Discussion of Pedophilia Turns Heated

By Marie Tae McDermott (New York Times)
October 13, 2014

In an Op-Ed essay last Monday, Margo Kaplan set out to correct what she said were misconceptions about pedophilia, writing that pedophiles aren’t all child molesters and that an attraction to children is not itself a crime, but rather a mental illness.

The article caused a stir, attracting over 1,200 reader comments. Many of these responses were rejected by our moderation staff, particularly for vicious attacks against both the author and commenters who expressed some measure of sympathy for pedophiles. In our moderation, we tried to create a space where readers would feel safe to freely discuss their views on this contentious subject.

“I anticipated strong responses, so that was no surprise,” said Ms. Kaplan, who teaches law at Rutgers University. “People commonly confuse pedophilia with child sexual abuse. So if you even mention something that sounds empathetic to the mental disorder of pedophilia, people might incorrectly think you are excusing child sexual abuse.”

She also noted the feelings of rage, disgust and discomfort that surround discussions about the disorder. “It combines our discomfort with mental disorders and our disgust with sexual deviance — it really hits the jackpot of social animosity,” she said.

When comments were closed on Tuesday afternoon, 993 of the 1,237 comments submitted were published.

Reader reaction to the Op-Ed essay was mostly negative, but a wide range of views was expressed. Ms. Kaplan said that was also the case in her email inbox, which, unlike the Times moderation platform, does not have a profanity filter.

“But, along with a lot of hostility, I have heard from individuals who were very supportive, one or two of whom had either personally struggled or had family members or close friends who struggled with pedophilic disorder,” she said. “They had lived with this secret and felt they had nowhere to turn for treatment or help.”

Among those applauding Ms. Kaplan’s call for increased civil rights for pedophiles was Resident Alien from D.C., who believes “witch trials” against pedophiles destroy the lives of many people who aren’t criminals. “Paedophiles who restrain themselves, do not commit any illegitimate act and are determined never do anything (beyond smiling or patting a child on the head) are not criminals and are not a threat,” he said.

Whether or not civil rights should be expanded for pedophiles remained a point of contention. “Nonsense,” hey nineteen in Chicago wrote. “An adult who feels sexual attraction to prepubescent children is indistinguishable from an adult who does not feel this attraction, right up until s/he acts on her/his sexual attraction.”

In the article, Ms. Kaplan argued that pedophiles shouldn’t lose a job, or be denied a job if they are seeking treatment. However, Josh Hill argued, “Once you give pedophiles legal protection as handicapped individuals, it will become too difficult to keep them from jobs in which they might come into contact with children.”

A reader called Dalgliesh echoed a common theme in the comments, writing: “When a pedophile’s treatment inevitably fails, how do you treat the victim? Somehow, I seem to care a lot more about the children than their adult predators. But, hey, maybe that’s just me.”

For others, the article stirred painful memories. Jay in New York City said he was sexually abused for 14 years starting at age 3. At 59, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder along with chronic illnesses he associates with his abuse. “If anyone should be angry and judgmental toward pedophiles it is someone like myself,” he said. “Pedophilia destroys the life of the pedophile, as well as their victims. Let’s get these people treatment, and try to spare BOTH.”

Even so, the notion that pedophiles suffer from a mental illness felt to many like an excuse for their behavior. “Is it possible society has tipped too far in our acceptance of mental illness?” asked eswope, a psychologist in Hawaii.

In the end, many readers were doubtful that treating pedophiles as mentally ill would prevent any crime. “Nobody is going to seek help for pedophilia until they get caught. And getting caught involves committing a crime. And committing a crime against a child who will never be ‘right’ again,” wrote Dorothy in Massachusetts.