Pedophilia: Crime, Disorder, or Orientation?

A spate of articles proposing we rethink our view on pedophilia offers insight into how our culture has become accustomed to dealing with sexual deviance.

Writing in The New York Times, Margo Kaplan argues that when it comes to that segment of the population who find themselves sexually attracted to children, we’ve failed to make a crucial distinction. And it’s crippling our thinking and our laws, not to mention making life miserable for those who experience such attraction.

Pedophilia isn’t the same as child molestation, he says. “One can live with pedophilia and not act on it. [Websites] like Virtuous Pedophiles provide support for pedophiles who do not molest children and believe that sex with children is wrong. It is not that these individuals are ‘inactive’ or ‘nonpracticing’ pedophiles, but rather that pedophilia is a status and not an act.”

Pedophilia, Kaplan maintains, isn’t a choice. “Recent research,” he writes, “while often limited to sex-offenders — because of the stigma of pedophilia — suggests that the disorder may have neurological origins.”

Whether he’s right about the material causes or not, the distinction Kaplan draws between pedophilia as an urge and molestation as an act echoes the distinction Christians who minister to homosexuals have drawn between same-sex attraction and action.

As Catholic blogger Steve Gershom wrote in a piece that was prolifically reprinted and reposted, being “gay” (experiencing involuntary attraction to the same sex) doesn’t mean he’s bound to engage in homosexual acts. That’s why Gershom has devoted himself to a life of celibacy.

In the same way, Christians can recognize that pedophiles (those who experience unwanted attraction to children) aren’t monsters, and should be encouraged to seek help — especially in Christ — to overcome those temptations and live virtuous lives.

Even so, as Princeton professor Robert George pointed out recently, characterizing pedophilia as a kind of “orientation” plays right into our culture’s script for turning alien sexual proclivities into inalienable sexual rights.

Today’s experts distinguish between desires and deeds, but maintain that pedophiles should seek professional help in suppressing their desires. Will the experts of tomorrow say the same? Recall that homosexuality was once treated as Kaplan suggests we treat pedophilia today. Back then, so-called “reparative therapy” wasn’t a Christian industry but a field of mainstream psychology.

“This late in the season of our experience,” writes Robert George chillingly, “it is scarcely difficult to see how this will play out. Anyone who is paying attention can write the script. The next step is for the ‘disorder’ to become a ‘sexual orientation.’ We will then be told that pedophiles are members of a misunderstood, despised, and long discriminated against ‘sexual minority.’ And then we’ll start hearing about how not all children are harmed by ‘intergenerational love,’ and how it has been an accepted part of the culture of certain high civilizations of the past. And then out will come the epithets and other techniques of intimidation: Individuals and institutions that dissent or fail to fall in line with an ‘enlightened’ understanding of sexuality will be said to be ‘filled with hate’; they are ‘bigots’ and ‘pedaphilaphobes’; they want to ‘discriminate’ against people, keep them locked ‘in the closet,’ and make them suffer for something they did not choose and cannot change. They were, after all, ‘born that way.’”

This issue presents unique challenges to Christians because it forces us to hold several scriptural imperatives in harmony. First, we must recognize in our culture the degradation Paul described in Romans 1, understanding that, like the Greco-Roman culture in which the Apostle lived, ours may eventually feel an appetite for abusing children.

We should also avoid stigmatizing anyone for facing or admitting temptations. After all, Jesus was tempted in every way we are, yet was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Paul makes it clear that Christ welcomes and washes sinners of all sorts into His Kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:11), making them new creations and burying the old (2 Corinthians 5:17). We owe special grace and support to those within the church who experience but refuse to act on sinful urges.

Finally, we must resist the tendency of our culture to explain everything — even sin — as a chemical reaction. Humans are morally responsible for their choices, and that’s especially true when it comes to how adults treat children, who are the most vulnerable members of society.

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