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

We know CSA is a bad thing, but how do we know this, those of us who haven’t experienced CSA but feel committed to stop it? What happens, over time, to the CSA victim? (Though we ought not to disregard the physical abuse attendant to much sexual abuse.) We have an understanding that CSA scars and traumatizes the child, so that it becomes doubly violent, a la Aviv’s story on Marco, whose experience turns out is common among CSA survivors.

The best writing on this I’ve found is from Sandor Ferenczi, a Freud protege who made a name as one of the leading writers on trauma in the 20th century. Ferenczi is cited in Aviv’s story; Kentler read the article I’m about to quote from late in life, and it (along with his son/beloved’s suicide) made him reverse his long-held beliefs[9] about the supposed benefits of man-boy relationships.

Ferenczi’s argument is spelled out in his paper’s title: ‘Confusion of Tongues Between the Adult and Child (The Language of Tenderness and of Passion)’. In his clinical practice treating patients with CSA traumas, he theorized that intrafamilial ‘seduction’ (Freud’s original term) occurred when children showing love for the parent assume, in play, a parenting role to the adult. These children are operating on the level of tenderness. The danger comes when the adult mistakes the child’s tenderness as passion or desire—languages within his adult idiom, which Ferenczi holds that children, with their not-yet-consolidated personalities, neither exhibit nor understand.

In other words, the child thinks they’re being tender to Daddy the way Daddy is tender to them, and the father through some disturbance or pathology thinks his child is coming on to him. What exactly is the danger of this confusion of tongues? It lies, Ferenczi writes, in the child’s continuing acceptance of the adult’s authority, which ‘compels them to subordinate themselves like automata to the will of the aggressor, to divine each one of his desires and to gratify these; completely oblivious of themselves they identify themselves with the aggressor.’

Incidentally, this is one way that child-on-child sexual abusers (not all CSA perpetrators are adults) are able to victimize other children: they’ve often been victimized themselves, and have since taken on their aggressor’s role. In Marco’s case, it wasn’t that his foster father made him an abuser, but it made him mirror the rage of his father toward anyone.

CSA robs a child of their Self, which to me is a far worse crime than robbing a child of any innocence we might assign to them. The part of Ferenczi that opened Kentler’s eyes, at least according to Aviv, is this line [his italics]: ‘If more love or love of a different kind from that which they need, is forced upon the children in that stage of tenderness, it may lead to pathological consequences in the same way as … frustration or withdrawal of love….’

But Ferenczi is writing about CSA between child and parent—which, it bears repeating, accounts for around two-thirds of all CSA cases. We’re thinking this week about ‘Stranger Danger’, the pedophile lurking online or around playgrounds looking to abuse children they don’t know. Certainly they’re not mistakenly giving children more love than they need. But what happens when an adult (e.g., Ghost) poses as a child to trap another adult into meeting them for sex? Inevitably, that faux-child is going to use the language most legible to them: i.e., the adult language of passion.

Which is to say, the ‘predator’ we imagine lurking online is responding in these sting ops to enticements no real child would deliver.

What we have in TCAP and Ghost are lying adults working to get men to confess to some murky desires we hate them for. I never watched TCAP, but viewing Ghost’s videos it’s no surprise that he never shows any chat logs, reveals no details of how his team goes about enticing these men to meet in public.[10] What the videos do reveal is the libidinous pleasure Ghost gets from—let’s finally make it clear—his predation of these prey. Some headlines (all sic) from his videos:

  • Cross Dresser Gets AGGRESSIVE When Caught In Car
  • Crystal Meth Head Tries Having Orgeey With 4 and 5 Year Old [Worst]
  • Coke Nail admits having victims
  • Creepy Staring Guy CRIES When CAUGHT!
  • Patrol Officer CRIES When Exposed
  • Lance Corporal CRIES When Caught
  • System Manager Almost FAINTS When Caught!

We know There but for the grace of God go I has no bearing in the Internet age. And maybe it’s never had a bearing when it comes to sex. But before I wrap up this series of posts, I want to try to think through what’s so damaging and harmful about Ghost’s TCAP-style tactics. My original argument went that, in going after pedophiles because we can no longer persecute homosexuals, we make the real problem of CSA worse. But how is that true?

One way, I’ve tried to show, is how ‘pedo hunting’ and persecution helps CSA abusers themselves become ghosts, people we don’t see because we won’t look at them. It’s like bemoaning the dearth of manufacturing and agricultural jobs in the U.S. and choosing to blame workers who’ve immigrated and not the policies of the actual people in power.

But I think the larger way persecution worsens CSA is how it sanctions shame—public shaming and lifelong stigmas—as a reasonable and just response to sexual deviance. This hurts all of us, but it hurts the deviant worse because shame has this magical ability to charge a desire with compulsivity and even a kind of rebellious streak. Knowing I ‘wasn’t allowed’ to do something, or that ‘only bad people’ did something—cruising men’s rooms, say—led me to not be able to resist it. Indeed, I saw any resistance as endorsing all the public shame I imagined. Fuck the haters, I’d say, and then give myself another 10 minutes at the urinals to see if anyone else with wandering eyes would come in.

Persecution brings to light far less than we might think; shame makes us push what’s already hidden to darker corners of the closet. Talking openly about what I was doing, without judgement, is how a lot of compulsive behaviors became, to me, curiosities. They became misfires that were usually about something other than sexual desire.

And this was stuff I was doing out in the world, which is a categorically different experience than being an avatar online. When the things we do in private online become who we are as people, we’re all in trouble.

But we’re already in trouble, as I’ve shown. We’re a nation of people—a community—who believe (given how bipartisanly our sex laws are passed) that those who want, but don’t commit, sex with minors deserve not just punishment or incarceration, but lifelong public shame. We want to type a town name into search field and get their names and addresses and—the most important piece—the specific kind of hateful sex they went after. We want photos and videos of them on social media. We want to make sure these photos capture these men at their ugliest, their fattest, their most shameful, because the fact itself of what we’re shaming them for isn’t enough to feed our disgust pleasure. Our own hypercarceral justice system, and its approach of locking up and (in theory) rehabilitating criminals, is not enough to feed our disgust pleasure.

I want to repeat what I said on day one: understanding justice need not strip us of our compassion, just as our desire to feel compassion does not blind us to justice.

This equanimity finds its limit in Ghost, a man whose understanding of justice is so poor and so certain that I find it hard to retain for him any of the compassion I feel for his victims, and for all men currently struggling with pedophilic desires. Ghost may be the only man on whom I pray for more shame to fall. He’s as great a cautionary tale as Kentler, and I fear he may cause as much ruin.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Contra Ghost’s dumb ideas from Part III.
  2. In the LA Times piece he’s careful to say he and his team never make first contact, and this is a question he’ll often ask on camera of the men he entraps. Who messaged who first, dude? Who messaged who first? ‘It’s better in court,’ Ghost says, ‘if they reached out first, because it doesn’t look like we enticed them or we instigated the conversation first.’ It doesn’t take a legal scholar to see that not initiating a conversation doesn’t absolve one from enticement.