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The Pedophile’s Orientation

What do we do with a man like Todd Nickerson?
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Todd Nickerson is a self-confessed pedophile. He says he does not act on his desires, but he wants you to understand that he’s a human being. Excerpts from his essay in, where else, Salon.com:

I’ve been stuck with the most unfortunate of sexual orientations, a preference for a group of people who are legally, morally and psychologically unable to reciprocate my feelings and desires. It’s a curse of the first order, a completely unworkable sexuality, and it’s mine. Who am I? Nice to meet you. My name is Todd Nickerson, and I’m a pedophile. Does that surprise you? Yeah, not many of us are willing to share our story, for good reason. To confess a sexual attraction to children is to lay claim to the most reviled status on the planet, one that effectively ends any chance you have of living a normal life. Yet, I’m not the monster you think me to be. I’ve never touched a child sexually in my life and never will, nor do I use child pornography.

But isn’t that the definition of a pedophile, you may ask, someone who molests kids? Not really. Although “pedophile” and “child molester” have often been used interchangeably in the media, and there is some overlap, at base, a pedophile is someone who’s sexually attracted to children. That’s it. There’s no inherent reason he must act on those desires with real children. Some pedophiles certainly do, but many of us don’t. Because the powerful taboo keeps us in hiding, it’s impossible to know how many non-offending pedophiles are out there, but signs indicate there are a lot of us, and too often we suffer in silence. That’s why I decided to speak up.

It turns out he was born with a deformity, which made him feel inadequate and set apart, and he was also molested as a small child by a visitor to his grandmother’s house.

He says he found hope in a group called Virtuous Pedophiles, who support each other and encourage each other not to act on their desires. More:

For better or worse—mostly worse—we have this sexuality, and unlike with most sexualities, there is no ethical way we can fully actualize our sexual longings. Our desires and feelings, if we are to remain upright, are doomed from the outset. Indeed, whereas the majority of crimes can be bounced back from, society doesn’t extend a mulligan to molesters. I understand why, but that doesn’t make the burden any lighter to bear, particularly for those of us who have minimal or no attraction to adults. And for the pedos who are lucky enough to be able to form working relationships with adults, there are a new set of concerns: What if we have children? Will I be a threat to them? Can I ever share this fact with my spouse? Can I ever love and want her as much as I do a child?

So, please, be understanding and supportive. It’s really all we ask of you. Treat us like people with a massive handicap we must overcome, not as a monster. If we are going to make it in the world without offending, we need your help. Listening to me was a start.

Read the whole thing.

This is fascinating stuff. Repulsive, at first, but I think about what it must be like to live with this tormenting desire, but not be able to act on it, and I pity the man. We are more than our desires. This man needs people to help him bear his cross.

That said, it is worth considering how the way we think and talk about sexuality, desire, and identity in our culture blurs the lines for this man. He says he cannot help desiring who he does, and I believe him. He recognizes that his desire is disordered, and he needs help refraining from indulging it. This VirPed (his word) group is all about helping him live a moral life despite this hated disorder.

If Todd Nickerson’s desire was for people of the same sex, this piece would never have been published, obviously. There is a Catholic group called Courage, for gay men and women who want to live celibately, in obedience to Catholic teaching — and they are often criticized, even within the Church. In our contemporary culture, most people do not believe sexual desire towards someone of one’s own sex is disordered. Almost everybody believes sexual desire towards a child is disordered. Similarly, almost everyone believes sexual desire towards an animal is disordered.

How do we determine which sexual desires are disordered, and which aren’t? Consent? Isn’t that a very thin line? Todd Nickerson describes being fondled by the older man when he was seven, and it was not traumatic for him, in his memory.

Nickerson describes pedophilia as an “orientation.” No, I’m not saying that homosexuality is the same thing as pedophilia. It is not. What concerns me, though, is that the language and concepts we have accepted to sweep away the old Christian objections to homosexuality — in particular, the sacrosanct way we see sexual desire as at the core of identity and personhood — can easily be manipulated to legitimize pedophiles. The only reason Nickerson sees his sexual desire for children as illegitimate is because society tells him he cannot act ethically on it. Nickerson writes:

With sexuality … there’s a physiological component, a drive every bit as powerful as belief. In essence, your brain knows what it likes and isn’t going to take no for an answer. For that reason, the nature or nurture question with respect to sexual preference is ultimately irrelevant—it becomes all but hardwired soon enough, until it’s all you know. And it’s self-reinforcing, no matter how much you wish to dig it out. Eventually it all tangles together with the rest of who you are.

… with the rest of who you are.

Are there any grounds — other than consent — on which we can take a firm stand against Todd Nickerson’s sexual desires, and tell him to deny what he desires in the deepest recesses of his brain, and that he considers to be an inextricable part of himself? We have made liberating the sexual self a virtue in the LGBT movement, and before that, in the Sexual Revolution. So where does that leave Todd Nickerson in terms of finding resources with which to deny his sexual desire? If we simply say by fiat “children cannot consent to sex, therefore pedophilia is wrong, does that really take care of the problem?

UPDATE: Great comment by reader REB, who understands what I am getting at here:

I think Rod asks a good question: is consent enough to prohibit sex between children and adults? I think the answer is yes, it is enough, and I think most people get that. But Rod raises two secondary questions here. First, isn’t consent a moving target? Who gets to define the terms of “consent?” This is at the heart of the arguments about sexual assault on college campuses right now. How does one determine whether sexual contact is consensual? That is an answer that can change.

The second question that could arise here (and for the record, I know that Nickerson does not make this argument, but using his line of reasoning it is doesn’t take too much imagination to envision someone doing so), is based on Todd Nickerson’s approach to the issue. This question is “Whose rights take precedence?” This question arises from the way that he talks about being a pedophile: that it is an orientation, a desire that can’t be changed. Rod is right, it is the same language that has been used to promote the rights of sexual minorities.

Whenever there is a competition of rights in this country we typically side with adults over children. Is it really so far-fetched to think that if Nickerson were not an “ethical pedophile” that he could make the exact same arguments about his orientation and assert that it is his right to live into his full humanity and be sexually actualized? It is impossible for us to believe that attitudes could change over time to redefine consent leaving the burden of proof on the child to prove lack of consent rather than the adult to prove consent?

The disconcerting thing about Nickerson’s article is the way that he makes his argument which is the same argument that was made to gain wide-ranging acceptance for other sexual minorities. It’s not a big step for some to argue that it’s not right or wrong, only different.

UPDATE.2: From William Dalton:

The case of Todd, and my introduction to repentant pederasts through my law practice decades ago, led me to reject the arguments of the gay lobby for acceptance of their behaviors when they first entered our church debates thirty years ago. It is not persuasive to say, “You must accept me as homosexual because God made me this way!”, when the same argument, on the basis of the known science, can be made by Todd. The answer of the Church to congenital misbehavior has always been, “No, God did not make you this way, even if you have been this way from birth. We live in a broken, sinful world, and each of us are born into the world with the marks of brokenness and sinfulness impressed upon us.” The failure of the Church to teach and emphasize the Doctrine of Original Sin is, in my estimation, the greatest stumbling block to the cultivation of ethical thinking in the Church today. Instead, we are inundated with “thinking” that amounts to nothing more than emotive feeling, and results in what you Moral Therapeutic Deism”.

Neither does it answer the Christian’s argument that homosexuality, like pederasty, is a sin, to interpose the defense of “consent”. Many who are arrested and prosecuted as pederasts are done so for having sexual relations with underage teenagers, post-pubescent youths who are dealing with their own sexual feelings and frequently are not unwilling accomplices in another’s sexual activities. The reason “statutory rape” is prosecuted as a criminal offense is not that the minor has not given consent. The fact of actual consent is deemed irrelevant. Sexual conduct with minors is made a crime because society has made a judgment value that sex, like smoking and drinking, is something too dangerous for minors to indulge in, even when they are willing to do so and have a good understanding of what they are doing.

Furthermore, if making a child do something he hasn’t consented to do were a crime, every responsible parent would be in prison. From eating their vegetables to doing their chores to finishing their school work, children are obliged by their mothers and fathers to do things against their will and without their consent. On the other hand, if a parent, who for other purposes holds the right to give consent for her child to engage in other activities (e.g., church field trips, participation in sports) consents to pimp that child out for sex acts, both the parent and the customer will be hauled off to jail.

We make criminal certain sexual activity, not due to a lack of consent by those involved, or a lack of the ability to give legal consent, but due to the nature of sexual activity itself. Sex is right in some contexts, and it is wrong in others. We as a society have simply lost the ability to form a consensus as to what are the right and what are the right contexts for sex.

We need to stop others from pushing the issue off by saying, “well, it’s just a matter of consent”, or “You’re just trying to impose religion while we are enforcing democratic values”. Those arguments simply don’t wash.

From Lee Podles:

There are difficulties in using a child’s inability to consent to sex as the sole criterion, even if sex is potentially harmful for a child.

First of all, a parent can substitute his consent. The Dutch experimented with this: if parent accepted a child’s sexual activity with an adult, the police would not interfere. One might object that a parent cannot consent to harming a child. A Canadian Catholic theologian said the real problem was the tendency of parents to make fuss about adult-child sex. This attitude led to many decisions not to prosecute pedophiles, because the courtroom was thought to be far more traumatic than trivial sexual activity.

One would have to prove that adult-child sex is necessarily harmful. It may well endanger the child, but parents consent to many activities that endanger a child: sports, wilderness hikes, roller coasters.

Moreover, in some countries a child can consent to be euthanized. If a child can consent to being killed why is he incapable of consenting to sexual intercourse?

Is consent even a good criterion for adult activity, either legally or ethically? If an adult consents to an activity that harms him, should we raise no legal or moral objections to it? Sado-masochism leading to severe bodily harm is an extreme example, but if it is fully consensual, how does it differ from cage fighting? Can one raise no legal or moral objections to sports that may well harm the participants, if the participants are fully consenting, as with football players and concussions?

Liberationists do not think that fornication or homosexual activity is harmful, but a few philosophers, and the Judeo-Christian tradition, thinks such activities are in fact harmful. The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that God had forbidden certain sexual activities because they are harmful to human beings.

It is of course a difficult question as to how far the law should go in trying to prevent adults from engaging in activates that are harmful or at least potentially harmful, especially if the adults do not believe they are harmful. The police powers and the courts are blunt instruments in enforcing morality, but we frequently try to discourage people from harming themselves by smoking, overeating, or using drugs.

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