Was Sex With Children Ever O.K.?

"Things were different then" is no excuse for inappropriate sexual contact, no matter how permissive the era

  • Share
  • Read Later
Atria Books

In an interview with TIME this week, biologist Richard Dawkins talks about being molested as a child, which he says was not a particularly big deal. “What’s happened now is that society has developed a horror of it, and rightly so. But I do think it’s important to not be too judgmental of past ages by the standards of ourselves,” he says. “You have to look at history through contemporary eyes rather than through today’s eyes.”

Similarly, the long-ago victim of Roman Polanski’s predations has released a book, in which she is not as hard on her famous rapist as many people expected. “Not everyone will understand this,” Samantha Geimer writes, “but I never thought he wanted to hurt me; he wanted me to enjoy it. He was arrogant and horny.”

(MORE: Should We Shun the Works of Artists Who Are Predators)

Dawkins was molested by a master at his primary school while he watched a squash match. True to his scientific bent, he describes it pretty clinically in his book An Appetite for Wonder: “He did no more than have a little feel, but it was extremely disagreeable (the cremasteric reflex is not painful, but in a skin-crawling creepy way it is almost worse than painful) as well as embarrassing.”

After it was over, young Dawkins ran off to tell his friends. Many of them had had the same unfortunate experience. In his telling, it seems to have been more or less regarded as bad luck, rather like having been bowled for a duck (having scored no runs) in cricket. “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage,” he notes.

But Dawkins has not put that last hypothesis through rigorous scientific testing. The studies on any child-adult sexual contact are pretty clear, whether it is so-called consensual or not. It can be toxic for the child. There are thousands of sexual-abuse survivors who struggle with what happened to them decades after the event.

(MORE: Sexual Abuse Mars the Brain in Specific Ways)

Dawkins seems to be suggesting that in making a huge deal of sex offenses against minors that happened long ago, we may be overreacting. And perhaps making things worse for the victims. Indeed, Geimer has claimed that the media victimized her by constantly invading her privacy every time Polanski popped back into the news.

Certainly, things have changed since the birth control pill first unshackled sex and pregnancy and folks threw sexual caution to the winds. What had once been regarded as an unfortunate moral failing — a penchant for young children — is now universally seen as predatory and dangerous to others. But the degree of damage sexual abuse causes may have less to do with the public attitude toward it, as Dawkins seems to suggest, and more to do with the personality, life experience and relative health of the abused. Whenever humans are wounded they heal differently, even if the injuries appear similar. Some need rest, others exercise; some respond better to therapy, while others benefit from something more invasive.

RAINN, the well-respected Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, has a list of possible symptoms of adult victims of child sexual assault. They range from problems setting boundaries to full-blown alcohol or drug addiction. Dawkins was lucky to have got off so lightly. Samantha Geimer could not be called lucky, but she healed. (She says she was definitely not all right for a year after the event.)

In other words, just because some people have come through sexual abuse with no more injuries than an “extremely unpleasant” memory doesn’t mean that childhood sexual abuse should be taken lightly. This isn’t simply a matter of a shifting moral climate that may well shift back again. We also know the damage isn’t just to the victim. While Dawkins was still at school, the master who molested him committed suicide.