The Desire that Dare Not Speak Its Name

A couple of years back, I learned that an adult I had grown up around was a pedophile.  He had never, to anyone's knowledge, done anything about it.  Certainly he was never anything but decent to me, and I babysat his kids when I was a pretty young kid myself.  Rather, a technician mucking around on his work computer had discovered a stash of child porn.  He went to jail for a while.  His life was destroyed.

This changed a lot of the way that I think about pedophiles.  I used to use the kind of hyperbole one often hears--that people who look at child porn "should be shot" and so forth.  I don't say those things any more. 

Obviously, I am not going to defend the use of child porn at all; it's despicable, and jail is the appropriate sentence, because the man who purchases child pornography is encouraging its manufacture.  But it made me think of them for the first time with sympathy.  They didn't choose to be like this--God, who would?  Sex is one of the most powerful drives we have, and as Dan Savage's columns testify every week, we have little control whether it focuses on something relatively normal, or something . . . um . . . extremely statistically unlikely. 

What do you do when your sex drive is channeled towards something so utterly morally wrong--something it is socially taboo to even think about, that you can't help thinking about?

That doesn't lessen the horror of child porn, and I think we're right to punish the possession thereof quite heavily.  (And don't get me started on the manufacture: shut the dungeon door and throw away the key).  But the people themselves deserve some shred of our empathy.

Sometimes, a very large shred.  Dan Savage a couple of weeks ago had a letter from a pedophile who has never done anything about it: never used child porn, never touched a child, doesn't even let himself look at children in public places.

In some sense, people like this--the pedophiles who never do anything, and do their damnedest to keep from even thinking about it--are exercising a virtue that borders on the saintly.  They're struggling mightily with a powerful desire that they exert rigid control over.  Society should gather round to help them, tell them what a great job they're doing, give them other ways to channel the energy they aren't pouring into molesting kids, and substitutes for the emotional succor that most of us hope to get from our partners.

Instead, we're so revolted and afraid that we wall them into themselves, and probably make it more likely that they'll do something terrible.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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