Manufacturing Consent

This is a post about sexual assault and children containing semi-graphic description. Please understand this before you proceed.

Cord Jefferson updates his piece on pedophilia here, with two parts apology and one part 
defense. I would like to first note that I was wrong to claim that Cord was attempting to be edgy. I am not a telepath, and it was wrong for me to speculate upon his motives. I apologize for that.

With that said, I would like to object to his defense:

I knew the story would make some people loathe me, and others loathe me more. I knew other writers would fire off angry screeds about what I wrote. I knew people would unfollow me on Twitter and Tumblr. I knew there was a good chance I would hurt people's feelings. If I'm being honest, I started to let all the fear around the whole thing goad me on -- I wanted to be the kid who went into the haunted house while all my naysaying classmates stood and watched from the sidewalk.

And so I did that, and the blowback was mostly what I expected, but with a twinge of the unexpected, as well. I had anticipated people saying the doctors and I were wrong, and that all pedophiles should "go to the therapy of Smith & Wesson," as one commenter put it. I had anticipated people telling me to kill myself. I had anticipated people writing off the studies I referenced as junk science. I had even anticipated molestation survivors writing me to tell me how insensitive the piece was. What I didn't expect was being branded a "rape apologist."

I'm assuming that last line is in reference to me writing:

A vague rape apologia runs through this piece -- the implication of "men who have sex with children" as an oppressed group, the equation of pedophilia with other sexual orientations, and little to no consideration of victims.

Cord's rebuttal is regrettably familiar. It is of a piece with those who, when told what they are doing (e.g. you have committed a racist act), attempt to defend themselves by claiming you are naming what they are (how dare you call me a racist). It is very easy, in this world, to retreat into a pique of offense-taking -- instead of considering, for instance, that by implying that a seven-year old child consented to have sex with an adult, by portraying a rape solely through the eyes of a rapist, one has committed a rather severe journalistic and ethical lapse.

The specific objection, as much as I can tell, is to the charge that Cord has authored "a vague rape apologia." I don't know what to say. I think when you describe a rapist as "falling for" his victim; when you imply that someone has consented, who not only has not, but actually cannot: in such a case, I am not clear why "vague rape apologia" is, somehow, an unfair characterization. 

The most charitable interpretation of Cord's article would say that he is not seeking to defend the child rapist, but those who, by some cruel trick of neurology, have a particular preference:

Every expert with whom I spoke wanted to get one thing straight: Being a pedophile is different from being a child molester.

Except that, if you read the article, you see a rather constant conflation between men who are pedophiles, struggling against their urges, and men who are actual rapists (though the article declines to characterize them as such).

We have the actual rapist who Cord ledes with:

It's not easy to listen to Terry talk about the time he had sex with a seven-year-old girl. 

Then we have mention of another serial rapist, and a broad, general claim about child rapists, here rendered as "men who have sex with children":

When Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested last year and charged with 52 counts of molesting young boys, America's universal hatred for pedophiles was once again put on prominent display. A society is defined by what it despises as much as what it loves, and though the United States has a history of a great many scorned communities, none is as broadly reviled as men who have sex with children.

And then again:

Then there's the problem of finding homes for pedophiles who are arrested and eventually put back into communities. In Florida, where Miami-Dade County has grown increasingly restrictive about where people who commit sexual crimes can live, the department of corrections once housed a small group of pedophiles under a bridge, like real-life trolls. Elsewhere in America, with neighborhoods both informed and alarmed by a growing number of sex-offender tracking sites, it's now become easier than ever to harass and intimidate a pedophile in your neighborhood until he moves away. But to where? Nobody seems to care as long as it's not near them.

These are are real issues and actual concerns. But the pedophiles Cord is talking about here are people who have actually done something to a child: specifically, obliterated their consent. This is the heart of what is troubling about Cord's piece. It's not simply a matter of a poorly thought out lede. It's the matter of poorly thought out formulation of consent. To wit:

Imagine a world in which admitting your attraction to busty women or tall men led to alienation, jail time, or your murder. 

The analogy given here only works if it hasn't occurred to you that a seven-year-old child, by its very nature, cannot consent to sex. If that has occurred to you, then the correct formulation isn't a world where you were attracted "to busty women," but a world where you were attracted to busty women who -- much like children -- do not consent. In other words, a world in which your sexual orientation was towards rape. Cord tries to draw an analogy to heterosexuals and homosexuals, but the correct analogy is toward rape, because pedophilia, by its very definition, involves an attraction to someone who cannot consent.

But instead of going in that troubling direction, we get this:

Older gay men can probably remember such an era, but nowadays most sexual appetites have been mainstreamed to the point of banality. Pedophiles, for obvious reasons, don't enjoy the same kind of tolerance, and thus it seems as if they may be locked forever in a sexual prison from the moment they're born.

This makes me sad. Mostly because it's wrong. As of 2012, the majority of states in this country have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. One of our two major political parties supports a federal constitutional ban. It hasn't been a decade since Bill Clinton reportedly urged John Kerry to do the same thing. Claiming that homosexuality has been mainstreamed "to the point of banality" is amazing. And it makes me more sad because of its equation (one made throughout the article) of the rights of two consenting adults with the rights of one adult who desires to violate a child. You can only make this equation if you remove the notion of consent.

What was lost in my initial response is how much this formulation reduces the struggle for gay rights:

....if pedophilia is a sexual orientation, that also means it's futile to send pedophiles to prison in an effort to alter their attractions. Doing so is akin to sending a homosexual child off to a religious-based institution that claims it can "pray the gay away."

But, in the second case, the issue is not simply that there is no treatment for homosexuality -- it is that there should be no treatment for homosexuality. My support of gay rights is not rooted in whether it's choice, but in the belief that homosexuality is not just equal to heterosexuality but that it is just as right. I can not same the same of pedophilia. And I think I can speak for Cord and say he can't either. 

I was reading an article this weekend about Bishop Robert Finn, the first Catholic bishop in the country convicted of shielding a clergymen from charges that he sexually assaulted children: 

During this period, two women on staff in diocesan headquarters were urging their superiors to turn Father Ratigan in. Rebecca Summers, then the director of communications, told Monsignor Murphy to call the police, according to the testimony. And Julie Creech, the technology employee, said in a deposition in a related civil suit that she went to see Bishop Finn in his office to make sure he understood what she had seen on the laptop. 

"I really got the feeling that maybe he didn't understand," Ms. Creech said in the deposition. "I don't think he saw what I saw." The bishop assigned Father Ratigan to serve as a chaplain to the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Eucharist, in Independence, Mo. He placed seven restrictions on the priest, including not using computers and avoiding all contact with children. But the bishop allowed him, on a "trial" basis, to celebrate Mass for youth groups at the prayer center that the sisters ran. 

Over the next five months, Father Ratigan, who is now 46, attended a sixth-grader's birthday party, co-celebrated a child's confirmation, communicated with children on his Facebook page, hosted an Easter egg hunt and attended a parade, the testimony recounts. Invited to dinner at the home of parishioners, he was caught taking photographs, under the table, up their daughter's skirt, according to a federal indictment of Father Ratigan. 

Neither the bishop nor any church official told church members or Father Ratigan's large extended family -- which includes many children -- that the priest had been ordered to stay away from children, Darron Blankenship, a brother-in-law of Father Ratigan and a police officer who has handled child abuse cases, said in an interview on Friday.

In Cord's rendering, the great victims of our present era are, by his words, "men who have sex with children." I think he believes that he is speaking to power when he points this out. Except it's quite clear that, if you have the right species of power in this country, you are free -- as many rapists are -- to "have sex with children."

I am sorry for the length of this. I debated saying nothing at all. I am sorry that Cord thinks I am doing this because I want "to misread and then mischaracterize and malign" him. I am doing no such thing. I see in his response that he wishes he had been "better" to Terry. I wish he had been better to that little girl (now a woman), too.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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