Richard Dawkins is Down with "Mild" Pedophilia

Despite the fact that the overall social opinion trends against pedophilia, there are plenty of people out there who think it's possible to classify sexual assault as “mild.”

Sep 12, 2013 at 12:30pm | Leave a comment

Allow me to briefly summarize my stance on pedophilia: It is sexual assault. It is not OK.

This is a view shared by many other people in society, fortunately -- it's safe to say that this post won't be going in the “unpopular opinions” series. While there are a lot of things we disagree about here on the pages of xoJane, we seem to be by and large united in the idea that sexual assault is unacceptable, and that includes child sexual assault.

Whether we're talking about teachers raping teen girls accused of being too precocious (interesting how that's slapped on teens of color in particular, isn't it?), or priests assaulting young boys, or anything between, child sexual assault is not on. Period. Sexually assaulting children during their most vulnerable developmental years is particularly gross, and it does lasting psychological -- and sexual -- harm.

Yet, Richard Dawkins took to newsprint this week to declare that he didn't see the problem with “mild pedophilia,” in an interview with the “London Times.” Oh, Richard Dawkins, won't you please shut up? Your particular brand of hyper-aggressive, misogynistic, nasty, religion-hating atheism is already frustrating to deal with, but to go further and defend child sexual assault?

I mean, what exactly is “mild” pedophilia? Is that like “mild” rape or “mild” murder? How do you quantify a crime that is already horrid by tacking on a dismissive comment like that? Can we agree as a collective culture that we don't need to belittle emotionally damaging and often physically harmful crimes by suggesting that some are more “real” than others?

Dawkins says he experienced “mild touching up” during his time at school, when one of his school masters pulled the young Dawkins onto his lap and put his hand up his trousers. He basically came out with the suggestion that this isn't a big deal, and that it shouldn't be judged harshly; the standards of today don't apply to yesterday, he says, arguing that norms were different.

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Photo: Richard Cooper.

As indeed they were. School environments were quite different when Dawkins was being educated, and that included a high higher tolerance for bullying, abuse, and sexual assault between students, as well as pedophilia among teachers and staff. That doesn't mean that these things didn't cause lasting harm, though, or that they “shouldn't be judged.” Just the contrary; the fact that culture has shifted seems to suggest that a fairly large collective of people decided that maybe tolerating sexual assault wasn't a good idea, and something ought to be done about it.

The things-were-different-back-then argument comes up a great deal in defense of awful historical behaviors, and it quite frankly fails to impress me. Yes, things were different, but it doesn't mean they should have stayed that way, or that they were okay. I for one am a fan of abolishing slavery, for example, and I don't view the actions of my ancestors as cool because things were, you know, different. Back then. 

For all Dawkins wrote of his childhood sexual assault as “mild,” others may not share that perception of their experiences. Including those who may have experienced more prolonged sexual assault or more intimate unwanted contact. Sweeping generalizations like his statement almost serve to suggest that people talking openly about sexual assault are complaining, whining about something that they should just toughen up and move forward from.

Despite the fact that scientific evidence -- the very thing Dawkins prizes above all others, treating almost like a matter of religious faith -- shows that childhood sexual assault does lasting harm, he appears to be in a state of denial. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, dissociative disorders, and other mental health conditions have been associated with a past history of childhood sexual assault. Victims also tend to have a lower educational attainment and higher unemployment rate. That's lasting harm.

Oddly enough (this is my sarcastic face), many children are afraid to report abuse, both because they're warned against it by their abusers, and because they know that they live in a society where people are less likely to take them seriously. Comments like Dawkins' remind us of why: despite the fact that the overall social opinion trends against pedophilia, there are plenty of people out there who think it's possible to classify sexual assault as “mild.”

More troubling yet is the fact that this is not the first time we've heard this kind of logic from Dawkins, as Abby Ohlheiser discusses at “The Atlantic” in a piece chronicling some of his bizarre comments about child sexual assault. He even brought up the specter of false memories and fake reporting to bolster his argument, suggesting that conversations about child sexual assault have become “a witch hunt.”

“...‘sexual abuse’ covers a wide spectrum of sins, and I suspect that research would show belief in hell to be more traumatic than the sort of mild feeling-up that I suffered,” Dawkins said in 2012.

Apparently we are playing trauma Olympics with children now. Is it true that some children experience emotional abuse in conservative, fundamentalist, and radical religious sects? Absolutely -- I too remember being terrified by stories about hell from my super-scary Christian neighbors when I was a child. It's also true, though, that sexual assault causes emotional harm, and it's possible for children to experience more than one kind of harm.

We don't need to say that one type of harm is worse than another (especially when we mainly do so to score political points), or to suggest that one is trivial and the other is not. Both are awful, both are important, and both can require therapeutic and social intervention. No child should be living in fear of sexual assault, and no child should be experiencing emotional torment in the form of threatening lectures about heaven and hell.

That Dawkins is eager to dismiss the issue of childhood sexual assault on the basis of his experiences alone is indicative of a larger issue with the way he thinks about and conceptualizes issues. Making sure that people who abuse children (or anyone) are held accountable is not a witch hunt: it's what responsible human beings do to make the world safer for everyone. Reinforcing rape culture by dismissing pedophilia as “mild” on the basis of the specifics of a given case is revolting.

What one person experiences as something that can be endured and worked through, after all, can be something that causes profound emotional damage in another person. Socially, support and treatment need to be available for everyone to help them process experiences of abuse safely and effectively, but for that framework to be in place, we need to stop talking about some forms of abuse as “mild.”