The Problem with Sin, Part 1: Sexual Abuse

Earlier this week, a poster on the Bilgrimage blog said that an EWTN host said that the reason why adults having sex with children was a sin was because it was “non-procreative.” I wish I had asked this poster who the host was, because I don’t like reporting anecdotal stories like this. However, given that this is the same network where Fr. Benedict Groeschel once defended Jerry Sandusky (!) and said that Sandusky’s victims “seduced him” (!!), it’s not hard to believe that they’d have other hosts with peculiar views on child sexual abuse. This comment led to me think about how the paradigm of sin is inadequate to determine whether something is right or wrong.

The Baltimore Catechism defines “actual sin” (i.e., the sins humans commit themselves, as opposed to original sin) as, “any willful thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the law of God.” While other Christian traditions may have slightly different definitions of sin, there is a consensus that sin is what is offensive to god, and engaging in habitual sin leads to alienation from god. Since the time of Christendom to the current period, Christians have tried to criminalize sin, ostensibly to save the populace from their own depravity. This is the logic behind “blue laws,” anti-sodomy laws, obscenity laws and the like. But is making sin a crime really the best way to create a peaceful, prosperous, and just society?

The main problem with using sin as a framework for a legal system is that it is based on what god supposedly wants, rather than what is good (or bad) for the humans who actually have to live in such a society. Take, for example, “blue laws” that are intended to force everyone to keep the “Sabbath day holy” by not engaging in filthy commerce or unnecessary labor (I’ll ignore for a moment the fact that there is some controversy over what day the “Sabbath” refers to). In 19th century England, there was a major push among Christian reformers, especially the Methodists, to “keep the Sabbath day holy” by exhorting the need to eliminate extraneous work. The problem was that for many members of the working class, Sunday was often the only day they had to themselves to do household chores, including shopping (remember this was before the five day, forty-hour work week). While the neo-puritans may have been well-intentioned, having a Sunday free of secular distractions was a luxury that many people couldn’t afford, and that’s still the case in our own age.

Going back to the child sex abuse example, the absurdity of stating that the primary issue with adults having sex with children is that such acts are non-procreative should be obvious. Sexual abuse, especially when committed by a trusted adult, is psychologically and physically damaging. It harms the minds and bodies of children. That alone should be enough of a reason as to why adults having sex with children is wrong. The problem is not that god has been offended, but that the bodily integrity and trust of a child has been violated. Indeed, if you look in the Bible, you’ll see that the god of the Hebrew Bible was okay with sexual slavery of “virgins,” many of whom we can assume were pre-pubescent or barely pubescent girls:

Deut. 21:10-14 When thou goest forth to war against thine enemies, and the LORD thy God hath delivered them into thine hands, and thou hast taken them captive, And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife; Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails; And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife. And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her.

Numbers 31:15-18 And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the LORD. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Judge 21:10-12 And the congregation sent thither twelve thousand men of the valiantest, and commanded them, saying, Go and smite the inhabitants of Jabeshgilead with the edge of the sword, with the women and the children. And this is the thing that ye shall do, Ye shall utterly destroy every male, and every woman that hath lain by man. And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead four hundred young virgins, that had known no man by lying with any male: and they brought them unto the camp to Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan…..14) And Benjamin came again at that time; and they gave them wives which they had saved alive of the women of Jabesh-Gilead: and yet so they sufficed them not….20) Therefore they commanded the children of Benjamin, saying, Go and lie in wait in the vineyards; And see, and, behold, if the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in dances, then come ye out of the vineyards, and catch (chataph) you every man his wife of the daughters of Shiloh, and go to the land of Benjamin.

Hebrew Bible aside, let’s assume for a moment that the “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed” point of view that is still common in many “traditional cultures” somehow makes sex with girls who have experienced some level of puberty permissible. The age of menarche among girls today is considerably lower than it was even thirty years ago, and in some cases otherwise pre-pubescent girls are getting their periods and have the potential to become pregnant. By this host’s “logic,” having sex with a nine year old who has already started menstruating would be less wrong than having sex with a nine year old who hadn’t experienced menarche. Or something (thinking about this makes my head hurt). The body of a young girl is simply not built for sexual intercourse, much less having or giving birth to a baby. Even babies born to older teens often have low birth weights, prematurity, and other health problems.

While I have thus far focused on the sexual abuse of girls, the same is largely true for male victims. The problem with sexually abusing boys is not that the sex is “unnatural,” but that they are being physically and psychologically harmed, often by a trusted authority figure. Whether the sex acts involved were “natural” or “unnatural” in the eyes of god, should be irrelevant. Our main concern for abuse victims should not be whether god has been offended or not (especially since the Bible seems to indicate otherwise), but on protecting and demanding justice for the least in our midst. Conservative religionists often claim that humanists have no grounds to object to rape, because we supposedly don’t have a supernatural basis for our ethics. However, I charge that it is religionists who don’t have a reason to object to sexual abuse, since the Bible condones it and in the Catholic case, tradition is blasé about it, both in theory and practice. When drafting laws or making rules about ethical behavior, our foremost concern should be the health and well-being of other humans, not the perceived will of a capricious supernatural entity.