Thursday, August 28, 2014

Pedophilia and parenthood - a cautious yes

In my <last post>  I traced how some pedophiles end up married. Should they become parents? I imagine many readers will have a passionately negative reaction, even if they are otherwise sympathetic to celibate pedophiles.

There is a great deal at stake. It's one thing to say that pedophiles aren't necessarily bad people, they aren't necessarily criminals in the making, and they deserve compassionate psychological and medical care. But as I noted <before>, the public is very uneasy at the idea of pedophiles spending time with children. How much worse to sign up for a permanent commitment to spending time with children in the most intimate settings?

Some of our sympathetic supporters such as Dan Savage and Michael Seto are on record as opposed to pedophiles becoming parents. Scientists whose careers are based on studying sex offenders will find some cases where pedophile fathers abused their daughters or sons, and the natural conclusion is that pedophiles should not become parents. But these researchers are severely limited by the people they have to study. They have no idea how many pedophiles became fathers and did not abuse their children. If you ask them to speculate where they have no good data, it is natural that they will answer based on the people they have seen and studied.

A great deal of child sex abuse (perhaps half) is by opportunistic offenders who aren't actually pedophiles. Pedophile or not, what all abusers have in common is the antisocial tendencies -- they know that they are breaking one of society's strongest taboos, risking its stiffest criminal penalties, and risking serious harm to the children, and they abuse them anyway. They are not going to ask anyone if they ought to become a parent or pay attention to the answer. For the record, I'd say anyone with strong antisocial tendencies should not become a parent.

I'm considering how to answer a pedophile who earnestly asks whether it's OK if he becomes a parent. My strong suspicion is that just by asking the question he gives a strong hint that he is low on antisocial tendencies and a relatively low risk to offend.

But there is a factor specific to the parent-child relationship. This starts with the Westermarck Effect, which captures the fact that brothers and sisters raised together typically feel no sexual attraction for each other. This extends to the parent-child relationship. Ordinary men typically feel little attraction to their own teen daughters -- though they may notice a strong attraction to their friends. It wouldn't be surprising if the same effect held for pedophiles, and there is evidence for it. Among pedophiles online, some are parents. Some had children of the gender they are attracted to and those children are now grown. The nearly universal report is that they simply felt no attraction to their own children at all -- friends yes, their own children no. While online pedophiles are a biased sample, this pattern is so very strong that I think it is fair to generalize.

Yet some pedophiles do end up abusing their children, and as in most questions of social policy, you can't reach the right solution without considering probabilities. If 1 in 3 pedophile fathers abused their children, that would be serious. If as I suspect it is closer to 1 in 100, it might be an acceptable risk. You might ask how it can possibly be acceptable to allow 1 child in 100 to be sexually abused.

My answer is to evaluate this risk relative not to an ideal set of parents but relative to the population of all parents. Let's label as "Class 1 parents" stable pairs of psychologically well adjusted, financially secure people between the ages of 25 and 35. If only they reproduced with the popular family sizes of one or two children, world population would rapidly plummet. If we don't want to go extinct, we have to be in favor of some "Class 2 parents" reproducing -- ones whose situations are not ideal. There are also "Class 3 parents" where we might raise our eyebrows. Yet we still recognize not just the right of people to reproduce but we empathize with their desires even if the outcome is likely to be less than ideal. Extreme poverty, genetic diseases, and psychological instability all come to mind. Neglect, emotional abuse, and physical abuse are all associated with worse adult outcomes than sexual abuse -- this is not to downplay the gravity of sexual abuse, but to compare it fairly to other hazards children face.

Simply being a pedophile should not knock a man out of Class 2, especially if he is conscientious enough to worry about whether he should have children. On the plus side, reports from pedophiles online are that they are typically very good with children. It is especially common among those who actively want to become parents.

I said pedophiles are not attracted to their own children but to their children's friends. What about the friends? First, compare pedophiles to ordinary men with daughters. Those ordinary men will typically feel a sexual attraction to their daughters' friends starting in the mid-teen years. We as a society note the issue. There is occasionally sexual abuse in those relationships, but we naturally cannot ban all men from becoming fathers. If pedophile fathers confront the same issue, it is simply a matter of a different age range of danger instead of an additional danger. Second, a pedophile who feels himself tempted can typically arrange distance from his children's friends if necessary.

Approving pedophiles as parents. To many it may be an astonishing conclusion -- a bridge too far. But I think the facts and logic argue that it should be acceptable.

Caution is in order. I don't think anyone should become a parent unless they want to. A gut-level unease at the prospect is a good reason to remain childless, whether that unease arises from pedophilia or some other concern. In line with remembering that pedophiles are a group with diverse opinions, note that a great many pedophiles don't think they or any other pedophiles should become parents.

I noted in my previous post that some people only find out they are pedophiles after they are married. The same applies to becoming parents. I think abandoning one's children upon simply realizing that one is a pedophile is gravely wrong. If a person begins to feel strong urges to engage in inappropriate behavior, then it's time to take steps to eliminate risky situations. Moving out would be a last resort.


  1. You only get one life. Don't let other people tell you how to live it.

  2. "A great deal of child sex abuse (perhaps half) is by opportunistic offenders who aren't actually pedophiles."

    Kind of off the overall topic of your post, but I wanted to comment on what is quoted above.

    Many years ago I volunteered with an organization that helped people get back on their feet after a walk down the darker side of life. Prostitutes, drug addicts, murderers, sex offenders... I heard all their life stories and experiences.

    In all the tales I was told, the most shocking was the unbelievably high number of offenders against children that to me didn't fit the definition of a pedophile but instead were more opportunistic offenders.

    Of course I'm not naive enough to believe that some, even though they had no reason to mislead me, weren't lying.

    But even adding a curve for the ones that were fudging the facts, the overwhelming majority were still opportunistic more than they seemed like they were attracted to children. The older their victim, the more true this seemed to be.

    1. Thanks for that observation. People have sex a lot more, willingly or not, as they approach puberty and enter it. If you consider a "child" to be someone 12 or under, you get one profile, but if "child" means 17 or under, then the vast majority of abuse will be by ordinary men who aren't pedophiles or even hebephiles.

      I said "perhaps half" when I wrote this nearly a year and a half ago. Since then the numbers that seem more accurate are more in the 70-90% range of abuse committed by opportunistic offenders.