I volunteer taught a Biology 101 class at a prison. It was a cool program—a local community college partnered with the prison and people could receive an AA degree while incarcerated. Aside from some administrative issues, it was a great experience—it was fun to teach adults with a limited background in science and the students were really enthusiastic and appreciative (in contrast to the high school students that I normally teach). At the training meetings, they tell you not to look up students’ crimes while teaching in order to help you stay impartial as a teacher. The class was 12 male students, ranging from late 20s to maybe 50s. Naturally I was curious as to what crimes they committed, so at the end of the semester I looked up everyone’s name online.
Every. Single. One. Was. A. Pedophile.
One guy got caught with child pornography because he went to get his computer fixed and the technician found it on his computer. Another guy, about 50, was one of my favorite students because he knew a good amount of biology and was very helpful to his classmates. Turns out the reason he knew a lot of biology was because he used to be an environmental science teacher at a high school before he got caught committing a series of heinous sex crimes against minors − 100s of up-skirt photographs of his students, raping children as young as four years old, and producing pornographic materials that also included sexual acts with animals.
Instead of vaguely listing his crimes, I could have just linked to the news article that describes his arrest and conviction, but some part of me feels like that would be wrong to do. Why do I feel the need to protect his identity given that information about his crimes is freely available as public record? I did not sign any confidentiality agreement and it’s not illegal for me to disclose his name. But I still can’t shake the feeling that it would be wrong to reveal his identity. It is hard for me to say what my reasons are for thinking this and I am not at all sure if it is the right decision—I am morally dumbfounded. I guess it feels like a violation of a unwritten code of ethics for teachers akin to the Hippocratic Oath. Healing and learning both require a certain degree of trust, and breaching this trust – even for a pedophile and even when no one will know that I have done so – still seems wrong (perhaps I might feel differently if revealing his identity could possibly help protect someone in the future, but he will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in jail).
On a broader level, I wonder about the ethics of teaching pedophiles in the first place. This feels very ethically different from what I had hoped for when I volunteered at the prison—that most of the prisoners I was teaching would be incarcerated for non-violent crimes (like dealing drugs or cool stuff like that). I would like to believe that spreading knowledge for its own sake (such as teaching someone about cells just because they are curious about them) is an intrinsic good, but my belief falters in light of my student’s crimes. Can someone commit such a heinous crime that teaching them, improving their mind and their life in some tiny way, is no longer a good thing to do? What about teaching someone that will never again be a part of society – is it still a good thing to teach a death row inmate if they express a sincere desire to learn? I would answer yes, and yet I am still for the death penalty.
Pedophilia is so taboo in modern society that it feels gross to even talk or write about it, even in this context. This illustrates a more general point about taboos – they act as a kind of cultural black hole, warping everything around them into a slippery slope. Not only does it become difficult or impossible to discuss the taboo itself, all adjacent issues are at risk of being pulled down into the void. Taboos exist for a reason, and people are right to be very worried about the slightest possibility that anything could lead to more pedophilia, but we also might wonder about what adjacent issues are getting sucked into the black hole as well. Take mentoring for example—although it can be for a very good thing for a teen to have a significant relationship with a non-parent adult, it does open up the opportunity for sexual misconduct (e.g. the Catholic Church, see also The Second Mile, Jerry Sandusky’s charity organization that offered guidance and mentoring for underprivileged youth). It seems to me that modern American has much less mentoring (and when it does occur it is very formalized and circumscribed) than other cultures around the world and throughout history (e.g. ancient Greece). Many of the reasons for our lack of mentoring have to do with broad features of our society and culture that cannot be easily changed, but we can also imagine that there could be more valuable mentoring relationships if we were willing to take on a little more risk when it comes to allowing independent adult-teen interactions. The problem is that any program or policy suggestion that opens the door, however slightly, to the possibility of sexual misconduct with a teen is going to be easily shouted down because the pain of pedophilia is so visible and visceral, while the societal benefits of mentoring are much more nebulous. There is an analogy here to the MeToo Movement—while the harms of sexual harassment are so concrete and personal, the increased reluctance of male managers to mentor women is a subtle background effect contributing to inequality. I’m not sure what, if anything, can or should be done about the mentoring problem, but the problem suggests a general strategy for finding low-hanging fruits (i.e. cultural ideas that could be very beneficial if considered and implemented properly): don’t be afraid to look in the areas next to taboos, there may be something valuable there that people have missed (but be careful not to fall down the slippery slopes into the black hole).
The deepest ethical issue relating to pedophilia is that no person chooses to be a pedophile (just as no person chooses to be a homosexual). The tendency towards pedophilia has a genetic component (Jordan et al., 2020) and there are medical interventions that can reduce attraction to children (Landgren et al., 2020). None of this is to say that these people are not fully responsible for their crimes; the vast majority of people who are attracted to children never act on it. But is there not a deep injustice to the fact that, through no choice of their own, these people are born with a sexual attraction that is illegal and unethical to act on? It is hard for me to see how this is not a tragedy of a kind, and that pedophiles are on some level deserving of our sympathy (and therefore it is maybe still a good thing to teach pedophiles as I did). Correcting the injustice of the pedophile’s circumstance might be dead last on the list of injustices that need to be rectified, but the moral arc of the universe is long and if we are a civilization that is concerned with equality and the pursuit of happiness for all people then this is an issue we will have to reckon with sooner or later.
The reckoning with pedophilia may in fact be sooner rather than later, as technological advances are likely going to force us to confront these issues in the near future, regardless of whether we want to or not. How aggressively should we offer treatments that can reduce attraction to minors? Should these be required for certain criminals after their release from prison? What about virtually created child pornography—should it be allowed or banned? Will it increase or decrease sex crimes against minors IRL? What about robot child sex dolls? These are difficult questions that cannot and should not be ignored, and it matters if we get them right.
(Originally posted at Secretum Secretorum)