The Penn State scandal involves alleged pedophilia by a famous defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky and has led to indictments against two PSU administrators and the dismissal of legendary coach Joe Paterno and Penn State's money-raising, high-visibility president, Graham Spanier. The dismissals were for failure to take pedophilia (that is, rape of young boy(s)) that happened on campus seriously enough and, instead, to act effectively to cover it up.
This scandal has disgusted essentially the whole country; people have recoiled at the horribleness of the accusations of multiple pedophilia associated with a charity foundation, The Second Mile, that, as the whole country knows by now, Sandusky set up to assist troubled kids but that he is accused of using to find his prey. There are also mysteriously disappearing police records, disappeared financial records for the Second Mile, and even a disappeared District Attorney involved in earlier cases.
Pedophilia is, to most of us, an awful act, and, among other things, a betrayal of the trust children have in adults. But it has become something that can be discussed openly more so than in the past, largely due to the Catholic Church and its covering-up of a pedophilia scandal that is much larger than the Penn State scandal, but reminiscent in many ways.
Stories are now appearing that report that up to a sixth or even a quarter of children have been sexually abused at some time. Even if the urge to report or build up the nature of the problem is fed by media attention, the reports of those who treat people who were sexually abused as children seem consistently to suggest that these experiences leave lifelong personal scars.
As awful as these stories are, they raise the question as to how something so awful could be so common. After all, this is at least physically a form of sexual behavior which strongly Darwinian worldviews would suggest could hardly be favored. In this view of the world, sexual behavior should be driven by reproductive success, and any genes that predisposed to nonproductive sexual behavior should have been removed by natural selection. Similar issues have been raised about homosexuality: sometimes-contorted arguments are made to show how homosexuality can be favored or at least tolerated by natural selection. Yet, in our culture at least, these behaviors are common.
The Darwinian argument derives from a rather simplistic idea about sex and sexuality. There are two physical sexes, specified by specific chromosomes (XX makes female, XY makes male). These two types have to mate to reproduce, so one should expect there to be two corresponding, genetically programmed types of sexual behavior to bring that about. Obviously, this is not what we are seeing. Indeed, the figures show at least three major things.
First, one can argue that our culture somehow over-rides our evolved biological mandates to be 'real' males or females, and mate only with our opposite sexes. Behavior, often discussed in terms of 'gender' rather than the more anatomy-connoting term 'sex', should accord with that. This is a desperate fallback argument if you are a strong Darwinian-genetic determinist, because then anything can be explained by saying that the evolutionary determinism is real but culture somehow artificial.
Second, it is clear that there are not just two sexes or two genders. Sexual anatomy does generally fall out into to categories, with some variation in each, but there are also rare mixed instances of dual or dysgenic sexual anatomy. Clearly variation in gender behavior is more common. Personalities of males and of females both vary considerably in ways related to stereotypical ideas of how a 'woman' or a 'man' behave. Gender behaviors have a distribution, that is, the fraction of individuals who manifest a given behavior across a range of observed behaviors. As well as a range of behaviors found specifically among males and among females, the male and female gender-behavior distributions overlap.
Third, this raises the question "What is normal behavior?" If 10% of the population are homosexual, and up to 25% experience pedophilic abuse (suggesting also that a substantial percent of adults are sexual abusers), then does this not become part of the normal--that is standing--distribution of gender or even sexual behavior? But, again referring to the evolutionary question, how can this be so?
One recoils from referring to this as 'normal', and we put people in jail for child abuse, and say that they are 'diseased'--or at least criminal. But why? If there is some cutoff beyond which the behavior is a crime, who decides what that is, if not the arbitrariness of culture? For example, sex with boys and consummated marriage with pre-teen or barely teen girls are reportedly common in various societies around the world, where they are in that sense completely 'normal'. Are they associated with the same genotypes that we define as diseased or criminal?
One can argue that diseases like, say cancer, are abnormal even if a high fraction of people experience it, because they kill. That seems at least a reasonable definition. But is pedophilia abnormal in that kind of sense, or is it more like being very short or very tall in society (both of which can in various ways be harmful, physically or psychologically)? Is there some actual neuropathology involved?
Are these sexual or gender-related behaviors 'genetic' in nature? If not, and if they are part of the normal range of behaviors, then our reactions are in many ways themselves cultural ones, and in that sense arbitrary. But how are the lines drawn--based on what criteria?
We like to fancy that behavior that is so immediately disgusting is wrong in some absolute sense, perhaps because it causes psychological trauma, but that kind of conditional specificity seems unlikely. It is difficult in our context to have, much less to express, sympathy for the perpetrators of pedophilia (or those who cover it up). That would entail a coldness to its victims, who have suffered what our society, and indeed most of us, tries to avoid or prevent. But if one tries to be objective about it, even pedophilia raises questions about causation, determinism, what is 'normal', and evolutionary ideas about what organisms evolve 'for'.