‘Is it possible the DSM could become the book of appeasement, refuting questions of morality and legal culpability with regard to child abuse and exploitation?’
Last week Salon ran a comment piece by Tracy Clark-Flory which opened:
We usually hear pedophilia talked about in terms of mental illness – if not evil – but Aug. 17 a motley crew of self-identified “minor-attracted persons” and mental health professionals have gathered in Baltimore to talk about it as a sexual identity. At hand is an issue deeply important to both groups: the revision of the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia.
I asked Professor Caroline Taylor, Foundation Chair in Social Justice at Edith Cowan University, and Founder and Chair of Children of Phoenix, a charity that provides scholarships and mentoring support to children, adolescents and adults affected by childhood sexual abuse, to respond. Caroline has written for me before (‘A child failed: how 120 men got away with the sexual violation of a 12-year-old girl’ ) and is also a contributor to the soon-to-be-released Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global porn industry (Spinifex Press).
I have written elsewhere on the mental gymnastics employed by some of the judiciary when it comes to accepting either the vocabulary of excuses put forward by child sex offenders to exculpate them from responsibility for their offences, or minimising the harm suffered by child victims.
Of course these arguments, attitudes, utterances and opinions would not hold currency were it not for the lawyers who advance them on behalf of their clients and quarters of society that either accept them or give them tacit approval via a passive and apathetic response.
This week UK judges severely weakened legal rules that limited sex offenders’ unsupervised access to their own children. Judges declared that it was a human rights violation to prevent offenders’ from having this access. After all, they said, family life and unfettered access to ‘family life’ is their right – the rights of child victims factor in only as a secondary issue. Despite the rhetoric and declaration of a charter of human rights for children, they continue to have their status at citizens of equal worth negated. More troubling is the fact this so often occurs when children are most in need of protection from sexual predation or sexual violence.
In the same week, a US conference was held on ‘pedophilia’ under the rubric of men who are ‘minor-attracted – in other words men who desire and seek to sexually abuse children. The conference sought to advance the rights of this particular group of men by influencing the revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to better reflect a particular understanding of pedophilia as a psychiatric illness.
The DSM is the psychiatric bible and has been criticized for its development as a diagnostic manual based largely on incomplete and unscientific data – indeed psychiatrists ‘vote’ on additions and revisions and much research has highlighted the gendered nature of the psychiatric illnesses proclaimed in the book with some disorders being so ridiculous they beggar belief.
That fact that many have been removed or revised in response to societal and cultural awareness and changes in attitudes to gender and race is a testament to how mental illness can be socially constructed and even vanish from our vocabulary and treatment as society and psychiatry reconcile certain social and cultural beliefs and attitudes.
The psychiatric nomenclature declaring certain types of sexual offenders or men who declare they have not yet engaged in sexual activity with a child but have a predilection of sexual attraction to children, as individuals with a mental illness as opposed to criminals (or at least potential abusers) is a worry for many reasons.
Why is this ‘illness’ the almost exclusive problem of men and not women? It is an ‘illness’ that has been going on for centuries without recourse to any successful treatment.
I have a problem with the term ‘pedophile’ because it can be literally translated as a lover of children. Chat rooms for pedophile advocates highlight that they do not seek to ‘hurt’ children, but it is patently clear they have no concept – morally or otherwise – of what it is to ‘hurt’ a child. And believe me in my professional work I have seen first- hand the hurt suffered by children by ‘pedophiles’ – hurt that punctures the very soul of young lives and leads to damage across adult lives.
If we accept it is an illness then it is an illness afflicting almost exclusively men and has inflicted a tsunami of catastrophic damage to the lives of countless millions of children that amounts to an emotional genocide across time and place that appears to have no end.
Those advocating for these men are concerned that the law and society misunderstand ‘pedophiles’ and view them alongside ‘molesters’ of children. There exists a problem in the teasing out of men who are sexually attracted to children but say they have not acted on it as opposed to men who say they are sexually attracted to children and have acted on it.
As studies continue to show, men who are sexually attracted to children will generally move to act on that attraction. Those who have not as yet physically acted on that attraction may very likely seek other forms of intimacy with that attraction perhaps by way of viewing child pornography or engaging in contact that might not be sexual but may well still be harmful to a child’s healthy development.
We should feel a strong discomfort about a group seeking to define the parameters of what they say is their sexual orientation and have it accepted as an illness when that particular ‘illness’ can and does lead to various forms of abuse and exploitation of children around the world.
There is also the problem of normalizing the idea that many men harbor sexual desires for children. At a time when we are battling the enormous and endemic problem of child pornography and child sex tourism, we need to ramp up our collective check of society’s moral compass on accepting, even reluctantly, that sexual desires for children are a modern illness afflicting men around the world.
There are moral, ethical and even psychological questions as to why the sexual predation, desire and sexualisation of children is the almost exclusive domain of men. In late modern society we need to ask ourselves some strong questions – is the sexualisation of children a link to the sexual desire for children and the growing market in child pornography and child sex tourism. And again to ask why these issues have the common denominator of children and men.
I worry about the gendered nature of an illness where men harbor sexual desires for children – and which research consistently shows so many men will act upon – and want this targeted behaviour to be classified as an illness. We have become a humanity that pathologies our behaviours and actions to an extraordinary degree, thus removing notions of responsibility, decency and a solid moral compass.
The 20th century is marked by consumerism with our identity linked to what we buy. I buy therefore I am, is the credo. And just as our high consumerism causes so much destruction – professionals have helped us craft a language of illness and pathology about our buying habits. Why reflect on a problem and see ourselves as central to it when we can tell ourselves it is an illness and thus another ailment in society we can seek treatment for.
Is it possible the DSM could become the book of appeasement refuting questions of morality and legal culpability with regard to child abuse and exploitation?
It is not the redefinition in the DSM that will ‘cure’ this peculiar illness of men nor provide the type of moral erudition needed to tackle the world wide problem of child sexual abuse. It is the refining of humanity and our capacity to deal with an entrenched crime inflicted on children.
See also: ‘Crimes cloaked in euphemisms’, Goddard and Mudaly. The Australian, Aug 25, 2011