The Moral Limits of Consent

WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS STRONG SEXUAL CONTENT THAT SOME READERS MAY FIND OFFENSIVE. READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.


Todd Nickerson penned an honest and disturbing piece that appeared in Salon about his tribulations as a pedophile.

“To confess a sexual attraction to children is to lay claim to the most reviled status on the planet, one that effectively ends any chance you have of living a normal life.  Yet, I’m not the monster you think me to be.  I’ve never touched a child sexually in my life and never will, nor do I use child pornography.”

Nickerson explains in great detail his commitment to abstaining from molesting children or watching child pornography despite his strong attraction to prepubescent youths. In fact, he writes about himself in a sympathetic light–even as a victim of an overly judgmental society that would do well to accept his sexual preference as long as he does not act on his impulses.

“I recall an event from when I was 11, sitting in the family jeep with my dad and his friend Andy when a news piece on the radio reported the sexual abuse of a girl, to which my dad said to his friend something like, “They should take people like that and place weights on top of their genitals until they smash.”  Pretty horrific imagery for an 11-year-old to process, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with the abuser…

“I believe all that hatred just serves to reinforce pedophilia in youngsters predisposed to it.  It’s a form of cognitive bias called the Backfire Effect…When challenged on deeply held beliefs, no matter how uncertain or incorrect they may be, we tend to dig in our heels.  With sexuality, that effect is likely magnified because there’s a physiological component, a drive every bit as powerful as belief.”

Indeed, Nickerson intends for readers to reconsider their revulsion to pedophiles and withhold judgment. After all, they are just like him–like you and me: Some people are straight, some are gay. He, and others (a number he believes to be highly understated), desire prepubescent children. Comme ci, comme ca.

This postmodern understanding of sexuality completely undermines the notion of sexual morality altogether. Far too often in American culture, Consent reigns supreme as the progenitor of morality. This logic abides prostitution, pornography, drug use, suicide, abortion, polyamory, incest, and, of course, homosexuality.

However unpopular to admit, Nickerson’s pleas for acceptance vary little from those coming from the homosexual community. Not long ago, homosexuality engendered a similar disgust from the general public. Many states enacted anti-sodomy laws that made homosexuality as much a crime as pedophilia is today. Calling a man a “faggot” invited a fight much like accusing a man of pedophilia would, today, lead to a similar outcome. Clearly, though, there has been a shift in public opinion. Homosexuals enjoy lavish praise from large swaths of our culture for the bravery they show by openly embracing their sexuality. Gay parades draw politicians and companies looking to show their support for a lifestyle that, in its most literal sense, is perverted (from the Latin, describing a deviation from the norm). This shift came about through a top-down attack on our culture’s mores. In the span of a few years, Americans went from supporting the Defense of Marriage Act to legalizing gay marriage. Over the same period of time, the culture was saturated in all things gay, from Philadelphia to Angels in America, from Will and Grace (credited as changing Vice President Joe Biden’s opinion on gay marriage) to Brokeback Mountain, from Boys Don’t Cry to Glee. The defense of alternative sexuality begins with a sympathetic plea, an argument that sexuality is ingrained, cannot (and eventually should not) be controlled. From there, we are asked to be tolerant, then accepting, then endorsing.

Liberals ridiculed Justice Antonin Scalia for presaging, after the Lawrence v. Texas case, that homosexual marriage would follow the Court’s decision. Then, Obergefell proved him correct. After Obergefell, liberals laughed again at the conservative justices’ dissents that saw the Court’s decision opening the door to many alternative lifestyles gaining mainstream acceptance, much in the way homosexuality did. I doubt that anyone believes that homosexual marriage will mark the end of marriage redefinition, or the farthest reach of acceptable sexual orientation.

And today, with gay marriage legalized, with traditional views of homosexuality conflated with racism, we stare down a piece calling for clemency for tortured pedophiles–signed with the author’s real name.

How have we arrived here?

 

The predictable arguments against my reaction to Nickerson’s article will criticize me for equating pedophilia to homosexuality. After all, homosexuals operate within a construct of consent that mirrors that of the heterosexual realm, whereas with pedophiles, “there is no ethical way we can fully actualize our sexual longings,” Nickerson writes, because minors cannot offer consent. Furthermore, arguing that because homosexuality has become normalized in American society, pedophilia will also, does not follow. It is a slippery slope fallacy disguised as valid argumentation.

To these criticisms, I respond that it is exactly the overemphasis on consent that can mitigate pedophilia’s stigma as it has with homosexuality. Homosexuality was never deemed wrong because adult men or adult women could not consent to engaging in homosexual acts. Indeed, homosexuality is wrong because God named it so. It is a sin; like thievery, lying, murder, adultery, covetousness, and idolatry; that Christ suffered and died for. Therefore, sinners like me are called to repent, alongside homosexuals and pedophiles, and be forgiven. Consent has nothing to do with homosexuality’s immorality. Nor does it matter to pedophilia.

Consider, for a moment, that in some states 17 years old is the age of consent. A 46 year old man can bed a 17 year old woman (or man) without fear of legal penalty. Is there any substantive difference between a 17 year old and a 16 year old? 16 and 17 year olds often exist in the same grade level at school. They can even date one another and have sex and have babies. Therefore, what explains the magic number of 17 as the age of consent? Why not 16? For that matter, why not 15? 14 year olds are often sexually mature. Is the discernment of a 14 year old any different than that of a 16 year old? If so, does it vary as greatly as that of a 23 year old and a 44 year old? Surely it does, but not enough to warrant protection for 23 year olds.

Thusly, the consent game can be manipulated to bypass the very notion of sexual morality.

Moreover, American culture insists that one should only struggle toward moral ends if failing to do so infringes upon another’s liberty. In other words, sexual morality is fluid, and sexual expression shall not be socially curtailed unless a participant does not or cannot consent. How can we, therefore, tell homosexuals that their strong sexual preference should not be relegated to an emotion, never to be acted upon; but pedophiles must live repressed? Is not the sexual desire for children as strong as a homosexual’s desire for a same-sex partner? Or a heterosexual’s for an opposite-sex partner? A standard must exist to promote healthy and moral sexuality and staunch immoral and predatory alternatives.

True morality, untainted by the caprice of postmodern influence, names homosexuality an immoral aberration. Therefore,  just as homosexuals were expected to repress their desires, pedophiles should be urged to repress their own. Likewise, married heterosexuals should be urged to repress their own desires for other sexual partners. Without clear guidelines about sexual morality, sexual morality ceases to exist beyond arbitrary definitions of rape.
In closing, I admit that Nickerson is brave. He, also, is tortured and deserving of pity and in need of prayer. I regret that he was molested, that he’s missing a hand. I regret that he struggles to find work, and I am pleased that he foregoes sexual contact with minors. That said, his message is a dangerous one. Decreasing our collective disgust of pedophiles does not show compassion. Normalizing pedophilia will harm our society. Mr. Nickerson should continue to fight his impulses, recognize that we live in a fallen world and that we suffer greatly as a result. He should repent and be forgiven, rather than conflate pedophilia with homosexuality and with heterosexuality. Sexual morality is real, and we fail to uphold it if we restrict its parameters to the limits of consent.