Monday, November 28, 2011

The Penn State Sandusky scandal: What is 'normal'?

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'.


Texbrit said...

It is a very bravely-written piece, to even dare allow the phenomenon of paedophilia the benefit of an "objective analysis" in terms of challenging the idea of what is normal. Certain things in our society are so taboo as to basically require us to all say the same thing, out of reflex. To look around the world at the different types of paedophilia that are socially accepted in their local or temporal context (arranged marriage of pre-pubescent girls in many societies; or the ancient Greek practice of homosexual paedophilia that all the greats seemed to engage in; or in melanesian societies where young boys are encouraged to engage in premature homosexual sex with one another); to say nothing of the fact that a sizeable proportion of sex in general includes at least one participant who is more or less unwilling - or even violently subjected, is usually not a permissible basis to even broach the subject in our own society. We can't even talk about sex properly; how on earth can we talk about paedophilia?

But herein the taboo catches its own tail: When somebody like Joe Paterno, an accused enabler, makes a doorstep statement to reporters condemning the awful and despicable acts - can we believe that's how he really feels? Or is he just saying that because it is what he has to say?

It could be argued that paedophilia is partly such a victimising thing to children because of how sexuality is dealt with in our society (generally with hypocritical repression and much angst) - that sex is bad and naughty enough for adults to engage in; even worse for the underage; and downright shameful for a child. The child is the victim because he was subjected to an unwholesome act; an unwholesome act that his society and even parents taught him he should under no circumstances engage in, and hardly should even know about. But it makes me wonder - was the ancient Greek child shamed and victimised by his philosopher-mentor? Or was this a "normal" part of life back then?

I think it is necessary to understand phenomenon - culturally abhorrent nor not - in order to strengthen our argument against those things, if we decide that those things are unwelcome in our society, day, and age.

Ken Weiss said...

I think JoePa, used to being given his way, probably dismissed what happened in a kind of reflex way as a distraction (not a de facto approval). His public statement was probably sincere, since he knew about this long ago and didn't really act. It may have been so far out of his awareness-sphere, esp. perhaps as a 74-year old at the time, that he could hardly recognize its seriousness, also given his longtime association with Sandusky etc.

But certainly nobody in his shoes could be unaware of the PR value of expressing sympathy (and he knows he may be the target of law suites).

The child may be a victim because s/he also can't really do anything about it, unlike unwilling adults.

I believe it was 'normal' in Greece (related to the upper class, at least). And what about all the homosexuality allegedly occurring in prisons or on submarines? Your point about our unwillingness as a society to talk much about this is well-taken.

But it also shows, clearly I think, how wrong-headed much of the evolutionary psychology and sexology is, in asserting genetic control or natural selection stories, when much of this is manifestly cultural.

James Goetz said...

Hmm, I lived over ten years in the State College area and now over five years in the Syracuse area. This leaves me haunted by an iconic assistant college football coach and an iconic assistant college basketball coach facing accusations of perpetrating pedophilia. However, this disturbance to my occasional sports dynasty fantasies has little comparison to the unfathomable disturbance of the victims.

I've occasionally reviewed sexology literature over three decades and see a distribution. A small percent of the public has a primary or secondary pedophilic orientation. But the orientation never necessitates perpetration.

This is short for now, but I hope to have time to write about this in detail some time in the future. Ken, thank you for your ideas on this sad but important subject.

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, it's a sad story. We condemn the acts and give our best wishes to their victims, for whose experience we have only the greatest regret.

But, more than that, as scientists (and citizens) we should try to understand these acts and why they occur.

Anonymous said...


There is a fairly widely accepted observation in cultural anthropology that, among any two human beings, a power relationship usually develops. In most such relationships with adults children lose.

So perhaps the question here might be not one of Darwinian biology or whether how sexuality is dealt with in our society contributes to our abhorrence of pedophilia, but why (and what) elements of our society use sexual violation to exert their personal power.

For adults to use children to command a sense of their personal power is underdeveloped and abusive. Using sexual acts to do so--which can and should be some of the more joyful and fulfilling physical experiences of a human existence when one is a willing participant, and which most children have not yet experienced--is repugnant. That is why we call being an unwilling participant in sexual acts rape.

And perhaps a key element of our repugnance is that these 10-year-olds did not solicit or welcome these assaults, in College Park or in ancient Greece.

Holly Dunsworth said...

A huge part of why sexual violation is a powerful tool for exerting personal power is that there are societal and cultural sex rules (some of which define normal arbitrarily) in the first place. I blame the people who figured out that sex makes babies. Sex became a business about resources and legacy. It became secret and shameful. It became way too important and has way too many expectations placed on it.

Ken Weiss said...

These comments get at, but also are similar to, the problems of evolutionary psych. EvPsych offers tight, oversimplified, hyper-Darwinian and highly adaptationist explanations. It is based, implicitly or explicitly, on high levels of assumed genetic determinism.

Cultural effects, as what we're discussing surely are, show that biological determinism is not about specifics, not even who has what kind of sex with whom, but about response to conditions. So Just-So stories are just that.

At the same time, while it seems reasonable to attribute child abuse and much of sexual behavior to power relationships, rather than sex per se, that itself is almost unprovable, can't really escape from someone arguing that power relationships evolved to control fitness via sex, etc. Cultural explanations are, I think and unfortunately,just as vulnerable to being subjective speculations.

These are at least my reasons for thinking that these kinds of issues, not genetic darwinism, are much more challenging and much more important to try to understand.