Behaviours and Immutable Traits


A Scottish politician, Karen Adam MSP, triggered a massive online backlash by tweeting paedophiles and predators are people, adding only that they are people who abuse. The statement is factually correct, but this came just days after the Scottish Parliament facilitated sexual abuse by making it much easier for biological males to gain access to female-only spaces in their Gender Recognition Reform Bill. A disturbingly large number of male sexual predators have already gained entry to female-only prisons and changing rooms by identifying as female while retaining male genitalia. Ms Adam’s critics inevitably accused her of normalising paedophilia as a sexual orientation. Then a Scottish superintendent used the neologism MAPs (or minor-attracted persons) in a year-end report on the police’s strategy to tackle child sexual exploitation. This term destigmatises paedophilia. Ironically, both sides of the online debate agreed that sexual attraction is an innate trait rather than a learned behaviour. This may lend weight to arguments against conversion therapy when it comes to same-sex attraction, but is problematic at best when applied to the ideation of child abuse.

Let me go out on a limb here. All men are potential rapists. For sake of argument, I’ll use the definition of non-consensual forced penetration, a basic infringement of bodily autonomy. The question is when should we intervene to stop such immoral acts? The conventional wisdom is still that we should only punish perpetrators after a court of law has proven that someone has committed the crime. The same logic applies to murder and theft. Many of us may contemplate acts of revenge or entertain sexual fantasies that may inflict untold harm on others, but we do not usually act on our nefarious urges, unless we are either psychologically unstable or culturally conditioned to dehumanise victims. Arguably a society that normalises depravity is itself degenerate. As adults we are ultimately responsible for our actions unless we claim insanity and submit to psychiatric surveillance.

Philip K. Dick popularised the concept of pre-crime in his 1956 science fiction novel The Minority Report, which Stephen Spielberg later adapted for film. In the book the police’s precrime division uses precognition technology to predict when suspects are about to commit crimes and thus arrest them ahead of time. This assumes free will is a mere illusion and our behaviours, while sensitive to many inherited traits and environmental stimuli, are pre-determined.

Psychiatric screening is a classic case of a road paved with good intentions that leads to tyranny. While it may seem a good idea to evaluate young children for potential neurodevelopmental disorders, the devil is in the detail. What kind of personality profiles warrant preventive treatment? Whose business is it anyway to intrude on children’s natural development other than their parents and extended family? Until recently, parents only sought professional help if their children were seriously ill or had obvious intellectual handicaps. Now health visitors and social workers monitor the progress of all children and look out for any signs of developmental abnormalities. In Scotland most children, especially those without a stay-at-home parent, attend nursery before starting primary school at the tender age of five, letting external agencies take over pastoral care early on and refer any non-conforming children for psychiatric screening. The authorities now treat parents as little more than temporary carers and have begun to ask pupils to report politically incorrect speech at home. In 2019 a 17-year-old Aberdeenshire student was suspended for simply stating in class that there are only two genders. It’s becoming increasingly clear the authorities are more concerned about non-compliance with new societal precepts than the kind of harmful behaviours we traditionally call crimes.

The concept of precrime has now been extended to the realm of thought crime. Search engines can already analyse patterns in your online queries to predict your likely behaviours. This makes the redefinition of paedophilia as a sexual orientation particularly scary, especially if its diagnosis blurs the boundaries with other non-heteronormative tendencies that were also once considered mental disorders, but now must be celebrated. If a prepubescent child can identify as another gender, the stage is set to encourage such children to consider their erotic desires with each other and adults. At stake is the erosion of childhood innocence, when we can explore the natural world around us inquisitively uncorrupted by the deep and competitive feelings evoked by adult erotic exchanges. Merkinch Primary School in Inverness, catering for 5- to 11-year-olds, issued a questionnaire asking pupils if they identify as gay, lesbian or transgender. What evidence is there that adult sexual preferences can be determined at such a young age?

An alternative way to view the formation of our erotic feelings focuses on the interplay between our natural hormonal development and our social environment. This approach prevailed before the 1980s. The early gay rights movement did not view homosexuality as strictly genetically determined, but as a tendency among consenting adults who could not find happiness in heterosexual relationships. They argued modern liberal societies could more openly accommodate a wider range of lifestyles without changing the fundamental role of natural families. In reality, teenagers and young adults in same-sex environments such as boys’ boarding schools have long experimented with forms of homo-erotic mutual masturbation, but later grew out of this phase when circumstances changed. For decades homosexual practices at British private schools were swept under the carpet as temporary perversions comparable with illicit drugs. Nobody sought to elevate non-heteronormative eroticism to the status of protected characteristic. The idea that gays and lesbians are born that way can both validate the behaviour, if society considers it harmless, and criminalise people for life, if society condemns it.

In my experience, sexuality is not set in stone, but like many other behavioural traits evolves from a mix of environmental factors and genetic predisposition. Comparisons with other less emotive behaviours may enlighten us. Most psychologists believe people are not born muggers or racists, but some immutable biological attributes may shape our moral compass. Some societies, or socio-economic groups, are undoubtedly more prone to violence or distrust of outsiders than others. Likewise, societies may have very different sexual mores with homo-erotic practices much more common in some than others. While few of us can survive without friends, family or at least a circle of acquaintances we can trust, our survival instincts guide our coping strategies in life. We may tend more towards amoral or otherwise socially deviant behaviours if other strategies fail. If we extend the meaning of survival to cover our innate desire to spread our genes and leave our imprint on future generations, we can begin to understand why people may adopt different mating strategies based on a complex set of competing psycho-social and hormonal impulses as well as cultural influences. Undoubtedly, many of our preferences on lifestyle issues as varied as food, drink, exercise, vices and work are deeply entrenched by the time we reach adulthood. Yet when we struggle with our wellbeing, it seems perfectly normal to seek to improve ourselves by learning new skills, adopting a healthier diet, getting more exercise or quitting harmful habits, although we may prefer to laze around at home bingeing on junk food and watching YouTube videos. People suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction regularly undergo rehab and many go on to lead healthy lives. In some deprived areas, teenagers may get involved in gangland violence and end up in jail as young adults. Given the right training opportunities, some learn their lessons and succeed in mainstream society. If we were to conclude that obesity, alcoholism or mugging were immutable traits, we may as well condemn such people to lifelong medical or penal internment before they harm either themselves or others. Thanks to the expansion of the mental health industry, this is more or less what’s happening. Dysfunctional behaviours such as overeating are validated as innate psychological conditions that can only be managed, but never corrected.

If we treat paedophilia as a crime and its perpetrators, often victims of sexual abuse themselves, as psychologically disturbed, we can both protect childhood innocence and make such tendencies socially reprehensible. I see it more as a scourge on society than a lifelong neurological condition. However, reclassifying minor attraction as an immutable orientation runs the risk of either condemning perpetrators for life or normalising the behaviour, leading inevitably to more proactive surveillance and less freedom for those of us who behave responsibly. The same authorities that want to censor the Internet allegedly to protect us against exposure to online child porn and grooming gangs are normalising erotic ideation among prepubescents via RSE (Relationship and Sex Education), literally implanting ideas into children’s young minds. Just because some people become very set in their ways does not mean they cannot change bad or evil habits. That’s why society and families matter.