Consenting adults?

Sexually speaking, anything goes nowadays–promiscuity, perversions, fetishes, polyamory, serial monogamy, BDSM, and even, in some circles, bestiality.

Anything, of course, except sex with children under age 18.

In fact, not only is pedophilia still considered wrong, but it provokes hysterical revenge fantasies, even among people who are usually the most lax about sexual morality. For instance, we’ve all heard stories about former sex offenders hounded from their homes or driven to suicide. Some states have tried to (unconstitutionally) adopt the death penalty for pedophiles.

Why all the outrage over pedophilia? The obvious answer is that it violates the philosophy of liberalism articulated by John Stuart Mill, which states that all actions are legitimate as long as they meet two criteria:

1. Are performed only with the consent of the affected parties

2. The affected parties are legal adults

This is the oft-stated principle that “anything’s fine, as long as it’s between consenting adults!”

The first criterion makes sense within the context of liberalism, which is predicated on the principle of individual autonomy. So, of course you can’t perform an action on someone without his consent–especially if it causes harm–because that violates his autonomy.

However, if we are reasoning within the framework of liberalism alone, I don’t think the second criterion makes sense.

The second criterion is usually justified through the argument that children can’t consent. But children, at least past a certain age (let’s say 4 or 5), are perfectly capable of consent. They can talk, and can therefore express their desires. Ask a 5-year-old child what he wants to eat for dinner, or what he wants for Christmas, and he’ll express a very definite (often enthusiastic) preference.

But–the liberal argument goes–this consent is invalid because he doesn’t have full use of reason. (Let’s call this the criterion of full rationality). That’s why we force a 5-year-old not to touch a hot stove, or not to go outside in winter without a coat–because he’s incapable of reasoning well about consequences on his own, and needs some degree of adult guidance.

Well, the criterion of full rationality–the idea that we can coerce kids to do what’s good for them, because they can’t reason on their own–makes sense when applied to something morally trivial, like touching a hot stove. A child’s developing personality isn’t harmed when an adult grabs his hand before it touches the hot stove.

But, in the liberal worldview, sex is not something morally trivial–it is the most fundamental expression of one’s self. The International Federation of Planned Parenthood declares that sexual rights are human rights.

A fundamental right–in liberalism, at least–is a trump card. It “trumps” any arguments about prudence or personal morality, and can only in turn be “trumped” by another right, such as a person’s right to be free from harm. So a fundamental right can be infringed to protect others’ rights, but not for any other reason. You can punish someone for shouting “fire” in a crowded theater (and subsequently causing a stampede that hurts others), but not for merely saying something stupid or untrue. You can prevent children from voting because their lack of reason might lead them to vote badly and thus affect others, but you can’t prevent somebody from voting just because he doesn’t own property.

If children are sexual beings, just like adults–and the Obama administration agrees that they do–then we need a very good reason to curtail their sexual rights. The criterion of full rationality doesn’t suffice. After all, rational thought and sex have very little to do with each other. Our society does not require that a mind be unclouded by alcohol or lust before choosing to have sex–just that people remain conscious enough to speak and express consent.

Sexual liberals already sense this, and for this reason, they do think children should be able to have sex–but only with each other. For instance, the Planned Parenthood website says:

There’s no such thing as a “normal” age for becoming sexually active. Deciding whether to have sex is a highly personal decision. It can be influenced by a variety of factors, which may include religious, spiritual, and moral beliefs; family and personal values; personal desire; peer influence; and/or your relationship with a potential sex partner.It’s important to think about where you stand on the issue. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you decide:

Do we both believe or not believe that sex should only be shared in a marriage or other committed relationship?

Do we both believe or not believe that two people should be in love before having sex?

Do we both believe or not believe that a person should be a certain age before having sex?

Are we both prepared to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection?

Are we both prepared to deal with the consequences if pregnancy or infection occurs?

Are we both prepared for our relationship to change?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions.

So Planned Parenthood explicitly says that there is no right answer to the question “Should a person be a certain age before having sex?” Presumably, it would be legitimate for two 11-year-olds to have sex with each other.

Planned Parenthood isn’t the only source of such advice. A mommy blogger relates the sex talk she gave to her 5-year-old daughter:

“As long as you’re a kid, you can only ever play any kind of sex game with other kids. Never, ever play that way with a grown-up. That’s a very important rule. And for your whole life, never play a sex game that doesn’t feel good to you. If it’s scary, say no and tell an adult you trust. And don’t ever try to make another kid play that kind of game with you. That’s not OK. You understand?”

A 5-year-old can engage in sexual behavior, as long as it’s only with other children and not adults.

Clearly, the criterion of full rationality isn’t necessary to legitimate a sex act–and the liberals themselves don’t pretend that it is, since they tell children who haven’t achieved the full use of reason that it’s ok to have sex with each other.

So what prevents them from sanctioning pedophilia? Apparently, it’s the criterion of pressure, not the criterion of full rationality (though they don’t really articulate this, and still pretend they’re using the latter criterion). In other words, an adult–even an unrelated adult–is such a glamorous authority figure to a child that sexual relations between them could never be completely free. There would be too much pressure for a child to yield to an adult asking for sexual behavior. Children can have sex with each other because they are equals, so there’s no pressure and their consent is completely free.

But I personally don’t see how this argument succeeds. There are plenty of situations in which pressure exists to have sex. Differences in status or age, as well as threats to end a relationship, can create sexual pressures. Most people agree that it’s wrong to have sex in such an imbalanced context, but don’t argue that it should actually be illegal, that the immorality of such a situation should trump the sexual rights of the parties involved.

So why the liberal hysteria over pedophilia? I think it exists because they know their philosophy doesn’t provide good arguments against it, so they try to prevent its becoming legitimate simply by shouting loudly and even issuing physical threats. But I also think that it will eventually become acceptable–and then people will wonder what all the fuss was about.

In conclusion . . . somebody please recommend a good convent where I can raise my daughter.

4 thoughts on “Consenting adults?

  1. I always wondered this also. In fact, the gay community was quite tolerant of embracing Nambla for a while until they started gaining wider national recognition. I fear that in the near future instead of admitting the bankruptcy of their logic, they will want to stay consistent and endorse pedophilia. I can imagine it now, as long as the parents consent, it’s okay. Or, as long as an adult is present to witness the consent of the child, it is ok.

    I also don’t understand the first criteria. Certain sexual practices harm individuals in the family. When a wife agree’s to allow her husband to have an extramarital affair, this can lead to an attachment with their other lover which can end in divorce for the children.

  2. “But, in the liberal worldview, sex is not something morally trivial–it is the most fundamental expression of one’s self. The International Federation of Planned Parenthood declares that sexual rights are human rights.”

    This is *probably* where your understanding falters — liberalism is at best highly inconsistent re: its attitude toward sex and more often than not treats it like it does everything else, within a paradigm of materialist reductionism: it’s “just sex.” Innately meaningless, valueless, a totally physical recreation with at best conventional (and thus arbitrary) significance attached to it. Yes, sex is regarded as an expression of the self, but so is everything: piercings, tattoos, desecrating the Eucharist, etc. And it regards it as no more innately valuable or meaningful than any of those things.

    So to answer your last question, “Why the liberal hysteria over pedophilia?” you have to bear this in mind… that if sex is meaningless, than sexual crimes must also be meaningless. In other words, reflexive hysteria and the Voegelinian prohibition of questioning is their way of confronting the fact that a world filled with pedophiles is exactly what a world run consistently on their principles would look like.

  3. Yes, my understanding falters because I don’t quite understand the inconsistency. On the one hand, materialism does reduce the body to the status of a mere object, and secular humanist rhetoric re: sex often reflects this. (As you say, they often refer to it as “just” sex and insist there can be no moral significance, let alone social significance, to sexual “recreation.”)

    At the same time, though, their rhetoric often implies that sex is somehow the core of one’s being. For instance, the World Health Organization has stated that “sexuality is a central part of being human.” Dan Savage’s argument for non-monogamy assumes that sex is vital for human flourishing, that people need outlets for their desires and fetishes. And most people my age are angry at the Catholic Church for “prohibiting” homosexuality, contraception, and abortion, but don’t care that it prohibits desecration of the Eucharist or that it doesn’t allow for personal self-expression during the Mass.

    I don’t understand how these two seemingly incompatible views can inhabit the same intellectual space. Does materialist reductionism lead to the glorification of pleasure (since nothing else really matters anyway), which then leads to “unimportant” sex being re-valued as important?

  4. Our opponents are very confused people, yes!

    In short, the natural world, in their view, is meaningless and valueless but is endowed with meaning and value by man’s will (man, as the measure of all things, being godly). So sex is meaningful not because it is the mode of man’s participation in the divine act of creation but because man chooses (arbitrarily) to value it.

    Of course, applied rigorously, this principle leads to absurdity.

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