I shouldn’t have been surprised at my rejection from a Ph.D. program in public health. First, it was on a Friday, and unlike most of you, I hate Fridays. Bad news always happens to me on Fridays.
Second, I know that public health programs seldom consider sexual health and mental health in combination. Here I was writing and telling them that we need to study the phenomenon and consistent and historically-cyclical panic around children and sex. I pondered these questions.
Is not the sexualizing of children historically consistent? Is there a difference between sexualizing and over-sexualizing? Are not these terms too subjective and fail to consider the incredible diversity of people and cultures? Given this consistency particularly with our focus on girls and their potential abuse, shouldn’t the focus be on understanding and not law-making as a solution? Generally, people don’t listen to laws or they don’t think they are breaking the law, or they think the law is wrong. Legislators and lawmakers like laws because it makes it look like they are doing something. They are not.
The “lock-them-up” solution is not a solution at all because lawmakers do not focus on child sexual abuse prevention. They focus on their voting records and public outrage. At best, our system is residual. We wait for the shit storm to stop, look around and say, “oh, I think we should do something.” Then we overdo. We may help kids after the fact, but few think of prevention before things happen. This requires science, something our courts, legislators, and police seldom even look at when it comes to community safety and even public health.
Since men now have access to even very young kids on social media and the internet, should we not have more research, even focus areas, that take the fear and panic out and put in the science behind, sex, development, and attraction?
Our overemphasis on the often-conflated term “pedophilia” as a sex offender misses one startling point. Most sex crimes against kids are not done by pedophiles. They are “in-house” or among your best and most trusted peers. Many of these guys do not show more sexual interest in kids 12 and younger. That is because sex crimes are seldom about sexual arousal or we’d say rape is about men being “turned on.” That is a bad misconception. Offending against another involves boundary issues and other mental health problems in combination with arousal.
According to R. Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes in their work Theorizing the Sexual Child in Modernity, this panic, which is based on little more than emotion, has been going on for nearly 200 years. To give weight to this point, why is it that sex crimes are “especially heinous” in our society? Is not an active shooting especially heinous? What about killing a man and dismembering him? What if I have a bad day and attack you with a hammer (no worries, I am not there yet)?
The reason why we say sex crimes are especially heinous is because sex is bad, evil, and should only be dealt with in private. So, when someone gets hurt sexually, is a victim of sexual assault, often the shame they feel compounds the harm. In other words, our society is the offending person’s accomplice, especially for girls. It’s been called rape culture.
So, a girl faces abuse; it ends up online, and she now faces two attackers. The original offender and the media’s perpetuation and “selling” of her abuse story to the public. What happened to her is horrible, but society makes sure to continue to focus on that horror, as it did with JonBenet Ramsey. What girls see is that sex equals trauma, abuse, even death. It is the ultimate scarlet letter, but public media loves these stories. The outrage they create in us is noticeable and profitable, and then lawmakers quickly and often irresponsibly pass hackneyed laws, one size fits all, often zero-tolerance without any scientific data or research data that show such laws would be effective.
Then they look around and say, “my God there is even more child pornography!” Outrage continues, and special interest groups masquerading as “child protection” groups pour in money, and the lawmaker makes more and more laws. The results are and will be catastrophic to public health. Most of these crimes involve mental health, disparities, inequality, power-play, desperation, and yes, occasional malevolency. Monsters are nowhere to be found, just your neighbors or your dad.
Like Global Warming, Sex is Science
I say, child pornography (that is what it is) is a men’s issue, just as violence against adult women is a men’s issue. We reframe these as women’s issues, child protection issues, as if men are helpless, uncontrollable monsters. We lock them up, and men are no place to be found. Gender studies is predominantly the study of women and gay men, subjected groups. Yet again, heterosexual men are nowhere to be found. Taking this further, when a girl dresses for the beach, her bikini becomes her problem, her parents’ irresponsibility. She becomes walking “child abuse” or will encourage “pedophiles.”
No place do we see the study of human sexuality and evidence that a kid in a bikini causes sex abuse. It is in our heads, our past traumas and in our own projections and transferences. Our fear of child sexual abuse, as law professor Amy Adler noted way back in 2000, has made us all over-sexualize children. It has made us all eye kids sexually. The more we push this, the more sexualized kids become. It’s part of how moral panic works. Lawmakers are happy to play along.
My goal was to put the science in to these parental and public concerns. Can men that are not usually attracted to little girls be so occasionally much like they may look at someone else occasionally and fantasize? We know that most fantasy does not lead to offending behaviors in people. That is a myth and may seem relevant among a group of sex offenders, but they are not typical of the general population. For example, many heterosexual men look at and fantasize about transgender women pre-op online. These men are not gay. They are heterosexual. Could something similar be happening online with men and legal images of young girls? They look sometimes. From a theoretical or hypothesis perspective, this makes a lot of sense. But we need more science.
The problem is that few universities, where the bulk of research is done, have human sexuality programs and fewer yet would study sex, and even fewer would look at sexual arousal, kids, and men on the internet. In fact, such pursuits will get censured, as I fear mine has. The problem is that if I am correct, this censorship or disinterest shuts down critical research that is looking at the reality, not the myth of the perfect society we wish for. Before we can make things better, we have to see and wrestle with the truth. Science is a safe place to do this, and art, novels, poetry, music, are places to start these observations.
However, as I note in a previous article, states like New Jersey, even Texas (discussed here), are going the other way. Now, if a man downloads a picture of a kid fully clothed, eating ice cream and the court determines that the little girl has a “suggestive look,” that man becomes a sex offender, and the little girl an abuse victim. There is no crime, or, let’s say the crime was in his head. The problem is that arousal is not a crime and often such is involuntary. While creating the Penile Plethysmography way back in the 1950s, a measure that checks a man’s arousal patterns toward people, it was clear that most heterosexual men have sexual arousal toward prepubescent girls. It’s just that they have more toward older girls and women. Here is something we have known since the 50s, yet the NJ court has no idea. They are going to have to lock up most men in New Jersey! If they don’t, Texas certainly will.
Lawmakers ’ known recklessness and moral panic will destroy lives, heighten a child’s own picture to sex abuse. It’s the deliberate manufacturing of a crime that does not exist. The focus is not on child sexual abuse prevention; rather, lawmakers are moving to proliferate and create child sexual abuse, all because they “hate that guy” for downloading a picture. It’s an exercise in vengeance. Such is a perfect example of moral panic.
If we look at judges’ decisions, the closer it gets to an election, the more and more different their decisions become. In short, our legal system is a total mess and carries out a great deal of abuse toward children that it swears to protect and those in public defense. The courts and the introduced legislation like the CREEPER act is now attempting to create “non-existent” victims of child sexual crimes by pushing to make cartoons, stories, and sex dolls illegal. None of this is based on any science whatsoever, and it makes one a sex offender of a non-existent sex offense. All the while, the severely harmful images, and videos continue to climb, and now your kid playing in the yard has to be included. Police are and will be overwhelmed. The worst cases often go unchecked.
The Comprehensive Problem
There could be many reasons I did not get into a program. That is true enough, but my 20 years as an academic and now a social worker in forensic cases has taught me, as many experts on SEXNET have, that we are in a very dangerous period in our history in the United States. Our movement to eliminate or purify our society from any image of any child that is sexualized in any way is the first step toward genocide of a particular group, sex offenders or “pedophiles.” The Nazis, too, wanted to purify their world. Good becomes evil, to put in in lay terms. And if my comparison offends you, consider this. What do all mistreated people have in common? They are human beings. This approach labels human beings as monsters, the next step toward genocide. I choose science and maturity over emotion.
We are heightening emotion over science because outrage sells. You cannot think of anything if a bear is chasing you. So, the goal, if a media company wants to make money, is to keep you all running for your lives. I will address this more in future articles, but here is why we cannot make progress toward protecting children from sex crimes.
Editors Are Gatekeepers
Books like the one I wrote entitled Lolita in the Lion’s Den are generally blacklisted by big media and editors. I am generalizing here, but this is true across big media like the Washington Post and New York Times, even USA Today. The job of an editor is to omit, and omit they do. This article is way too long, so editors everywhere would omit this down to 800 words. You cannot learn much in 800 words. In fairness, editors may not want a person like me who has been accused of not being a real social worker, even a sexual predator that turns out to be totally false, but they are more than willing to stoke the panic fires of general stupidity. Often, these editors misquote the experts, which happened to the Rind study on children and sex abuse in the 90s. It simply concluded with solid research that not all kids get the same level of harm from a sexual abuse experience. That was misconstrued to mean that child sexual abuse is great! Somehow Rind and friends said abuse is okay. Many conservative machines jumped on this idea and moral panic ruled once again.
It is no surprise that Clinton would be in a pizza parlor among a pedophilic child sex ring because such irresponsible behavior from editors causes a lot of harm and potentially played a hand in the creation of QAnon. Who cares if you are making money, right? We all should be hopeful that some kids are more resilient to abuse than others. So, the next step is to figure out what the differences are. That is science, not emotion. Such media horseplay further hurts experts’ ability to do research without the need to address people’s emotional whims.
Any article or book, scientific or literary, that one can spin to make look like the writer is empathetic to an offender is canceled or censored. Because my work deals with a man struggling with his attraction to girls and women, that book cannot be allowed because people will say the book “supports child abuse” which is exactly the opposite of what the book is about. Like most issues, child attraction and sexual abuse are not always one and the same. It’s complex, and journalism, like law, often oversimplifies to the point of serious harm.
In this recent article, the writer follows the typical moral panic with the 2020 film The Trouble with Being Born by Austrian filmmaker Sandra Wollner. The story is about a man that lost his 10-year-old daughter. She is never found. He gets an android of his daughter, and it becomes clear the two are sexually intimate. Of course, this will cause outrage, but such outrage shuts down critically important discussion about reality, not a reality we force society to create: Is sex with a child robot the same as with a child? How did the father get to this point? The writer simply flames the fires, but such a film can be critically important because it’s a film. Child and adult sex is happening, so the film my give us a safer space to address father-daughter incest what went wrong, and even help those with abuse pasts feel better in opening up to discuss and process what happened to them. Censuring art, tough and difficult realities, will not make society safer. It is just another way to run away and keep sex in the closet and child sexual abuse there as well. This is not about our outrage or disgust. It is about facing reality.
We don’t solve problems by hiding them in closets. We just pretend they don’t exist. The writer’s critique made media, but it’s not worth the room it takes up on the page if we are not allowed to have an open and respectful debate, not policing and censorship.
What happens is that we have no safe space to discuss critically important realities: kids and adults still deal with sexuality, whether editors like it or not, whether you all like it or not. Major editors often chose fads or a very narrow list of topics. Nothing else gets through. Editors will not accept sexuality articles unless they are sexual crime articles or if they are watered-down advice columns. That really does not help many people or give them the truth. The problem is that people often do not get the specific information they need to make good choices but also understand the complexity of issues like child sexual abuse. We simply believe that monsters lurk and we must defeat all evil and be happy. The truth is that there are no monsters, and you all have potential evil in you. That does not sell, nor is it encouraged.
Colleges and Universities
Colleges and universities, typically, do not have human sexuality programs in the United States. There are a few, and there are a bunch that gives a comically overgeneralized view of human sexuality, and that is a start. However, can any of you go to the Ivy League or top public or private school and major in human sexuality? Wouldn’t that be fun? And valuable. Consider that people’s fetishes or what some may call paraphilia numbers over 600 and counting. Wouldn’t it be cool to study that? Forget it.
I can assure every college and university, that every darn one of these classes will fill to capacity. They will not get sued. Why? It’s called a waiver. I have taught stuff like this for years. When colleges and universities fail to have such programs, then research interest and dollars are not there. There are no “experts” for our editors and journalists to go to but usually, criminologists, former FBI agents, and these people see the ugliest side of sex crimes. We can go to gender studies, but then we get a feminist view, and that can be good, but feminists don’t focus on a male’s struggle with sexual issues. They focus on women, girls, and subjugation. There is no guarantee that the feminists there will be sex-positive (sex is not the problem; sex abuse is). If anything, sex is seen first through the eyes of sexual trauma.
Colleges and universities fail miserably here, and it is understandable why an editor may hesitate with my work because no person like me exists in academia. I do exist, though, but I have no ability to research or even get into a program to construct the studies. If I do get in, it is likely that the Internal Review Board will shut the study down, citing “ethical concerns.” The abuse will continue unabated online.
Lawmakers and Law Enforcement
In short, I will make bet with lawmakers and law enforcement. They will fail and miserably fail, as they did with the War on Drugs. They cannot lock people up to solve child sexual abuse and exploitation. They cannot work to meet quota, get their overtime, by going after little Joes, sardines in a sea of people looking, and say they are making society safer. These online offenders don’t often have contact sex offenses nor are most at high risk for these. There are exceptions.
We need to focus on production and big distribution (not a dude emailing a dude) of actual child abuse, not a kid eating an ice cream, doing gymnastics, a dance routine, or a kid’s modeling a swimsuit. There is inappropriate and there is illegal. Harm has to be present in the picture or video. Nudity is not necessarily illegal, so covered genitals cannot be illegal unless there is sexual touching in these areas. No, innuendo, “suggestive looks” do not count. Because there is no responsible way to measure that. Who is being suggestive? The kid! Now, we boarder on sexism, calling little girls prostitots and Sesame Street Walkers, terms noted by feminists, that further humiliate and degrade girls. For most, attraction does not equal offending. It never has, and it never will. Only a few extreme cases deal with overwhelming sexual arousal.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, pedophilia is NOT a disorder. Pedophilic Disorder is, but even PD does not equal offending. Images and videos are pictures and images of people. They are not the people. You all can print out my picture and throw darts at it. I don’t care. Have your pleasure. I will not die because you hit me with a dart or suddenly lose my vision. Yes, these can be abusive, but we must distinguish human beings from “artifacts” and pictures and videos of human beings. This line is totally blurred and we say a virtual crime is just like a contact crime. It is not.
Conflating these is leading to a loss in focus over the real horrid abuse cases: Epstein’s alleged crimes with teens on his island and powerful and privileged mobs of influential men that keep getting away with the worst crimes, or the geeky kid that created a child exploitation mecca online. The fact is that most of these possession crimes are done by men in trouble, and we can hold them accountable while giving them treatment and a path forward while keeping them and their families intact.
The General Public
Stop doing your “research” using Wikipedia, a site known to deliberately censure articles, the science behind pedophilia and use outdated information that stigmatizes many that do not offend and endangers parents’ kids by providing a false sense of security. Internet research is potentially dangerous. I will use an example. So, mom has a little girl that is a huge Youtuber influencer. One person asks her how she protects her kid from “pedophiles”? I laugh and throw up at the same time.
She says that she “did research” and found that “pedophiles connect to children through their eyes.” Wow! That is a zinger. I never heard of such a thing. So, there is her kid in a bikini at a pool. For many girls, the less they wear, the more popular they are, but why think about that? Apparently, pedophiles will not be interested because the kid has sunglasses on! I guess it’s all in the eyes, huh? Welcome again to moral panic and its stupidity. Dangerous stupidity. Few are looking at her eyes. Many won’t even notice she had sunglasses on. They will look at her body, just like all the rest of you would. We are terrified of the truth.
No, the answer is not to eliminate all kids from the internet, to criminalize every minor-girl image. Rather, let’s be mature and support more research and knowledge-building about human sexuality and some of its “icky” characteristics. As I often quote from a very established scientist, “Earl, if the sexualization of girls was not normal then there would not be so damn much of it. I say, you dress for success.” This is followed up by a little girl that said to mom, “Mommy, when I grow up, I want to go to Harvard and become a princess.”
The truth is that education matters, but if you are a girl, you got to look good. That is the hard truth we don’t want to face. Let’s use science, not our prejudice, and emotions, transferences and projections, or selfish political aims. Let’s start by seeing sexuality and sex as positive or potentially positive for those that suffered abuse. Let’s stop censoring, locking our kids into virtual safes while locking our fathers and sons in real ones for make-believe or manufactured harm, where we cannot research or address through art and film the persistent and ongoing societal taboo in addressing sex and its tabooer characteristics.
Earl Yarington is a social worker (LMSW) and a professor. He has a Ph.D. in literature and criticism and specializes in paraphilias. He is the Leader of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists Special Interest Group and often writes about human sexuality and politics.