“There are girls in my class who, if I didn’t know them and I’d encountered them in the street, I know I’d have found very sexually attractive; but because I’m their teacher I don’t feel that way about them.”
“The less contact I have with children the more sexual thoughts I have about them.”
“I have to admit that she’s not the most spectacularly attractive little girl, but when she sits in my lap and looks at me like that she turns my brains to custard! And she knows it!”
“I spend hours masturbating over child porn but I don’t actually like children when I meet them.”
“Even though I’m a paedophile I don’t have sexual feelings for my own children.”
I’ve encountered statements like those above in various internet paedophile forums, statements which associate a particular manifestation of desire with a particular social situation.
The fact that people feel different things at different times in their lives seems like something that hardly requires investigation – after all life is complicated, as are we, and, as they say – ‘shit happens’.
But do the social conditions under which we interact with those whom we desire significantly determine how that desire is experienced? What if it were possible to analyse these conditions and identify pressures inherent in them which might predispose us to think or feel in a particular way? Could such explanations throw light on some of the issues associated with being a paedophile in our society?
Let’s start by breaking down adult-child interactions into four categories:
- functional contact
- familial contact
- egalitarian contact
This is the condition where the adult has no regular interaction with real-life children over a considerable period of time.
This has become the norm for most adults who aren’t parents. We live in a society where adults have very little contact with real life children, making for a society where ‘childhood’ is increasingly defined through mediated depictions (news, advertising, film etc) rather than by actual interactions with children. While this is very harmful to society, it is especially difficult for the paedophile, the absence of children creating a vacuum at the heart of his emotional life.
The paedophile in this situation has to express his emotions and his sexuality through his imagination (fantasy, memory or dreams) or through representations of children (literature, photos, films, internet, possibly erotic or pornographic).
Because he can exercise control and selectivity in his fantasies and in his choice of photos, novels, films &c, he can construct for himself an idea of ‘the child’ which most pleases him. Any representations or fantasies he doesn’t like are consigned to the real or metaphorical waste-paper basket. I, for example, avoid anything that depicts children as ‘mini-adults’ – such a lot of singing and dance videos on YouTube (of course the paedophile does not have complete freedom – his freedom is constrained by many factors, including restricted access to pornography, and fear of discovery and of prosecution).
The lack of contact with real-life children also means that his concept of ‘the child’ is not tested, and it is likely to gradually drift towards a view of ‘the child’ that is increasingly idealised.
His concept of ‘the child’ may drift so far from ‘reality’ that when he does encounter real-life children the disparity between his ideal and the real child makes the encounter disagreeable, disappointing or even disturbing.
Experience and memory may play a significant factor in anchoring such a person’s concept of ‘the child’ in reality: someone who has spent years working with children, or has raised them, is unlikely, even after many years of isolation from children, to have their concept of the ‘child’ drift too far from reality.
But what happens when a paedophile finds himself thus isolated without having had that long experience of real-life children to anchor his concept of the ‘child’?
This may be the case for many young paedophiles nowadays and I suspect that a lot of the more unpleasant comments and attitudes that one reads on anonymous chans may be a result of young people discovering that they are paedophiles, and developing their sexual identity, through pornography and erotica rather than through encounters and interactions with real-life children.
This allows a process of objectification and inappropriate sexualisation (adultification) of the child to take place untested by reality, and a too ready adoption of the social construct of the ‘paedophile’ as monster role.
I hope to return to this issue in the future.
This is a very crowded category, including as it does most of the socially recognised roles that an adult can have with a child: teacher, doctor, policeman, social worker, nursery nurse, scout leader, youth-worker, sports coach, priest…
In these interactions the adult works with a social construct of the ‘the child’ which conceals a large part of the child’s personality. The absence of sexuality is an essential element of all approved ideas of the child in our society, and the roles children adopt (pupil, patient, cub-scout/brownie, choir boy &c) are all ones which, in multiple ways, enact this innocence.
I’ll take the ‘teacher’ as an example.
He must act the role of a ‘teacher’, assuming the authority and distance proper to that role. Likewise the child acts, or learns how to act, the role of the ‘pupil’. The school environment facilitates the adoption of these roles in a variety of ways, including systems of sanctions and rewards.
Experiments such as Philip Zimbardo‘s infamous Stanford prison experiment show how people are very apt to adopt the values and perspectives proper to the roles they find themselves playing.
The teacher is under great pressure to ‘buy into’ the social construct of the ‘pupil’, and ‘the child’: teaching is goal-oriented and the adult’s performance is evaluated in terms of how well those goals have been achieved, the teacher is successful to the extent that his pupils resemble the ideal ‘school-child’ (polite, sociable, bright, hard-working); interactions are easier and more enjoyable and the teacher will win more respect from his colleagues and employers. Moreover the children themselves are happiest when conforming to the roles allotted them – a child who refuses to play his role is often a child who is troubled or unhappy.
The challenges of teaching also make it difficult for the teacher to know his pupils as full individuals. A conscientious teacher may be aware of a child’s interests, problems, hopes, fears and friendships – but when he has a curriculum to deliver to up to 30 children – some of whom may be difficult and demanding – he can not give the same attention to these aspects of his pupils’ self-hoods as, say, their parents or their friends can – which is why teachers sometimes have to remind themselves that ‘all children are likeable if you get to know them well enough‘.
I’ve discussed this question with a friend who taught a child whom she knew extremely well out of school and was very close to. She found that child’s self-hood in class a pale shadow of the vivid, complex, entertaining and affectionate person whom she knew at evenings and weekends.
The ‘ideal school-child’ is likely to be significantly different from a paedophile’s ‘ideal child’: there is no place for ‘sexiness’, ‘sensuality’ or ‘seductiveness’ in the role of the ‘school child’, certainly the primary-age school-child. An example of this is how school uniforms emphasise the identity of the ‘school child’ at the expense of individuality and expression, and has the effect of desexualising the child.
A paedophile teacher will daily encounter children whom he dislikes, finds troublesome or unattractive, and this will ‘test’ and, through a constant process of negotiation and friction, ‘shape’ that teacher’s concept of ‘the child’. The paedophile teacher, if he is committed to his role, will come to think of, and value, those he teaches primarily in terms of how well they fulfill the role of ‘pupil’: their academic work, their behaviour and attitude; not their sexuality or attractiveness. Indeed he may come to find intrusions of his sexuality into his teaching disruptive.
All of which will have an an anaphrodisiac effect on a paedophile.
(A parenthetical word about the limitations of this approach
Before I touch on the third category – ‘familial contact’ – I should acknowledge the limitations of this way of analysing relationships and desire: life and people are complicated and generally subject to more influences than can be taken into account.
Personality, personal history, the influence of one’s social circle, the way habits of thought and of deed persist beyond the conditions which gave rise to them, &c &c all reduce the predictive power of such analyses.
Moreover, people can also inhabit several categories at any one period in their life – someone may be, at different moments of the day, a teacher, a father and the best friend of the next-door neighbour’s child.
This means that this kind of analysis may not be spectacularly effective at explaining or predicting individual behaviour. However, I feel that this way of thinking is useful when thinking about populations and groups of people.)
The family represents a transition between ‘functional’ and ‘egalitarian’ contact.
As in ‘egalitarian contact’ the relationship between the child and the parent is constructed through a complex and ever-developing interaction which starts at the child’s birth. The adult/child distinction matters less – the individual qualities of the child start to take precedence over a priori socially constructed ideas of ‘the child’. The child feels less ‘on display’ in such a relationship and the engagement between the adult and child is more based on their personalities than roles.
However, despite the child generally having more agency and freedom of expression, as in the case of ‘functional contact’ the parents maintain a position of authority over the child.
Family roles and interactions are much more complex, changeable, contradictory and less codified than in ‘functional’ contact – think of the number of roles a father has to play which affect the child either directly or indirectly: parent, husband, ‘lover’ (of his wife, but also as a child’s first model of masculinity), wage-earner, friend, teacher, disciplinarian, entertainer, role model &c. And if the father also happens to be a paedophile we can add to this complex mix his sexuality, incest taboos, the Westermark effect &c.
Parents are the front line troops in the fight against child sexuality. They encounter the earliest signs of child sexuality and have to do what it takes to maintain the idea that children are ‘innocent’ as defined by society.
They don’t do this out of cruelty, repressiveness or puritanism: it’s a process that generally happens beyond the awareness of either the parents or the child – it is a ‘triumph of assumptions’ rather than an act of will on the parents’ part.
However a father or mother who is a paedophile is likely to have to suppress conflicting impulses and beliefs out of fear of the law and/or of their spouse – and also out of an awareness that their child will have to exist in a society where child sexuality is seen as dysfunctional.
But I will leave my consideration of ‘familial contact’ here. If it seems I do so with unseemly haste it is not because there is little to say but because, on the contrary, there is too much to say. The roles and interactions in the family are so various and complex that, whereas a few hundred words suffices to sketch out the essentials of the other categories it would require a whole essay, or series of essays, to do the same for the family.
I hope eventually to write such an essay.
I’m sure many who are reading this will, at some time in their life, have experienced a profound friendship with a child.
Like all friendships, they are the result of interactions which depend little on social norms, roles and expectations. Such a relationship is more an original creation of the two people involved (though outside forces – parents, schools etc will always have an input).
The adult is not playing a role (teacher, parent) and has no socially sanctioned authority over the child. The relationship is egalitarian. The adult does not think of his young friend as ‘a child’ and the child does not think of her old friend as ‘an adult’. The adult can find himself ‘looking up’ to the child in a way that goes against the assumptions of ‘superiority’ which the orthodox cultural narrative automatically attributes to the adult.
At this level the two individuals get to know each other in a way which makes socially constructed identities less and less relevant and the connection between the two individuals can become very profound.
The child’s behaviour is shaped by her respect this person, and vice versa. This can, and does, of course, occur between children – but the fact that the partner in this interaction is an adult will allow the child to have a more sophisticated conception of what it is to be a social being and give him/her a foot in the ‘adult’ world that no other relationship can provide.
Such interactions probably are, ethically, the safest relationships within which an adult and a child can experience physical intimacy. The issue of ‘abuse of authority’ is unlikely to arise as disparity of authority is not built into such relationships and – unlike as with familial and functional relationships – the child can opt out of the relationship or end it if she wishes.
As the neither partner has a significant advantage in terms of authority any sensuality and sexuality in such a relationship is likely to be a product of the desires and wishes of both participants.
They are also the kinds of interactions where the levels of trust are such that the child will feel most at ease expressing any sexual feelings she has towards the adult. To the adult these will feel less like advances from a ‘child’ (as defined by society) and more as from an autonomous, complete ‘person’.
This is a kind of relationship which is invisible, remains un-named (though in the UK the label ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ is sometimes applied to non-related adults who share a close friendship with a child), and is viewed with suspicion in WEIRD societies. But (I suspect) that this kind of relationship is an essential part of the socialization of children and occurs more frequently in more community-oriented the society is. Such relationships create vertical cohesion (i.e. between generations). They give the child the experience of being respected by an adult, they give am more independent access to the community and the world than the child’s parents could. And the child has the opportunity to engage in more ‘mature’ ways of acting and interacting without being subjected to the authoritarian constraints that are necessary to parenthood, teaching &c.
I sometimes wonder whether our paedophobic culture (‘paedophobic’ in both the commonly use sense of ‘fearing paedophiles’ and in the strict sense of ‘fearing children’) doesn’t have a deep-down nostalgia for this kind of relationship: the film industry seems to portray such relationships with a frequency which belies the distaste with which they are viewed in real life. Three recent films in this genre are ‘Lamb’, Up and ‘Mary and Max’. I could write a list ten times as long, but will hold my fire as this is something I hope to investigate in more detail eventually.