Yesterday night, I watched We Were Children (trigger warning), which is a roughly 75-minute non-fiction film narrated by two survivors of Canadian residential schools. Speaking as someone who is a survivor of both incest and multiple rapes, this film triggered the ever-loving shit out of me. If you are having about one of the worst days of your life already, I strongly advise against reading the rest of this post. It’s not going to make anyone’s day better.
Severe trigger warning for graphic discourse on the subject of child sexual abuse, with extra emphasis on those who deny its gravity and long-term impact on survivors of child sexual abuse.
Within five minutes of the conclusion of that film, I logged onto Twitter to find this:
Now, I just want to say that I frequently experience the sensation of having my own past traumas triggered when I hear stories of the conditions indigenous children faced in those schools. Contrary to apparently popular opinion based on the colour of my face, hair, and eyes, I almost always hear these narratives directly from the survivors themselves. Nevertheless, I recognize that it is important for their healing that they are able to tell their stories without shaming, judgement, or being lashed out at by the people whose ears their words fall upon, that it is important to them that other people hear their stories, and that the telling and hearing of these stories helps build strong bonds of empathy and understanding when those who are not necessarily directly impacted by this history take the time to sit down and listen to it—but it also helps lift up other survivors who have yet to find the strength to speak. I learn something new from every story I hear, even though what I am hearing is painful and particularly sensitive in light of my own history.
That being said, I would normally take care of myself after this kind of experience, by directing myself away from a new blog post that criticizes Richard Dawkins for saying something egregiously offensive (yet again). I felt an overwhelming amount of grief from watching that film, and was frankly inclined to just stuff my face with cookies and ibuprofen to kick the headache out of my hindbrain before I laid to rest. But something told me I need to use that energy to investigate this blog post further, and so at 1:30 a.m., with my nose still congested from all the crying, I clicked here. Right at the very top of the blog post, we see a quote from an article in which Dawkins’ own words are quoted (emphasis mine):
In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.
Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”
He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”
“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.
He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up.”
No. A million times no.
As PZ Meyers put it immediately after this block quote, “I can think of some lasting harm: he seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children.” In case I have somehow failed to make it clear already (a million times NO), there is nothing acceptable at all about what Dawkins has said in either this instance, or last year when he claimed that teaching children the concept of hell is more abusive than raping them (something he is and already was well-known for repeatedly insisting).
Perhaps the only thing that brings me greater shock and outrage is the fact that he published this fact about his own history and — in the words of one of his newly-disenfranchised followers — was more-or-less “hand-waving about child sexual abuse” unless it involved some unspecifiable degree of severity, in his book The God Delusion, and has also done this countless times in prior media interviews and public speaking engagements. So in addition to teaching and openly encouraging a callous disregard for racism to his readership, he’s also been teaching and openly encouraging a Rate-My-Pedophile™ approach to sexual violence against children. Well, I guess that just about explains why he wrote “Dear Muslima” to respond to Rebecca Watson for confronting how uncomfortable it made her feel to be confined in an elevator (however briefly) with a man she felt unsafe with—because he was clearly soliciting her for casual sex by inviting her to come to his room alone for “coffee” at 4 in the morning, and unlike Dawkins, Watson will have already experienced heaps of this kind of sexual microaggression over the course of her lifetime. You might say she knows a thing or two about what she was saying when she summed it up with “Guys. Don’t do that.” Note how the text of his “Dear Muslima” comment appears immediately below a brief and unsupported declaration about what a champion for women’s rights he is, on this page.
With self-congratulatory “allies” like these, how the fuck are victims of sexual violence expected to gain justice, either for themselves or for other victims?
Now, there’s a very important reason I included mention of listening to the experiences of residential school survivors. Hundreds of thousands of very young indigenous children across Canada (and indigenous youth across the United States) were abducted from their families by rule of law from the 1850s all the way until 1996, and incarcerated for an average of ten years in residential schools in remote locations where the children were frequently battered, thrown into physical isolation, and/or sexually abused by priests and nuns who attempted to brainwash their ancestral cultures and languages right out of them. Up to a third of those children died from neglect, murder, suicide, deliberate and methodical exposure to communicable life-threatening illness, or exposure to the elements during escape attempts.
And not one goddamned person or entity has ever been brought to justice.
Several residential schools have recently been implicated in national news for using the incarcerated children as involuntary experimental subjects in “research” that necessitated deliberately starving them, conducting medically unnecessary therapeutic treatments on them, and even forcibly sterilizing them. If parents resisted when the RCMP came for their children — especially those who had themselves been incarcerated in residential schools at one time and thus knew exactly what their children were being condemned to — they were threatened with jail (and if the parents went to jail, the children would be taken to residential school anyway). Many children who had been incarcerated in residential schools were never returned to their biological families, but instead fostered out to non-indigenous families, where their cultural indoctrination would continue indefinitely.
Not even one person, either outraged by this latest declaration by Dawkins or rushing to his defence, acknowledges how horrifically Dawkins’ lengthy history of minimizing child sexual abuse intersects with this part of North America’s history (a history shared by Australia and New Zealand as well; and even Ireland, which indefinitely detained young women in Catholic-run slave labour camps until the mid- to late-1980s for having premarital sex, being raped, or even having the extraordinary misfortune of being taken away for being too pretty to avoid “falling away from God” somehow at an unspecified future date). In the exact same time period that Dawkins cites being sexually molested by a reputed pedophile, residential schools across Canada (and similar genocidal institutions in several other countries) were reaching their peak operation and indigenous cultures were almost completely criminalized all across North America, despite the fact that the United Nations had already established in 1948 that this constitutes a form of genocide.
But Dawkins can’t see how any of this could cause lasting harm, I guess, because he was just able to shrug off being sexually molested, and so everyone else should be able to as well. Oh, and especially Because Cultural Relativism and so Reasons.
No. A hundred million times no.
First of all, there is no fucking rating system for pedophilia. There is no range running from mild to mild-to-moderate, or moderate to severe, for pedophilia. It is a scientifically and criminally proven fact that once a pedophile crosses the threshold from having these disturbing internal sexual conflicts about children to sexually harassing, molesting, or raping children, that there is no going back to just thinking about it. A pedophile will persistently target children for sexual aggression and violence so long as he or she can get away with it. It is a well-established fact that this explicitly motivates pedophiles to seek employment, volunteer opportunities, and/or careers that earn them positions of authority and implicit trust with children, especially where they can access them in the absence of other adults; and that this is in addition to children in their own family, who they are most likely to prey upon because of the implicit trust attributed to them by both parent and child. There is no “fix”, cure, or effective rehabilitation for pedophilia—only punishment, such as indefinite confinement in prison where they have no access to children for the rest of their lives, and/or chemical castration. A pedophile will habitually rationalize at every step of their thought process that the child or children they are compulsively preying upon wanted the attention or the touch and will not be traumatized by it (i.e., “They’ll just shrug it off” or “They’ll just grow out of it”). Pedophiles will also teach these rationalizations to the children they prey upon, to ensure that they will continue to have access to them and others who are similarly vulnerable, by coercing their victims’ silence and complacence. This also teaches child victims to victimize other children as they attempt to cope with what has happened to them. Like rapists, pedophiles are almost literally always a former victim of one or more pedophiles themselves, but not every survivor turns into a pedophile or a rapist. Take my word for it. There are two confirmed pedophiles in at least two previous generations in one side of my family, and I lived full-time with one of them until shortly after my 18th birthday. You might say I’m familiar with the subject.
Secondly, there has never been a time in Western history that what we now understand as pedophilia has ever been considered acceptable or normative. What is and has, however, always been persistently considered acceptable or normative is victim-blaming/rape apologism, widespread denial, and victim-shaming. Our understanding of the psychology of people who sexually prey upon children has come leaps and bounds, even since the 50s, and our respective criminal justice systems have modified various laws and human rights declarations to reflect that insight. And yet, evidence abounds of victim-blaming, denial, and victim-shaming in Western societies, and becomes increasingly obvious the further back one looks (even glaringly obvious in ancient Greece—the birthplace of all of Western philosophy). These egregiously harmful ideologies (which collectively constitute an entire culture of rape) are not selective to any particular social class, gender, race, range of ability, or age group. Pedophiles, their victims, and everyone oblivious to both are all introduced to rape culture ideology throughout their formative years, continuously exposed in various different mediums throughout their mental and social development as individuals, and eventually expose their own children to it themselves, often unknowingly. Pedophiles and rapists alike use this to their advantage, and exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims in securing their silence through callous manipulation. The relatively few children and adults who do seek help or attempt to expose the truth of what has happened to them are most often answered with denial, blaming, and shaming — in other words, the vast majority of people answer these injustices through the very same vulnerabilities that allowed those victims to fall prey to a sexual predator in the first place. There are several structural barriers preventing the victims of sexual abuse (regardless of demographic) from coming forward at all. Even the nature of the criminal justice system is one of them.
Personally speaking, there was a critical moment when I was 11 years old that I could nearly taste my escape from what was happening to me in my natal home, where I suffered approximately ten years of incest (followed by several years of increasingly invasive sexual aggression afterwards as I went through an unusually delayed and prolonged sexual development complicated by intense gender dysphoria in the presence of homophobic and transphobic parents). My perpetrator had berated my oldest sister before spitting in her 16-year-old face from across the dining table in front of our middle sister (14 years old) and our complicit parent, who didn’t even say a word. My oldest sister immediately burst out the back door, ran away, and called police and social services. But my perpetrator, being a cunning fucking psychopath, manipulated police into coercing my oldest sister (legally old enough at the time to emancipate herself) to return home with us the same night. Social services came to visit a day or two later, and interviewed the entire family together in the living room. In fear of what would happen to us if we told the truth and we weren’t taken away, we all lied. Social services never interviewed us separately, and simply closed the door, sealing all of us in together with a psychopathic pedophile, and never returning for follow-up or further monitoring of our extremely abusive household. I don’t remember anything that happened between that door closing and when we moved out of that house a year later. In fact, for nearly ten years after the fact, I had no idea an entire year had passed, of which I didn’t remember a solitary moment or even sense the loss of so much time.
Neither of the two confirmed pedophiles who had access to me have ever been brought to justice, and the likelihood that this will ever happen is profoundly impeded by an utterly unbelievable collective denial among my entire biological family. They simply reinforce each other’s denial as soon as any one of them reaches for the blinders. I have literally watched in horror and helplessness as they did this directly in front of me, and I wasn’t even gesturing towards sexual abuse at the time. Their denial is so powerful and so incredibly triggering that for my own mental health, I can’t afford to maintain a relationship with even a single one of them.
I was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder at 18 years old, in my first assessment with a psychiatrist. It wasn’t until shortly before my 26th birthday that a mental health professional finally affirmed my deep-rooted and persistent suspicions of incest to me. For the 8 years in between, if any mental health professional who dealt with me actually felt that my suspicions were valid or even that my mental health crisis was legitimate, they certainly didn’t make that clear to me. After that first professional affirmed my experience, I nearly lost my own life to a series of suicidal gestures until he asked me point-blank if I have a death wish. That’s about when I finally realized that I had been fairly consistently suicidal since as far back as I could remember in my childhood.
There’s a reason the “most notorious cases” involve rape or murder, and it’s because of just how fucking traumatic it is to be a child preyed upon by a pedophile, in a society that is structured and defined in part by a culture of rape. Many survivors eventually take their own lives before disclosing their trauma to anyone who is known to them, or attempting to pursue criminal justice. It often takes a horrendously injurious rape or outright murder of a child for pedophilia to assume the urgency of getting noticed at all, and the same is true of rape involving adult victims. Why, Richard Dawkins can even be reputed for hand-waving about child sexual abuse or declaring that the concept of hell is more abusive, and he’s still held up and defended as a hero of organized atheism and women’s rights.
I bet you must be thinking “you’ve got to be kidding me” right about now, right?
No. I’m not kidding. How else do you think the systematic sexual abuse of tens of thousands of indigenous children in Canada and the US — all the way up to 1996 in residential schools and continuing into the present day as indigenous communities struggle through the trans-generational effects of this trauma (including people within their own communities who are either in denial or don’t even know what has happened to their own people) — is just completely ignored by the government, the criminal justice system, the general public, and even activist communities all across the continent that claim to take a defiant stand against identical issues?