex with an 18 yr old but you would be a registered child sex offender if she sent you a naked picture. I am not sure how sexting is supposed to be riskier than actual sex but that just goes to illustrate how ridiculous people are about sexual ethics.

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