Pedophilia, Preemptive Imprisonment, and the Ethics of Predisposition

Pedophilia as a “sexual orientation” has been in the news again recently, and everyone is angry. Kyle Edwards at Practical Ethics examines the implications of contending that some people are born with a predisposition to be sexually attracted to children:

Rush Limbaugh and some members of the religious right have argued that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation will have the same result as the relatively recent recognition of homosexuality as a sexual orientation: it will become more acceptable to act upon those sexual desires. This logic seems obviously confused. The reason we think that homosexual intercourse is morally acceptable (and was before society “recognized” it as so) seems primarily to do with the understanding that it is a consensual act, not because it follows from an innate orientation rather than an acquired desire. Similarly, it would be strange to say that we think having sex with a child is wrong because pedophilia is an acquired rather than an innate attraction; we think it is wrong because children are not capable of consenting to sex due largely to their underdeveloped reasoning and decision-making capacities.

The backlash against the concept of pedophilia as a sexual orientation seems to revolve around two points: firstly, that the term “sexual orientation” associates pedophilia in the minds of the public with homosexuality (the most talked-about “sexual orientation”), thereby threatening to contaminate gay and queer people with the taint of deviancy they have so long striven to shake off; secondly—and, seemingly, more subconsciously—that describing pedophiles as immutably attracted to minors co-opts one of the arguments that people have long employed in seeking public acceptance for homosexuality: that gay people are born that way and cannot choose to be otherwise.

The first of these points is a real concern, but only for PR purposes. As Edwards points out, consent—not “orientation”—is what makes a sexual act acceptable from a legal (and to some people, moral) standpoint. The second point does seem more thorny because the argument from genetics has been such a tentpole of the gay-rights platform, but I think the libertarian argument could serve us well in distinguishing between the morality of public acceptance of homosexuality and that of child molestation. That is, the real reason homosexuality should be permitted by a truly free society is not that gay people were born that way but that all people should be allowed to do whatever they want, provided they are not infringing on the rights of anyone else.

If you noticed that the response to both of these points revolves around consent… well, then.