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The shifting meaning of child

Posted by Richard on October 16, 2006

Just about everything worth saying regarding former Rep. Mark Foley (and a lot not worth saying) has been said already thousands of times. But, since I’m a bit of a language pedant, allow me a bit of a rant. A Google search for "foley pedophile" (minus the quotes) returns 1,860,000 hits. The first few pages of results suggest that the vast majority of those hits accuse Mark Foley of pedophilia. And that’s simply wrong.

From Psychology Today’s Diagnosis Dictionary (emphasis added):

Pedophilia is considered a paraphilia, an "abnormal or unnatural attraction." Pedophilia is defined as the fantasy or act of sexual activity with prepubescent children. Pedophiles are usually men, and can be attracted to either or both sexes. How well they relate to adults of the opposite sex varies.

From the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders (emphasis added):

Pedophilia is a paraphilia that involves an abnormal interest in children. … Pedophilia is also a psychosexual disorder in which the fantasy or actual act of engaging in sexual activity with prepubertal children is the preferred or exclusive means of achieving sexual excitement and gratification. …

Britannica Online says pedophilia is a (emphasis added):

…psychosexual disorder in which an adult’s arousal and sexual gratification occur primarily through sexual contact with prepubescent children. The typical pedophile is unable to find satisfaction in an adult sexual relationship and may have low self-esteem, seeing sexual activity with a child as less threatening than that with an adult. Most pedophiles are men; the condition is extremely rare in women.

And Wikipedia helpfully describes the origin of the term (emphasis in bullet item added):

The term paedophilia erotica was coined in 1886 by the Vienna psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his writing Psychopathia Sexualis.[3] He gave the following characteristics:

  • the sexual interest is toward children, either prepubescent or at the beginning of puberty
  • the sexual interest is the primary one, that is, exclusively or mainly toward children
  • the sexual interest remains over time

Mark Foley seems to have been attracted to and exchanged sexually explicit instant messages with one or more males who were (depending on whom you believe) either 17 or 18 years old. Now, the parents of a 17-year-old boy undoubtedly consider him their child, and the law may treat him as a child in some ways (or as an adult, if he’s committed a crime). But biologically, boys and girls who are 16 or 17 are fundamentally different from boys and girls who are 7 or 8.

[Note to readers getting angry: I’m not defending Foley’s lecherous and contemptible behavior. I’m just saying it’s not pedophilia.]

Are there gray areas? Of course. Kids mature at different rates. There are some 13-year-old girls who are barely beginning puberty and others who are quite physically mature. But that’s no reason to lump someone attracted to boys or girls in their mid to late teens in with the guy who gets turned on by little kids on the elementary school playground. Because of sloppiness or legal/political considerations, people are using the word pedophile for both those categories, and as a consequence, we’re losing the ability to make an important distinction.

Interestingly, a news story from Sunday suggested that the blurring of that distinction — and the insistence that a 17-year-old is a child — is either recent or selectively applied. Former Rep. Gerry Studds, whose name came up quite a bit during the Foley brouhaha, coincidentally died on Saturday. Here’s how the AP described the scandal involving Studds having sex with a boy of 17:

In 1983, Studds acknowledged his homosexuality after a 27-year-old man disclosed that he and Studds had had a sexual relationship a decade earlier when the man was a congressional page.

At the time, Studds called the relationship with the page, which included a trip to Europe, "a very serious error in judgment." But he did not apologize and defended the relationship as a consensual one with a young adult. The former page later appeared publicly with Studds in support of him.

So in the 80s, actual sex with a 17-year-old was a consensual relationship with a young adult and not a big deal. But today, just talking sex with a 17-year-old is child molestation on such a monstrous and horrific scale that having been even vaguely aware of it without calling the cops is unforgivable.

Maybe it’s the New Puritanism. Can we blame Focus on the Family?
 

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2 Responses to “The shifting meaning of child”

  1. VRB said

    There is another word that defines sex between an adult and an underage teen, but I can’t remember.

    I think the meaning of child has extended because of the need to get more education. When I graduate high school, quite of few graduates got married soon after, got jobs and started a family. Some went into the military. This at seventeen or eighteen. One of our aspirations in high school was to look and act like an adult. Our recent society has perpetuated youth and prolonged adolescence. Maybe because parents are more over protective.

  2. Anonymous said

    Are you thinking of ephebophilia? Wikipedia defines it as being “primarily or exclusively sexually attracted to postpubescent adolescents.”

    You make a good point about the extension of childhood and its relationship to education. Some of that is driven by a legitimate need for more learning. But in my opinion, some of it is just the education establishment’s desire to increase demand for educators. Many kids today start 2 years earlier (pre-school and kindergarten) and finish 2 years later (community college), and they end up no more educated after those 16 years than we used to be after 12 — often, less.

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