Desire and Deviance
While reading Megan McArdle’s interesting pair of posts on “non-practicing” pedophiles, I was struck by the thought that the tone of the posts perfectly captured the attitude of a certain segment of society perhaps half a century ago towards homosexuals:
This changed a lot of the way that I think about pedophiles. I used to use the kind of hyperbole one often hears–that people who look at child porn “should be shot” and so forth. I don’t say those things any more.
Obviously, I am not going to defend the use of child porn at all; it’s despicable, and jail is the appropriate sentence, because the man who purchases child pornography is encouraging its manufacture. But it made me think of them for the first time with sympathy. They didn’t choose to be like this–God, who would?
The brief legal justification McArdle offers is why there isn’t a slippery-slope argument to be made here. We are fairly sure as a society, or so at least we tell ourselves, that consent is the operative moral variable in sexual relations, and since the consent of children is understood to be deficient, child pornography is always something akin to rape. So, I don’t think another half-century will bring about the normalization of child pornography, though there have been changes in sexual mores equally strange and sudden in the past. I’m more interested in the way the evolution of views about sexuality can repeat itself. McArdle’s posts, along with the Dan Savage letter she links to, represent the second step in the process of recognizing people who have certain desires as constituting a group. With the caveat that I haven’t undertaken a Foucault-like cultural history of homosexuality, from a survey of medical texts and pre-war analogues to gay rights movements it seems to me that this process occurred in the United States sometime around the middle of the last century with regard to homsexuality.
Of course homosexuality in the sense of same-sex sexual acts has been around at least since Homer and probably much longer, but the notion that there is a class of people who experience permanent desire for members of the opposite sex in a manner analogous to the ordinary kind of love and desire between men and women is relatively recent, even if such people may have always existed (not that the forms of heterosexual attraction are stable throughout time and place; C.S. Lewis once wrote that the idea of romantic love was invented by a group of poets living in 12th-century France, and pace Ovid, I almost believe him). Specifically, while the idea of homosexuality has its origins in the Mollies of the 18th century and the Dandies of the 19th, it required the post-war mania for cataloging and extirpating deviancy by rational-technical means to sunder those terms from broader ideas about decadence, aestheticism, Continentalism and Catholicism, which were occasionally unified and apotheosized in infamous figures like Huysmans. Part of this cataloging and extirpation process was the identification of homosexuals as a sub-set of the population who were like other people except with respect to this single pathology. This made its way into general opinion in odd, quasi-medical ways, but the general sentiment directed towards this newly invented population, I gather, was not unlike the way we feel about pedophiles today: a covert, unspeakable menace threatening our children in the midst of us.
Of course the only appropriate response to that situation, when some group is made an object of universal horror by reason of presumably unchosen desire, is McArdle’s. She suggests compassion for the “non-practicing” pedophiles:
Society should gather round to help them… give them other ways to channel the energy they aren’t pouring into molesting kids, and substitutes for the emotional succor that most of us hope to get from our partners.
Instead, we’re so revolted and afraid that we wall them into themselves, and probably make it more likely that they’ll do something terrible.
This response further solidifies the reality of an identity constituted by a permanent, unchosen desire, and in seeking to make the object of hatred an object of compassion brings the object further into being.
With regard to homosexuality we are still undergoing the third step in the process, which is the move from twinned compassion and hatred for a group constituted by pathological desire to tolerance of a group constituted, like racial groups, by a merely superficial difference from the norm.
This change, typified by the movement to establish same-sex marriage, was carried along in part, of course, by the ever more thorough saturation of our moral language by various forms of contractarianism, such that it is now unimaginable for many people that there could be moral prohibitions on actions undertaken by consenting adults. As mentioned, there is no such explicit moral framework that would allow for an analogous change for pedophiles, so I don’t think we’ll see a pedophile Stonewall anytime soon. But surely one of the reasons Western society punted on its traditional insistence that sodomy was immoral was its disbelief in erotic tragedy–that there could be people whose deepest desires were a terrible burden, through no fault of their own.
McArdle has a bit of a pre-modern streak, and so she can write sentences like this one:
In some sense, people like this–the pedophiles who never do anything, and do their damnedest to keep from even thinking about it–are exercising a virtue that borders on the saintly.
But it’s precisely this idea that our society found intolerable with regard to homosexuals, and still finds intolerable today. Moreover we have scarcely any idea of what a life spent exercising this virtue would look like. Where are the exemplars of this life? What kinds of social arrangements have we made for them? The lines of dialectical force are all criss-crossed when it comes to pedophiles. I have no idea where they might take us in the coming decades.