Adult-child sexual activity is prohibited by society for excellent reasons, and an emotional revulsion at the idea is appropriate. There is also an emotional revulsion at the idea of adult attraction to children and the pedophiles who feel it. This may arise from correlated (false) beliefs: Almost all pedophiles will abuse children, pedophiles like the idea of making children suffer, pedophiles have no moral compass, pedophiles can't control themselves, and pedophiles have mental defects that go beyond the attraction itself. Given this core negative view of pedophiles, there is a cascade of negative reactions to anything they (we) do. The reaction is appropriate for child sex abuse, but I argue it is not appropriate for many other behaviors.
The emerging scientific view, in contrast to the false beliefs, is that a sexual attraction to children is something that men did not choose and cannot change, yet many can resist acting on it. Until proven otherwise, the assumption should be that pedophiles differ from other people in one thing only: who they are sexually attracted to. In all other areas -- especially morality and self-control -- they should be expected to show the same variability as ordinary people.
One major explanation for the difference in these views is that law-abiding pedophiles are almost all hidden from view, so peoples' impressions of pedophiles are drawn exclusively from criminals. It would be very much like drawing conclusions about all men if the only men you knew about were convicted rapists.
In this post I'll look at the cascade that currently exists and how it might change.
To show the way, I will consider a related case: male homosexuality. Gay men have gone from being viewed much as pedophiles are today to being fully accepted by large segments of society (though not all, of course).
Gay men were initially known primarily when they came to police attention. Raping other men would be one way, of course. Gay men chose a lifestyle that involved doing yucky and illegal things. Since gay sex was considered immoral, men who engaged in it or even wanted to engage in it were morally suspect in a way that went beyond their sexual activity. If they were depraved in this way, then surely there entire sense of right and wrong was in question. Anal sex seems gross to a lot of people, and so society could suspect that gay men liked the idea of gross and offensive things. Part of what made gay men tick was a desire to be antisocial that was expressed in this particular way. They could expect it to be expressed in other ways too.
So, some cascading consequences: Since gay men liked males and had no moral scruples, they would likely rape little boys. Since they were antisocial and lacked a moral compass, it was wise for everyone to stay well clear of them. It was especially important for men and boys lest they be recruited into this immorality. If a gay man expressed interest in you as a man, it could lead to a violent negative reaction. If he was interested in you, then he thought you were gay. You would resent the idea that he might think you were similarly depraved and lacking moral compass, and you could be highly motivated to make sure no one else thought you were gay. What's more, he might be trying to recruit you and turn you gay so you would be evil like him. Gay pornography was another expression of this horrible attraction and was loathed because it promoted it. Given these consequences, gay people would naturally try to hide their attraction, so if it was discovered they would be further tagged as being devious and sneaky. Since gay men were themselves raised in this same society, they started out with these same attitudes and at some level hated themselves. Evidence of the self-hatred reinforced the idea that gay men were sick.
Now suppose we correct the picture. By the time they are adolescents, if not earlier, gay men are gay due to no fault or choice of their own (or their mothers). They cannot choose to be attracted to women, and they cannot choose to no longer be attracted to men. They have the same sex drive and desire for human connection as anyone else. Prominent in the repertoire of sexual desire for ordinary folks is the desire to insert penis into vagina (men), or to have penis inserted into vagina (women). Borrowing from this repertoire, some gay men prefer to insert (tops) and others prefer to be inserted into (bottoms). But men have no vaginas, so the only reasonably close match is the anus/rectum. That is a simple explanation for why anal sex is popular.
Gay men desire to do immoral and illegal things to the extent that society makes all expression of their desire illegal and immoral. Once we recognize that gay men's desire is just normal sexual desire directed to an unusual target, and there are others who are enthusiastic about being such targets, then the illegal and immoral goes away. Then we can discover that gay men have no desire to force themselves on unwilling partners any more than heterosexual men do (maybe less). They might like to "recruit" in the sense that anyone would hope that someone they are attracted to is in turn attracted to them. But it turns out they really cannot do that, and on a little reflection most don't want to change a person into something they are not. Straight men and boys can choose to experiment with gay men, but it does not risk turning them gay. It might lead a few to discover that they are gay -- but since it isn't a moral problem to be gay, this isn't so bad.
If gay men do not have to hide, then they are no longer sneaky. If you know a gay man and how he is not "out" in some contexts such as work, you can understand it as a simple desire to avoid bad consequences, not some inherent desire to deceive. Gay pornography has the same motivation as any other pornography.
If gay men want to engage in a series of short relationships or brief encounters with willing partners, they are as free to do so as heterosexuals. If they desire to live together or marry, it is an expression of the same instincts as ordinary men and women feel.
The cascade of bad consequences has gone away once you correct the starting point.
So what could happen if society accepted that pedophiles did not choose pedophilia and cannot make it go away, but are entirely capable of never abusing children?
Society could understand that a sexual attraction to a child is not a desire to rape. Very few pedophiles desire to force themselves on a partner, just as very few ordinary men desire to force themselves on women. It's true that most ordinary men can find a suitable woman (or, at the very least, engage a prostitute). Pedophiles cannot, which poses a certain risk that we are well aware of. But the other side of it is that the ordinary decent pedophile is due compassion because he can never have a partner.
If we accept that most pedophiles have as much self-control and moral compass as anyone else, it might be fine for them to interact with children safely -- maybe we could even go so far as to assume it unless we have evidence to the contrary. To take one practical consideration, if a pedophile is only attracted to boys aged 10 to 15, he is no danger to girls or to younger boys.
If people no longer hate pedophiles, then they can admit their attractions to more and more people. They do not need to be devious and sneaky. If they are accepted, they will feel less depressed and isolated, and more able to get support to help them through desperate times that might lead to abuse of a child.
If a pedophile confesses to a parent that he finds their child attractive, there is no need to panic. It doesn't mean there is something wrong with the child that makes them attractive -- they're attractive just because they're a child. I consider it unwise for a pedophile to tell a child he is attracted to him or her, but if the child finds out, it doesn't have to be a traumatic experience. Older children will understand the basics of the situation. As long as they are safe and feel safe, there need be no problem -- any more than it is a problem for a straight man to find out a gay man finds him attractive. If a guy hangs around the playground to watch the kids play, and you're confident he is just watching, then this could be acceptable -- at least as acceptable as grown men discreetly checking out young women. When a girl gets to be 16, most parents accept that some men will look at her twice or three times and not fear that she is in any great danger. They will not be particularly upset to think such a man might spin a sexual fantasy about her later. They might not be thrilled, but they won't be hysterical about it. Why would it be different if your daughter is 10 -- once you accept that pedophiles can control themselves and have the same moral compass as anyone else?
When I rectified the cascade of consequences for male homosexuality, I said little about gay pornography. That's because the natural culmination of gay desire is gay sex, in person. Pornography is incidental -- capturing people on film doing what they can legitimately do in real life.
With pedophilia, things differ. Changing the cascade of consequences hits an immovable object on adult-child sex. Because of risk to the child, it is still not possible, however natural and unchangeable pedophilic desire may be. People of all sexual proclivities can fantasize, but for pedophiles this takes center stage since it is the only way to satisfy their desires.
As a result, when considering pedophiles we spend a lot of time on representations -- images, movies, etc.
Today parents become hysterical at the idea that a pedophile might be looking at a picture of their child and thinking sexual thoughts. One fear is that he will start stalking their child and abduct him or her. It can happen, but it is incredibly rare. Cases of a pedophile discovering a child from a picture online, tracking him down and doing him harm are even rarer than that. I don't believe I've heard of a single one. Another fear shared by society at large (not just parents) is that these pictures might encourage pedophiles in their attractions. But the attraction cannot be created or destroyed. Another fear is that they encourage abuse. There is no evidence that images of any kind increase offending to any significant degree, and they might well reduce it.
What's more, children are part of society, and their images are everywhere. If there is any prospect of hiding children, it would be the same sort of grotesque project that makes women cover up in conservative Islam. Short of some such draconian measures, hiding children and their images is impractical and ineffective.
But the biggest reason for distress at pedophiles thinking sexual thoughts while looking at pictures is revulsion at the idea of the pedophilic attraction itself. Once that revulsion goes away, it's at most comparable to an ordinary guy lusting after a movie star. There is no need to panic.
Suppose we now consider virtual child pornography -- explicit sexual activity involving images of kids conjured up by computer technology, with no real children involved. Once we see the attraction as inevitable and not inherently harmful, revulsion should go away. Society could instead view it as simply support for pedophiles getting the best sexual satisfaction they ever can in life.
Then we can consider children on modeling sites. Parents decide in consultation with their daughters that they'd like to make some money having them pose in revealing clothing. They understand that pedophiles may use this material for sexual satisfaction -- but what harm is befalling anyone? At present people speak of the children being sexually exploited. Unless you think pedophilic attraction in itself is evil, there is no exploitation. (I will ignore the feminist argument that ordinary pornography is necessarily exploitative.) By all reports, many girls love the attention and the opportunity to wear a variety of cool outfits. Some enjoy getting into sexy poses -- practicing in a harmless way the sexy poses they see adult women assuming. There is concern that behind the scenes there may be coercion or sexual activity. It's possible, but why do we single out this particular situation for suspicion? When we see children in movies, dance competitions, music recitals or athletic competition, who knows what sort of coercion may be going on behind the scenes? Who can say that parents aren't in some sense exploiting their children in those cases? The modeling photos are singled out because at the end of the distribution chain are pedophiles getting some sexual satisfaction, which people at present view with horror. Somehow this gets transmitted back along the line to cast a very dark cloud over the filming sessions. Why? Anyone who might want to make some money selling pictures to pedophiles must themselves be tainted with the evil of the pedophilic attraction? Once pedophilic attraction is accepted, any grain of truth to a link of this sort will disappear.
The world's recent innovation in images is sexting. There are issues about privacy and the risk of having an explicit picture of yourself loose on the web for all time. Part of the solution may be simple familiarity -- in time this will be very common and just no big deal. But a key element here is that sexting is explicit photos that are not coerced. I've been told there is a phenomenon of girls as young as 12 filming themselves masturbating and distributing it. They do it for their own reasons. It's hard to find any inherent harm in the situation -- any harm arises from society's panic on the subject, and from outdated laws.
With the negative cascade removed, we have pedophiles who can honestly share their lives. Letting them have sex with children is impossible, of course, and isn't even open for discussion. They can instead talk about frustration they may feel at being forever single and alone, and we can help them deal with that fate. Ordinary folks can get support from friends by talking about their unrequited crushes. Pedophiles can too, even if all their crushes are guaranteed to be unrequited. We can help them achieve more satisfying private fantasies.