If I snuck up on Gawker editor Cord Jefferson and struck him on the head with a chessboard, no serious person would say that we "played chess." If I jumped out of a dark alley and threw hand-carved rooks and bishops at him, nobody would say that I had "started a game of chess" with him.
Yet in his controversial article "Born This Way: Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want To Have Sex With Children," Cord Jefferson uses equally inappropriate terms to describe equally one-sided sexual aggression against children. Note the language in his opening paragraph, in which he tells the tale of a man named Terry who abused a child in his care. The emphasis is mine:
It's not easy to listen to Terry talk about the time he had sex with a seven-year-old girl. But after his psychotherapist put us in touch, he agreed to lay it all out for me during a phone call and email, and I was enthralled the way one might stare at a man falling from a bridge. Terry is 38, a small-business owner, and deeply religious—he ends all our correspondence by saying, "Blessings to you, Cord"—but back then when it happened Terry was 20 and a meth head. He was living with his then-wife, his marriage to whom had made him the co-guardian of her two nieces and a nephew. The one niece was a baby, but the other was seven, and it wasn't long before Terry, addicted and in a marriage he calls "abusive," fell for his niece and began a sexual relationship with her.
Consenting people — people capable of consent — "have sex." A thirty-eight-year-old man does not "have sex" with a seven-year-old girl; he rapes or molests her. To say that they "had sex" or "began a sexual relationship" is to adopt the minimizing, distorting language child abusers and their apologists, who are notorious for justifying abuse by attributing consent and co-equal participation to children.
I don't expect Gawker writers to avoid creepiness. Gawker and its ilk are proof positive that assuming a "progressive" sensibility is no defense against lapsing into leering misogyny or frankly disordered attitudes towards children. But in this article Gawker editor Cord Jefferson has crossed an event horizon of the belabored snark of literary poseurs and plunged into the genuinely scary black hole of people you would not allow in the same room as your kids. He has done so throughout the article — and not just in his opening, in which he applied the language of consensual relationships to the abuse of a seven-year-old, or in his follow up on (of course) Tumblr, in which he completely misses the point by arguing that it should have been obvious that by "had sex" he meant "raped." (Oddly enough, when Jefferson discusses prison rape later in the article; he calls it rape; he doesn't call it "sex" and leave the reader to infer the rape from the prison circumstances.) No, Jefferson also makes my skin crawl when he doggedly mixes and muddles people who are sexually attracted to children with people who sexually abuse children.
Jefferson creeps me out — and outrages many readers — by carelessly using the term pedophile sometimes to mean "someone who is sexually attracted to children but doesn't act on that attraction," and sometimes to mean "people who have been convicted of sexual assault of children," implying an equivalence between the two. Take the next section of his article:
When Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested last year and charged with 52 counts of molesting young boys, America's universal hatred for pedophiles was once again put on prominent display. A society is defined by what it despises as much as what it loves, and though the United States has a history of a great many scorned communities, none is as broadly reviled as men who have sex with children. When Sandusky was finally convicted earlier this year, Twitter exploded with people wishing for him to be raped or killed while incarcerated, both of which are good possibilities in our country's prison system. Outside of jail, it's not uncommon for average citizens to harass and assault pedophiles, crimes which courts have been known to ignore.
Then there's the problem of finding homes for pedophiles who are arrested and eventually put back into communities. In Florida, where Miami-Dade County has grown increasingly restrictive about where people who commit sexual crimes can live, the department of corrections once housed a small group of pedophiles under a bridge, like real-life trolls. Elsewhere in America, with neighborhoods both informed and alarmed by a growing number of sex-offender tracking sites, it's now become easier than ever to harass and intimidate a pedophile in your neighborhood until he moves away. But to where? Nobody seems to care as long as it's not near them.
Here Jefferson is using "pedophile" to mean "someone who has actually sexually assaulted a child," usually someone who has been convicted of it. But later, in discussing the science of pedophilia, Jefferson uses the term to refer to people who are attracted to children but haven't acted on it. Sometimes he uses it both ways in the same paragraph:
But there is a growing number of researchers, many of them out of Canada, whose work suggests that pedophilia is an illness deserving of the public's sympathy the way any brain disorder is. Some of the scientists say pedophilia is a sexual orientation, meaning that it's unchangeable, regardless of how much jail time or beatings or therapy someone is dealt. Others have reason to believe that pedophiles are born that way, and that some of them will suffer through entire lives without hurting a single child. If this research proves to be correct, it should help shape both our public policy and our public attitude, so that we're protecting kids while also protecting pedophiles from angry mobs, cellmates, and themselves.
Jefferson is conflating people who are something (specifically, people attracted to children, allegedly by illness or orientation) with people who have done something (specifically, people who have done something to go to jail under circumstances that let their cellmates know that they are pedophiles). This is either a window into a terrifying part of Cord Jefferson's psyche, or an example of unusually incompetent writing. Whether Jefferson is disordered or a bad writer, he bears a measure of responsibility for the outrage that his article has generated, because he has written it in a way suggesting that inclination and action are comparable when it comes to attraction to children. The difference between attraction to children and sexual assault of children is as meaningful and stark as the difference between being attracted to women and raping women, but that's a distinction that seems to elude Jefferson, or at least elude his ability to articulate:
The old adage is that the true mark of a society is how it treats the weakest in its ranks. Blacks, women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and others are still in no way on wholly equal footing in America. But they're also not nearly as lowly and cursed as men attracted to children. One imagines that if Jesus ever came to Earth, he'd embrace the poor, the blind, the lepers, and, yes, the pedophiles. As a self-professed "progressive," when I think of the world I'd like to live in, I like to imagine that one day I'd be OK with a man like Terry moving next door to me and my children. I like to think that I could welcome him in for dinner, break bread with him, and offer him the same blessings he's offered me time and again. And what hurts to admit, even knowing all I know now, is that I'm not positive I could do that.
With the tag-line about Terry, Jefferson has made someone who actually abused a child equivalent to people who are attracted to children, and to minorities, gays, and lesbians. There's enough people comparing homosexuality to child molestation without Jefferson encouraging them in it.
But if Cord Jefferson's article is disturbing, so is the reaction to it — a reaction that reveals not just how we feel about child molesters in this society, but how we view people accused of crimes in general.
Matt Vespa at Hot Air has a fairly typical response: "Does this [referring to research into sexual attraction to children] sound like the kind of research you want funded by your taxpayer dollars?" Or consider the Examiner:
What many might agree with Jefferson on is the fact that treatment for pedophiles doesn’t work. Ask any parent of a child who has been raped and murdered by a pedophile, sexual offender and they will gladly share their suggested treatment methods. Creating a society that tolerates child rape on the premise that pedophiles are brain-damaged, left-handed, low IQ rapists therefore they get sympathy isn’t going to be one of them.
Or consider Newsbusters:
No matter how preposterous this Gawker editor's views, we learned in the very next sentence how someone could actually think this way.
"As a self-professed 'progressive.'"
That's all you needed to know, isn't it?
Or read Robert Stacy McCain, who attempts to draw a direct line between, on the one hand, limiting the government's right to jail consenting adults for what they do in the bedroom, and on the other, Cord Jefferson's blurring of the line between attraction and action:
Perhaps, as with homosexuality, our academic, legal, scientific and cultural elites can successfully destigmatize pedophilia, upending society’s moral consensus in such a way that our dread of child molesters is replaced by a horror at the benighted bigotry of those who fail to understand the science that proclaims that they’re “born that way,” and that this endows pedophiles with rights which no well-meaning person can oppose or criticize.
And then, God help us, there are the Twitter hashtag games.
Cord Jefferson's article is disturbing. But so is the reaction, in different ways, for different reasons.
First: I don't know whether sexual attraction to children is driven by biology. I don't know if it's a result of pre-natal defects or genetic drift or brain abnormalities. But it strikes me that those questions should be answered by applying the scientific method and testing the results through rigorous peer review. The question should not be answered by our visceral reaction or political opportunism. The human psyche is chock-full of some pretty hair-raising stuff, and we shouldn't turn away from exploring it because it revolts us.
Second: exploring the biological roots of thought or of resulting behavior is not the same as enacting a legal excuse for behavior. Whether some people are attracted to kids because of biology is a scientific question; whether biological roots of behavior should result in a legal defense is a legal, political, and public policy question. There is no danger that Americans are going to enact a justification or excuse for child molestation. There is no danger that juries will begin to acquit child molesters on the grounds that the molester's attraction was biologically determined. Empty and insipid "black robed tyrant" rhetoric aside, there's no danger that judges are going to starting setting child molesters loose wholesale because their attraction (as opposed to their action) was "not their fault." Scientific inquiry into the biological roots of violence or criminality has been common for a half-century, but there's no surge of murderers and rapists running free because of it; jurors usually reject biological determinism and judges are skeptical of its admissibility. The specter of the killer turned lose because of biology is more common in Dick Wolf plots than in real life. Violent people are getting out of prison, and they're getting out early, but it's not because of science, it's because our appetite for jailing as many people as possible for as many things as possible vastly exceeds our appetite for paying for it. "This inquiry is wrong because it will lead to a defense I don't like" is a bad argument.
Third, Jefferson is not the only one who conflates thought and action; some of his critics do as well. Just as Jefferson distributes sympathy uncritically among people who feel and people who do, some critics distribute anger and hatred just as carelessly. But the difference between thought and action is critical to how we interact as humans and to how we order the relationship between the individual and the state. Conservatives — who make up the noisiest of Jefferson's critics — grasp this under other circumstances; it's the basis for their opposition to hate crimes laws, which they condemn as punishing thought rather than action. There is, to be blunt, nothing wrong with the proposition that a man is to be pitied if he successfully struggles with a sexual attraction to children. If the mere thought is evil and makes the man unworthy of consideration as a human being, then how can we treat the greedy, the wrathful, the racists among us as fully human? How many of us are admirable if the question is not what we have done, but what we on our worst days would like to do?
Fourth, though it is just to criticize Jefferson's muddling of thought and action, it is unjust to use that criticism as an occasion to ignore genuine and grotesque problems in our criminal justice system. Prison rape exists, it is horrifying, and it does not become less horrifying depending on who suffers it. [Put another way: if you are indifferent to or amused by or secretly enthused by prison rape, kindly shut the fuck up about how burdensome and intrusive government is, would you? You're embarrassing yourself.] Sex offender laws can protect us from genuine dangers, but taken to irrational extremes can also lead to hideously unjust and irrational results, born on the tide of our fear and anger and our cultural intolerance for shades of gray. The fear of sexual assault of children leads as as close as we ever come to the irrational and hysterical days of the Salem witch trials, exceeding even post-9/11 abandonment of reason and credulous embrace of the security state. At its best the reaction to Jefferson can be summarized as "you asshole, being attracted to a child is not the same as raping a child," but at its worst, it can be described as "fuck nuance, it's for the children!"
Fifth, on a related point, the reaction to Jefferson's article involves themes familiar to those of us who follow the American approach to criminal justice: law and order means never having to say you are sorry. Being concerned about treatment of people accused of crimes is the same as excusing and justifying crimes. People who care about convicts don't care about their victims. People accused of crimes wouldn't be accused if they hadn't done it. If someone is part of a criminal class — a thief, or a junkie, or a drug dealer, or a gang member, or a pedophile — who cares if they did it this time, because surely they did something at some point. Whatever "it" is, they deserve it. People push these themes from one side of their mouth, and from the other talk about how government is too big and too powerful and too intrusive and has too much control and can't be trusted — as if there were two governments, an unreliable one for unpopular health care laws and regulations and dumbass limits on Big Gulps, and a second reliable government for shooting, prosecuting, and jailing people. But the two are actually one, made up of fallible humans upon whom we have conferred great power over our lives.
Cord Jefferson's article can be useful as an object lesson in the consequences of muddled expression, or the dangers of unclear thinking. But it can also be useful as an object lesson of how upsetting and emotional topics tickle some part of our lizard brains, parts that make us want to abandon questions, adopt easy answers, and even uncritically trust a state that we know cannot be trusted. There's a balance we should strike, and that balance is neither "child abusers are not responsible for abusing children" nor "anything the government wants to do to child abusers is good enough for me."