If pedophilia is a sexual orientation, now what?

I have written in this space before about the idea that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, that it’s just another element of human sexual diversity not to be condemned but understood and sympathized with. We are now at the next stage of normalization. Indeed, the DSM-V already recognizes pedophilia as a sexual orientation (p. 698). But now we have a full-length academic book arguing the same: Pedophilia and Adult-Child Sex: A Philosophical Analysis, by Stephen Kershnar.

In this book, Kershnar questions whether pedophilia should be considered a mental disorder and/or morally wrong. His argument is that it can only be considered a mental disorder if and only if two conditions are met: (1) if the condition causes harm and (2) if the harm results from a dysfunction in a mental mechanism. Kershnar contends that pedophilia is a “natural function” with an “evolutionary explanation.” Thus it does not meet the second criterion. He further argues that pedophilia doesn’t harm the pedophile and that it does not necessarily harm a “willing” child. So pedophilia doesn’t clearly violate the first criterion either (pp. xviii-xix).

If you think it sounds outlandish that pedophilia might be normalized in this way, you wouldn’t be alone. Most people feel moral revulsion at the prospect of such a thing. But this book appears to be questioning the “ick factor” associated with pedophilia. Is the “ick factor” just an aesthetic preference or an intuition about a moral absolute? If it’s just an aesthetic preference, then it can’t always in every case be wrong. At least that’s the logic. The author writes:

My analysis simply provides reason to reject the general condemnation of adult-child sex… It also allows that some adult-child sex, perhaps even some in the real world, is not wrong and does not involve vicious or blameworthy adults (p. xix).

I saw this book noted by Princeton law professor Robbie George, who had this to say about the book on his Facebook page:

An academic philosophical defense of “adult-child sex” invoking standard liberal assumptions and principles. We’re now on that familiar highway going from “the conservatives are scaremongering” to “there’s nothing wrong with that, so live and let live” to “you’re a bigot for not approving.” Let’s revisit this in 3-5 years to see where we are.

Some might wish to dismiss Dr. George’s concerns as alarmist. But are they really? It seems that the moral argument is pretty straightforward and inevitable given what most people already believe about sexual orientation.

It is common today to believe that sexual orientation is an innate quality and defines a person’s identity. To suppress that identity in any way causes harm. We must affirm people’s self-identity (i.e., sexual orientation) in order for them to be whole and healthy. As long as they aren’t hurting anyone, it is wrong to pronounce a moral judgment on how they choose to live their identity. Or at least that’s how the argument commonly goes. It is a truncated morality in which the only norm is consent.

But the problem with this logic is obvious. If pedophilia is a sexual orientation, then what is the limiting criterion by which this moral logic applies to one sexual orientation but not to another? If people are willing to apply such logic to heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual orientations, why not to pedophilia?

Pedophilia as orientation exposes the inadequacy of this kind of moral reasoning. It shows that you cannot give a moral assessment of sexual behavior merely on the basis of the actor’s perceived orientation. Sexual attractions can be misdirected and wrong. But the wrongness of the attractions cannot be determined simply by whether or not they come naturally to a person. There are many patterns of sexual attraction that feel natural to people but that are nevertheless morally wrong. The moral assessment of both orientation and the behavior that comes from it must be made on other grounds.

As a Christian, I would argue that those “other grounds” are a matter of revelation. God has revealed his intention for us as sexual beings both in natural and special revelation. Natural revelation tells us that male and female bodies have sexual complementarity ordered to the procreation of the human race. Special revelation instructs us that conjugal union is only to be enjoyed between one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage. Any sexual activity that does not conform to this pattern falls short of God’s intention—which is another way of saying that it is morally wrong.

Because mankind and the world are fallen (Genesis 3), we often find ourselves at odds with God’s intention for our sexual lives. Because of our deep connection to our father Adam, it is possible for our sexual incongruity to feel quite natural to us. But the incongruity is not rendered congruous simply because it feels “natural.” Natural is defined by God’s revelation, not by our feelings one way or the other.

So Christianity provides a limiting factor that stops the normalization of pedophilia in its tracks. I don’t think the spirit of our age can provide the same.

17 Responses to If pedophilia is a sexual orientation, now what?

  1. Monica Henderson August 7, 2016 at 6:04 pm #

    It is strange to live in a time when the issue of consent is on fire on college campuses, and this line of thinking (pedophilia = orientation = bygones!) suggests it might be possible for a child to consent. Bye-bye statutory rape laws . . .

  2. James Harold Thomas August 7, 2016 at 9:29 pm #

    And this book is coming out on Tuesday.


    From the review:
    “Whether a male writer could get away with a story like “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” seems unlikely. Whether a woman like Greenwood can get away with it remains to be seen.”

  3. David Shane August 7, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

    Wasn’t there an article in Slate a while back about incestuous relationships, where the author tried to argue (quite poorly I thought) that such relationships could never be appropriate because they could never really be consensual? Was pretty obvious to me what was really happening – she knew, intuitively, that such relationships were wrong, but she recognized that there was nothing in her usual moral reasoning about sex that would permit her to forbid them, so she was flailing looking for something. But I suspect you would get that same sort of pushback (and more successfully) on this topic if it tried to go mainstream.

  4. Ian Shaw August 8, 2016 at 8:38 am #

    God is giving people and cultures over to their own desires….can’t explain it any better than that.

  5. Curt Day August 8, 2016 at 9:07 am #

    The logic above is problematic because it works one variable. Such invites all-or-nothing thinking and prohibits from making distinction and requiring nuance.

    The issue with pedophilia isn’t orientation, it is the idea of forcing sex on someone who is not of an adult age. The cause for it can involve several variables.

    Finally, there is a sexual orientation that applies to all other sexual orientations with some more than others. We are sexual sinners. We are so not because sex as God designed it is bad; we are so because we go outside of His design to fulfill sexual desires and needs. Some sexual sins can be tolerated in society while others cannot. Forcing sex on someone can never be tolerated regardless of one’s orientation. And that some would have such an evil sexual orientation that they would force sex on someone should not be used to contradict the fact that others have sexual orientations other than our own which are acceptable in society. We can try to deduce such sexual orientations away. But conclusions based on deduction that are contradicted by using induction are not valid.

    In addition, trying to argue against a sinful orientation by appealing to nature has its theological problems. For which nature are we speaking of? We know that homosexuality exists in rough1,500 species and that it provides benefits to those species. But also, there are two natures as recorded in the Scriptures: the nature God designed and fallen nature that came after the Fall.

  6. buddyglass August 8, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    I don’t see society ever giving license to the expression of pedophilia, even if it eventually comes to be regarded as an “orientation”. Reason being: parents, even secular, liberal ones who may agree that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, still don’t want their prepubescent children to have sex with pedophiles.

    I’d add, it bears defining what we mean by “children” here. In Mississippi and Missouri a person aged 15 can marry with parental permission. Consenting to marry implies consenting to sex. It’s odd, then, that we simultaneously treat sex someone older than 15 but younger than 17 as statutory rape in most states on the basis that younger party is incapable of consenting to sex. If they’re incapable of consenting to sex then they shouldn’t be able to consent to marriage, even with parental permission.

    • Christiane Smith August 8, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

      Hi BUDDY,
      I agree with you, this:
      “I don’t see society ever giving license to the expression of pedophilia”.

    • Zack Skrip August 8, 2016 at 10:22 pm #


      I wouldn’t bet on it. Not because I’ve some sort of crystal ball, but just because it’s been acceptable in cultures before ours, so why wouldn’t it become acceptable again?

      You raise a good point re: age. I would say that sex with a 2yo would be illegal forever (at least I hope so), but 15+? I could see that change. 12-15? Ehh, not sure, but give it some time maybe?

      If the article above is talking about the total abolishment of all pedophilia laws, then you are probably right, it’ll never fly. But it could easily be re-defined over and over until only those parts of it that we find truly reprehensible remain.

      We must not think too highly of ourselves. We are not beyond the sins of our fathers.

      • buddyglass August 9, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

        “it’s been acceptable in cultures before ours, so why wouldn’t it become acceptable again?”

        I thought about this, actually. Greece, Rome, etc. The difference, I think, is that in our present culture women have full participation in the political sphere. Greece and Rome were male-dominated, and men are the ones most interested in sex with minors *and* the ones least emotionally invested in the livelihood of children. They were also societies in which slavery was legal and prevalent, and it was often slaves who bore the brunt of the abuse. If I’m a wealthy Roman I can support legal child sex with little fear that *my own* children will be abused, because my children aren’t slaves.

        “but 15+? I could see that change”

        I actually hope this part *does* change. At the very least, our laws should be consistent. If you’re too young to consent to sex then you’re too young to consent to marriage, and vice versa. And it should not be a felony (requiring registration on the sex offender registry) for an adult (of any age) to have sex with someone who is old enough to consent to sex.

  7. Elliot Svensson August 8, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    Here’s a question: if adult – underage sex is pedophilia, what is underage – underage sex?

    Why does it seem so common to hear about “X percent of high school 16-year-olds are sexually active” while “Y percent of high school 16-year-olds have been charged with statutory rape” seems to be practically nonexistent?

    MORALLY, is there any difference between the “X percent of high school 16-year-olds” who are sexually active and some percent Z of high school 16-year-olds who are sexually active with older adults?

    If not, then why should the difference be so stark LEGALLY?

    • Christiane Smith August 9, 2016 at 3:11 pm #

      Hi Mr. Svensson,
      you wrote: “MORALLY, is there any difference between the “X percent of high school 16-year-olds” who are sexually active and some percent Z of high school 16-year-olds who are sexually active with older adults?”

      Yes sir, there IS a moral difference. The judgement of the teenager is less formed than the judgement of the adult. Essentially, the adult is more responsible morally and legally for such involvement with an underage person. Also, consider the vulnerability of the young who are usually financially dependent, uneducated, more prone to trusting and therefore to manipulation by people who are predatory, yes. I would say that there is a tremendous difference in how a young person could be judged in such circumstances because they are still in a formative state (my brother is a pediatrician and sees his patients sometimes through their college years). And adult IS definitely more responsible in such a relationship because HE or SHE is the adult.

      Once again, the answer is based on the inability of the younger person to take into consideration all of the ‘moral’ implications: the reality of their own personal situation as still maturing, and the full consequences of such a serious involvement, which they cannot know to the extent that an adult might more fully understand. This is one reason the law does follow the ethics and the ethics follow the morality of the adult being more able to make the better decision and therefore in a better position to assume the greater responsibility for his/her actions. Maturity does count as a factor in being able to make decisions based on moral conscience, yes.

  8. Gus Nelson August 8, 2016 at 8:14 pm #

    This guy is simply following the inevitable logic that results from believing that life started spontaneously for no reason with no creative being guiding it. Morals are whatever we as a society say they are. It will very soon be deemed immoral to be a Christian. Much sooner than we could have ever expected.

  9. Christiane Smith August 9, 2016 at 2:13 am #

    The thing is that the young don’t have the maturity to make decisions that adults have, and the law knows this very well. That is why we have juvenile courts.
    The OTHER group that knows how vulnerable the young can be are predators.
    Our American society recoils from the idea of perverts and predators of young children . . . those ‘monsters’ we warn our children about who sometimes come in the daytime. I think our society, while it may not want to ‘provide’ the best we can afford as a nation for all of our children, still does not want to see them preyed upon and their innocence stolen from them.

    The one thing we should not do is to associate LGBT people in general with ‘predators’ or pedophiles. I don’t think this is ethical or moral, and most certainly it is not Christian.

    I also don’t think pedophiles can be ‘cured’. They most certainly are disordered, yes, but the evidence is that their disorder cannot be successfully treated without recidivism occurring in most cases. It’s all very sad, but there it is, and children must be protected FROM them.

  10. Jane Wilerson August 30, 2016 at 3:27 pm #

    Denny, please research a subject before you post on it. The following is from 2013. Not only have you posed erroneous information, you have posted erroneous information which was clarified 3 years ago.

    “The phrase “sexual orientation” was used erroneously in the discussion section about pedophilia in the recently released fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

    In a press release, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) notes that the correct terminology is “sexual interest” and that it will correct the error in the manual’s electronic version and in the next print edition.

    “Sexual orientation is not a term used in the diagnostic criteria for pedophilic disorder, and its use in the DSM-5 text discussion is an error,” said the organization in its statement.

    The APA adds pedophilic disorder is a “paraphilia” and not a sexual orientation. Other paraphilic disorders included in the manual include exhibitionistic disorder, sexual sadism disorder, and fetishistic disorder.

    “APA stands firmly behind efforts to criminally prosecute those who sexually abuse and exploit children and adolescents. We also support continued efforts to develop treatments for those with pedophilic disorder with the goal of preventing future acts of abuse,” the association adds..”

    • Zack Skrip August 30, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

      Jane, I’m really happy to hear that. I guess, my one question would be by what standard do they define a paraphillic vs an orientation? I’m assuming you’re not on the board for the DSM, so you don’t have to answer, but if it’s just an “icky” standard, then we know that that changes with time.


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