I've been thinking about sex abuse and pedophilia a lot lately.  It has been painful.

          I was at Penn State University for 15 years and proud of it. People formerly and currently associated with that institution have been tangled up in a horrific scandal focused on accusations of repeated pedophilia allegedly carried out by Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach. The grand jury indictment includes testimony concerning at least eight victims who were young boys, all associated with a charity Sandusky founded called The Second Mile.  (The mission of this charity is to help and befriend boys considered at risk and Sandusky had a great deal of personal contact with the boys.)

          This case and the accusations are truly scandalous for several reasons. 

          First, in our society, in our day, raping little children is both criminal and immoral. It represents a hideous act of betrayal of trust and a cruel sexual exploitation of the powerless.         

          Second, there have been accusations for 15 years or more and only now is the validity of these allegations being fully investigated.  Whether true or false, this in no way represents justice for the accusers or the accused.

          Third, heads are rolling at Penn State before the case has come to trial. So far, six people have either lost their jobs, been suspended, have resigned, or are being kept from doing their job because of death threats. Not one of the six has been accused of sexual misconduct; all of them seem to have taken the matter to appropriate colleagues or superiors. But they are judged in the public arena as not having done "enough." Direct damage to the victims in cases of child sexual abuse are dreadful, but the "collateral damage" in this case seems excessive.

          Is it right to make death threats again a man who purportedly witnessed a rape, stepped in to stop it, and reported the rape to his supervisor so appropriate action could be taken? Is fair or just or even responsible? I don't think so.  Our anger at the terrible crimes that are alleged to have occurred should be directed at the appropriate target.

          Finally, though the testimony in the grand jury indictment of Sandusky seems damning, he has not yet been tried. It is not yet been determined (legally) that children were sexually abused and, the last time I looked, someone accused of a crime in the United States is innocent until proven guilty.         

          As an anthropologist, when I am searching for an explanation of a human behavior, I look at the behavior of other primates—our closest relatives—or other mammals.

          I haven't been able to come up with another species in which pedophilia is a common or normal behavior.  I have not found any report of forced sex with juveniles in nonhuman primates. Although bonobos are reported to engage in frequent sex in "all possible combinations"—including adults with juveniles—they do not have sex with unwilling partners.

          Instead, every nonhuman mammal about which I have some depth of knowledge shows a similar pattern.  Adult females come into estrus—the period of sexual receptiveness—when they are ovulating. In baboons and chimpanzees, for example, this state is signaled by large, pink, sexual swellings around the female's genitals that can be seen from a long distance.  If you are a male baboon and see a female baboon in estrus, you know for sure that she is sexually receptive or soon will be. Female mammals often leave hormonal "invitations" to males every time they pee or mark vegetation or other natural objects with special sexual secretions that advertise their willingness.

          Males of most mammals keep a close eye on the status of females in their social group and take care to smell their secretions and urine.  If there's no hormonal invitation, there's no sex. Males may approach females who are not fully in estrus but the females run, scream, bite, kick and otherwise manage to signal their lack of intentions. Males give up and go away. Adult males don't even approach juvenile males for sex so far as I can tell.

          This system seems to work very well in other mammals.  Why is the human species plagued with pedophilia and rape?

          One clue might be that humans have what is called "concealed estrus."  You can't tell just by looking at a human female if she is fertile and receptive or not.  In fact, the strong, almost obligate link between fertility and sexual receptiveness found in other primates has just about disappeared in human females.  The signal that other primate females give—saying "I'm ready for sex"—is turned off.  And the gatekeeper circuit that tells a male primate not to approach a female unless she is signaling biologically has been disconnected in humans.

          The time-honored biological signal found in our primate kin is replaced by social and cultural proscriptions on sexual activity and its appropriate participants. This newer mechanism is obviously not entirely effective. It can lead to evolutionarily idiotic situations such as discussing whether "no" means "no," and who has the right to say "no. "

          As I look at it from this evolutionary perspective, a human pedophile or rapist simply doesn't get any biological signal that the object of his attention is unwilling or not suitable.  He doesn't pick up or react appropriately to the social and cultural signals that should prevent him from having sex with unwilling partners, including children.

          What good is concealed estrus anyway? C. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University has hypothesized that concealed estrus serves to encourage long-term pair-bonding (monogamy) among our male and female ancestors because concealed estrus also conceals the identity of the father of any offspring.  Forming a strong bond with a female increases a male's chance that any offspring are his and those offspring are then worth caring for, by providing food, parental care or other benefits. It is easy to imagine that a strong pair-bond improves the survival of the offspring.

          Are rape and pedophilia the price we pay for our fragile form of monogamy? Or is this pathology caused by some other mechanism—a failure of parts of the brain to develop, or a warped perception caused by traumatic events in the pedophile's or rapist's childhood?

          I don't know and I'm not even sure I want to know. The temptation is to close my eyes and stop up my ears and hope the whole horror goes away. 

          But it won't, not until we all deal with the issues, underlying causes, and devastating effects of sexual abuses.

About the Author

Pat Shipman, Ph.D.

Pat Shipman, Ph.D., is a writer and paleoanthropologist who writes about science and evolution for non-scientists.

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