Richard Dawkins doesn't get to define sex abuse

The author defends the "mild" pedophilia of his youth -- and ignores everybody else

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 11, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Richard Dawkins                    (Reuters/Chris Keane)
Richard Dawkins (Reuters/Chris Keane)

Richard Dawkins has an opinion and therefore thinks everyone else should share it. Gee, what a shock. What's surprising this time is that it's not about religion. 

In an interview with the Times magazine this past weekend, the author revealed that he and some of his peers had experienced "mild pedophilia" at their boarding school in Salisbury, and that it was no big deal. Recalling how one of his teachers "pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts," he declared, "I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm."

At least he's consistent. Addressing the widespread sexual abuse in Catholic Church, Dawkins earlier this year declared that "There are shades of being abused by a priest ... Telling children stuff that they really, really believe, that people who sin are gong to go to hell and roast forever … it seems to me to be intuitively entirely reasonable that that is a worse form of child abuse." In a post last year, he expanded on the idea that "'Sexual abuse' covers a wide spectrum of sins, and I suspect that research would show belief in hell to be more traumatic than the sort of mild feeling-up that I suffered," and distinguished his experience from "violent, painful, repeated sexual abuse." And in his book "The God Delusion," he stated that "All three of the boarding schools I attended employed teachers whose affections for small boys overstepped the bounds of propriety. That was indeed reprehensible. Nevertheless, if, fifty years on, they had been hounded by vigilantes or lawyers as no better than child murderers, I should have felt obliged to come to their defense, even as the victim of one of them (an embarrassing but otherwise harmless experience)."

Of course there are "shades" of sexual abuse. Not all touches are the same. And if Dawkins, thanks to his specific environment, experience and genetic predisposition, has today nothing more than embarrassment over what transpired between his teachers and him, that's great. Nobody is required to suffer in this life, and nobody can define someone as a victim if he himself doesn't feel like a victim. Instead, Dawkins, in his recollections, comes off like a character in "The History Boys," a fellow who views the fondlings by his educators through a nostalgic lens. Well, good for him.

But where Dawkins comes off as a raging, insensitive tool is in his blithe assumption that human reactions ought to be predictable and similar. Let me dissent. If you've ever started any line of thinking with, "I went through it and it wasn't so bad for me," and  you are not the Officially Designated Spokesperson for the Human Race, just hit the brakes right now. It is incredibly shaming and destructive to tell people where they're supposed to fall on the spectrum of trauma response, to suggest that if it's not "violent, painful, repeated sexual abuse" it's easily forgotten and forgiven, and that to seek justice for anything short of that is to be a "vigilante."

All you have to do is look at everybody you know in the world to understand that people are not that simple. Tell a clinically depressed person that it's a beautiful day and she has a great job and she shouldn't be hiding under the bedcovers. Sorry, but her brain chemistry says otherwise. Tell an adult who had a trusted teacher put his hands down his pants when he was a little boy that believing in hell is a "worse" experience. Well, maybe that's not the case for him.

Even more outrageously, Dawkins asserts in the Times piece that "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."

The shrugging assumption that, Hey, it was a different time has been used as a repulsive defense for all kinds of ugly behavior. Oh, sorry, was that thing we used to do racist or homophobic or sexist or generally exploitive and cruel? Gosh, we didn't know! We had no inherent sense of morality back in the day! In January, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony apologized for the rampant child sex abuse that went on during his watch, saying he'd been "naive" on the issue. Convicted sex abuser Jerry Sandusky was initially brushed off as a guy whose showers with a child were a problem of "boundary issues," not "substantiated child abuse." Jimmy Savile got away with decades of rape and sexual abuse thanks to what the Guardian aptly describes as "countless blind eyes, and by an onscreen culture which tittered indulgently at lechery, as if it were only natural for red-blooded males." Oh and guess what? Those "standards" of our times? Still outstandingly ignorant, on a daily basis,  about stuff like sexual assault and race. Just last year, the BBC sloughed off Savile's abuse by deciding that his victims were "just women" and "not too young." Tolerance for terrible behavior: not just a thing of the past, I assure you.

In my most optimistic moments, I choose to believe we are becoming more enlightened as a society, and am encouraged that things that we put up with silently in the past because they were so prevalent and so normalized are now being challenged. But that does not excuse what happened then. And Richard Dawkins doesn’t get to dictate what constitutes merely "mild" abuse, or how anybody else gets to remember or feel about it. This life is not a competition for who had it worse. And we don't have to hit a particular objective mark before we give ourselves permission to feel grief or shame or anger over the things that have happened to us.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Atheism Catholic Church Sex Abuse Jimmy Savile Rape Culture Richard Dawkins Roger Mahony Sex Abuse