Today there is an almost universal prejudice against individuals with a certain sexual orientation. I am not talking about common homophobia; the prejudice I would like to bring to your attention is so rarely considered a prejudice that it has no particular name. Though the following words will most likely be met with harsh criticism, the prejudice referenced above is the prejudice that almost all of us have against pedophiles. At first thought, it may seem that having a phobia of pedophiles is no more a prejudice for a mother, than having a fear of lions is a prejudice for a mother chimpanzee, but I hope at least to show that the issue is not so clear.

This text does not at any point argue that pedophiles are regular people like you and I, they may well not be. If the hypothesis to be presented is true, however, it follows that the trauma children experience when molested would not happen if we didn't hold the moral judgments towards pedophiles that we do. If this is true then the best thing for us to do as a species for our children is, paradoxically, to stop making the moral judgements we make towards pedophiles. Of course, intuition would have us believe that we hold those moral judgements towards pedophiles precisely because of how traumatic a molestation is for children; this is an attempt to show that that causal interaction goes both ways and forms a loop.

This isn't a defense of pedophilia, nor is it a suggestion that we should stop morally judging pedophiles as a culture, it's an analysis of how circularity can enter the domain of social morality undetected and spread rapidly. We will take a memetic approach to figuring this out, and always ask "how it is useful for the meme to have such and such property?" rather than "how is it useful for us to have a belief with such and such property?".

I will apologize here and now for the graphic nature of this text's subject. But know that part of what I claim is that the reason the following considerations are so rarely even heard is precisely because of their graphic nature. Nowhere in this text is there an argument that can even be loosely interpreted as a defense of individual acts of pedophilia, but the reader may well conclude that in the end, less children would have been seriously hurt if we had refrained from involving our moral attitudes in our dealings with pedophiles.

Inherently Traumatic?:

Let's ask a simple question: "would a feral child be traumatized if molested at a young age?" Notice there was no mention of sodomy in that question. Sodomy is clearly as traumatic to a child as any intense pain caused by another would be. But what about molestation? How can an infant tell the difference between being cleaned and being molested? These two actions could be made to appear behaviorally identical to the child. How does the brain know to get traumatized from one and not from the other? Clearly, children are more frequently traumatized by molestation than by being cleaned. They must somehow make the distinction, either during the act, soon after the event, or retroactively upon remembering the event in adulthood. 

In any case, that distinction must either be learned or inherited. Though we are genetically designed to avoid certain stimuli, e.g., fire, sharp things, bitter chemicals, etc. it is unlikely that getting your genitals touched is one of those stimuli. There might be genes which give you a predisposition to being traumatized when molested as a child, but it is unlikely that we have a sense built into our bodies that distinguishes between acceptable and unacceptable genital touching before puberty. Again, any molestation that causes pain does not apply, we are considering only those cases of molestation which don't cause any physical pain.

If we somehow conclude that any given human does indeed react in a neurologically distinct way when touched on the genitals before puberty by an adult that isn't one of that human's parents, then certainly that sort of molestation would be out of the question. But at the risk of being far to graphic, the fact is that an infant or even a very young child would be largely incapable of distinguishing between grabbing a finger and grabbing an adult male genital. There is clearly nothing inherently evil about the foreskin of a male compared to the skin on his finger. The only difference is the adults intention, which children, or at least infants, are largely insensitive to. What then is the justification for not allowing pedophiles to come to our houses and have our infants reach out and grab their genitals as our infant's instincts would have them do?

It could be argued that children might be traumatized simply by being forced to do something that they do not want to do, and that is certainly likely. But does that mean that we should allow our children to be involved in sexual acts with adults if they are consenting? If we were to argue that children cannot consent, then we would have to ask "can they be non-consenting?" What we generally mean by saying that "children cannot consent." is that they can't consent responsibly because they lack the information to do so. This is granted, but they can simply consent. Children can be made to be the main actors in cases of molestation and even consensual sex. Again, at the risk of being far to graphic: it is not uncommon for one child to molest another, nor is it uncommon for young friends of the same gender to naively engage in games of a sexual nature. Even in the case of molestation from an adult to an infant: if the adult presents his/her genitals the infant will naturally grab. How this grabbing is to be distinguished by the infant from the thousands of other skin covered objects that he/she will grab through out his/her life remains a mystery to me.


Infants and children are not designed by evolution to avoid being involved in non-painful forms of sexual encounters which they are willing participants in. By "willing participant" all that is meant is not being forced to engage in the sexual act. The trauma that often follows sexual encounters with adults for children is caused by the reactions of the children's parents. There would be no trauma in the children if the parents and other role-models of said children saw sex with children as a routine part of growing up.

Experiments to Falsify:

(1): Take two appropriately large and randomized samples of infants and children. Have the control monitored by a brain imaging device while cleaned by their parents. Have the variable do the same only have researchers dressed in normal clothes do the cleaning as opposed to the parents. If there is a difference observed in the neurological behavior of these two groups which is larger than the difference between a group of children that are simply looking at their parents and looking at strangers, then there is likely a mechanism from birth which identifies sexual acts. All subjects must be sufficiently young so as to have no learned association with their genitals and sex.

(2): Find a closed population which has no concept of sex as a demonized act or of children as being too young to have sex with. Determine this by extensive interviews with the adult population designed to get them to be contradictory. After finding this population if it exists, show that the stability of those children which were involved in non-painful sexual acts with adults is lower than those children which were not involved. If this is accomplished it will suggest that the behaviors of parents of victims of molestation is not the source of the trauma caused in children after being molested.

Experiments to Verify:

(1): Setup the same control and variable as in (1) above. If we get the result that there is no significant difference between the neurological behavior of the control and the variable, then it becomes less likely that there is anything in children which allows them to tell the difference between non-painful acts of molestation, and cleaning of the genitals.

(2): Find a population as described in (2). Show that those individuals which engaged in sexual acts at a young age have no lower stability than those which did not. 

A Meme not a Gene:

If molestation is not inherently traumatic, why do we feel the need to protect our children from it? There are many possible reasons, but one of the most biological might be our jealousy. We are built to not let others have sex with loved ones, yes. But are we really biologically built to not let others have sex with our children? It'd be a strange adaptation to say the least. Why have children, and prevent them from reproducing? It might well be a side-effect of our evolved jealously. 

But more seems to be at play here then a confusion of jealousy. As my evidence for this I propose that you recall how salacious and downright offensive you found it when I mentioned that an infant would instinctively grab a genital if presented. It doesn't have to be your own infant in your mind to be repulsed by imagining the situation. It is a repulsive situation to imagine for almost anyone I have met that is not a pedophile, and even most pedophiles. If it is not our child we're imagining, just some random token child, and it is just some token child molester we are imagining, the image still repulses us greatly, which suggests that it does not come from biological design since our genetic fitness is not at all increased by worrying about the children of others.

We likely started demonizing pedophiles well after the development of language if the hypothesis stated above is correct. If trauma isn't caused in children from sexual acts with adults before learning about the taboo nature of sex, then it is likely the taboo nature of sex that causes such events to be traumatic. But sex is not taboo because of our genetic history, sex is taboo because of our memtic history.

Why the Meme is such a Success (Imagining Patient Zero):

Let's imagine a hypothetical culture which has demonized sex but doesn't really have an accepted attitude towards pedophiles. Suppose one parent catches another adult engaged in sexual behavior with his/her children. The parent, confused by and scared of sexual action, quickly pulls away the child while attacking the other adult and tells the child that he/she is not to do that anymore or go near that person. The child reacts negatively to this, now knowing that sex is demonic. We have all seen this sort of behavior before, if a child bumps his head and his/her parents say "Oh that's ok, come on, we gotta get going." in a lovely mommy voice the child is more likely to get up and keep on trucking. But if the parents react with "Oh God! Grab the ice pack, grab the ice pack!" yelling urgently, the child cries and may well act is if he/she is much more hurt than he/she really is.

When this hypothetical parent next sees his/her fellow parent friends he/she tells them of the event and how horrific it was for him/her, and how traumatic it was for his/her child. The other parents then warn their children of the strange man/woman that lured the first child and tell their own children never to go near that man/woman's house. The children of course need to find out why for themselves and go there anyway. Another child gets involved in acts of a sexual nature with the town pedophile. This catches the attention of a passerby, who by now knows of what goes on in that house, and how evil it is. This passerby alerts the others that it is happening again. At this point the town decides to do something about it. They lynch the pedophile. This becomes the talk of the town and of the local ruling government body.

Now all of the adults in the town know how to react to pedophilia: as if it would be a demonizing traumatic event for their children. Acting as such when one of their children is inevitably molested, causes that child to find it traumatic. News of the trauma it caused to the child spreads and the whole process is repeated, strengthening the believe that children become traumatized when molested. 

This thought experiment is likely not very much like what really happened to produce this meme in the first place. To actually understand how that happened we would have to trace the memetic evolution of our ancestors for much further than we have the ability to do now. But this hypothetical does at least give us a way of imagining how a belief like "Sexual acts with children and adults causes trauma in the children involved." might start off false and become truer as it becomes more widely accepted, and more widely accepted as it becomes truer. In the end holding that belief is going to cause more suffering in our children than if we didn't hold it provided the hypothesis above is correct. But we believe it anyway, and our moral judgements stray that way anyway, regardless of whether or not we have any benefit from the belief.

The true benefactor here is the meme itself. The meme of fearing and hating pedophiles need not be useful for us as a species, it needs only to be good at getting itself spread. Luckily for the meme, as it gets itself spread the belief associated with it becomes truer. This meme has a belief built in that is a self-fulfilling prophecy so that the more widespread the meme becomes the better its chances of replicating. It's a feedback loop, the meme predisposes us to act a certain way towards molested children, acting towards molested children this way makes them find the event traumatic, the observed trauma of the molested children enforces the meme.


We can and do hold very basic moral attitudes as a culture which are completely unexamined. Even the most basic moral judgements that we make, like "pedophilia is wrong" are not on as firm of footing as we would like to believe them to be. But when we sharpen the issue and we are faced with the bluntness of the situation, things can become even more difficult. Our biases are very firmly rooted in us. Even I, who will tell you that I'm on the fence about the utility of demonizing pedophilia, am absolutely repulsed and ethically offended upon the thought of such an act. But I consider it important that we think sharply about the utility involved in such basic and unquestioned moral judgements and report our progress. If we find that those most basic moral judgements haven't been beneficial to us as a whole, we should start to wonder about whether or not ensuring utility really is the point of our moral system. Alternatively, our moral system might have little benefit to us and evolve only because it benefits the memes which it is. Our whole theory of ethics, might be the result of nothing more than the continued warfare of memes for our brains. Sometimes the memes convince us to adopt them by being beneficial, sometimes they just trick us into thinking they are right, and other times they make themselves true by the mere virtue of spreading themselves. This last class of memes we can call "self-proving memes" and it is this class of memes that the hypotheses above suggests the fearing and hating pedophiles meme belongs to. If that hypotheses is falsified by any of the suggested experiments or any other applicable experiment, we should still consider that the hypothesis has never even been suggested outside this text. Is this more likely because the hypotheses is so stupid, or because it is so rooted in us not to question such simple facts?




New to LessWrong?

New Comment
42 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:40 PM

The rule : "Do not have sex with children", is not made into a bad rule by the possibility of a child having sex with an adult and not being traumatized, in the same way that the rule : "do not lash people with a whip" is invalidated by the existence of masochistic people.

There were times when a nobleman forcefully taking a peasant woman was not stigmatized and Indeed, if the noble offered, she might even "consent", due to her poor position in life, and the chance at making it better. Yet I do not think this is a state of affairs we would prefer to exist today. There were times when a father was the one person who decided who his child would have sex with, and when, and this was seen as the norm, as right and proper, and yet I'm sure it lead to many an unhappy marriage.

The pedophilia problem is not just one-pronged. The persecution of pedophilia is not the main and only cause of it being bad. Sexual relations between people with drastic power imbalances are rife with opportunities for abuse or coercion. This is not something we want to proliferate, even if there is a chance it can go just fine. We stigmatize pedophilia for the same reason we think it's wrong for bosses to have sex with their employees or doctors to do their patients.

We stigmatize pedophilia for the same reason we think it's wrong for bosses to have sex with their employees or doctors to do their patients.

Comment generally seemed reasonable, but the quoted hypothesis seems highly unlikely. (One could argue, I'm not sure how convincingly, that "this is how we tend to justify our moral stance even if it's not what caused our moral stance.")

I agree. What I meant to say is we SHOULD stigmatize, not we stigmatize. thanks for making me rethink it.

Does stigmatizing harmful social acts reliably lead to a reduction in their incidence or in the harm they cause?

I can't quote a study but I would bet sure stigmatizing racism directly led to a reduction in racist remarks and actions. People are impressionable and are strongly influenced by the society around them.

racism directly led to a reduction in racist remarks and actions

But only a reduction in racism against beings that were nearly indistinguishable from the racist humans in the first place.

I don't disagree, but i think the situation becomes drastically different when we are talking about sexual desires. Again, I don't have anything better than moderate familiarization with Kinsey to back that up.

I would say quite the opposite, as would Dr. Kinsey from what i understand.

I think that there must be something more going on memetically than just an aversion to relationships with power imbalances. Only the most conservative individuals seem to object to the idea of a wealthy middle aged CEO watching legally produced pornography featuring eighteen year old actresses, but most individuals seem to have an aversion to anyone who watches pornography which simply simulates children in sexual situations through animation or computer graphics (I haven't read any opinion surveys on this, but there is an OkCupid question asking whether it should be illegal to look at animated or otherwise artificial porn of children, assuming it can be absolutely proven that no real children were harmed; most people regardless of political affiliation answer yes.)

Pedophilia is stigmatised far worse than sex between bosses and their employees or doctors and their patients. The distinction is important: people seldom feel seriously traumatised after having sex with their bosses, and when both involved parties are consenting nobody is thrown to prison.

Also what Will Newsome has said. The reasons why pedophilia is stigmatised are probably not identical to rationalisations made around it.

Clearly it was an example of kind and not of magnitude. Car theft is punished for the same reasons as petty theft, but to a much greater extent

The reasons for difference between car theft and petty theft are clear. Not so in the discussed case. The original post claimed not to defend pedophilia, which I interpret as not saying that the rule "do not have sex with children" is bad, but that the social stigma associated with it is far greater than it reasonably should be.

This article seems to presuppose in several places that molestation is generally performed by non-parents. I don't think this is a consistent feature.

I have upvoted this for courage to discuss a topic which bears strong social stigma, and for formulating hypotheses which can be empirically tested.

On the other hand, few objections:

  1. As others have said, the post is a bit too long relative to its content.
  2. The defensive tone, e.g. in "[t]hough the following words will most likely be met with harsh criticism", has no purpose here.
  3. It is probably not a good strategy to write a first post here about such a sensitive topic (if it is your first post).
  4. The explanation of the emergence of overreactions to pedophilia seems incomplete. There are lots of parents who overreact to common situations and then tell others how traumatic experience it was ("Yesterday I found my son playing with a lizard! Oh God!"). You have to explain why the overreacting meme spreads in the pedophilia case and not in the lizard case. Also, you have to explain why the stigmatisation of pedophilia is more intensive in recent years while overall demonising of sex has weakened. It seems that fifty years ago, pedophilia was much less an issue and the general attitude to it was comparable to or even less disapproving than the attitude to homosexuality. (I am not an expert on history of social norms and can be mistaken in this.)
  5. Even if you improve your explanation as requested in point 4, it may still be a just-so story. Evidence for, or a proposal of a test of this explanation is needed.

4. The explanation of the emergence of overreactions to pedophilia seems incomplete. ... You have to explain why the overreacting meme spreads in the pedophilia case and not in the lizard case.

The original example says that it's occurring in a society where sex in general is considered very bad in some sense ("demonized"), which seem to imply that the second parent is nearly guaranteed to over-react similarly. Lizards are unpopular, but not to that degree. Also, the original example specifies that the society has no particular attitude towards pedophiles, which I take to mean that pedophilia is simply unknown there, and the first person to encounter it doesn't have a cached response of any kind to draw on. This is a significant difference from the lizard situation, where most people do have a cached response to draw on that says that even if lizards are 'icky' it's not that big of a deal if a kid plays with one.

That still doesn't add up to more than plausibility, of course. Point 5 is still important.

Maybe a fair point, but "demonised" is still a bit vague and does not explain what exactly is so special about sex. The overreactions to pedophilia seem to be a recent phenomenon, gaining intensity when demonising of sex is not so strong as it used to be. I would even not use the word "demonise" to describe the present attitude to sex. Racism is certainly more demonised than sex today, but we do not see parents going mad when their children come into contact with a racist.

See e.g. this discussion about a TV show from the seventies or early eighties, where the entertainer interacts with little girls in a way which may suggest that he is a pedophile. From the discussion it appears that the show was perceived as normal in its time, but today most commenters declared it abhorrent.


That article might have been more useful if it came from the other (the non-consensual) angle, i.e. showing that while beating a child is considered bad it is treated no where nearly the same as sexual assault. From that one could show that the sexual component triggers some potentially irrational reaction. Then one could argue that sexual non-consensual acts should be treated the same as non-sexual non-consensual. And finally after establishing that one could actually generalize that to consensual acts.

Of course with children one would need to define 'consensual' since the problem with pedophilia is that children are thought of as unable to consent.

Would you generalize your analysis of pedophilia to non-consensual sex? If not, why not?

Yes, absolutely would. The only thing i think i would loose in doing so is showing that there is much more to our distaste of pedophiles than the obvious harms they cause.

Wait I misunderstood what you were asking, sorry. No, I specifically argue that sex involving a non-consenting partner is always going to be traumatic for that member of the ordeal.

sex involving a non-consenting partner is always going to be traumatic for that member of the ordeal.

Why? Do you also believe that being touched non-consensually should always be traumatic? (Yes there exist cultures were being touched by a random member of the opposite sex or a member of an untouchable caste is considered traumatic). What's so special about touching with sexual overtones, and aren't the sexual overtones themselves cultural?

It is to the game-theoretic advantage of someone who does not want (a particular instance of) sex to be traumatizeable by non-consensual sex. People who don't care if they traumatize others will not likely be deterred either way, but people who do care about such a thing will avoid doing the thing that can cause the trauma. Sex in particular is a commonly enough not-wanted thing - a by default not-wanted thing - that we can have a societal framework designed around prohibiting people from forcing it on others, and this has (comparatively recently) generalized to cases where sexual partnership is the societally recognized default, i.e. within a marriage.

Meanwhile, uncommon strong preferences about how one is touched - for instance, my extreme desire not to be tickled, which I do think ought to have moral force for people who know about it but cannot hope to give legal force - do not have enough general currency to be supported in this way. Common strong desires which require the public identification of a non-default, like the desire not to be close to a smelly person, are ignored because as a culture we consider enforcing those desires to be rude (by default, we are presumed to be not smelly, while by default we are presumed to be non-sex-partners with arbitrary persons). The closest we come is guidelines about generically personal space which evaporate under some circumstances.

edit button :)

As others have pointed out, the thesis needs a clear explanation for why it does not apply to the trauma caused by rape of adults.

"The thought you cannot think controls you more than the thought you speak aloud"

Upvoted for ignoring ickyness and actually trying to think about things.

The Probem of the Chcken or the Egg in Moral Reasoning.

You have a typo in your title.

It seems pretty difficult to separate pedophilia from rape - that is, to separate sexual arousal from liking children from the motivation for power over others that's mixed up with rape, including rape of people who can't consent, whether they say no or not. And when talking about our current society it becomes not just hard but wrong, because they are not separated, and so you draw the wrong conclusions about how our society responds to pedophilia.

Sometimes the memes convince us to adopt them by being beneficial

What does this mean, when the criteria by which we judge what is "beneficial" can also be considered a product of meme/gene co-evolution?

It means precisely that it works well with what we already consider to be beneficial thanks to our genetic and memetic predispositions.

Too many words.

And its author is no longer a member and has posted nothing else to LessWrong.

I think this is a troll.

I'm sorry, I'm new honestly, and I'm not trolling. I thought I might have that sort of reaction. Sorry about the word count I also didn't know the distinction between discussion and main post. Expect not to have similar problems with me in the future.

It's not that it's too many words for a discussion post. There is no particular word limit. It's too many words, and too overwrought, for what it's saying, which is simply the often-made point that overreaction to child abuse scares can itself be damaging; along with staring hard enough at something in plain sight that it vanishes, as in the adjacent thread on the meaning of life.

How did you arrive at LessWrong, and why did you choose to write this as your first posting here?

"There is no particular word limit. It's too many words, and too overwrought, for what it's saying, which is simply the often-made point that overreaction to child abuse scares can itself be damaging." Sorry sir, but if you had simply read my introduction a bit more carefully you might have noticed that from the very beginning I make it clear that my aim is to give an example of how completely un-beneficial moral judgements can enter our culture and become rooted if they hide in our taboo box.

my aim is to give an example of how completely un-beneficial moral judgements can enter our culture and become rooted if they hide in our taboo box.

Moral judgements against pedophilia are "completely un-beneficial"? And they are "hiding"? No-one openly expresses them? What planet did you just arrive from?

Also, I don't understand why it say's my page does not exist. I might just try again.

The author's page cannot be acessed, but he has replied to the comment.