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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

 
Pedophilia and the failure of libertarian ideology

by David Atkins

The L.A. Times takes a fascinating look at the causes of pedophilia (also the subject of a similar if even more radical Guardian article) and points out the current scientific majority consensus: pedophilia (defined as attraction to prepubescent children) seems to be an innate phenomenon for about 1-5% of the male population, and is usually not caused by childhood trauma or sexual abuse. Incredibly, this is quite literally how anywhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 20 men are wired in their brains, and there's nothing they can do about it:

The best estimates are that between 1% and 5% of men are pedophiles, meaning that they have a dominant attraction to prepubescent children.

Not all pedophiles molest children. Nor are all child molesters pedophiles. Studies show that about half of all molesters are not sexually attracted to their victims. They often have personality disorders or violent streaks, and their victims are typically family members.

By contrast, pedophiles tend to think of children as romantic partners and look beyond immediate relatives. They include chronic abusers familiar from the headlines — Catholic priests, coaches and generations of Boy Scout leaders.

Other pedophiles are "good people who are struggling," said Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who heads the Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit. "They're tortured souls fighting like heck not to do this. We do virtually nothing in terms of reaching out to these folks. We drive it underground..."

In searching for causes of pedophilia, researchers have largely dismissed the popular belief that abuse in childhood plays an important role. Studies show that few victims grow up to be abusers, and only about a third of offenders say they were molested.

Scientists at the Toronto center have uncovered a series of associations that suggest pedophilia has biological roots.
And it turns out that pure impulse control prevents sexual abuse of children from being more commonplace:

More evidence of brain involvement comes from scattered examples of men with brain tumors or neurological diseases affecting inhibition.

In one case, a 40-year-old teacher in Virginia with no history of sexual deviance suddenly became interested in child pornography and was arrested for molesting his prepubescent stepdaughter.

The night before his sentencing, he showed up at an emergency room with a bad headache. An MRI revealed a tumor compressing his brain's right frontal lobe.

When the tumor was removed, his obsession faded, according to Dr. Russell Swerdlow, a neurologist on the case. A year later he again became sexually fixated on children. The tumor was growing back.

Swerdlow and others said the case suggests that the man's attraction to children may have always been present — the tumor simply took away the man's ability to control it.

Strong impulse control may help explain why some pedophiles never break the law.
If this is true, it presents an enormous challenge for society and the justice system. Pedophilia is not the only condition to create such a quandary: other studies have shown that the difference between a criminal spending a lifetime behind bars and a law-abiding citizen is often less a matter of intrinsic goodness and more a matter of pure impulse control. The problem with apportioning blame on the basis of impulse control is that brain wiring can be affected by a wide variety of factors, ranging from genetics to tumors to lead poisoning. It turns out that our free will isn't nearly as free as we thought, and the neurology of pedophilia is just another nail in free will's ever-closing coffin.

So now what? Obviously, forgiving (much less allowing) sexual abuse of children isn't an option. Pedophiles cannot be allowed to act on their urges, and must be punished if they offend. And yet there they are.

This isn't just a medical or legal problem. This is a political problem. Conservative and libertarian politics depends on a system of free will combined with cosmic and earthly punishments for those who misbehave. Rather than regulate corporations that spew toxins into the air or play fast and loose with safety standards, conservative philosophy dictates that consumers will punish after the fact those corporations whose behavior offends. The same principle goes for individuals. Rather than provide real help for the underprivileged and the mentally ill, and rather than regulate the sorts of firearms that can turn a mere murder into a massacre, the conservative and libertarian impulse is to wait an offender to strike, then mete out the harshest possible punishment in the vain hope of deterring the next offender. It's barbaric, but that's the basic principle involved.

The conservative and libertarian answer on pedophiles would seem, then, to do nothing. Already the backlash against this scientific consensus from the Right is in full force. The ideology remains the same regardless of the science. Conservative philosophy insists on the pretense that pedophiles have free will to change, or that they must have been turned by abuse, or that they are possessed of demons and must turn to God (for a loving God would not and could not create them so!) The conservative approach is to wait for them to strike, and then to kill them or lock them up and throw away the key. Understanding or compassion isn't a prerequisite. They're just "bad people."

Saner and more empathetic cultures, on the other hand, are already stepping up to take regulatory and preventive action to treat the issue as the immutable mental disorder it appears to be:

In an attempt to change that, sex researchers in Germany launched an unusual media campaign in 2005.

"You are not guilty because of your sexual desire, but you are responsible for your sexual behavior," said billboards urging them to contact the Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine in Berlin. "There is help! Don't become an offender!"

More than 1,700 men have responded to the print, television and online ads for Project Dunkelfeld — literally "dark field." As of August, 80 had completed a one-year program aimed at teaching them to control their impulses. Some received hormone shots. Compared to men still on the waiting list, those who received treatment were deemed less likely to molest children, according to an analysis of risk factors.

The German researchers promise patients confidentiality. About half of those assessed admitted to having already molested a child.

Though extolled by many researchers, the same program could not be conducted in the United States or many other countries, where clinicians and others are required by law to notify authorities if they suspect a child has been or could be harmed.
There are many abundant proofs of the failure of conservative and libertarian ideas. But neuroscience's steady chipping away at the notion of free will and the blurring of the line between what constitutes a "good person" and a "bad person" is one of the biggest threats to the conservative edifice. It's too obvious that, difficult as it may be for liberals and conservatives alike, the best approach to the pedophilia problem is early identification, treatment, compassion and active steps to integrate them safely into society to prevent them from going underground and actualizing their desires by abusing children.

That in turn will require a significant social investment in mental health services and public education. It's exactly the sort of thing conservatives can't stand, and exactly the sort of "liberal wasteful spending" that would immediately be misused in campaign attack ads by unscrupulous conservative candidates more interested in getting elected to pass tax cuts for rich people than in solving real social problems and saving children from becoming victims.

And it's just one more way in which the dominance of retrograde libertarian ideology fails each and every one of us, condemning generation after generation to face the same cycles of misunderstanding, abuse and misery.


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