Pedophilia is generally defined as sexual desire for the prepubescent, a sexual desire for those who, aside from being seen as unable to give meaningful consent or to be fully sexually responsive, are seen as objects who lack many of the qualities of the semiotic of the body that suggest erotic significance. This lack, or deficiency, appears to challenge our capacity to comprehend this desire empathically. However, the idea of children as sexual objects is not so remote that it cannot be viewed as potentially attracting a growing number of devotees. While the incidence of this kind of behavior is almost impossible to establish with any accuracy, it is becoming a more visible part of current social discourse than in any other period in history. Pedophiles are no longer exclusively an obscure type emerging out of unusual circumstances, known only in terms of their hypersexuality; in many instances they are our parents. The belated recall of histories of victimization, which now frequently occurs and with a widespread endorsement by parts of the psychotherapeutic community, gives substance to the image of the dysfunctional family as highly prevalent, if not nearly normal. Concerns for potential “victims” and commitments to various forms of prevention, such as legislation against child pornography and its stringent enforcement, suggest a widespread and growing anxiety approaching a moral panic.
The issue of child sexual abuse, both within and outside the family setting, has become one of the dominant themes in current public sexual talk. Independent of the actual frequency of such events, the sheer amount of such talk brings the behavior closer to the horizon of plausibility. Even those accepting the view that the sexual is a powerful, innate drive tainted with dangerous appetites and propensities to aggression must address the question of how and for whom is the body of the child or pre-adolescent eroticized.
The capacity for sexual interest in the very young is not unknown across either the cross-cultural or historical literatures (DeMause 1974, 1991). What is relatively unique to the current situation is the combined effect of the intensity of moral disapproval attached to the behavior and the implausibility of the desire. It is this that raises the question of motivation. Here the clinical literature, which typically seeks out the conspicuous dif ferences between pedophiles and nonpedophiles, tends to point in two directions, only one of which speaks directly to a specifically sexual outcome. The first addresses the character “disorders” that distinguish the pedophile, such as ego defects or separation trauma. The second “explains” pedophilic behavior as the product of having been the object of sexual uses by others during childhood (Finkelhor 1984). This latter “explanation” tends, of course, to reinforce the image of a potentially sexual responsive child or one whose childhood experiences may have direct sexual consequences (DeMause 1991). The critical question is: what establishes this potentiating capacity? And the answer, at least in part, must be that it depends not upon the nature of the event itself but upon the kinds of desire that become prevalent, the representations of desire to which we are trained, and the kinds of individuals who must manage them.
The plausibility of pedophilic behavior has markedly increased in recent years. Increased plausibility, by itself, need not imply an increasing incidence of pedophilic behavior or that such behavior would be increasingly seen as being acceptable. As with all forms of behavior whose very implausibility becomes suddenly more plausible, it is necessary to scrutinize those behaviors, not only for changes in the characteristics and motives of its participants but for insights into the practices, sexual and nonsexual, such behavior appears to ignore, if not violate.
Norbert Elias (1978) provided a potent insight when commenting on the relatively recent emergence of a protected status for children, when it became important that children be sheltered from exposure to the appearances of adult sexual activity. He noted that previously there was little concern for what children were present to observe because the adults did not have to worry about maintaining psychological distance from their children as there was a sufficiency of social distance already in place. The civilizing (modernizing) process, which
required that we learn to see the adult in the child as well as the legacies of childhood in the adult, has significantly eroded that social distance.
Much of the indignant astonishment that accompanied the introduction of Freud’s image of the psychosexual life of the inf fant and child was clearly defensive. Yet, more surprising than the initial hostility was how quickly much of it evaporated. All things considered, how quickly the Western mind accepted the idea that the child could be both the object and subject of love and perhaps of lust as well. In the increasingly psychologically dense environment of the modern Western family, children were treated with an almost constant, but rarely fully conscious, anticipation of the adult person they were expected to be. The child could be seen in both experience and memory as accessing almost the entire range of human emotions. Erotic interest by the child, as well as the projection of erotic interest from the child, could be as ordinary as fear, anger, resentment, or envy, as well as loyalty, dedication, or love of the purest kind. The potential for pedophilic incest within familial settings that viewed children as property may have been far less than in those settings where the bonds of the family rest upon emotional attachment.
It is likely that pedophilia will remain a significant aspect of sexual deviance, maintaining its character as a major form of perversion for the immediate future. However, its plausibility is strengthened by the plausibility of other evolving practices. Just as the seeming universalism of gender, with its ability to naturalize a wide range of social practices and yet encompass and bracket great social differences, has been subjected to radical deconstructions, aspects of age appear vulnerable to similar deconstructive criticisms. The resulting uncertainty is reflected in the increasing ambiguity surrounding what is considered age – appropriate sexual costuming, postures, and behaviors.
As age loses a substantial portion of its seeming objectivity, its ability to organize independently the narrative of the self is correspondingly diminished. The uses of childhood in the narration of the self are exemplified in the ability of the psychoanalytic tradition to conceptualize most human experience as being framed by the repetitions of the experiences and meanings of childhood. As the traditional “family romance” turns into the horror story of the dysfunctional family, the sexual potential of childhood present and childhood past becomes something of an atmospheric presence: Saturn pursues Oedipus.
Of great general significance, the enlarged and empowered domain of psychic reality makes behavior the servant of sexuality, as it makes sexuality the servant of the narrative of the self. The narration of the self becomes less a continuous chronicle than a series of vivid episodes, episodes that often occur within settings that were rarely predicted. Moreover, the experience of sexuality in service to self-solidarity increasingly rivals the experience of sexuality in the service of social solidarity. Thus, the acting subject can become the object of its own desires by appropriating the experience of the other. For some, being in a quasiparental role is the only acceptable route to the reconstruction of the fantasied desires of the child, an imagery we have been trained to enrich with meanings that derive from different ages beyond childhood. The degree to which pedophilic imageries begin to describe the construction of the sexual for significant numbers of persons suggests why the current intensity of responses to the issue of pedophilia is required as much as an act of self-protection as by a desire to protect the child.