What History and Sexology Reveal about the Problem of Pedophilia
It is a hot midsummer's day in a small town just north of Atlanta shortly before the Epstein sex scandal hits the fan. Maybe the teenage girl who passes me as I exit the department store is sexy. But I don't think so.
She's asparagus thin and much taller than the older rounder woman, possibly her mother, who enters the store alongside her. They do not speak to each other or to me. The girl's gaze is downward, her attention is fixed on a cell phone. She wears more makeup than her young skin requires, and her dishwater blonde hair is pulled into a bun at the back of her head.
I notice these two, in part, because the girl can hardly walk. She's wearing denim blue jeans and platform shoes that add about three inches to her height. The jeans are not yoga pants or tights, but they might as well be. That's how snug they are. Between the shoes and the jeans, it's not difficult to figure out why she walks like a robot without bending her knees. And yet, she clip-clops into the store as if evolution had always intended for humans to walk this way.
I can't see my own face, but I don't think I react. The sight of a skinny teenage girl in tight jeans doesn't do anything for me. I see her as a girl in the process of growing up. And that's about it.
For the guy entering the store a few feet behind the girl, however, something different is going on.
When he passes me, he winks, cocks his head toward the girl, and makes a click-click sound with his mouth. I can't be sure of what he's trying to convey. But it doesn't look like SMH. It looks like he's enjoying his view of the girl from behind and seems to think I see her in the same way. After all, we're both men, right?
He's an older white guy with belly fat and gray hair. I'm black with a receding hairline and guardedly lean. This is Georgia, a red state with a history of racial segregation. And while I don't know a thing about this guy's politics, I find his wink and tongue-click disturbing.
Unpacking the incident, I see a white guy gesturing to a black guy about a young white girl. Maybe he thinks there's something here that transcends race. Maybe he feels there's something about the girl that unites us. I'm thinking, God I hope not. I'm also thinking, there's a lot of history here that would have me hanging from a tree just for looking at her at all.
This is not to say that I think I'm better than he is. Or that I don't like looking at beautiful women. What I'm saying is that I'm not attracted to teenage girls.
But here's the thing. A lot of guys apparently are. Not that most of them will ever act on it by committing crimes of child abuse or sex-trafficking. But according to sexologists, the attraction is there.
I've had to look at this topic again recently because I wrote a fairly strong article a few days ago, which I published on Medium, condemning Jeffrey Epstein and others like him. I figured most readers would agree with me. As more and more details about Epstein's sex pyramid emerged, I was filled with outrage and had to write about it. When I learned that his private jet was nicknamed the 'Lolita Express,' I found a voice for my feelings in Nabokov's famous novel.
SURPRISED BY SOME OF THE FEEDBACK
Allowing for the possibility that some of the pushback on social media came from trolls, I stepped back from my initial reaction to the Epstein case to do some research. And to ask myself some questions generated by a few of the comments I received. Is it true that older men's attraction for young girls has been a fact of life since the beginning of human history? What about Shakespeare's Juliet Capulet or Mary, the mother of Jesus? Is this attraction wired into our DNA? Are the legal restrictions imposed by Western societies merely an attempt to muzzle a natural desire? Are we hypocrites for condemning Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly for doing something most men would like to do? And maybe would do if they had the money?
Several movies seem to support the idea that teenage girls are fair game and the natural prey of any man who can get his hands on one. I've already written about Nabokov's Lolita. But the list is long.
To name but a few: There's the rape of 16-year-old Lara by her mother's lover in Doctor Zhivago (updated to look more like seduction in the 2002 TV remake); there's the sexual initiation of child prostitute Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby; Woody Allen's Manhattan about an affair between a high school student and a 42-year-old man; the film version of The Lover, a $30 million restatement of the novel by Marguerite Duras; and Roman Polanski's Tess, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy and Polanski's first film after fleeing the United States on charges that he drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl. Its 17-year-old star and onscreen muse Natassja Kinski denied rumors that she was sexually involved with Polanski, revealing instead that her famous actor father Klaus Kinski sexually abused her as a child.
Are these films telling it like it is, selling us something, or both?
WHAT HISTORY SHOWS
According to David Herlihy's Medieval Households, the marrying of girls between the ages of 12 and 15 during the Middle Ages was limited primarily to indigenous or ethnic religious groups. As Christianity expanded, women married much later.
Thanks to J. Karl Franson's Too Soon Marr'd, we now know that Elizabethans would have been scandalized if their daughters married at 14 like Shakespeare's Juliet. They believed motherhood before the age of 16 was dangerous, could permanently damage a young woman's health, and produced sickly or stunted children. For them, motherhood should not occur before the age of 18. They regarded 20 as the ideal age for marriage. That was the ideal. The actual age was closer to 25.
A FEW DEFINITIONS FROM THE SCIENE OF SEXOLOGY
This term is commonly used by the general public to refer to any sexual interest in minors below the legal age of consent, regardless of their level of physical or mental development. Although some people who commit child sexual abuse are pedophiles, child-sexual-abuse offenders are not pedophiles unless they have a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children. In fact, some pedophiles do not molest children. And not all pedophiles are men. Their ranks also include women.
The exact causes of pedophilia have not been conclusively established. However, some studies reveal a correlation with neurological abnormalities and psychological pathologies.
There is no known cure for pedophilia, but there are therapies that can reduce the incidence of a person committing child sexual abuse.
INFANTOPHILIA - Sexologists use this term to define adults whose primary sexual interest is in children under the age of 5.
HEBEPHILIA - This describes adults who prefer sex with pubescent youths, typically between the ages of 11 and 14. Humbert Humbert of Nabokov's Lolita falls into this category. Because Nabokov wrote so well, we understand his predicament, his psychology, and his doom. To anyone who has actually read the novel, he is a tragically pathetic, complicated man.
EPHEBOPHILIA - This term applies to adults whose sexual interest is in post-pubescent youths between the ages of 15 and 19. Mac McCready of TV's Greenleaf is one of these. We hate him at first but understand him better when we discover how he got that way. However, Medium contributor Jessica Valenti argued in a recent article that some of the research into this category was funded by Jeffrey Epstein and is an attempt to reframe sex with post-pubescent youths as no big deal because the girls involved are already basically mature.
BRAIN SCANS AND OTHER DATA-DRIVEN EVIDENCE
Psychiatrist and sexologist Fred Berlin states that most men can find persons in their mid- to late-adolescence attractive because they usually have the same physical characteristics of fully grown adults. But "of course, that doesn't mean they're going to act on it," he says. "Some men who become involved with teenagers may not have a particular disorder. Opportunity and other factors may have contributed to their behaving in the way they do."
And according to psychologist and sexologist James Cantor, it is "very common for regular men to be attracted to 18-year-olds or 20-year-olds. It's not unusual for a typical 16-year-old to be attractive to many men and the younger we go the fewer and fewer men are attracted to that age group."
Cantor's data-driven research is particularly helpful. He used magnetic resonance imaging to compare the brains of male pedophiles to non-pedophile offenders. He found a significant decrease in the amount of white matter in their brains compared to control subjects, as well as generally lower IQ and shorter-than-average height. This was interpreted as suggesting a link to early brain development. Cantor insists, however, that these findings do not imply that pedophiles should not be held legally responsible for their actions.
DO JEFFREY EPSTEIN & R. KELLEY SUFFER FROM A SEXUAL DISORDER?
When I step back from my initial response to the crimes attributed to Epstein and R. Kelly, I find myself wondering what we'll discover if they are subjected to psychiatric tests during their confinement. Do they suffer from a sexual disorder? Or are their alleged crimes the result of opportunity, lust, and the sense of entitlement often associated with wealth and power?
If they are sick, does that justify child abuse?
How about a sex pyramid, hush-money payoffs, witness tampering, and a secret plea deal that mocks a federal indictment? If you're addicted to opioids or alcohol, what's the best way to handle it? Should you get into a treatment program or commit robbery to finance your habit?
I favor treatment over crime. It's impossible to claim that illness justifies criminality. Especially if you've got millions of dollars and could easily afford the treatment you need.
AM I BACKING AWAY FROM WHAT I WROTE LAST WEEK?
Absolutely not. But thanks to the pushback, I now have data-driven information that proves the naysayers wrong.
THE WAY I SEE IT
We should protect children from creeps who would “take advantage of their disadvantages.” We should use what we’ve learned from the Epstein and Kelley cases to round up other sex traffickers. We should take a close look at our foster-care and child-welfare systems and look for ways to shield unwanted children from sexual predators and others who would abuse them.
I haven’t changed my mind at all about the way our culture winks at the sexualization of children. I still regard Nabokov’s Lolita as a mostly misunderstood novel, filled with truths few comprehend because the memes surrounding its 12-year-old victim focus mainly on the allure of pubescent sexuality.
ABOUT THOSE TIGHT JEANS
When I think about the young girl who passed me as I left the department store a few days ago, I also think about the magazines, movies, advertising, and TV shows that tell her she needs to look that way.
I think about the older woman with her, whom I assume to be her mother, and I remember a five-part television series I produced when I worked as a broadcast journalist. That's when I learned that the power of parents to teach values to their children has been diminishing ever since television became a fixture in the American home. The number of media-driven messages that blue-jeans girl will internalize by the time she reaches the age of consent will likely outdistance by tens of thousands anything her parents may say.
I wonder if any candidates running for political office in 2020 are speaking out about these things? If I find someone in either party, I'll be sure to let you know. But don't hold your breath.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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