Meta-commentary on Age of Consent/Pedophilia debates

MarathonAnon · 206


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on: February 17, 2022, 02:33:15 pm
I was thinking recently about how the term “pedophilia” can be used colloquially to describe actions ranging from being near-universally seen as horrific (e.g. raping five-year-olds), to widely seen as highly objectionable but not usually in the same league as the former (e.g. Jeffrey Epstein having sex with 15-year-old girls) to actions that break the letter (but arguably not the spirit) of age of consent laws, e.g. an 18-year-old having sex with a 17-year-old in California. (Another related issue is failing to distinguish between the act of child sexual abuse and the mere attraction to children, but that’s not the focus of my post).

What’s the issue? The linked post argues the the term “pedophile” can be used as a “motte and bailey”, where the “motte” are the most objectionable uses (like raping a five-year-old) and (so the post argues) the “bailey” is e.g. Epstein. This is also very similar to Scott Alexander’s non-central fallacy - you could argue that the “central” examples of pedophilia (e.g raping five-year-olds) is used to try to smear “non-central” examples with the same broad brush.

However, I smell a counterargument, which is that the above perspective is trying to do its own motte-and-bailey/noncentral fallacy. It is trying to lump the likes of Epstein into the “not-a-pedophile” category. While that may be technically true, what Epstein did certainly seemed quite abusive. Saying “Epstein wasn’t a pedophile”, in this vein, appears to be trying to lump him in with more central examples of “not a pedophile despite breaking the law”, like the 18-with-17-year-old example.

What’s the crux of this dispute? It appears to be fundamentally an issue of treating continuous phenomena as discrete - in particular, as a false dichotomy.

I think most people would agree, if stripped of all baggage of specific cases, that age-of-consent laws are an imperfect proxy for problems that often occur in sexual relationships with younger partners, and these problems on average get increasingly worse with younger ages and/or larger age gaps. That is, there is not a binary cut-off between “pedophilia” and “everything is totally fine”.

Suppose we were to ask people to rank a number of possible sexual pairings and give them a numerical rating from 1 (totally fine) to 9 (horrific sex crime), and where 5 is “borderline”. For combinations including a 20-year-old and a younger teenager, you’d probably get average ratings something along the lines of:

Age of Older Partner   Age of Younger Partner   Average Rating
20   19   1.5
20   18   2
20   17   3
20   16   5
20   15   7
20   14   8
20   13   8.5

There’d be some variation across cultures where age gaps are more tolerated, and also across individuals within each culture. But regardless of these, you’d almost certainly see the general pattern of a continuously decreasing acceptance of sexual acts as age decreases.

However, common language is often not very good at capturing continuums. “Kind of creepy age gap” can get subsumed into “pedophile”. Some people have tried to counter this by noting that the term “ephebophile” is a more scientifically accurate term for interest in older adolescents. However, far from adding clarity to the debate by removing a false dichotomy, the term is often used as a term of derision - I recall on Reddit “What do you call a pedophile with a dictionary? An ephebophile” being a popular joke some years ago.

Is that just a low-effort put-down? To some extent, perhaps. But to steelman it - I think there’s a fair reason to be suspicious of people who are trying to mainstream the term “ephebophilia”. Namely, it’s that while the term “pedophilia” is highly negatively loaded, “ephebophilia” is more of a blank slate. Furthermore, the “mainstreamers” may go beyond arguments such as “It’s not perverse for adult men to find sexually mature teens attractive, and while it’s inappropriate to pursue them, it’s not as bad as pursuing prepubscents” into something along the lines of “It’s totally fine for adult men to pursue teenage girls”. The fear is that the former is the motte, while the latter is the bailey. And the fight over definitions is about fighting for attention to your cause over strict accuracy. “Epstein was a pedophile!” activates everyone’s anti-pedophile defenses and ensures public outrage. “Epstein was an ephebophile!”, even if more technically accurate, might get far fewer people caring about it, even if Epstein genuinely is deserving of public outrage.

Or take the table above, and the example of a 20-year-old with a 15-year-old. If you rate that an ‘8’ on my 1-9 badness scale, you might call it ‘pedophilia’, even though that’s a term you’d also use for a pairing you’d rate a ‘9’ (like with a 5-year-old), because you think it’s really still quite bad and would like to draw attention to that. Someone who instead rates the relationship a ‘6’ might be inclined to call it “ephebophilia” because they think it’s only moderately bad and want to distinguish it from truly heinous crimes. But the former person may be suspicious that the latter person really thinks the pairing is more or less fine (like a 3 or less), and so doesn’t want to concede any ground - despite not actually disagreeing very much.

This speaks to a more general problem of false dichotomies and debates over definitions. Two people, who may not necessarily disagree all that much if required to spell out all of their assumptions in full, find themselves polarised, suspicious that the other side is just peddling their motte while secretly trying to gain support for a bailey.

Is there a solution? For the specific cause of fighting over the definition of “pedophile” and other highly charged words, it’s probably a lost cause. Any criticism just looks too much like you’re trying to apologise for pedophiles. But maybe there’s hope if you stop fighting so much over definitions and try something like my rating on a spectrum exercise, to see where each of you fits on a continuum.


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Reply #1 on: February 17, 2022, 02:34:11 pm
What’s the crux of this dispute? It appears to be fundamentally an issue of treating continuous phenomena as discrete - in particular, as a false dichotomy.


A pedophile is an adult who seeks out sex with children (we seem to have given up on preventing sex between underage parties). It appears clear to me that this is a discrete issue: a person either is a child or is not a child.
What is continuous is chronological age. Nevertheless, legal adulthood is perfectly discrete as well: you can become a consenting adult, or generally an adult, at the specific moment of your 16th/18th/21st birthday. There are all sorts of historical and legals contingencies around these dates and edge cases, and vague hivemind-produced ickiness ratings like the one you give, but, leaving this aside, mainstream moral calculus is clear: we just have to pretend as if the point of legal adulthood necessarily co-occurs with the end of mental/physical childhood, and act consistent with this belief.

The problem is that this is absurd on its face. Of course, a good moral community is never hampered by obvious absurdity, but there are some pesky dissidents who ask questions like "what if a broad is 22yo and real dumb and lives with her parents" or "what if a 14yo Terry Tao wanted to bang his math teach who's 50 IQ points lower" and so on.

My proposed tongue-in-cheek solution, one I came up with long ago, in the last year of school probably, is to retvrn to the wisdom of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and reinstate initiation rituals that can be tackled at one's own pace. An institute of Neo-Jungian neuropsychodynamics ought to be created for studying troubled and successful adolescence, determining proper and most discriminating, but also intimidating methods of testing, and TPO should be employed to make sure of measurement invariance. Run a marathon, stick your hand in a bee hive, beat a 4X game within a time limit, nurse a sickly baby hyena, manage a small mountain goat farm for 6 months (and no ladders! Entrances must demand great feats of climbing and leaping), don't piss yourself in combat with a professional MMA fighter from Croatia while protecting a fragile flower: possible options are without count.
Don't want to bother? Very well, you're free to never become an adult. But then be prepared for endlessly suffocating (or maybe comfy, if that's your fetish) paternalism of the overbearing state. And no sex with adults, ever, naturally enough. You haven't got the creds for that. No serious employment or possibility to be elected to any office either.

After all, this is already done in the cognitive sphere. If we allow twerps to go full Professor at 24, we probably could allow them to have sex at their own discretion starting at 15. Too bad that we've replaced ritual initiation pipeline with schooling, and it doesn't really test for... whatever it is that we want to see in a responsible adult.

Then again, we're not a society of responsible adults. More like a bunch of adults and gerontocrats herding aged, cautious teens, so this is all a bit of a LARP.
I've been reading Sterling's 1997 book Holy Fire lately, a story of the era where life extension actually works, and all I want to say is: it's great, go read it, he's anticipated so much it's unreal. It touches on the issue of 40-year-old “kids”. But you can do it without my help, so for now I'll quote the late Eduard Limonov. the founder of NazBol party. In many ways he’s like our departed friend Euphoric Baseball, except more charismatic and a Russian imperialist. Here's his 1990 work «Disciplinary Sanatorium»:

It is profitable for the sanatorium civilization today to shackle its youth to walk-man, to radio, to H1-F1 and TV, it is profitable to feed the youth with musical noise, it is profitable to popularize pop legends at the expense of legends of the Warrior Man, it is profitable for young men dressed as kindergarten children to make fun of their own manhood in video skits. A teenager on the cusp of puberty, an old whore, a castrate and a hermaphrodite are heroes of the pop scene today. But a man? Where is the man?

Masculinity is banished because it represents qualities that are unnecessary and hostile to the sanatorium and its way of life: militancy, man's independent will, his dignity. It is these that are dangerous to the sanatorium society. The task of the sanatorium civilization is to divert young people and lead them without major unrest into the calm waters that lie somewhere beyond the thirties.

If artificially, by tricks, one keeps the generation in the adolescent stage as long as possible, without allowing the transformation of the adolescent into a young man to take place, it is thus possible to let the steam out of the overheating boiler and avoid an explosion. Even administrators of a much less pivotal variety of sanatorium civilization, its eastern, Soviet model, even they finally understood the pacifying influence of pop music on young people and introduced them to the arsenal of stunners...

Free sexual mores, sure, they undermine morality and obviously the will of the population, but since it is not the army but the tools of extermination that secure the sanatorium today, undermined sexual mores do no great harm to its security (stability). The sanatorium can afford a very large dose of decadence, for it is guarded not by soldiers but by citizens. Moreover, decadence is, to a certain extent, encouraged and preferred to the military-soldierly outlook. Today sanatorium administrations include the family in the list of fundamental values, not for reasons of guarding the morality of the population, but so as not to stop the production of future citizens. That is the only function of the family in the sanatorium society. The function of educating children has largely shifted from parents to the television set and to the school community.

Sex (and the family, too) is used in the sanatorium society as a means of distracting attention and energy from a far more powerful biological impulse - the instinct to dominate. (For different individuals to varying degrees and on territories of different scales, in direct correlation with genetic capabilities). Not sexual functions are the primary characteristic of the human male (as the cultural propaganda of sanatoriums armed with unfounded Freudianism tries to make us believe), but the ability to subjugate other males, strength, aggressiveness, ability to create and protect (rule) a family, clan, tribe. By giving sex the primacy that does not belong to it, literature, movies, TV, radio sanatoriums push the masses of youth into sex, distracting them from the ONLY REAL problem – taking power away from old males. («Have sex, and we'll have power!» – apparently, that's how the administrators might have phrased the situation, had they pondered such things).
New permissions and innovations in the sex industry, from the «revolutionary» Playboy magazine in the '50s, progressing to Penthouse, to the far more obscene Hustler, through the movies Emmanuelle and Caligula to sex ads in the press (culminating in: sex ads on minitel screens and porn movies on CanalPlus TV), are produced with the tacit permission of administrators. «White riot, I want to riot, White riot, a riot of my own (quoting again the band CLASH's «White Riot»), While we walk the street Too chicken to even try it» (to take away power). It is possible to have one's own sex in a sanatorium, but not one's own riot. It is possible to have almost any conceivable sex, for the desire to distract young men from «their riot» causes the administration to allow previously forbidden types of sex. From the once long list of perversions, homosexuality, lesbianism, anal sex, moderate sadomasochism have disappeared little by little, and only pedophilia and incest remain taboos not abolished by anyone.