– What does society gain by permitting adults to have sex with children?
– You could ask the same question of homosexuality: what does society gain by permitting people of the same sex to have sex with one-another?
– Trying to compare pedophilia with homosexuality is false equivalency. What consenting adults do together sexually is of no concern to anybody else.
The above exchange comes from an on-line discussion I engaged in on the subject of paedophilia. My interlocutor’s final reply contains several flaws: it attempts a Diversion, it betrays a misunderstanding of the role of Comparison in discourse, and it ‘Begs the Question’.
A Diversion is an attempt to change the subject mid-argument, generally to one about which the person attempting the diversion feels more confident. Diversions mean that the initial issue of contention is lost sight of and is not brought to a conclusion. Diversions often happen without either of the participants realising it.
The above exchange opens with a question about possible social benefits of ‘permitting adults to have sex with children’ (notice the biases my interlocutor’s wording introduces into the debate – it is the adults being permitted to have sex with children, not children being permitted to have sex with adults; and the word ‘sex’ is loaded with teleiophilic overtones of penetration, perspiration and orgasms).
My opponent refused to acknowledge the possibility that there were any parallels between the benefits of permitting homosexuality and those of permitting child-adult intimacy, and tried to shut down that line of enquiry by shifting the discussion to ‘consent’.
Diversions are not always easy to deal with because refusing to follow a diversion can leave you looking like you are dodging the new issue being raised. And of course, sometimes it can be to your advantage to accept a diversion which moves the discussion onto an issue you feel more confident about.
The most important thing is to be able spot Diversions whenever they arise as this will allow you to control the direction the exchange will take. A discussion where neither interlocutor can resist a diversion can be reminiscent of two cats attached to one-another by a leash chasing birds up trees in a forest.
The nature of comparison in discourse
If we decline the invitation to follow the diversion in the second sentence, we are left with the statement that “trying to compare pedophilia with homosexuality is false equivalency”. This touches on the nature of comparison in discourse and on the False Equivalence.
First of all, let’s be clear: anyone can compare anything to anything: Shakespeare, in sonnet 18, compared his love to ‘a Summer’s day’; Emily Dickinson compared ‘hope’ to ‘a thing with feathers‘; George Orwell in ‘Animal Farm’ devoted a whole book to comparing farm animals to the Russian Revolution; the chemist August Kekulé, struggling to work out the structure of the benzene molecule, realised it had a cyclic structure after having a dream in which he saw a snake eat its own tail.
Whilst Kekulé’s insight was not sufficient in itself to generate new knowledge, it was effective in generating a hypothesis plausible enough to justify further investigation and testing.
So, a comparison is not disqualified by there being disparate elements between the comparates (the two things being compared). Indeed if there were no disparate elements then the comparates would be identical, and there would be no point in comparing them.
Comparisons establish short-cuts whereby we can take concrete and familiar notions (a snake swallowing its tail) and transfer them to something more abstract and unfamiliar (possible arrangements of six carbon atoms and six hydrogen atoms). Comparisons allow us to colour in the blanks spaces of existence with the wax crayons of established knowledge.
When Whistler, in Monty Python’s ‘Oscar Wilde‘ sketch, compares his Highness to a ‘stream of bat’s piss’ our first reaction (and indeed that of the king and of the guests in Wilde’s drawing-room) is that the comparison has violated some taboo. However, on hearing the justification for the comparison (that his Highness “shine[s] out like a shaft of gold when all around is dark”) the initial shock of the comparison turns into an appreciation of the comparison’s unexpected truth and validity.
And even if we were to concede that ‘children can’t consent’ (which, of course, I don’t) that does not invalidate any parallels and similarities between homosexuality and paedophilia that are not relevant to the issue of consent.
Indeed there are many similarities shared by paedophilia and homosexuality:
- they have both been illegal and highly stigmatised;
- both paedophiles and homosexuals have at times had to keep their sexuality secret for fear of persecution and prejudice;
- both are sexual orientations and are not chosen;
- both have been considered as inherently non-consensual;
- both have been defined in the public imagination by the worst that could be said, reported or imagined about them;
- homosexuality was once synonymous with sodomy in the same way as paedophilia is now erroneously thought of as ‘adults fucking children’;
- both have been thought of as exclusively male predilections;
- both have been considered as violating ‘nature’ narratives;
- both have been considered as corrupting of youth;
- in the public imagination both have been disassociated from ideas of tenderness or love;
- people accused of both orientations have had their lives, reputations and careers ruined;
- both are, or have been, tarred with ‘infection’ narratives: till recently it was thought that people were ‘converted’ to homosexuality – echoing the contemporary myth that paedophilia is passed on from abuser to abused;
- both are, or have been, portrayed as obsessive, hyper-sexual and out of control;
In addition, for a long time, and especially during Victorian times, the roles were reversed: homosexuality was stigmatised and persecuted, whereas paedophilia was not only tolerated, it was, in certain circles quite fashionable (see Lewis Carroll, Ernest Dowson, John Ruskin et al in ‘Men in Wonderland: The Lost Girlhood of the Victorian Gentleman‘ by Catherine Robson). And in moslem societies homosexuality is reviled, whilst a patriarchal, non-consensual version of paedophilia is quite acceptable.
A note on ‘False Equivalence’
In the exchange in question my interlocutor accused me of committing the fallacy of ‘false equivalency’.
A ‘False equivalence’ is a proposition in which an inference (or inferences) is drawn from one comparate to the other on the basis of a shared trait which is insufficiently relevant to the issue in question.
Hitler had moustaches and was evil; Jesus had moustaches. Therefore Jesus must have been evil.
There’s no biological difference between a cat and a dog. They’re both soft, cuddly pets.
Abusive child molesters are sexually attracted to the children they abuse. As are Paedophiles. Therefore there is no difference between a paedophile and a child molester.
Each of these propositions reaches its conclusion via an unstated, but erroneous, intermediary proposition. The fact that the error is unstated gives the statements a spurious appearance of logic, but once this intermediate proposition is made explicit the fallacies behind these propositions become obvious:
Hitler had moustaches and was evil.
Therefore all men with moustaches are evil.
Jesus had moustaches.
Therefore Jesus must have been evil.
A cat is a soft, cuddly pet.
Therefore all soft, cuddly pets are cats.
Dogs are soft, cuddly pets.
Therefore there’s no biological difference between a cat and a dog.
Child molesters are sexually attracted to the children they abuse.
Therefore all who find children sexually attractive are child molesters.
Paedophiles find children sexually attractive.
Therefore there’s no difference between paedophiles and child molesters.
The first sentences in each of these 3 propositions take the form ‘all x is y’. The second (highlighted sentences) try to convert this to ‘all y is x’.
However ‘all x is y’ does not convert to ‘all y is x’: ‘All dogs are mammals’ may be true, but ‘all mammals are dogs’ certainly isn’t. And this means that any conclusion drawn from ‘all y is x’ is invalid.
My comparison between homosexuality and paedophilia boiled down to its simplest terms gives:
homosexuality is a kind of sexual orientation,
paedophilia is a kind of sexual orientation,
They therefore share the defining characteristics of their common definition (and possibly some non-defining characteristics too).
It should be clear from this that my comparison between homosexuality and paedophilia is not a False Equivalency.
Now, let’s imagine an alien who is familiar with humans but is encountering dolphins and bat stars for the first time. What knowledge can be transferred from humans to bat stars and dolphins?
Humans and dolphins are both members of the class Mammalia. This means that they must share the defining characteristics of not just Mammalia (e.g. 3 middle ear bones, hair, mammary glands) but also the subphylum Vertebrata (e.g. bony vertebral column), the phylum Chordata (e.g. a post-anal tail) and the kingdom Animalia (e.g. reliance on other organisms for food).
Bat stars and humans converge at the kingdom ‘Animalia’. This means that they must share the defining characteristics of the Animalia kingdom: they are both organisms that consist of multiple cells, cells which contain mitochondria, and they rely on other organisms for food (they will also share characteristics of higher categories – such as Domain, and also ‘things that physically exist’).
More can be inferred from humans to dolphins than from humans to bat stars, humans and dolphins are more closely related to one an-other than humans and bat stars and therefore more ‘comparable’.
But it is not always possible to apply such taxonomic rigour to comparisons.
A rule of thumb for determining how close two comparates are to one-another is to ask how few defining characteristics of one comparate need be changed to transform it into the other comparate: to get from Homosexuality to Paedophilia one has only to change one thing: the age of one of the participants.
Begging the question
The final fallacy that my interlocutor commits in the exchange in question is ‘Begging the Question’ (also known as ‘Petitio Principii‘).
The phrase is today often used to indicate that an urgent question has been raised (e.g. “this situation begs the question: are we all in fact guided by the same universal principles and values?”). Its correct use refers to a form of circular thinking in which ‘an argument assumes the truth of the conclusion which the argument is seeking to prove’.
Some examples of begging the question:
“Affirmative Action can never be just. You cannot remedy one injustice by committing another.”
(the second sentence, the sentence that purportedly proves the first, merely assumes what the first sentence asserts, without supplying any new evidence and/or reason for doing so)
“In the third chapter of II Timothy it says that ‘all scripture is given by divine inspiration of God’. This proves that the Bible is divinely inspired”
(the conclusion is reached via the unstated assumption that ‘everything in the Bible is true’. But this is only valid if one assume that the Bible is the word of god– the very issue up for debate)
“Murder is morally wrong. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.”
(this argument proceeds via the unstated assumption that ‘abortion is murder’ – morally wrong killing – and fails to consider the possibility that certain forms of killing, of which abortion may be one, need not necessarily be morally wrong)
Even when this fallacy occurs within the succinct space of a couple of sentences, as in the above examples, it is not always easy to grasp. When ‘question begging’ occurs within the context of a protracted argument it can easily escape notice.
The exchange at the top of this essay does not, taken in isolation, ‘beg the question’. But it does when taken within the context of the broader discussion: a debate as to whether children can or cannot consent to ‘sex’ with adults.
This question was far from resolved (indeed, it’s unlikely that a pro-choice paedophile and an ‘anti’ would come to agree on this issue), and when my interlocutor suggested that ‘children can’t consent‘ she was prematurely assuming that our disagreement over consent had been resolved, and resolved in her favour.
How should I have replied?
– “what does society gain by permitting adults to have sex with children?”
– “You could ask the same question of homosexuality – what does society gain by permitting people of the same sex to have sex with one-another?”
– “Trying to compare pedophilia with homosexuality is false equivalency. What consenting adults do together sexually is of no concern to anybody else…”
A reply that addresses each of these vulnerabilities might read as:
“I can compare paedophiila to whatever I want.
Homosexuality and paedophilia are closely related phenomena – you have only to change one thing about Homosexuality for it to become Paedophilia: the age of one of the participants. You also suggest that I’m not allowed to compare paedophilia to homosexuality because they differ with respect to ‘consent’. First of all, I have consistently argued that children can consent to certain forms of intimacy with adults. Secondly, in the UK homosexuals have only been able to consent since 1980, and it took twenty-three more years for homosexual consent to be recognised nationwide in the USA, and almost 80 countries today still deny that adults of the same sex can consent to sexual activity with one-another. Clearly a society’s willingness to recognise a couple’s capacity to consent is not always distinguishable from its prejudices.
But all this is a distraction: you originally asked me “what does society gain by permitting adults to have sex with children?” I’ll have another go at answering your question, this time by spelling it out:
- children being able to have nurturing, mentoring and educative friendships with adults other than those adults allocated to them by accident of birth, or by profession,
- children being empowered in their relationships with adults and exploring relationships with an adult which they have chosen and which they can end,
- children participating in an equal relationship with an adult, fostering maturity and respect,
- children enjoying and sharing affection, and sensual and sexual pleasure,
- children feeling more loved by the community beyond the family – a source of love absent from contemporary Western society
- stronger intergenerational cohesion within the community,
- a loosening of the stranglehold of the nuclear family on the growing child.
- children receiving a practical, child-centered education in sex, sexuality, health, hygiene, and interpersonal relationships from someone they like, trust and have chosen,
- a reduction in real child sexual abuse – since educated and empowered children will be able to more effectively understand, identify, resist, report and talk about unwanted sexual advances,
- since only non-consensual relationships would be prosecuted there would be a huge reduction in the number of CSA cases needing to be processed by the police and courts.
(I’m sure that this list is far from comprehensive. If I have missed out anything significant, I trust you, respected reader, to please let me know)