Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Can Pedophilia Ever Be "Mild"?

Richard Dawkins isn't concerned about having been groped as a boy. Should we be?

World-famous scientist, Richard Dawkins has attracted a lot of negative attention recently by suggesting that the "mild pedophilia" he experienced as a boy wasn't really such a big deal. In a recent interview, he recalled how one of his teachers “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.” Dawkins went on to say, “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.” Dawkins' point was that such situations must be seen in context, and that the cultural backdrop of his youth was sufficiently different from now as to make judgment more complicated and less warranted than it may seem. 

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours," Dawkins said. "Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

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Predictably, the backlash has been intense. Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, called Dawkins’ statement “a terrible slight” to victims of such abuse. “Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way,” Watt said. “But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday.”

No, we don't know that. In fact, we don't know that any two people will "suffer the same effects" from the same experience in the here and now, much less in completely different contexts. 

Bruce Rind, an expert on the study of "intergenerational sexuality," got himself in some hot water in the 1990s when he published controversial research demonstrating that the best predictor of subjective harm is whether or not the minor consented to the experience.

Sexuality researcher, Jesse Bering, summarizes these findings in his soon-to-be-published book, Perv:

"Rind and his colleagues ... argued that it makes little sense to refer to something as 'child sex abuse' if, as an adult, the individual doesn't personally feel harmed and if his or her harm can't be detected by any known empirical measures." Bering notes that "this wasn't just the authors' personal and controversial opinion, but a statement based on scientific findings. Rind's study was a meta-analysis of previously published data on the sexual histories of a whopping 35,303 college students from around the world."

Rind's subject pool was taken from randomly-chosen college students, rather than "clinical samples of adults who'd sought help for ongoing problems stemming from their being raped, molested, or otherwise sexually exploited as children or teenagers." Using this random pool of over thirty-five thousand students, Rind and his coauthors concluded that, "the majority of those people who reported having had consensual encounters with adults as minors were, at the time of testing, no more likely to have pervasive psychological problems than those who hadn't."

Bering is careful to point out that, "these mentally healthy individuals weren't those who'd been subjected to terrible abuses as children. More often they were those who, as adolescents, had consensually (in the psychological sense of that term) 'fooled around' in various ways with someone on the other side of the legal line."

In other words, they weren't traumatized, probably because, like Dawkins, they never felt that what they'd experienced was traumatic.

Bering notes that Rind and his colleagues weren't alone in their conclusions. "In 2006, the psychologist Heather Ulrich replicated Rind's 1998 findings, concluding cautiously that the presumption of universal harm from juveniles having a sexual encounter with an adult is too simplistic to account for the variance in people's subjective interpretations of their own life experiences."

Dawkins has responded to the controversy his remarks caused here, writing, "To excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from my intention." 

This is indeed a delicate thing to talk about because, of course, it is a big deal when an adult abuses a child in any way—sexual or otherwise. But what this research suggests is that while urgency in detecting and stopping abuse of children is warranted, assumptions that all minors are traumatized by any sexual contact with someone over the age of consent are not scientifically supported. Perhaps more importantly, by sending the message that such experiences are by definition traumatic, we may sometimes be causing suffering even as we try to stop it.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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