I. I was talking to a friend about Stand by Me the other day, and she happened to mention (it made sense in context) that we don’t have more child molesters than we did in the past, we just catch them more often now and don’t cover it up as much any more. This statement got me thinking: I am initially inclined to agree with her, because I know that while the easiest way to change crime statistics is to redefine crimes, the second easiest way is to change reporting methods, so I would tend to assume reporting lies at the bottom of any change. There are a couple of things that make me wonder, though.
II. The 1888 anti-Catholic hate book Why Priests Should Wed paints a portrait of priests as sexual predators…against adult women. It’s got nun-brothels straight out of gothic romance, and priests using the information they get in the confessional to blackmail or wheedle sex from their parishioners. But nowhere, in a book so filled with scandalous secrets and revelations that it has to censor out large blocks of text with black bars or weird symbols (as depicted in these chaste excerpts), is there the suggestion that priests are after children.
(The “censored” blocks appear to be in every edition, and are certainly not an artifact of the digital book; they’re all over the hard copy, too.)
Why Priests Should Wed is hardly a book to be trusted, but it is a book that accuses the Catholic Church of rape, murder, torture, etc., so it’s strange that it should leave out crimes against children. (Actually, the Church is accused of murdering (p162) and brainwashing (p286 et passim) children, but you get what I mean. The shaft is broken, but the point remains.)
III. In Billy Wilder’s 1942 comedy film The Major and the Minor, Ginger Rogers plays a woman who disguises herself as a twelve-year old in order to get cheap train fare. Ray Milland, believing her to be a frightened child, takes her under his wing and puts her to bed in his sleeping car. When Milland’s suspicious fiancee (Rita Johnson) learns there’s a woman in Milland’s bed, she is furious. At that point this surreal dialog takes place (I’m paraphrasing).
She: You scumbag! You philanderer!
He: You don’t understand! She’s twelve years old!
She: Oh! My apologies for the unfounded suspicions.
That dialog might make sense nowadays if Milland had said “she’s my sister,” but it’s absurd as it stands. Of all the erotic possibilities romantic comedies and Billy Wilder films can offer, it completely ignored this most taboo one.
The Hayes Code or general decorum may have forbidden it, of course, but the movie still had to screen in theaters full of people who were not hooting in incredulity. Just as there was a time when Laurel and Hardy could sleep in the same bed and no one in the audience assumed they were gay, there was a time when a prepubescent Ginger Rogers could be in your bed and no one assumed you were a child molester.
IV. It’s very difficult to find out how common something no one will talk about is, and certainly people used to talk less, or not at all, about child molesters. It would be a mistake to assume that because it was not mentioned it didn’t happen; but it would also be a mistake to assume that because it happens now it must always have happened. I guess I, too, assume that it always happened, but I’m not sure the ratios have stayed constant.
(Obviously the idea of what counts as a child is culture-specific, as is the idea of what counts as forbidden; pederasty was socially acceptable in ancient Greece and twelve-year olds like Ginger Rogers used to marry (although perhaps further in the past than you might think).)
A year or so ago I saw a bus go by (I wish I had a picture of this) with an ad on the side, in big letters; “Sex with children is wrong,” it said. Most PSAs about child sexual abuse encourage recognition and reporting, but this one seemed targeted directly at potential child molesters themselves; and it made me worried. A linguist once told me that any time a rule starts getting floated by prescriptive grammarians, that is a rule that we are going to abandon: before people started confusing like and as, no grammarian harped upon it; it’s only recently that a grammar book would need to tell you to sometimes say “me.” These are battles prescriptivists are losing! If you’re not losing you don’t need to make a big sign.
One thing I have come to believe very strongly, and I know I’ve said this before, is that the only thing we learn is what’s normal. There were sporadic school shootings before Columbine, but the media focus on this one event taught people that shooting up schools was the done thing (before that it had been post offices), and our bizarre reactions to subsequent atrocities has only reinforced the idea, in a tragic spiral of normalizing what we’d all like to prevent. This is a hard theory to prove, of course, but it’s hardly a new way of looking at the world. Just ask Paul.
According to Colin Wilson, cult leaders before the mid nineteenth century didn’t sexually exploit their parishioners; after that they always did. Joseph Smith is the watershed moment here—and I understand that Mormons have a different view of this, but the point is that the American press of the time framed Mormonism as a cult and framed its practices as sexual exploitation. They made the practice normal. David Koresh, looking around for examples to emulate, was hardly going to take a wife and live chastely like Sabbatai Zevi.
V. No one makes a bus ad that reads “Don’t have sex with your siblings”; no one raises an eyebrow if close family members sleep over unsupervised. The incest taboo is still strong enough for us not to constantly worry about its being violated. There are many taboos of similar strength: you’ve probably never double checked at a barbecue that you weren’t being served human flesh. And yet a hypothetical Ray Milland of seventy years later is straight up going to jail. I’m not sure that kind of cultural shift means nothing.
I’d prefer not to normalize pedophilia; after all, no one likes child molesters; but I sometimes fear this is precisely what we’re doing. The abyss gazes also etc.