My name is Alexander. My nickname is Beastly. I write about sex.
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I had a friend recently tell me he was attracted to minors. I’m in a 12-step recovery program and as a result, I get to hear people’s truths and try to help where possible. This was a lot to hear and I didn’t quite know how to react. Do you think this is a natural curiosity some people have or something he should talk to a therapist about or both?
The answer is both. There are many fetishes in the world that are not permitted by law. That doesn’t make them unnatural, simply illegal.
If he’s into minors, that means he has desires which, if acted upon, would be frowned upon in most cultures, could get him thrown in prison, and could severely harm someone else psychologically. You’re not the person to evaluate how likely he is to act on these desires — a therapist is. That said, since you’ve been trusted with this information, an important thing to do is not judge. Be a person he can talk to about this — if you feel comfortable taking on that emotional labor.
We cannot police thought, nor should we, and thoughts and ideas on their own are not dangerous. Anyone who thinks thoughts should be policed — and obfuscates thoughts with intentions — is dangerous. If I was to confess every dark, private fantasy that ever turned me on, many people would probably call me dangerous, and I believe that the average person, with full self-awareness and honesty, could probably make the same admission. I’ve had sexual thoughts about things that are very taboo, even illegal. But that’s my private world of fantasy, and until the very moment I act on them, I am not dangerous, abnormal, or committing any crime.
Not everyone with a culturally unacceptable fetish is dangerous, just as not everyone with a passing thought about something illegal is likely to act on it. Not everyone who’s ever been turned on by a rape story, for example, is a rapist. There are many people into “consensual non-consent,” an extreme version of fetish role-play, also called “rape fantasy,” and I’m one of them — and we’re not all rapists, in fact, most of us condemn and march against actual rape, abuse, and consent violations. People with extreme fetishes are usually (historically) the loudest voices championing consent and autonomy since consent allows us to enjoy the extreme things we like safely.
Humans have an important and essential ability: we can evaluate our thoughts and choose our behavior. To help us do this, we have ethics, law, religion, and various other institutions. All these are systems by which we control how we act and police our behavior and the behavior of others.
There is a gulf between desire and action, and that gulf is what separates serial killers and child molesters from everyone else. The average person is more like Ted Bundy than we may like to believe, but most people don’t go around killing for fun. Celebrated heroes and hated monsters are not distinguished by their thoughts and intentions, but by their actions and how those actions are perceived in the dominant culture.
If we really wanted to go down a philosophical rabbit hole, we could pose the next obvious question: Are we free to choose? Are our desires random or selected by various factors beyond our control? Who or what is really responsible for what we do?
That rabbit hole would take us to core questions about what we accept as the human experience. We’d come to debates on consciousness, biochemical algorithms, and so on. There’s no need to do all that here. Our culture, laws, and customs assume that we are free to choose our actions, regardless of whether we really are, and our institutions dole out punishments and rewards accordingly on this foundational assumption.
Actions are what separate those who sexually abuse children from those who occasionally jack off to the fantasy of having sex with minors — people younger than their country’s legal age of consent (which itself varies from country to country). The former group we consider dangerous. Many people would consider the latter group dangerous, too — but are they?
There are dozens of people I could find online right now who are into “taboo,” which is an internet slang term for a number of extreme fetishes, the most common among them being scat, bestiality, and underage/incest scenes. Most of the time, those who state plainly that they are into the latter are usually seeking (and satisfied with) role-play scenarios in which people pretend to be related or underage — but I have been asked more than once if I wanted to play with someone’s actual underage son.
Similarly, there are countless people turned on by the idea of rape who do not actually want to rape or get raped. They satisfy these fantasies with rape-like role-play. While “rape fantasy” certainly pushes a line for some, everything that happens in these encounters is consensual.
One could argue that this is why role-play exists: it makes practices safe and exciting that would otherwise be damaging and unhealthy. I won’t say all forms of role-playing do that, but some certainly do. If your friend is one of the many people who are turned on by the tabooed idea of playing with minors but has no real intention of acting on this fantasy beyond harmless role-play sex games with other consenting adults, you don’t have anything to worry about. But how do you know?
You don’t. Only a therapist can make that call.