This week I’m publishing a series of posts about what I’m calling the Active Pedophile phantasy. Read Parts I, II, and III.

But what men are we talking about exactly? Who are they and how do we identify them? Trying to find good stats on incidence rates of pedophilia in men is tricky, because you basically have to ask men to admit to it. One researcher estimates that around 1% of men feel sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children, but this includes men who’ve ever once felt such an attraction and men with an exclusive ongoing attraction. If you widen the field up to age 14 (i.e., ephebophilia), you get around a 4% incidence rate.

We don’t talk as a community about what happens once we widen the field to 18.

Trying to find good stats on child sexual abuse (CSA) is doubly tricky, as one 2018 meta-analysis estimates that only 1 in 20 victims report the abuse in childhood, so the problem is likely more prevalent than we know. Global studies have shown around 12% of kids being victims of CSA, with 8% of males and 19% of females so reporting. These rates vary when it comes to national populations, with greater incidence in Africa and less in Europe.

To be clear, this is enough to take action. If 0.01% of children are sexually abused, we still have—globally—a sexual abuse problem.

To address the problem of CSA, we ought to understand it. Step one might be knowing, and repeating, and calling out one finding from that that 2018 report above:[5] In the U.S., 61% of children reporting CSA were abused by a relative and 38% were abused by an acquaintance.

Most child sexual abusers are fathers of their victims, or step-fathers or uncles or grandfathers. If the aim of Ghost and his followers and all the people who tuned in to To Catch a Predator is to ‘serve the community’ and protect children, these are the predators they ought to hunt. But how? How to intervene on the moment a father abuses his daughter? And how to ‘bait’ or ‘profile’ an actual child sexual abuser when (again from the above study) ‘Intrafamilial child sexual abusers when compared with extrafamilial abusers show significantly lower atypical sexual interests … and antisocial tendencies.’

Meaning that CSA perpetrators are not what we think of when we say ‘pedophiles’. They’re not ‘creepers’ with child pornography on their hard drives.[6] They don’t stalk or groom children found at public places. Their sexual orientations and social interactions are non-pathological. The Active Pedophile, then, is a chimera we think we know but don’t. He constitutes 1% of CSA crimes and 99% of our thinking about them.

So okay. Well and good. If it’s true that even a 0.01% CSA prevalence is a problem, why not go after the 1% of abusers? Maybe it’s not going to make CSA go away, but it’s going to stop some abuse from happening, right?

To answer this question let’s look at sex laws in the U.S. Despite Ghost’s claims of wanting to protect the innocent, when we look closely at sex laws (which sexual abuse vigilantism takes its pages from), we see they aim more to punish the pervert—as we understand him at the time. As Jesse Bering writes in Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us:

Which is worse, … a stud manager forcibly collecting the semen of a prized racehorse by ‘electro-ejaculating’ the animal for commercial gain (which involves inserting an electrified rod into the animal’s rectum and delivering a high-voltage shock to its prostate) or a zoophile gently masturbating his companion horse with the sole intent of bringing it satisfaction? That the first is perfectly legal and the second illegal shows that bestiality laws are more concerned with a person’s sexually deviant desires than they are with the animal’s actual harm.

I’d open the point up to apply to all sex laws, CSA / offender-registry laws included. In support for this leap, recall our old sodomy laws. Sodomy per se harms nobody; when consensual, it’s a sexual act that creates no victims and much pleasure. That laws forbidding it were upheld when I was 8 years old and learning what a faggot was, and that those laws only became unconstitutional 19 years ago, shows that only very recently did we stop making the homosexual[7] a scapegoat to punish for our fears and disgust.

To put it another way, if sodomy laws protect anything it’s the lie that procreative hetero sex is the sex we should, or even want to have.

I showed earlier in the week how defining the homosexual in the 1800s created the heterosexual and their no-questions-asked status, and I’m trying here to show how laws against sodomy performatively create the Sodomite. It turns occasional behaviors into an identity, and one with a pathology. We tend to think the opposite is true: that sodomites in esse necessitate laws against their practices, which laws we trust will protect the innocent from their crimes. This, as Melanie-Angela Neuilly and Kristen Zgoba write in a study on pedophilia coverage in French and U.S. media, is an essentialist understanding of crime, whereas what more accurately happens is that ‘[n]ew crimes are identified as old crimes fade.’ Crime is far more socially constructed than absolute.

Their ready example is heresy trials, which our collective thinking evolved from, in the political parlance, in a long slow process over hundreds of years. Despite what I said above about my growing up with sodomy laws on the books, what’s true is that they were roundly unenforced and mostly relics by the time Lawrence v. Texas was decided (i.e., that old law had faded). However, consider that the first state to decriminalize same-sex sex was Illinois, sixty years ago, in 1962. That might seem like another time, another century, but I’ll point out that the average age of U.S. senators in this current Congress is 63.7.

We’re a country with a lot of old bad vestigial ideas about sex, which is a problem that both feeds into and is worsened by the sex laws we write. To feel better about the (ignorant, dispassionate, sadistic) sex laws we write, we’ve usually needed a scapegoat, a criminal figure we stoke fears of and then claim to punish. In the absence of the sodomite, we’ve turned to the pedophile, which, as this graph from the Neuilly-Zgoba study shows, also happened very recently.

Neuilly and Zgoba point in their study to a moral panic occurring in both countries, along the lines of the Satanic panic of the 1980s. But why call what our high-profile abuse cases of the early 1990s[8] caused ‘a panic’ and not, more generously, ‘a heightened awareness’? That is, if it’s the news media’s job to expose the truth of what’s happening in our culture, isn’t the resulting deluge of laws persecuting sex abusers evidence of a job well done?

Neuilly and Zgoba answer this question by finding that cases of CSA were already decreasing in the time states passed new sex laws—i.e., not as a result of those laws. I would respond by pointing to the many different writers across disciplines who show how the punishments we’ve formed don’t fit the crimes—or do, if you believe that sex offense (an umbrella term including such behaviors as a 19yo having consensual sex with his 17yo boyfriend, a 50yo man raping a 30yo woman, and an adult man jerking off alone in a park) is the worst crime imaginable, and should stain a person for life.

My point in today’s long stats-y section, is that we don’t know the pedophile, and we don’t know pedophilia, and that the pedophile in our phantasy is young, historically. He’s new. CSA, however, is as old as sin, and it’s time we did better work separating the two.

Turns out the end of Helmut Kentler’s story can show us a way to do it.

Read Part V.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Worth noting that even as late as 2018 this study needed to make our favorite clarification: ‘A common misconception is that homosexuality is correlated with child sexual abuse. Anywhere from 9% to 40% of pedophiles are attracted to children of the same gender, but homosexual adults are
    no more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual adults.’
  2. Child pornography users are likely too large a topic to get into in this piece, especially given that there’s evidence that more than 50% of child porn users have never had contact with a child.
  3. Technically not. I mean, a wife can sodomize her husband just by going down on him, but we all know who we conjure up when I write the word ‘sodomite.’
  4. i.e. ‘the 1987 case of Earl Shriner raping and mutilating a six-year-old boy, the 1990 disappearance of Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota, the 1993 abduction and murder of Polly Klaas in California, and the sexual molestation and murder of Megan Kanka in 1994 in New Jersey.’