I got to thinking about this issue when a radio show host was saying that adult male attraction to 16-year-olds was positively sick and perverted. He presented it as something obvious -- not a controversial conclusion he had reached that might need some support.
I and a lot of other people think this is total nonsense. The bodies of 16-year-old girls usually look virtually indistinguishable from those of adult women. These days, 13-year-old girls more often than not have sizable breasts, hips, and curves in all the adult places, and the process is much closer to finished by the age of 16. Evolutionary biologists would have a remarkable puzzle on their hands if only a tiny minority of men viewed these fertile females of their own species as sexually attractive and the rest had no interest in mating with them. In earlier times, men routinely married girls of age 13 or 14, and I never have heard of people condemning these men as sick perverts if they managed to consummate those marriages. No one thinks 16-year-old boys are sick for desiring sex with their peers.
But this radio show host is not alone -- plenty of people will view the attraction that way. News reports routinely refer to a man who has sex with an eager 16-year-old as a pedophile, whereas if he raped a 20-year-old, no one would use that term. The first group are sick criminals, while the second group are just criminals -- or if sick it is with a different sickness that would lead a man to rape someone.
What is going on here? How are these two groups thinking differently? Some of the "it's sick!" people could be motivated by sheer emotion -- child sex abuse is so horrible that it clouds rational thought, and trying to discern a coherent worldview for these people is hopeless. But I think I see a consistent and sensible view that could explain those beliefs too.
As best I can tell, the two groups take "sexual attraction" to mean different things. Scientists make sense of the world by dividing complicated situations into their component pieces. To them, "sexual attraction" refers to an underlying physical desire for sex. The vast complications of social acceptability are removed. Since who people are sexually interested in is largely inborn and unchangeable, it is especially natural in this situation to feel that morality resides in one's actions, and not in thoughts one can't really control. Let's call these people the "action moralists".
To the others, social acceptability is not to be taken apart from underlying physical desire -- they are to be taken as a single inseparable unit. To recognize "I am attracted to person X" means roughly that I have some impulse to proposition such a person and I might do it. If it would not be socially acceptable, then I have a disgusting and immoral sexual attraction. As a result I'll call them "thought moralists".
I don't suppose the thought moralist position requires abstaining from masturbation, as long as the people one is fantasizing about are appropriate. I wonder if your boss's wife qualifies because what makes her inappropriate is a social relationship, without which she is inherently acceptable -- in a way that 16-year-old girls are not. Thought moralism is surely strongly correlated with other restrictive ideas about sexuality, but I won't get into them here.
Consider the men who report that once they get married, they no longer find other women attractive. Some may simply be saying what their wives want to hear, but I suspect others are perfectly serious. It could be uncomfortable to feel an attraction and also know that they must not act on it, so they avoid looking at women they might find attractive, or deliberately dull their emotional reaction in their presence.
I received an email from a man who was no prude. He recalled an experience from his past: "I saw a blond girl in shorts with great legs looking the other way. When I walked past, I looked back, trying not to be obvious, and saw that she was maybe 14. I felt dirty for the rest of the day. At a gut level, even checking out a child was wrong." He recognized the basic physical attraction until he found out her age, but then retroactively felt guilty. This would suggest that if he saw a girl and knew from the start she was 14 (or even 16) he would have a strong motivation to suppress at all costs any awareness of her great legs as an indicator of sexual appeal.
I think it is fairly common for men to find a girl attractive, thinking she is 18. If he finds out she is 14 (which happens a lot), he will be seriously alarmed. It's not just that he will immediately cease any flirting or even fantasizing. It's that he will fear that he is sick. He isn't; it's just thought moralism at work.
To me, the far more healthy approach is to recognize the physical attraction and set it aside, and let social rules govern behavior: Give no visible sign of attraction to inappropriate people -- be sure not to flirt, or look too much, and if the attraction is intense, get out of the situation as soon as socially acceptable. Your actions determine your morality. But don't deny the attraction or make yourself feel bad about it.
The action moralists can patiently explain how attraction and action are different. But the thought moralists are committed to not recognizing this distinction -- it is to them vital as a way to avoid unpleasant thoughts. Women, who are less guided by visual stimuli in determining sexual attraction, may not have to suppress anything. But since one of their primary goals is to prevent sexual relationships across unacceptable age boundaries, many (most?) find it preferable to regard a gut-level attraction to 16-year-olds as sick -- to strongly discourage any recognition of a socially unacceptable desire.
How does this relate to pedophilia? Obviously we have no hope of having our desires taken as harmless if an ordinary man's desire for a 16-year-old is considered sick. There are presumably degrees of thought moralism, and many people would accept a silent attraction to a 16-year-old but not to a 4-year-old.
Among pedophiles, many are themselves thought moralists. When they become aware of socially unacceptable attractions, they feel terrible. Countless men write to Virtuous Pedophiles and say that although they are sure they would never act sexually with a child, they know their desires are morally wrong, and they are disgusted with themselves or even evil. This can often reach the level of suicidal impulses. They are thought moralists who have lapsed.
A very interesting category of pedophiles are successful thought moralists. If they are non-exclusive -- feeling some attraction to adults -- they can build a romantic and sexual life around that attraction, and never themselves become aware of their attraction to children. In estimating the prevalence of pedophilia in the population, this group will be especially hard to detect.
Then we come to the pedophiles who are action moralists. If they are certain they would never abuse a child, then the way is clear for them to avoid guilt and shame. The exclusives especially may still feel angry and depressed at being condemned to never know love and never have sex with people they find attractive, but they can be free of guilt or shame.
The tension between thought moralists and action moralists can be detected within the Virtuous Pedophiles discussion forum. The frequent posters are mostly action moralists, but the thought moralists exist. And although they are quieter, many are never convinced. In our ongoing survey asking "Would you take a Pedophilia-Be-Gone pill?", 15% have chosen "I would take a PBG pill regardless of any other factors below, and I think my attraction itself is morally bad or a cause for shame." And it seems likely that pedophile thought moralists are less likely to join Virtuous Pedophiles in the first place.
But to finally get around to practical implications... How can a pedophile action moralist communicate with thought moralists in society at large?
Thought moralists reject the idea that pedophiles can't help having their attractions, since they themselves are committed to suppressing their awareness of attraction to inappropriate people. They feel that broadcasting the existence of pedophilic attractions is bad because it may lure thought moralist pedophiles into a lapse.
What to do? If you already identified yourself as a pedophile, you could try saying that the way they use the word "attraction", you are not attracted to children. That doesn't explain why you have come into their life as someone labeled "pedophile" instead of just being quiet. The fundamental problem is that to a true thought moralist, a celibate pedophile is immoral for his thoughts alone, and the concept of "virtuous pedophile" just doesn't make sense.
Thought moralists might favor a few more progressive policies for the specific reason of avoiding child sex abuse. If they became convinced that a relaxation in mandated reporter laws would allow more sick pedophiles to see therapists privately and thus avoid abusing children, they could be open to that.
But greater acceptance for celibate pedophiles will have to come largely without the help of thought moralists.