something have to be sick to be wrong? That’s what I keep asking
myself as I read article after article about pedophilia and seeing it
portrayed as the scariest epidemic of our time.
Recently, when a news release from the American Psychiatric Association
announced “there are no plans or processes set up that would lead
to the removal of the paraphilias (the lovely term given to sexual deviations
or perversions) from their consideration as legitimate mental disorder,”
an editorial appeared in the Washington Times applauding the association
for “getting it right” because “the safety of our
children” depends upon keeping pedophilia on the list of mental
The decision followed a debate about removing it from the Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual (DSM), psychiatry’s catalogue of mental
disorders, after psychiatrist Charles Moses and Peggy Kleinplatz had
argued that “any sexual interest can be healthy and life-enhancing.”
Since when does a debate end an illness? If it is really an illness,
how can it be voted out of existence?
The answer is that every mental illness, at least those in the DSM,
is voted into existence—sort of a reverse popularity competition.
Homosexuality, as we all know, was considered a mental illness until
it got enough votes to get thrown out.
Therein lies a clue to why there is so much hype about pedophilia remaining
one of the mental illnesses. The fear is that if it gets kicked out
of the DSM, it might eventually end up being considered normal. “It’s
just a matter of time,” say those who believe in the notorious
So I return to my quandary. If something has to be sick to be wrong,
does this really mean that if it is no longer an illness, it’s
OK? That’s what the syllogists seem to think; that’s what
the furore is about.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that sex with children
is OK or understandable or normal. What I am saying is that even if,
metaphorically speaking, thoughts of the act make me sick, that doesn’t
make the act a symptom of illness.
But that’s what the society we live in wants to believe. People
seem to need psychiatrists to call it an illness, thereby making it
all seem understandable and, if not curable, at least manageable. As
the Washington Times editorial says, “whatever the root cause,
it is safe to say that someone who desires to have sex with a minor
is not in his right mind.”
Psychiatry, it seems, is just saying what people want to hear. The American
Psychiatric Association statement goes on to declare, “An adult
who engages in sexual activity with a child is performing a criminal
and immoral act and this is never considered normal or socially acceptable
behaviour.” No one points out how this statement says nothing
medical—that it talks not about illness or disease, but about
morality, criminality and normality.
bothers me. When we have our psychiatrists determining moral issues
by ballots as they vote whether or not pedophilia is a “healthy
sexual instinct,” we’re allowing them to medicalize immorality.
We see this all the time in reports of court cases. At the recent parole
hearing for pedophile Robert Noyes, a treating psychiatrist told the
board that Mr. Noyes’s pedophilia “was in remission,”
implying that he suffered from one of those chronic illnesses, such
as cancer, that one never gets over. Our courts and parole boards accept
this notion, ordering perpetual treatment for the sickness. Mr. Noyes
had been in prison for 17 years getting sex-offender treatment and what
they say he needs, of course, is more—to prevent “a relapse.”
Why do we choose to think this way, to believe that pedophilia is an
illness even when doctors admit that they neither know the cause, the
treatment nor the prognosis—the usual characteristics of any medical
Is it that we have come to rely too much on psychiatrists to explain
criminal behaviour and to influence our judiciary? We have let them
turn countless forms of abnormality into illness, virtually every crime
into pathology and punishment into therapy.
Or is it that, in a twist of irony, by turning pedophilia into a sickness,
we have found a way of showing faint mercy for these who are today the
most hated of offenders. So that, like lepers of old, we may cast them
outside the wall or, in modern terms, incarcerate or monitor them forever,
while feigning compassion by offering treatment, too. Or is it that
we have lost touch with the fundamental notions of what’s right
and what’s wrong? If we stopped arguing about whether or not people
who want sex with children are sick with some mental disorder called
“pedophilia,” we could focus instead on making clear distinctions
about what, in our society, we think people should and should not be
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