Words mean things

I hate to get into this so early in this blog, but it’s gotta be addressed. So a PSA from your friendly neighborhood pedant:

“Pedophile” seems to be the new f-word (the gay one, not the swear one). It’s the word we use to describe men who’s sexuality we find socially unacceptable. I will hear my college students call older guys who hit on them pedophiles, as if it’s the right way to describe a guy kind of older than you who hits on you but isn’t hot. (For some reason, I doubt these young women would be saying “Eww, pedophile!” if it were Ryan Gosling or Alexander Skaarsgard doing the wanting.)

But, that’s not actually what pedophile means. Let’s talk about what it does.

“Pedophile” and “sex offender” are not synonymous. There are pedophiles who are not sex offenders, and there are many sex offenders who are not pedophiles.

Pedophilia isn’t a crime, but a psychological description of a sexual attraction to prepubescent children. There is some level of debate over whether pedophilia is a distinct psychological disorder or simply an atypical attraction, but that’s not really relevant to this. The important thing to remember is that pedophilia is not an action, but an attraction, to prepubescent children, not to anybody who is less than half your age plus seven.

A pedophile who never acts on their attraction/desires is not a criminal.

A pedophile who does act on their attraction is almost certainly committing a crime. But, not all men who commit crimes against or involving prepubescent children are pedophiles. A man who molests a child may be a pedophile acting on his sexual desire, or he may be acting out of hatred or a desire for power or just convenience.

“Pedophile” is not a synonym for “child molester.” A person can be a pedophile and a law-abiding citizens who never touches a child inappropriately, and a person can be a child molester but not have a sexual attraction to prepubescent children.

A person who is attracted to post-pubescent teens under the age of consent is not a pedophile. Pedophilia is defined in terms of puberty, not the age at which a state or country sets the age of consent (which, worldwide, tend to vary from 13-18). Acting on a sexual attraction to a willing post-pubescent teen also doesn’t make a person a pedophile. If that teen is under the age of consent, they are committing a statutory sex crime, but they aren’t a pedophile. An attraction to post-pubescent teens is considered normal sexual desire, and is generally, for heterosexual men, part of a larger, unfixed attraction to all post-pubescent pre-menopausal women (i.e., all women with whom they could conceivably bear a child, which makes evolutionary sense).

As a point of interest, a person who is only attracted to people over 17 is considered an “exclusive gerontophile.” Most adults do not fit into that category, and are instead attracted to the whole range of post-pubescent members of the sex they are attracted to.

Committing a statutory crime (an offense involving a willing post-pubescent teen who is below the age of consent) does not make a person a pedophile, and in fact is good evidence that they aren’t one. And yet, these types of crimes make up a huge and increasing portion of offenses landing men–often men in their late teens or twenties–on sex offender registries.

Our feelings about what relationships between post-pubescent people are appropriate are cultural, not universal. In many societies, and for much of our past, relationships between men in their 20s and even 30s and women in their mid-teens were considered not just normal and acceptable, but even ideal. It would be wrong to say that those societies were full of pedophiles or that they condoned pedophilia.

Instead, they had different standards, and that is okay. If we as a society think that it is not okay for guys in their early twenties to date and have sex with women in their mid-teens, we can decide that. We can encode it into law. But, what we shouldn’t do is treat those who transgress that cultural boundary (rather than the clear biological boundary that sexual activity between an adult and prepubescent child crosses) as deviants or dangers.

An adult providing alcohol to a teen is making a very bad choice, and they shouldn’t do it. They are committing a crime, and there is warranted punishment that goes with that. But, we don’t treat it as an extremely serious felony. If a 22 year old guy gets drunk with his 16 year old sister and her friends, providing them with the alcohol, he can be held criminally liable, but it will be a relatively minor crime. If that same guy, in many states, were to have non-coercive, mutually-wanted sex with one of his sister’s friends, he would be guilty of a serious felony that could warrant jail time and that would land him on a sex offender registry for many years, possibly the rest of his life.

IMO, that difference isn’t warranted. Yes, age of consent laws are useful. Yes, they should be enforced. But we should treat statutory offenses, especially when committed by guys in their late teens or twenties, as relatively minor crimes, the same way we’d treat the same guy providing alcohol to a teen or taking a teen too young to drive out for a driving lesson. There is no basis for the kinds of draconian punishments we dole out for statutory offenses, and a large part of why the public has gone along with them is because we have come to see men who commit such offenses as “pedophiles,” even though it is a wholly inaccurate term. By understanding what pedophilia is and isn’t, hopefully we can also see why treating statutory offenses as no different than violent crimes against prepubescent children is both factually and morally wrong.


One thought on “Words mean things

  1. Nathan Phillips

    Wish I could send you messages!

    I wonder if you had thoughts about similar usage of the terms “psychopath” and “sociopath”

    I’ve seen feminists use them many times, in situations where they didn’t seem accurate to me. The reasoning usually seems to be “if a person does something that I feel bad about, that person is a psychopath”. As though the way I feel about something is supposed to determine how every human I encounter behaves. If a person does not conform their behavior to what I would feel best about, they are a monster and practically not even human as we understand it (a psychopath).


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