No one likes child molesters, am I right?
The meme above, with the oddly formal British spelling, equates pedophiles with murderers, which I know isn’t right, but feels right to me, because on a visceral level I can’t stand child molesters either.
If we take “violence” at its narrowest and most literal meaning, child molesting is the most hated non-violent crime. Look, I know it’s a form of violence! But you can molest a child without leaving a mark, you can molest a child with the false consent that a juvenile cannot legally give, and that’s unique among the big league crimes. Murder and rape are violent in a different way. And yet Jared’s much-anticipated prison rape, as all the jokes assure us, acknowledgess violence as suitable justice for his crimes.
This unique status is strange to me, because if I do my best to cast my enculturation aside (good luck!), I can see that this is one of our culture’s more arbitrary values. Maybe they’re all arbitrary values, but the age of consent is something that is well known to vary across cultures, as it does across states. Everyone jumbles up statutory rape and child molesting, and I’m not a lawyer (nor are these necessarily legal terms), but even the distinction between statutory rape and child molesting varies from state to state. I don’t want to get caught up in legal issues; our ideas are not ideas about laws, and our idea of a child molester, the Platonic ideal of a child molester, is not someone confused by a seventeen-year old in Arizona, but a predator of the very young.
And yet people we kind of understand, such as Plato or Edgar Allan Poe, had a very different idea about sex with children than we do.
There are several reasons for the special status of child molesting in our pantheon of sins. Sex crimes are treated differently than other crimes in several ways (there’s no national murderer registry, for example), and crimes against children are treated differently, too (they were treated differently by Hammurabi, as well, but in a different way; see #230). But I think there’s something else at stake here that explains why we single out this one crime for especial opprobrium.
Fortunately, since we are simple creatures with like two or three motivations, it’s easy to figure out what this “something else” is. We do it because it’s safe.
I have no intention of murdering anyone soon, and my goal is to go through my entire life with zero murders under my belt; but of course tomorrow is full of many strange occurrences, and we all do stupid things sometime. Many a murderer would have sworn that there was no murder in her future, just as many a rapist still insists, in denial, that he is not a rapist. Nietzsche writes: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.” But in the back of our minds is the certain knowledge of our potential for evil, which is greater than pride. Any one of us could be a murderer, and shame and suffering we require for murderers may fall upon us, Adonibezek-style.
But there’s really no set of circumstances where you could be tempted by JonBenet Ramsey. Actually, I don’t know anything about you, but the point is that if you could be tempted you already know that about yourself. Otherwise, you have already written off this possibility with some degree of certainty because unlike the desire to hurt other people, the desire to sexually exploit a juvenile is not universal. We’re all potential murderers (murderers awaiting permission is my usual term for us), but we’re not all potential child molesters.
We all know that the desire to hurt others while being self-righteous about it is a much more beguiling temptation than just hurting others, so the desire to punish crimes is an excellent opportunity for all of us. But there’s always a risk of boomeranging punishments that we are not yet too short-sighted to perceive on some level. So we target the least likely crime, the one we would never commit—or rather the crime most of us would never commit. The ones who would, they need to pretend they agree, or we’d be on to them.
This theory possesses one virtue at least: it is consistent with our general free-floating desire to persecute and express contempt for those who could never be us: foreigners, other races, etc. It is not to be confused with out other free-floating desire, to persecute and express contempt for those we fear we may secretly be.
ETA this extra meme: