I had a friend recently tell me he was attracted to minors. I’m in a 12-step recovery program and as a result, I get to hear people’s truth and try to help where possible. This was a lot to hear and I didn’t quite know how to react. Do you think this is a natural curiosity some people have or something he should talk to a therapist about or both?
Both. There are many fetishes in the world that are not permissible by law. That doesn’t make them unnatural, just illegal. If he’s into minors, he has desires that, if acted upon, would be frowned upon in most cultures and could ruin his life and the lives of others. You’re not the person to evaluate how likely he is to act on these desires — a therapist is.
We cannot police thought, and thoughts and ideas on their own are not dangerous. (Anyone who believes thoughts should be policed and equates ideas to intention is themselves dangerous.) If I was to confess every private fantasy that ever turned me on, many people would probably call me dangerous, and I believe that the average person, with self-awareness and honesty, would say the same thing.
Not everyone with a culturally unacceptable fetish is dangerous, just as not everyone with a passing thought about something illegal is likely to act on it; not everyone who’s ever been turned on by a rape story, for example, is a rapist.
Humans have an important and essential ability: we can evaluate our thoughts and choose our behavior. To help us do this, we have ethics, law, religion, and 12-step sobriety programs. All these are systems by which we control how we act and police our behavior and the behavior of others.
There is a gulf between desire and action, and that gulf is what separates serial killers and child molesters from everyone else. The average person is more like Ted Bundy than we may like to believe, but that gulf is also what separates all people from each other. Heroes and monsters are not distinguished by their thoughts and intentions, but by their actions and how those actions are perceived by everyone else.
If we really wanted to go down a philosophical rabbit hole, we could pose the next obvious question: Are we really free to choose? Are our desires random or selected by various factors outside of our control? Who or what is truly responsible for what we want and what we do?
This will take you to core questions about what we accept to be the human experience. You’ll come to debates on consciousness, biochemical algorithms, and so on. There’s no need to do that here. Our culture, laws, and customs assume that we are free to choose our actions, regardless if we actually are, and they dole out punishments and rewards accordingly.
Actions, so we believe, are what separate those who sexually abuse children from those who occasionally jack off to the fantasy of having sex with people younger than their country’s legal age of consent (which itself varies from country to country). The former group we consider dangerous. Many people would consider the latter group dangerous, too — but are they?
There are dozens of people I could find online right now who are into “taboo,” which is codified Internet speak for a number of extreme fetishes, the most common among them being scat, bestiality, and underage/incest scenarios. Those who state plainly that they are into the latter are usually seeking (and satisfied with) role-play scenarios in which people pretend to be related or underage.
Similarly, there are countless people turned on by the idea of rape who do not actually want to rape or get raped. They satisfy their fantasies with rape-like role-play. “Rape fantasy” is hardcore, brutal, and very hot, and while it certainly pushes a line for some people, everything that happens in these sexual encounters is agreed upon and consented to beforehand. Limits are set and respected and everyone goes home happy.
One could argue that this is why role-play exists — to make practices safe and exciting which would otherwise be damaging and unhealthy. I won’t say all forms of role-play attempt to do this, but some of them certainly do. If your friend is one of the many people who are turned on by the tabooed idea of playing with minors but has no real intention of acting on this fantasy beyond harmless role-play sex games with consenting, legal adults, you don’t have anything to worry about. But how do you know?
You don’t. Only a therapist can make that call.
As a friendly reminder to everyone reading this (and as a disclaimer to keep me from getting sued), I am not a therapist. Anytime your question involves something that could lead to someone being harmed, consult a professional.