If there is one ‘big’ idea concerning paedophilia that interests me most it is that the hysterical paedophobia we are currently suffering from might have its roots in the deep structure of society, particularly economics.
This post condenses four essays, each about 1500 words long, that I wrote early in 2014 and in which I gradually and tentatively edged my way towards the ideas outlined in the essay ‘Towards the aetiology of paedophobia‘. Each essay helped me refine some conceptual tools which would eventually give me the confidence to broach the question of what or who is to blame for the hatred of paedophilia.
However, even after finishing the fourth and last of these essays (which looks at the causes for the acceptance of homosexuality in the West over the past 50 years) I still didn’t have much of an idea what the answer to this question might be. But I knew that I should look for the causes of paedophobia not in the attitudes or activities of pressure groups and social movements, but as emerging from structures and institutions essential to society functioning and flourishing under its current economic dispensation.
I was encouraged early on by an essay written by Paul Graham called ‘What you can’t say‘. This essay confirmed a suspicion that paying attention those things that can’t be said, or indeed even ‘thought’, in a particular society could be a very effective way of getting at truths that might otherwise be inaccessible.
So what follows condenses some 6000 words down to 2000. Whilst much of this is not about paedophilia per se I hope that you will find here enough new ideas, and things to agree and argue with to justify your reading it.
“What or who is to blame for the hatred of paedophiles?” is a question that’s dangerous to ask and, for a non-paedophile, dangerous to even think about.
Let’s imagine putting this question to the average man in the street; someone whose only knowledge of paedophilia comes from the default sources: the press, television, the clearnet, gut feelings and his own and society’s imagination.
Our Mr Average would be troubled by the question and be suspicious of someone who could even ask it. To him it’s like asking ‘who is to blame for the unpopularity of mass murderers?’ – a question that answers itself and requires no further thought.
If pushed he might answer “Paedophiles themselves are to blame, of course!” That the cause paedophobia could reside outside the phenomenon itself is something he’ll have almost certainly have never considered.
I’d like to suggest here that in every society there are questions that can’t be asked without a sense of risk and transgression. In a deeply theist pre-enlightenment society ‘does god exist?’ is such a question; ‘Has a monarch got divine rights?’ has cost people their lives; and all societies have unquestionable incest taboos.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead identified “dirt” as “matter out of place”. Hair is ‘clean’ on a loved-one’s head, but not in a sandwich. Likewise ideas can be ‘out of place’ when they are not congruent to a particular society or context, and can provoke the same feelings of disgust as a hair in a sandwich.
I suspect that those things people find difficult to think about are so because they entail ideas that could severely undermine society. These ideas often provoke feelings of unease or disgust in citizens’ minds. But these are also thoughts that, once contemplated, have a seductive power – possibly because they have elements of truth about them.
One has only to think of child erotica (or porn). As a society we are primed to think of it with disgust. However for a ‘normal’ member of society the feelings of shock they might experience on seeing it can be as much to do with the unwelcome knowledge it brings – the perception that the children are enjoying themselves, that the ‘abuser’ and the child may be interacting in a tender loving way, and the feelings of arousal or attraction the viewer might involuntarily feel.
Some ideas are dangerous: an armed escort is not required for lorry transporting raw sewage, but is required for one transporting enriched uranium or gold. Often that armed escort can take the form of Ignorance and Disgust.
If we consider Roman (or ancient Greek) society we come across what, to us, is a glaring example of a thought that was for them ‘unthinkable’ but which to us is so evident that most of us would never question its validity.
That thought is ‘slavery is wrong’.
The Roman Republic, and subsequently the Roman Empire, was a slave-based economy. Its rapid territorial expansion was largely fueled by the need for a large and cheap workforce to maintain what was a relatively low-technology but highly expansionist economy. Without slavery the Roman citizen would not have his Via Appia, his fine wines and the Circus Maximus, well-stocked with gladiators and wild animals for his entertainment.
Roman and ancient Greek literature and philosophy, (including thinkers and humanists such as Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Jesus Christ) offers not a single statement that puts into question the morality or necessity of slavery. Why?
Because society protects its most essential institutions and practices through deploying various mechanisms which make subversive ideas less available and less easy to think. It must also be kept in mind that citizens also have a huge stake in the successful functioning of their society – so these mechanisms are created and backed up by the collective will.
Some 20% of the Roman Empire’s population and 40% of the population of the city of Rome was made up of slaves. Clearly there was a lot at stake in keeping the thought that slavery could be ‘wrong’ at bay. The slaves’ revolts were the most disturbing and terrifying events that a Roman citizen could think about because such revolts threatened the very economic survival of the Roman Empire in a way that external wars didn’t.
The impossibility of questioning Slavery applied not only to Roman citizens, slave masters and owners, but also to the slaves themselves. Most slaves came from cultures which also practised the enslavement of conquered peoples. Slaves accepted their situation as an unfortunate consequence of fate and necessity: it was better to be a slave than to be killed, which would otherwise have been the fate of most of the losing side in battles.
Roman society praised owners who treated their slaves well, and condemned bad slave owners. Slaves were offered a ‘reward system’, a way of attaining honour and self respect in their roles and could, if their masters were enlightened, even be made into Freedmen and become Roman citizens.
This established moral parameters which reassuringly embraced narratives of both virtue and vice, whilst never broaching the question of the ethical status of slavery itself.
What I believe this shows is that those structures and institutions (very often economic) upon which a society bases its safety, survival and prosperity are ‘protected’ from being questioned or undermined in the minds of groups and individuals.
How this operates must be very subtle: the citizenry must not ‘notice’ the existence of the mechanisms (since to notice that one’s being manipulated is to be halfway to working out why one is being manipulated) but I suspect that, like a well defended fort, it works on several lines of defence:
These not only operate through sanctions but also provide a kind of mirror of the ethical state of its citizens, reinforcing belief in those things the law defends.
Nothing keeps us away from a thought or a feeling more effectively than disgust – this is how the concept of Taboo works.
It is very hard to argue against disgust: one can know feelings of disgust are irrational and wrong but the feelings nevertheless remain overwhelming: if I had to, say, excise someone’s eye in order to save their life I fear that Reason and Compassion could not sufficiently overcome my feelings of disgust for me to be able to go through with it.
Words are the bricks with which we build thoughts. If some concepts have no words or words have meanings that are inherently false (like the word ‘witch’ – taken in the non-Wiccan sense) then certain thoughts become unavailable to us (Orwell’s Newspeak from ‘1984’ shows how impoverishing the language is effective in stopping people from thinking).
Discerning the underlying causes of ‘unthinkable thoughts’ becomes harder the more that thought’s context resembles one’s own society. This is because as a society’s blind spots coincide more and more with our own we have available to us fewer of those concepts which would allow us to think about these blind spots, and the vocabulary with which to think will be increasingly impoverished and corrupted – this impoverishment and corruption of language acts as a conceptual buffer, or ‘cordon sanitaire’, around forbidden thoughts. That’s why it’s easy for a contemporary westerner to think about Romans and slavery, whilst it’s almost impossible for him to think about paedophilia.
The linguistic dishonesties, distortions, and stumbling blocks which clutter the debate around paedophilia will be all too familiar to the reader. Half our problems are with establishing honest definitions of words. If a language lacks the words for certain concepts those concepts become very hard to think and manipulate, discuss and evaluate. How can one think of child-adult intimacy as being anything other than wrong if the only words one has for describing it are ‘abuse’, ‘rape’, ‘victim’, ‘molester’ &c? Most discussions about paedophilia boil down to disagreements about the implied definitions of words. Such discussions tend to be frustrating, unproductive and sterile.
Note that these mechanisms arise organically out of society and social interactions. They are not imposed from above or require conspiracy theories: they arise out of a citizen’s need to protect the very things that give him, his family and community a good, safe, and comfortable life – or an aspiration to such a life.
During periods of social change groups spring up that are vocal in favour, or against, some change. It is easy to mistake these groups for the prime agents of change. They are generally merely ‘jumpers-on-the-bandwagon’ seeking to advance their own position by surfing on the impetus of a change that other deeper forces have impelled.
To credit pressure groups and campaigns for the success of gay liberation is to simply halt the search for the cause of this success at the first easy group of individuals capable of taking the credit or shouldering the blame. The movements for gay liberation in the second half of the twentieth century was very much pushing at an open door. Such groups were the midwives, not the mothers, of change.
During the last 4 decades of the 20th century – the economic systems of the UK, the USA and many other western nations were moving from a manufacturing base to one based on service and consumption. Not entirely, of course – heavy industry does still exist in these countries – but what matters is that these economies stopped defining themselves through manufacturing and heavy industry and started to define themselves, and their projects for the future, in terms of services and consumerism. This period coincides with the ‘swinging sixties’, the industrial troubles of the 70s and Thatcherism in the 80s.
In the 40s & 50s the ideal man was strong, emotionally aloof, independent and tough. By the late 80s there emerged the ideal of the ‘New Man’, who combined both masculine and feminine qualities.
The photograph l’Enfant – a best-seller for Athena in the late 80s – with its muscular man tenderly cradling a baby, embodied a new conception of masculinity. (Compare this image with an equally famous, and interestingly similar, representation of masculinity from the first half of the century – Hine’s ‘Power House Mechanic’.)
And then there were the shoulder-padded, ball-busting, business woman as embodied by Margaret Thatcher – a woman who’d assumed many of the more masculine characteristics. It’s no coincidence that feminism blossomed over this same period.
Previously sharply demarcated gender roles softened, broke down and genders freely exchanged characteristics. People could pick and choose how they constituted their gender identity and their choices would be largely respected and protected. Why?
In the 50s the idea of ‘The Man’ was someone who worked in a factory or a mine – a tough, masculine environment for tedious and boring physical tasks; tasks requiring little education and a tough stoical attitude to get you through the day. In fact education was a positive disadvantage in some ways.
By the end of the century things had changed. The economy had become a service economy in which interpersonal skills were valued above strength and sheer endurance. A man could be a nurse, a secretary, a receptionist, a nursery school teacher, all jobs required training, education and attitudes that had till then been thought of as ‘feminine’. Men adhering to the old masculine values were disqualified from such work and tended to end up at increased risk of unemployment as the local factories shut down. The values of the 50s died out because they were no longer congruent to the economic and structural needs of the society they lived in.
This increased permeability of the demarcations between gender-roles had several side effects, one of which was that ordinary men could allow elements into their identity which had previously been associated with homosexuality, or more precisely ‘lack of masculinity’, and which would have been disruptive in the factory, but not in a school staff-room, office or in a team of nurses.
The end of industry and the rise of Consumer and service-based forms of capitalism also changed the gender-profile of the labour market – there were fewer and fewer jobs that could only be done by men available and more unisex jobs. More and more women and wives were entering the job market and the phenomenon of house-husbands started to become increasingly common.
In short, in the 50s homosexuals were reviled because they undermined the conception of masculinity necessary for a functioning labour force in a society based on heavy industry. In the 21st century they are accepted because they embody the values that a consumer and service economy relies on.
It might be countered that all this is based on certain stereotypes of homosexuals being effeminate, sensitive, caring. After all there are other conceptions of ‘the Homosexual’: for example the super-macho idea of homosexuality as embodied by ‘Tom of Finland’. However it is society’s conception of homosexuality that matters here rather than statistically accurate facts: what stereotype society promotes and why?
Homophobia was less fear of homosexuals than a contempt for the ‘less-than-manly’: homosexual behaviour was tolerated, accepted even, provided it were done in a macho context, with manly intent – think of the horse-play and masturbation competitions in the dressing room after a rugby game, think of the use of male rape as a tool of dominance in prisons. The playground insult ‘poof’ was more about not being ‘hard’ than about anything sexual. These indicate that the homophobia that predominates in heavy industrial economies is more about the reinforcement of values than about homosexuality per se.
The stereotype of the ‘poof’ or ‘queer’ was the repugnant and stigmatised ‘stick’ to the manly ‘carrot’ – both worked to enforce conformity to a useful idea of masculinity. And the accuracy of this stereotype was no more relevant than is the accuracy of ‘monster’ stereotype of the paedophile – the ‘monster’ stereotype is useful to society so the stereotype persists (despite the perpetuation of that stereotype being counterproductive to the actual protection of children).
So what does this amount to?
Attitudes are adaptive. Given that most people are concerned with prospering (or, at least, surviving), populations will adopt those attitudes which best allow them to function within the economic and social constraints of the society they exist in. Those citizens who internalise such attitudes will tend to ‘do well’, those that don’t will be left behind.
Of course this is a simplification – there is always a range of attitudes available, and in a free society that range can be very wide. But the flip side of this coin is that those ideas that most deeply undermine adaptive attitudes, gradually become, not just feared and reviled, but actually become, in a very real sense, ‘unthinkable’.