I hope it’s clear from the title, but in case it isn’t–TW: sensitive subject matter, sexual abuse, religious trauma, pedophilia, etc.
When I was in church this morning, we had a prayer for Canada; one aspect of the prayer addressed the pedophiles in the residential school system and the abuses they were responsible for. My mind instantly jumped to a podcast episode of the Sex Positive Christian Feminists released earlier this year, and I became motivated to right a bit more about it here.
You can listen to the podcast here: https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9hbmNob3IuZm0vcy80NzNlZDM3NC9wb2RjYXN0L3Jzcw/episode/YzY4MmIzYTAtNTQ0Yi00MGI3LWE4ZmEtM2RiMDM5MzRiODM1?sa=X&ved=0CAUQkfYCahcKEwiQ0cPxv7jxAhUAAAAAHQAAAAAQAQ
The podcast features an interview with Dr. James Cantor, a neuroscientist and sexological researcher who specializes in paraphilia–which is another way of saying why we like what we like. Some of his work has focused on pedophiles and in this episode he points out a valuable distinction that I think is intensely important to keep in mind.
True pedophiles have a brain abnormality; this abnormality essentially makes it so that their brains fail to recognize kids as too immature for sexuality; the vast majority of us have this change happen naturally as we enter adolesence; pedophiles never do. Incidentally, a similar brain failure also affects those who are primarily affected to adolescents well into adulthood.
Dr. Cantor points out that the vast majority of child molesters are not pedophiles; and indeed, the vast majority of pedophiles are not child molesters. Pedophiles have a legitimate brain abnormality that presents challenges but can be treated and managed; a legitimate area of concern for true pedophiles is the consumption of child porn; but child molestation is a different matter altogether.
Child molestation is a form of sexual abuse and is far more about power and control than it is about any sexual attraction to children. This may seem like not a big deal to get right, but I think it’s deeply important
Why It Matters
So, you may ask: what’s the big deal? Why does it matter?
Canada is going through a period of renewed discourse and awareness over the legacy of residential schools; whether any effective change actually happens as a result of this is still to be determined. One of the most important parts of ending present practices and preventing future abuses and genocides is having a good grasp of what actually happened in the past. That grasp is why I think this matters.
A lot of work has been done suggesting that those with sexual expressions outside the heteronormative lens are attracted to the celibate orders of the the Roman Catholic Church. This includes both an abundance of people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, true pedophiliacs and those prone to sexual abuse or other criminal behaviour. For those on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, true pedophiliacs, and others with innate sexual differences from the heteronormative standard, this provides an excellent way to avoid family and friends prying too closely in decisions to remain single, not have kids, etc. For those prone to sexual abuse and other criminal behaviours, sociopaths, narcissists, etc., the lure is more in the Roman Catholic Church’s historical policies of forgiveness upon confession, and protection from outside legal ramifications.
It is that latter category within the Roman Catholic Church that would have constituted the majority of the child molestation and sexual abuse cases in the residential schools (and indeed), throughout Roman Catholic Church history. It is also that latter category that best explains why such abuse is a well-document problem across denominational lines–Protestant clergy, white evangelicals, mainline Protestanst–none are immune to this type of abuse–often done by folks who otherwise appear quite normal—often in a heterosexual, monogamous marriage with kids of their own.
Rape and sexual assault are well-documented throughout history as tools of war and conquest; tools of power and control. The Romans and Greeks practiced pederasty between an older man and young boys/teens as a way to develop social bonds, though this practice also had very clear and defined roles that were allowed and others that weren’t–this pederasty practice is abhorrent to us today, and was certainly abhorrent to others even then; indeed pederasty is likely partly what Paul was actually writing about in the epistles that are used to argue against same-sex marriage today (a prime example of bad exegesis unfortunately lost on many). The most important thing to remember, in this context however, is that pederasty was committed by and against folks who were otherwise quite conformed to the heteronormative standard.
As we wrestle with the residential school system and other such abuses by the church and the State, let us take care not to confuse child sexual abuse with pedophilia. If we do, if we confuse a practice about control and power with an innate, brain-bases sexual attraction, we run the risk of continuing to build systems where that control and power lead to continued child sexual abuse; and we lose our capacity to explain and prevent such abuses ongoing in the present. We have to get this right, for our sakes and for the sakes of generations to come.