Wednesday, October 04, 2006

So what DO you call it? 

I've been visiting with people on the St. Cloud Times chat, and one question I put to people discussing the Mark Foley affair is how one describes the dirty deeds he did. A few thought that pedophilia is not the right word, as it implies physical sexual contact with a child. There was no contact as far as we know at this time. But the roots of the word imply love of a child; that love is sexual, but it does not necessarily mean physical contact has occurred. Yet I found few challenged the question that pedophilia has to include some physical acting out of the fantasy, and nobody used the word molestation. Nor did anyone really want to go into whether the preference towards 16-year-olds was somehow less pedophilic than it might be towards a 12-year-old or 8-year-old. I find that rather peculiar, since sexual activity in 16 year olds generally isn't considered unusual in American society (though count me as one who finds it undesirable), but activity in a 12-year-old would be considered unusual and generally frowned on.

I looked at the American Psychiatric Association's fact sheet on pedophilia, including the DSM-IV criteria. It clearly states
A person need not have actual sexual contact with a child to be diagnosed with pedophilia. A person who is preoccupied with sexual urges and fantasies that disturb his functioning (that is, negatively affect his relations with others or impair his ability to work effectively) could also be diagnosed as having pedophilia, even without ever engaging in a sex act with a child.
I'm obviously not a psychologist, but it looks to me like Foley fits except that the first criteria says Over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 or younger). Does the age matter here? Or is it that, like the Monica Lewinsky affair, Foley's crime comes in no small part from abusing his position of authority to gain access to young men with whom he could engage in cybersex? And in particular, a position of authority granted him as a public trust?

One can be a pedophile and never act on the urge. One can also commit child sexual abuse and not be a pedophile (for example, due to drug or alcohol abuse, which is what Foley claims.) And what is an what isn't abuse is both a legal description and a matter of what shocks the conscience. See this thoight=provoking article by Thomas Szasz. Clearly, most of us are using the term pedophile to refer to a behavior we find repugnant, not as a legal term.

A broader category into which Foley's behavior belongs is paraphilia, which loosely means sexual gratification by atypical means. Cybersex is still atypical. So's a lot of different things, some illegal (frottage, for example) and some not (most fetishism). Where do you draw that line?

Why go through this? I was thinking about the issue last night but it became real when we learned of the Patty Wetterling ad which describes this behavior as 'molestation'. Dean Barnett, Jim Gegharty and Andy Aplikowski are having cows over this. So let me pretend to be rewrite for the Wetterling campaign:
�It shocks the conscience. Congressional leaders have admitted to covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the internet for pedophilic purposes.�
Is that really going to make you feel better? Or is your argument that no pedophilia happened here? And if not, what are you wanting to call what he did? I would rather see the ad written this way:
�It shocks the conscience. Congressional leaders have admitted to covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the internet for immoral purposes.�
Morality is the compass that allows one to look at Foley's behavior and say "what a creep" without needing a focus group or 700 words. But that requires Mrs. Wetterling to make a moral judgment, which is exactly what Michele Bachmann's opponents consider to be her failing. In the process of painting herself as a saint and her opponent as moralistic, can Mrs. Wetterling rise to say simply that some behaviors are just wrong, and then define those wrong behaviors differently than Mrs. Bachmann? Or has she ended up without a moral basis on which to judge Foley? If so, she will end up hounded by the conservative critics reserving the word molestation to physical acts, and unable to speak her soul's repugnance.

UPDATE: Barnett makes a reference to Mrs. Wetterling having "absolute moral authority". That's quite different from having a moral structure to your own life. If you have it, this doesn't happen:
One can almost picture Wettering asserting that her absolute moral authority gives her the right to redefine molestation to include things that happen in a virtual realm, and defying anyone to fight her on that ground. And once Wettering defines what happened as �molestation,� the rest of the party will surely follow.
I remind you that words mean something without anyone planning it. Symptomatic of the liberal urge is to ignore the spontaneous order of language and make words mean what you want them to. Conservatives should beware as well.

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