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 disorders.
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 slippery slope.
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
That’s what 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 disease?
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 doing.