On Science and Sexual Abuse

Image by Enokson, CC license.

Trigger warning: ableism and sexual abuse, childhood sexual abuse, enabling abusers, rape culture.

I decided to leave my thoughts on the science reporting in Cord Jefferson’s piece out of the post at PhD in Parenting. It was already long enough, and it made sense to keep it focused on Jefferson’s approach and framing in the piece. But I think it’s also worth pushing on the scientific claims made by the researchers profiled in the article, and how Jefferson presented them. To be clear, the questions raised by the scientists Jefferson profiles are valid and well worth considering, but this needs to be done through critical engagement and examination, not wholesale repetition of scientific claims.

For example, it would have been nice to get a sense of the state of the broader field of research into pedophilia, not just get a report on what three scientists working on the topic say. Is there consensus or debate over the idea of pedophilia as a “sexual orientation” (which isn’t precisely the same thing as a persistent sexual tendency or inclination)? Are there any alternative theories to Cantor, Van Giseghem, and Quinsey’s conclusions about the origins of pedophilia?

If Jefferson did look into these questions, there’s nothing to indicate it in the finished product, which is a shame. He doesn’t raise any questions about the research, even to debunk them. He makes a vague gesture towards acknowledging that these conclusions are tentative (“If this research proves to be correct…”), but he credulously repeats their findings as though he assumes they’re true. Again, this seems to have a lot to do with his desire to tell a particular story, a preset narrative, rather than making an effort to examine an issue from all sides and get as close as he could to the truth.

Beyond the current state of scientific understanding of pedophilia, it would have been nice if Jefferson had done some legwork to put arguments about the biological makeup of rapists in historical and cultural context. Even with the advancements we’ve made from scientific inquiry, science is still a product of human culture. In many ways it reflects our cultural values and biases. Claims of biological rationales for undesirable behavior often a) reinforce oppressive cultural norms and beliefs and b) wind up discredited (cf eugenics, “refrigerator mothers,” etc., etc.).

There’s a long tradition of scientists claiming to have identified the biological origins or physical markers of violent or criminal tendencies – ranging from (and well pre-dating) Cesare Lombroso’s catalogs of the supposed physical stigmata of criminals, to more recent assertions by some evolutionary psychologists that male rape of women is an evolutionary adaptation.

I don’t expect Jefferson to know all of this history. But he was doing science reporting, and on a very delicate topic. Simply summarizing the findings of scientists that he found interesting or personally challenging and extrapolating from there was not responsible reporting. The topic demanded some small measure of context.

Another glaring omission: Jefferson cites a statistic that “real” pedophiles account for only 20% of sexual abusers. Didn’t the question of what motivates the other 80% of abusers merit even a little attention, given his argument? Did he simply not think about this? Or was the issue, again, that this category of abusers didn’t fit so nicely with the argument he was trying to make? (I suspect the answer is a bit of both.)

Jefferson also had a responsibility to report on controversial and unsupported claims made by Cantor such as the following:

“Cases of child molestation that involve long strings of victims over the course of years…are rare. An untold number of cases merit sympathy….Having encountered thousands of cases, it is my experience that the pedophiles who do go on to become actual child molesters do so when they feel the most desperate.”

It’s unclear how this claim of “desperation” fits jibes with behaviors common among repeat sexual abusers: grooming, manipulation, coercion, etc.* These behaviors take patience, deliberation, and forethought, and there’s little evidence to suggest that they’re the result of mental or cognitive disabilities as Cantor seems to suggest.**

In response to a letter to Dan Savage from a pedophile who claimed to have never abused a child, Cantor also said the man “deserved praise” and was “an ace —for making it this far without having committed an offense.”

I have a feeling that many readers would be more skeptical of Dr. Cantor’s claims if they were aware of these and other comments he’s made rationalizing the actions of sexual predators who happen to be pedophiles.

*Behaviors, incidentally, that are all evident in the sympathetic profile of a child rapist that Jefferson leads with. Unfortunately, he doesn’t call these behaviors what they are but instead labels them a “sexual relationship” that began after the rapist “fell for” the child he planned to rape
**Here again, intersections of oppressions need to be considered. Disabled people, especially disabled girls and women, are at much, much higher risk of sexual abuse and exploitation than people who are not disabled.


  1. when people try and argue that it’s a sexual orientation, all I think of is that the majority of men are attracted to women, that doesn’t turn the rape of women into a sexual orientation. If it did, then let’s flip it: the majority of women are attracted to men, so where are the huge, huge numbers of women raping men? Where are studies and articles and justifications about how women just couldn’t help themselves because they just had to give into their attraction? And I doubt that a true sexual orientation that has to do with age, and not gender, should have any disparity between men and women right? So where are women pedophiles because there should be just as many, correct?

    Maybe we need more discussions about what a sexual attraction IS. Sexual attraction isn’t desperately needing sex with every person of the gender you are attracted to. Sexuality isn’t having such uncontrollable urges that you just can’t stop yourself from giving into. Sexuality isn’t like hunger, no matter much we like to compare the two – you will not starve to death if you don’t have it, and you don’t have to “steal” it to avoid death.

    I could write long posts on how exactly my father and brother were like. What they did to me had nothing to do with sexual attraction and everything to do with the fact that I was there, I was innocent, and they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it because I wasn’t cognizant enough to put up boundaries like an adult would be. I was abused because sexually abusing a child was easier to them than someone their own age. And you better fucking believe that if people gave them a chance they’d say “oh but I couldn’t help it!” because when you’ve got a society that will give into that excuse, you fucking use it for everything.

    • Yea, it requires accepting something as “sexual orientation” that doesn’t fit with anything else that we call orientation.

      I’m not sure how long it will take for people to get that abusers lie.

      I was thinking about it today and it occurred to me that if Jefferson had written a similarly sexualizing and rape apologist lede about an adult woman, the feminist blogosphere would have never, EVER let him or Gawker get away with it like this. The backlash would have been huge. The silence on this by comparison is really striking and sad.

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