Pete Townshend was recently arrested on child pornography charges and his defense is that he only entered a site to do research. I don't know if he's telling the truth, but the subtext of the media's treatment of this story, and similar stories, is astonishing. The focus is always on the motivations of the accused, and never on the children. Does the material in question just show simulations, or were actual children photographed? How? Were children deceived? Abducted? Threatened? How did they feel? Does anyone know their names? Have police caught the people who did the direct abuse, and if so, why aren't we hearing about it, and if not, why not, and why aren't we hearing about that?
It's all about the feelings of the adults. Apparently there's nothing wrong with children suffering, only with adults feeling good about it. The other night I saw a TV show on which young children were fenced off from their mothers, making them quite distressed, as part of a scientific experiment, and no one seemed to wonder if this was wrong. So it's OK to make children suffer if the internal mental state of the adults is cold scientific observation, but not if it's sexual pleasure. Ask the kids if they fucking care.
I've noticed, as everybody has, though we're all being very quiet about it, that pedophilia is a major thought crime. The word "pedophile," in all its horror, makes no distinction between people who are merely sexually attracted to kids, and people who actually go out and do sex acts with kids, as if the unacted desire and the acted desire are just as bad. Somebody should ask the kids. "Child pornography" makes no distinction between material for which children were or were not exploited, as if they're equally bad. Ask the kids.
This is not an essay about thought crimes, about how we're on a slippery slope where they start by arresting people for drawings of naked kids, and then they arrest people for movies depicting murder, and finally you can go to prison for viewing Walt Disney's Robin Hood which glorifies stealing. There is some hassle in that direction, and I don't want to have to go into the criminal underworld to get tapes of South Park, but there are severe limits to how far a trend like that can go, because making anything a thought crime is a huge burden and danger to society.
Right now, if you're caught downloading child porn from the internet, you will lose your job, lose your friends, and probably go to prison where you will be the scum among the scum. Your life is ruined. But if instead you perform sex acts on an actual child, well, the prison term will be longer, but the overall penalty is about the same. So what's the incentive to hold back? In fact, if you're in a position of respect and authority, like, say, a priest, or a parent, where kids will hesitate to turn you in, then you're probably less likely to get caught molesting real children than downloading pictures of them -- and you're much less likely to get convicted.
Making something a thought crime provokes the real crime. If they ever invent technology to detect and punish the fantasy of burning down Microsoft, then look out, because we'll have nothing to lose! People sense this, and we don't make thought crimes without a strong psychological motive.
So why pedophiles? There are lots of really bad people in this world doing really bad things, and molesting children is one of them, but it's not the worst. Murder is worse. Would you rather remember that you'd been sexually abused, and deal with the trauma, or be killed? Or if you have been sexually abused, would you change history so instead the person just killed you? How about being a slave, and I don't mean a wage slave where the alternative is living on the streets, but a full-on slave, very likely a sex slave, where the alternative is you or your family being murdered. There's a lot of that going on all over the world. And tourists from rich countries pay for much of it by going to sex slave prostitutes, and incur little or no social penalty. What about children who, instead of being sexually abused and living to have a chance to recover, die at age six from industrial toxins released so chemical company stockholders can make a profit? Is that worse than profiting from child pornography? Well is it?
The difference is, if you're masturbating to a photo of an abused child, there's the child, and your pleasure, right in front of you. And if you're getting pleasure from driving a car paid for by Union Carbide dividends, what does that have to do with suffering children? The suffering is hidden and you want it to stay hidden, goddammit, thank you very much. You will put anything you can find in front of it to hide it, and if you can find something big and hideous, like someone who gets pleasure from suffering children with full awareness, well that's perfect.
Even terrorists are sort of cool. Even serial killers are glamorized in songs and movies. Even fascist dictators are somewhat respected. But pedophiles are unequivocally awful. Our culture has chosen this perspective for a reason: to make pedophilia a lightning rod to channel all attention and responsibility away from our culture's overwhelming abuse of children in other ways.
The worst thing about adult-child sex is that it serves the needs of the adults not the children, and that the adults deny this, and forbid any expression of the perception of abuse. But this is true of most adult-child interaction. I was not sexually abused as a child, but I was very badly abused, and I think most kids were abused even worse, probably you. I was forced to do stuff with my body that I hated, supposedly for my benefit but really for the benefit of the adult world, and I was forbidden to say so. It's called "socialization" and most of it happened in school. Don't laugh! If you're rolling your eyes and calling me absurd, you're repressing more abuse than many people have ever experienced. You've carefully forgotten what it's like to be forced to sit in a chair, still and quiet, for hours, days, years, when your body wants to run and play and your mind wants to explore. And when there is running and "playing" and exploring, it's planned and tightly managed, and any impulse of real creativity or aliveness is reflexively crushed, with not even so much as physical touching, but the most insidious and appropriate-seeming emotional manipulation.
Of course, unlike sexual abusers, adults filling normal roles with children really mean well, and I don't want to put any blame on teachers. Many of them are doing their best to minimize or even counteract the oppressiveness of schooling, which is inherent, not just in school systems but in the very idea of schooling: to make us passive receptacles of instruction, easily managed by a much smaller number of superiors, and interchangeable.
I was lucky in that school was the worst I had it. Most people had it much worse at home -- they must have because look around now and see how damaged and spiritless they are. And I'm not talking about just physical beatings. That's the backup lightning rod. A physical blow can be much easier to heal from than the words "What's wrong with you?"
Adults in general can't see how deeply and thoroughly children suffer, because to see it they would have to remember how awful it felt when the same thing was done to them, and they don't want to deal with that. Kids cry and scream so much because that's just what kids do, not because we've created a world that every fresh perspective finds worthy of years of crying and screaming. To reject normal socialization, adults would have to reject an entire society where people must sit still and repress playfulness and respect authority and focus on abstractions and value objects over life, and it's the only society they know. They would have to admit that their life has been mostly a tragic mistake; and it's much easier, if you've been correctly socialized, to just pass the mistake on to the next generation.
Another way normal socialization is more benign than sexual abuse is that it's out in the open, so its victims can more easily support each other and develop healthy ways to deal with it. Not many sexually abused kids can chat lightly about it with other kids, and they certainly can't with adults, who really make it worse when they cover it with an oppressive aura of shame and deadly seriousness. But I can remember us fourth graders healing from normal societal abuse by singing songs: "Glory glory hallelujah. Teacher hit me with a ruler. Blew her out the door with a loaded 44 and we ain't got a teacher no more!"
If kids tried to sing that now they'd probably be arrested and sent to counseling with an oppressive aura of shame and deadly seriousness. So normal socialization, as it gets more advanced, is getting more like sex abuse, with all resistance smothered in taboo and fear. Right now the second or third most serious thought crime, after adults fantasizing about abusing kids in forbidden ways, is kids fantasizing about fighting back against people who abuse them in socially sanctioned ways.
Now fighting back against socialization is different from sexual abuse in that some ways of doing it are good. But otherwise, adults who feel like molesting kids and kids who feel like shooting up the school are in the same position: They're under intense pressure to either lock it all inside or go out and do some horrific act, and they are absolutely forbidden to bring their feelings out into the light without acting on them, just sitting there, no spectacular resolution or distracting psychodrama, no turning it into a cliché with an easy response, just sitting there, there it is, our culture's stinking scabby infected heart.
Our alleged freedom of speech has not even begun to go far enough. We need to not only legalize the very expression we find most threatening, but more important, give attention to it and have a friendly dialogue with it. We're failing to follow through on this with regular legal pornography, which is full of fantasies of rape and degradation that we just look away from unless we're enjoying it. But imagine if we did look, and if we let kids put on school plays that glorified blowing up the school, and we let pedophiles publish text and drawings, and inhabit computer-generated worlds, about sex with children, and we took a good look at all of this and asked each other where these desires are coming from, until we found answers (and not cop-out answers like shrugging and saying "human nature").
Yes, I've heard the argument that the fictional act can encourage the real act, and I suppose sometimes it does. I know Ted Bundy made that argument to avoid taking personal responsibility and looking deeper into himself. But I'm sure that the fantasy serves more often as an alternative to the reality, and that the desire has more troubling roots, which demand attention from all of us.
And we can do something else. Our powerful shaming of pedophiles is a good sign, since it shows that we know how to use shame and social pressure to influence society. Suppose we take the shaming of participants in the child porn industry, and extend it to beneficiaries of continuing slavery, to stockholders of the most irresponsible corporations, to participants in the war industry. "You design missiles? Oh my god! Get away from me!"
Actually we already do some of this, but we're doing it badly. We don't understand yet that the point is not perfection, not to be without sin so you can throw stones (or to throw stones so you can be without sin). The point is to make things better. All of us in industrial society are thoroughly stained, linked in ten thousand ways to exploited workers and dying species and unthinkable tragedy and loss. But just because your whole house and everything in it is soaked in blood, doesn't mean you can't start cleaning. We can start with the worst offenders and work our way out, and social pressure, if it's done well, is more democratic and far more effective than government regulation.
One day we might have a world where people abuse and dominate and objectify only inside of stories and songs and games. I myself have skulked through the dark corners of the internet downloading maps for Heroes of Might & Magic II, for my own pleasure. It will be interesting to see, if reality gets healthy, what happens to our fantasies.