Compassion for Evil

24 February, 2012 § 16 Comments

So I have been working on an essay, titled “Why People Rape,” which starts from the basic premise that both rapists and rape survivors are human, and works out from there some of the ramifications of what that means for rape as a decision. It’s hard to deal with, which is why it’s taking a while to write (I have to write part of it, step away and emotionally recover, come back and see if I wrote anything horrible, then take on the next part.)

A lesson I’ve learned, mostly from my friend Vincent, is that when writing something is hard, it behooves you to connect it to your personal experience. Both because writing from personal experience is far easier than writing from universal principle, and also writing from personal experience forces you into honesty that is often elusive in higher-level material. So, on that vein, let me do that.

There is no one in our society more broadly dehumanized than pedophiles (the only group I can think of that come close are the severely mentally handicapped.) Pretty much the only use we have for pedophiles, at least in terms that we express, is that they die a tortuous and perhaps ironically appropriate death. Acknowledging the humanity of pedophiles will get you some pretty awful looks, some pretty awful words, and some pretty awful threats of physical violence.

(To be clear: a pedophile who rapes children has done something very, very evil. I’m not an apologist for the practice of pedophilia.)

Dehumanizing pedophiles is a very useful thing, in terms of maintaining a strong self-image. If you de-humanize someone, you don’t have to come to terms with the fact that you have the potential for enormous evil, as well. You also don’t have to come to terms with the fact that some of your friends, mentors, leaders may be pedophiles or rapists: their humanity attests their innocence. I’m going to have more on this in the next post.

I often find myself in a position of defending the humanity of pedophiles. This is … shit. I can’t even describe. It’s unjust. Of all people, I (and survivors like me) should have a right to be bigoted about this. It’s appalling to me that our society is so extreme in its denials that I’m the one who has to defend the humanity of people like my maternal grandfather.

But I do. And here’s why.

I was raped well before the age sexual maturity, and I was conscious of it a few years before. Being a precocious little brat, one of the first things I did is read up about what this would mean for me, going forward. One of the key things that I learned is that people who were sexually abused as children are much more likely than the general population to become pedophiles.

There are a host of psychological and social reasons for this, but I don’t really have to expertise or inclination to get into them. If you have insight, post in the comments. What I’d rather discuss is what it meant for me.

What it meant for me is that, for a couple of years in my pre-adolescence, I was wrestling with “what do I do if I’m a pedophile?” I wanted to be prepared for it. I reviewed strategies, thoughts, and feelings. I was pretty clear that actually raping kids was not an option. But what would I do? Be celibate my whole life? Try to marry someone who had a child-like appearance? I knew even then that I wanted to get married and have kids. But could I trust myself around my own children? Would I be able to tell people about it, even people I loved and trusted, or would I have to cope entirely alone?

I didn’t resolve this, because it is impossible to resolve. There is not a good answer.

(I’d like to take a moment to say that there are some people in this situation — possibly a lot of people in this situation — who deal with their pedophilia in the right way, by not raping any kids. These people are fucking heroes and it is a damn shame how little support we have for these decisions in our society.)

Fortunately, and by the grace of God (or luck, for the theoallergenic), I turned out not to be a pedophile. You have no idea what a relief this was for me, and honestly continues to be to this day. But, like, a slightly different psychological maladaptation, a tweak instead of a twonk in my subconscious, and things would have worked out very differently.

This is hard to deal with. I want to have the luxury of dehumanizing pedophiles and other rapists. I would like to pretend that I would never be like that, never do something like that. But I can’t. That informs a lot of my writing here.

We should, when talking about horrible evil, maintain compassion for those who commit it. Not for their benefit — honestly, fuck those guys — but for our own. By dehumanizing evildoers, we do damage to our own humanity. The fact of the matter is that any one of us can choose to do evil, not because we are monsters, but because we are humans. Inasmuch as we do not, that is a good thing, and something we should feel happy and joyful about.


§ 16 Responses to Compassion for Evil

  • well written, well said. while i don’t mind profanity, the use of fuck has a very dark humor to it that is probably unintentional here? i dont know maybe i’m odd for always reading fuck as sex and not just a four letter word.

    particularly “who deal with their pedophilia in the right way, by not raping any kids. These people are fucking heroes”

    • Ben Lehman says:

      I do tend to use “fuck” as an expletive. Does it make you seriously uncomfortable? I can try to stop, but I’d rather not give it up unless it’s doing actual harm to my message.

      • it does not make me uncomfortable i just cant divorce it from the meaning of sex, my mind always reprocesses whatever a person just said as if they had meant sex. it’s usually really funny.

  • sorry if that last comment was terrible. This is a very good article.

  • Joe Mcdaldno says:

    For a little while, my job was escorting a pedophile (who had a developmental disability) to work every morning. We had really normal and human interactions, and I felt like it was generally a nice job. But then every once in a while, we’d be riding on the bus and a group of second grade field trippers would get on, and I’d tense up and get really freaked out, wondering how this person would respond. I’d need to redirect and moderate, and doing so would remind me that I wasn’t hanging out with a friend, I was escorting a pedophile. A bizarre and difficult experience for me.

    I’m not sure that I have a lesson or point to extrapolate from that story, just: it’s hard to accept that people can be both (a) human, and (b) capable of grave wrongdoings, and that those two facts don’t detract from one another at all. It’s hard to treat someone humanely and authentically and then occasionally be struck by their wrongdoings.


    Interesting you posted this, Ben. I had been wanting to ask you about your opinion on sex offender registries, and whether we could have a conversation about that.

  • Hey Joe, I’ve had a similar experience. At my previous job I occasionally escorted a pedophile with a developmental disability. He was a really cool guy, and fun to hang out with. But then we’d be at Goodwill or something, and there would be kids around, and his attention would be laser-focused on them. I was always successful at redirecting him, but it freaked me out and I always felt kind of sick afterward.

    Ben, you really got at something here. You have a way of squirreling out the truth such that it’s simultaneously surprising and comfortably obvious.

    • Ben Lehman says:

      I would love for you or Joe to write more about these experiences. Were these people who had been convicted? A voluntary enrollment program? Court-ordered under what circumstances? Was the escort 24/7?


      • Ben: I wasn’t allowed to know all of the details, strangely enough. I just knew that he had acted on his pedophilia before (as well as some of his other sexual peccadilloes), and I was to redirect him from children/generally try to keep him out of the area of children.

        He had 24/7 care/escort, but that would have been the case with or without the pedophilia: it was related to his disability.

  • Nobilis Reed says:

    I cannot say how serendipitously appropriate it has been to find these articles. It is relevant to some fiction I’m writing. I will be following these blogposts closely.

  • […] Compassion for Evil – a blog post arguing for humanizing pedophiles. […]

  • Jadey says:

    My mother’s childhood intersected with a lot of different kinds of abuse (most happening to people around her, not her specifically), but through her I learned a lot about humanizing sexual abusers (while still condemning their abuses of course). It’s something I’ve pursued even into my academic research – to what extent does our revulsion and literal *repulsion* of sexual abusers contravene known best practices for rehabilitation, potentially even increasing their risk to re-offend? Through things like restrictive legislative responses like banning them from the majority of stable living situations because of proximity to parks, even for offenders whose offense patterns have nothing to do with snatching kids from parks; or automatically allowing everyone with an Internet connection to see where they live, opening them up to vigilante violence and encouraging them to hide from legitimate and illegitimate supervision alike, etc. As you said with dehumanization, we should stop these practices not for their benefit, but our own, because they don’t increase our safety and may even imperil it further by fostering the same kind of environmental conditions which we know increase offending in the first place. I also wonder if the act of dehumanization doesn’t threaten our own sense of humanity – better to accept that humanity can encompass the wonderful *and* the horrible and deal with that as constructively as we can than turn people into human garbage every time we want to dissociate ourselves from them.

    As for abuse turning people into abusers…. One thing that is important to keep in mind is that the vast majority of people do not sexually abuse. It’s a very low-base rate activity. While people who have been abused are more likely than people in the general population to be abusers (which we mainly know because convicted abusers are more likely to report abuse histories than other offenders, but even so not all abusers do), it’s still a low-base rate outcome over all – the vast majority of abused people do not become abusers. Sometimes they do because of the experience of abuse itself, and sometimes it’s more incidental – they are growing up in the same living conditions as their abuser and are subject to the same environmental conditions. But it’s like if the general population has a risk of .01%, then the population of just abused people might have a risk of .05% – higher, but nowhere near a certainty. (Note: I have invented those numbers for illustration’s sake – I’m not sure of what the exact proportion would be, but it’s quite low.) I think it’s really important for survivors of abuse not to become dehumanized by association with abusers because people fear that they are now irrevocable broken or contaminated or something. I have seen that attitude and it is chilling.

  • LexieDi says:

    I have a fetish- Tickling. I’ve been aware of this fetish since I was a very little girl. Of course, at that time, I didn’t know what a fetish was or what sex was… I just knew I liked tickling in a weird way. I didn’t know why I liked it. I didn’t choose it, it just was and I couldn’t stop it. I tried.

    When I got older, I thought about my feelings towards my fetish and how people with other fetishes. Eventually I thought about pedophiles and how, like me, they didn’t choose to have their fetish, they can’t help liking it. I realized, then, that I felt sorry for those people who were pedophiles and did the right thing and didn’t hurt children.

    Of course, when I voiced this in relation to my own fetish (which I am now very open about), I got a LOT of weird looks and scoffs.

  • Rachael says:

    I was directed to this post via someone’s comment on reddit. And something in your post really struck me.

    I recently read either a long comment on reddit from an anonymous young woman who said she was a pedophile. She made it clear that she had never touched a child and never would, but she couldn’t change who she was. If she could have, she would have, but she couldn’t. It was either something she said or a response someone made, but it was pointed out that not all pedophiles are child abusers.

    Having read words from an actual pedophile like that, one who had never harmed a child and never would, really kind of drove that idea home for me. (I can certainly try and find the post for you if you’re interested, though it will take me a bit of digging.)

    It bothers me that the term pedophile is used synonymously with “child abuser,” because it’s not accurate. They’re not all monsters. The ones who are able to restrain themselves don’t enjoy being what they are. They’re human beings and they have feelings too, and they suffer the stigma of being one of the most widely-hated groups on earth–even if they have never done anything wrong and don’t *want* to. They were dealt a terrible hand.

    So now I am very conscious in the ways that I use the terms “pedophile” and “child abuser,” and if I have the chance to educate another person on the difference, I’ll take it, though as your post illustrated, it can be tricky, given the aforementioned stigma.

    I just wanted to comment on this really well-written post, and say I’m glad I’m not the only one aware of the differences. It’s especially admirable of you to take up this viewpoint given the fact that you are a victim. It can’t have been easy; like you said, it’s just *so* easy for people to do the dehumanizing. You are the living definition of “being the bigger person” and I applaud you!

  • Rachael says:

    Sorry, I mean that it was either a comment from a young woman, or an AMA (Ask Me Anything).

    I found her posts, too. They may well be worth a read, but the content is slightly discomforting, so there’s that warning:

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