On Sedgwick and Paranoid Reading

I finished Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint over the weekend, which drew enough times from a notion by Nelson’s mentor Eve Sedgwick (pictured right, looking terrific) on paranoid and reparative reading that I went out and found the essay, which originally was published as the introduction to a volume Sedgwick edited, Novel Gazing: Queer Readings. What she found in assembling the collection was that the writers within were chiefly ‘queer’ in how they operated outside paranoid reading practices.

These Sedgwick roots in Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, who in their various spheres wrote about and toward demystification and exposure of hidden systems. Freud especially is a problem for us queers, in how he read paranoia (the practice/affect of neurosis) as a result of our being queer, whereas (as Sedgwick notes from Hocquenghem back in the 1970s) if homosexuals were neurotic, this was owing not to our sexuality (or, say, our supposed failure to resolve the Oedipal conflict) but to our being gay in a world that demands repression.

This vital clarification is itself an act of paranoid reading—it’s concerned with uncovering and exposing as true that which Freud cannot or would not see—and given its efficacy no wonder it caught hold in queer theory. Sedgwick shows it’s pretty much (by the late 90s when she’s writing from) the default mode of all critical theory / academic writing.

Paranoid reading is crisply illustrated in a line she quotes from D.A. Miller: “Even the blandest (or bluffest) ‘scholarly work’ fears getting into trouble,” including trouble “with the adversaries whose particular attacks it keeps busy anticipating.”

In this, I am a paranoid writer, likely because I was trained by boomer academics in the 90s and 00s, the way I pee standing up because I was taught to by my standing-up father. I’d like to be a different way, but I haven’t yet read the part of the intro where Sedgwick gets into reparative reading practices.

At any rate, Sedgwick, being awesome maybe just unilaterally,[*] is not tossing out (false, negative, deleterious) paranoid reading for (true[r], positive, useful) reparative reading—that’s itself a paranoid tactic, to say nothing of its reifying a false binary—but rather suggesting what has become The Critical Method might be more usefully seen as one tool in a whole tool box.

And I really like this idea of paranoia being just one way of generating knowledge, and not necessarily the best way. It helped me think more phlegmatically about people online, or those who are really into conspiracy theories. To avoid the abstraction, I’m going to write about a representative conspiracist here, a person I love, or loved, loved to spend time with, valued and enjoyed, who roundabout the mid-Obama years became a chemtrails evangelist and turned uninteresting and less talk-with-able. (You can substitute your anti-vax family members if you have them.)

Conspiracists, or paranoid thinkers have locked onto the thrills that attend the practice of identifying and exposing lies, or even lies of omission—of which let’s be clear there’s an abundant supply in the world. There will always be an abundance of lies, no matter how successful paranoid reading practices are, because the world is an abundant place. There’s an abundance of lots. And while there is indeed knowledge to be gained from the exposed lie (this is half of great journalism, Wiki Leaks, etc.), paranoiacs and conspiracy people rank that knowledge by its nature at the top of some hierarchy. It is not only of the utmost importance to find, but in finding it, one demonstrates what feels like the utmost intelligence—compared, say, to the ‘sheeple’, who either have not (yet) done the uncovering or will not (ever, likely) see the value of what’s been uncovered.

But another truth that’s hard for the paranoid to see is that there are other forms of knowledge, regardless of where these forms fit on their self-made hierarchy, that could be more useful forms of knowledge, which are unknown not owing to any deceit or coverup. They are hidden, yes, but because complex and not easily disseminable or represented in media or stories or others’ ideas. Or they’re hidden because camouflaged, like certain birds in the wild. (This is half of great theory, or personal credos, or true self-acceptance.)

In this knowledge practice, you go into the woods to look for the bird, and if you don’t see the bird it doesn’t mean the bird doesn’t exist. It doesn’t lessen the bird’s importance or invalidate your need to see the bird. It just means you didn’t see the bird there or then. So you go back tomorrow, or you go to a different woods, knowing all the while that even the pursuit of the bird carries its own pleasures. One day, you get lucky and you see the bird, and it changes your life, and from that day on you live as someone with a memory of having once seen the bird. You write about it in your journal. You get up the next day and look for a different bird.

UPDATE: In this shower this afternoon I thought more about the reasons people enjoy paranoid reading practices, especially of the culture/governments, and what makes the knowledge exposed there rank so high in the paranoid mindset. Why it might be, as I claim above, of the utmost importance to find. Why would they not tell us? asks the paranoid. Often, the knowledge is kept from us civilians ‘for reasons of national security’, which implies that some knowledge is too dangerous to disseminate, too threatening to those in power. Like, say, that AIDS was invented by the U.S. to kill gays, or how 9/11 was an inside job, or that vaccines cause more sickness than they prevent—or, on the other side of the coin, that Iraq did not have nuclear weapons, that the U.S. military kills civilians in drone strikes, or that the NSA spies on everyone without warrants.

But protecting a deluge of revolt or lost party support isn’t the only reason to hold onto knowledge. Sometime knowledge is kept because in knowing something you don’t know, I have some power of you. Kept secrets, then, can be a form of plain dumb greed, regardless of the useful-/uselessness of the knowledge being held. (Sometimes knowledge is held because governments are inept and don’t know how to get it out there, or are so inept that nobody is even aware of whose job it is to steward this information.) To say it clearly, often people addicted to power hold onto it for its own sake. (I’m thinking here of the general in Don’t Look Up who lies about the free snacks so’s to charge his colleagues $20 each he doesn’t need.)

If secrets are a form of greed, this makes the next step in the paranoid mindset—i.e., knowledge of the ‘utmost importance’ making me someone with the utmost intelligence—all the more problematic to the cause. Because believing that you are separate from (and, let’s face it, above) the ‘sheeple’ who don’t know what you know or don’t care much about it, means that what lifts you up is the knowledge you have that they don’t. Your power (of knowing, of not being bluepilled) comes from their not knowing. And thus all you’ve done in your work to expose the truth is pry open the circle of those who know to let yourself stand inside it.

It’s one way conspiracists maintain power systems more than they upend them. My response to learning this past decade that Flat Earthers are real and impassioned, or when hearing once again that we live in the Matrix, is ‘Okay but now what?’ What happens to my life and priorities and commitments, what happens to how I treat the people and things I love, once I’m convinced the earth is flat? Or a simulation?

All I ever come to is that I would know it. My knowledge would be a precious ring I could pet in the corner of some dank cave. There’s snark in that sentence but as a writer deeply versed in paranoid reading strategies please believe I know how great it feels just to know something and know that I’m right about it. Until, that is, it doesn’t.

My intuition is telling me that ‘reparative reading’ for Sedgwick is going to involve something of this ‘Now what?’ or the putting of knowledge to some generative next step.

UPDATE UPDATE: Washing out our ziplocs this evening (talk about reparative practices), it hit me that my thinking here helps me understand why I always loved Veep over its contemporaneous D.C. fantasia House of Cards. The latter, in its dark noir machinations and sinister undertones, seemed to want to impart more power to those who already had it. What if the people we trust least to act in our interests were even more untrustworthy? that show asked, and I was like, ‘What are you doing? What am I supposed to do with this message?’ Whereas Veep seemed to ask, What if the people in power were all stupid, self-involved, stupid dumdums who barely knew what they were doing? That question, like HoC‘s, does potentially lead to scary further questions, but before I go down that road I feel at first equipped to do so: ‘Okay yes, now this I can do something with.’ Veep is a show with far more political possibility than House of Cards. That the good one of the pair is a comedy says something about humor’s being possibly a stronger theory (another term I learned today from Sedgwick) than paranoia.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I mean this ¶ alone: ‘The phrase [“hermeneutic of suspicion”] now has something like the sacred status of Fredric Jameson’s “Always historicize”—and, like that one, it fits oddly into its new position in the tablets of the Law. Always historicize? What could have less to do with historicizing than the commanding, atemporal adverb “always”? It reminds me of the common bumper stickers that instruct people in other cars to “Question Authority.” Excellent advice, perhaps wasted on anyone who does whatever they’re ordered to do by a strip of paper glued to the bumper of an automobile! The imperative framing will do funny things to a hermeneutic of suspicion.’

Stories of Pedophiles Again – Epilogue

The title for this series of posts (read Part I here) was taken from Bill Fay’s song “Pictures of Adolf Again”:

In the papers, on the TV screens
Pictures of Adolf again
As sure as I sit here there will appear
Pictures of Adolf again

You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
If you say Adolf he won't come

OK deny representation
By leaders of all nations
But have you got, have you really got
Anyone to replace them?

You're wrong, you're wrong
Throw down your cards
You're wrong, you're wrong
OK then who's gonna come?

Christ or Hitler? Christ or Vorster
Christ or all the Caesars to come?

That's the choice, that's the choice
Sooner or later
That's the choice, that's the choice
You're gonna have to make

Fay is singing, on an album filled with second-coming hopes, about the perils of placing politicians in the role of heroes and even anti-heroes. He’s asking us to think about what happens when we idolize men whose chief aim is power, even when we believe they’ll use that power for good.

Fay’s choice is Christ, whose aim always is to eschew power, give everything away, love all equally. Our answer need not be so Christian, but I’m trying to ask similar questions about what happens when we perpetuate images of men we loathe, and we continually tell stories about how these men we’ve caught are predators. We likely don’t look closely enough at those predation dynamics—who is hunting whom, who is in the strong position and who is in the weak—because we may soon find that the evil one, the predator we both hate and fear, is us.

Stories of Pedophiles Again – Part V

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 to see if anyone with wandering eyes would come join me.

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.

Stories of Pedophiles Again – Part IV

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 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.’