Saturday, May 2, 2015

Costs and benefits for prepubescents

This post contains the heart of my anti-contact argument.

Should society accept and allow adult-child sex with a willing child?

The benefits to pedophiles are obvious -- they might get to have sex without fear of legal repercussions. But no decent person wants to allow sex unless it's good for both parties. What are the costs and benefits to children?

Humans vary a great deal. I suspect that among the many millions of 8-year-old girls on earth, there are a few who would really like to engage in sexual activity with another person -- to give and receive pleasure. (I'll shorten "sexual activity" to "sex", though I'm not primarily thinking of intercourse). I exclude those who might feel this way because they have previously been convinced to have sex and now see it as a way of connecting with people -- getting love or approval or other good things. But a few might just really want this because that's the way they are. Perhaps they actively prefer adult men as partners -- or perhaps they find it hard to find peers who are interested. I'm willing to grant that a few exist. To the extent that society reduces shame around sexuality, there might be a few more than today. Even for this minority, it is not vital to their happiness. Men and women starting in their late teens care deeply about whether they are having sex or will soon -- it can play a large role in deciding whether life as a whole is good or life is bad. But for 8-year-old girls, absence is never a big deal. Its presence would be at most a nice extra.

This low baseline probability means everyone (notably men and the courts) ought to have great skepticism of a girl reported to be interested in having sex with a man. Coercion, bribes, or doing him a favor all are more likely then genuine, inherent interest.

Children are routinely made to do things they actively don't want to do. Some are to keep the adults' lives manageable -- like a rule against screaming in the house or throwing food. Others are because they believe it is in the child's long-term interest, whether brushing teeth, eating vegetables, going to school, or doing homework. The child implicitly assumes one of these motivations as well. We take a dim view of a parent exploiting a child for selfish ends. We would certainly disapprove if a parent forced a child to do 12 hours a day of piecework for profit -- though if the family was starving it might be acceptable. But our answers to these questions depend on values -- how much work is too much? At what age do we expect kids not to throw food?

But with sex, the lines are easy to draw. There is no good reason for a child to have sex, so we prohibit adult involvement in children's sexuality completely -- by law through the age of 16 or 18, by custom often longer than that. (The prohibition on parent-child sex is effectively lifelong).

So the child lives in a world where other people are asking him or her to do things he or she would rather not do. Trying to take a positive attitude towards unpleasant tasks is part of a successful childhood -- maybe you really will like green pepper if you give it a chance. A request for sex can fit right into that pattern. From the child's point of view, the situation is further confusing because children do feel genuine affection for grown-ups, they like to snuggle, they may even enjoy a gentle stroking of hair or back rubs, for instance. Viewed objectively in terms of what flesh is touching what other flesh, sexual touch may not seem all that different. It's not like being asked to sit in a dusty room and screw nuts onto bolts for hours at a time.

But of course sexual touch is ultimately very different from other affectionate touch. Judging from the interviews of Susan Clancy in The Trauma Myth, children are rarely traumatized at the time, but most had the feeling that something was not right. The 8-year-old will discover sooner or later society's view that there was indeed something not right, and typically feel used and betrayed. A girl may feel among other things: No man would do this unless he was evil -- it was my fault because I didn't clearly say "no" -- there's something sick about me to make a man do that -- it felt kind of good and so that makes it my fault. I would love to change society so many of those consequences go away. I'd like the girl to be able to just get angry and say, "What a jerk! Tricking me like that and using me for his own pleasure!" Shame and guilt should have no role. But I have no desire to change society so she reliably says, "Oh well, I didn't object so it must have been OK" with a shrug. I'm not sure such a change is even possible -- it may go against our human nature, in which sex is special.

A girl may have reason to feel betrayed if the man was nice to her, she thought it was just genuine and freely offered, and then she discovers that it was for the ulterior motive of sex. If she was rewarded with gifts or special outings, she may have consented and later feel ashamed, thinking she was agreeing to prostitution.

Fortunately, truly devious, cynical men are fairly rare. But well-meaning men can put a girl in the same position. The pedophile may love her in the same way as one adult is infatuated with another. He may want her happiness just as much. But in his sexual passion, it is all too easy to take the girl's silence as consent, or her reluctance as nervousness at something new, while just assuming that fundamentally she wants it as much as he does. This sort of problem is all too common in adults, where young women find themselves giving in to sex they don't really want. The potential with young girls is much greater. I do not want a man who feels intense sexual interest in an 8-year-old to be in a position of interpreting her true desires.

So, to evaluate costs and benefits, consider what happened when a man and girl had sex and the girl didn't strenuously object or struggle. There is a very small chance that the girl actively wanted the sex, though even if she did it was not of great value to her. There is a far greater chance that she didn't have any active interest and was gamely going along trying to meet adult expectations. Even factoring out the parts of society's response that are overreactions, she still is likely to view what happened as betrayal, even if she recognized she consented. How large a cost is this for her? It varies. The Rind studies show that it is fairly unlikely her life will be ruined -- but it is still far more common than a girl actively wanting sex. A more common negative reaction is that she felt she was wronged. That is enough to be an outcome worth avoiding.

Against that background, I do not want any man to think it's OK to have sex with a prepubescent -- to diagnose her as one of the very rare ones who is truly interested. The prior probability is very low, and his desire gives him a strong bias to misperceive the situation. I want a blanket prohibition. I certainly do not want his legal defense to be that she consented at the time, and is now either lying or has rewritten her memory -- a legal defense that would likely succeed because of the reasonable doubt standard. The cost? Some very few girls somewhere don't get the sexual activity they might have enjoyed because the man refused, fearing adverse consequences. It's a trade-off I'm entirely willing to make.


  1. Two thoughts.

    Some girls may, due to a mental illness, suffer from hypersexuality. However, they would regret it even then, especially is they were medicated. They wouldn't know the significance of the act, even though the drive for it would be very high.

    Second of all. We should live in a society where children are not afraid to call out adults on any behavior which makes them uncomfortable. And I think kids know darn well the difference.

    People think kids are often conned. This is true for child with special needs, from what I would imagine. But most girls are assertive with me, and it should stay that way.

    Some argue that it is not the child's responsibility to look out for a pedophile. That is like saying "it is not my responsibility to defend myself if I get mugged, the person shouldn't mug me" Some people aren't responsible, and some can't help it.

  2. Another GC post/reply from SierraWhiskey:

    "But of course sexual touch is ultimately very different from other affectionate touch. Judging from the interviews of Susan Clancy in The Trauma Myth, children are rarely traumatized at the time, but most had the feeling that something was not right. The 8-year-old will discover sooner or later society's view that there was indeed something not right, and typically feel used and betrayed."

    The way I understand it, some sexual touching is very different while some isn't. Adult goal-oriented sexual touch is different, but some touching may be sexual more because of the parts involved than the nature of the touch.

    The following part about there indeed being something that was not right, I would have liked more distinctions. I don't it unlikely that there are men whose behaviour justifies the use of words such as 'used' and 'betrayed', or 'tricked' or 'taken advantage of'. Nor that there are cases of adults involving children in sexual activity for the sake of their own sexual gratification (without much, any or enough care for or consideration for the wishes of the child).

    But how about cases where the adult is considerate and honest? Honest about how this sex stuff is perceived.

    People should decide for themselves how they feel about their childhood experiences, and I don't want to tell them how to feel (though I may sometimes question whether they need feel that way). I think former children with a positive childhood sexual experience should be able to say "that was a nice experience, 'cause he was quite nice". Or say "I find it a bit distasteful/embarassing (like being a Power Rangers fan, e.g.), but I don't have reproach for what he did", or "meh". I don't mind if they say that it was OK, if it actually was OK, while I still would like that they say it's not OK, if it's was not OK. Here I'm thinking of 'OK' as judged by better criteria and considerations than just thinking "child and sex -> abuse -> bad".

    Do you not want girls to be able to think back with fondness in OK cases?

    Later on, you consider the nice, good pedophile, and you mention the potential problem of misinterpretation and having the wrong ideas about what the girl wants. That is important. But what if the nice pedophile doesn't accept anything less than clear and unequivocal signals when engaging in any controversial or risky activity?

    I agree that some degree of doubt is in order when it comes to whether a girl actually would like the engage in sexual activity. But you should be wary about excluding the OK cases.

    Finally, what will a blanket ban effect regarding shame for those girls who feel sexual? How will the (hypothetical perhaps) girls who enjoyed sexual activity feel in a society with a blanket ban?

    1. And my (Ethan's) replies to the above:

      "But how about cases where the adult is considerate and honest? Honest about how this sex stuff is perceived."

      I recognize this as a possibility. But I think I and even sober scientists who are not anti-abuse zealots think the chances of the prepubescent wanting the sex are quite low. When combined with likely future regret when context is understood and combined with men's incentives to mis-perceive, it's good policy to prohibit it.

      "Do you not want girls to be able to think back with fondness in OK cases?"

      Absolutely, and I've said that. I am very much opposed to kids who have had sexual experiences today being beaten into thinking it was terrible.

      "Finally, what will a blanket ban effect regarding shame for those girls who feel sexual? How will the (hypothetical perhaps) girls who enjoyed sexual activity feel in a society with a blanket ban?"

      Society today has a blanket ban. I'm not suggesting making it stronger. But I'll admit that the reasoning, "I liked it, so even though most kids don't like it, my self-esteem is hurt because it's illegal because that says implicitly that I shouldn't have liked it" doesn't move me as a particularly powerful consideration.

    2. I found this to be a very thoughtful argument against making adult-child sexual interactions legal. I don't think anyone can reasonably argue that there aren't major risks involved either way. To do a full cost-benefit analysis we'd need a lot of other information such as how many men are actually dissuaded from sex with minors by these laws, and how much of the psychological stress of sexually active children is caused by taking part in an illegal act vs the non aggressive coercion of inconsiderate adults that you describe.

      I do see one glaring contradiction in your posts though. You claim that adults should never engage in sexual activity with children and that adult-child sexual interactions are fundamentally not ok. You also claim that there are rare situations where sexual activity is actively desired by a child and that there are possibly considerate and honest adults out there who would be attentive to a child's true feelings. By acknowledging that these circumstances exist you are contradicting your own argument that adult-child sexual interaction always involves significant risk.

      I get the feeling that you don't mean it as an absolute, but however prevalent you believe the above circumstances are is just speculation, especially since there are so few researchers in this area of study who are willing to admit that children can be willing participants in sexual activity.

    3. @Sproogle. Sure, we could use a lot more information. I've inquired about studies of neighboring US states with ages of consent of 16 versus 18, but haven't found any. People don't want to study it. So we have to guess.

      There's no glaring contradiction between "fundamentally not OK" and "could work out OK in rare cases". The obvious example is Russian Roulette. Even though 5/6 of the time everything works out fine, it is fundamentally wrong to do it.

    4. This is exactly where the contradiction lies. If you are comparing Russian Roulette to making child-adult sexual activity legal, then that may be a fair comparison, but I am not talking about the law. I am talking about the morality of the act itself. The law has to take into consideration that there are adults out there who will take advantage of children if such acts are made legal.

      Russian Roulette always involves significant risk if the shooter truly doesn't know which chamber the bullet resides in. Such risk is mostly avoided when their is mutual understanding and mutual arousal between an adult and child partner. It becomes the equivalent firing a gun you know is empty. I'm not saying it's alright just because it "could work out OK in rare cases" I'm saying that there are cases that involve little to no risk at all, cases where a child has aptly communicated their consent.

      Again, Russian roulette always involves significant risk if it's played by the rules. The shooter cannot possibly know the outcome. If a child actively voices their desire to have sex with an adult, we can have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be when she does. It is unlikely she will regret such a deliberate action later.

      You're logic is that most people cannot engage in this activity without significant risk, therefore no one can engage in this activity without significant risk. It doesn't work.

    5. I'm talking about social policy here. I am not going to say, "If you are truly a very wise person with great insight into human psychology and could not possibly be biased by your interest in finding a child consented, go ahead." People are great at believing they are better and less self-interested than they really are, and men are notoriously great at finding excuses to have sex. I'm not even sure such reliable perception of consent is possible. It is also common for an adolescent to consent to sex but with high probability to regret it later. Suppose I say, "It is never OK to surgically remove a healthy arm from a 6-year-old just because he begs you to." There apparently are people who are only at peace with themselves once a limb has been amputated. But it is so rare that I think it is actually always wrong for any doctor to do that. Your reasoning would suggest that we must always allow for that incredibly rare case. If you think prepubescents often want sex with grown-ups and are deeply disappointed if the grown-ups refuse, then you might reach a different conclusion. I strenuously disagree with those factual judgments.

    6. Alright, I believe I see where our main disagreement lies. You believe that men in lust can virtually never be truly objective judges of a child's willingness to be sexually active even when the child appears to be enthusiastic.

      I concede that I don't know the extent to which most men can judge a girl's consent as valid or not, or how often children truly desire sexual contact. However, I tend to hold a more optimistic view of these things than non-pedophiles. That doesn't mean I will deny the possibility that they are rarer than I have imagined.

      Regardless of how right I am, you have accomplished far more for our acceptance with your anti-contact organization than pro-contact groups ever have. You are right that being openly pro-contact is political suicide in this day and age and possibly in any time to come. Your organization's ability to open the hearts of the media and its consumers is already making the world a more tolerable place for us and possibly children as well. I can't thank you enough for leading the way.