Virtual Kiddie Porn and Real-Life Nastiness
An email conversation about the news of the day.
April 17 2002 3:19 PM

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Atul,

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It's true that the majority of intersex kids are assigned the female gender. And part of the reason is that the female is, sort of, the default sex, developmentally speaking (although that's turning out to be a bit of an oversimplification, as everything will if given enough time and grant money). So maybe the majority of kids born with abnormal genitalia really "are" female, in the sense that they never quite got enough of the testosterone oomph to rank as males. But one intersex activist I know told me that a surgeon described the real reason for the female bias in deciding whether a baby like the one you helped deliver should go home in a blue blanket or a pink: When it comes to genital surgery, he said, "it's easier to make a hole than build a pole."

And while we're on the subject of holes and poles, what did you think of the Supreme Court ruling about virtual child pornography? (As a side note, isn't it fascinating that Clarence "Long Dong Silver" Thomas, who votes with Antonin Scalia nearly 100 percent of the time, in this case did not?) I have such mixed feelings about the whole pornography and child-sex-abuse frenzy, and the fact that every child who ever sang in a choir seems to have been some priest's ponyboy. On the one hand, yes, it's terrible that these frocked pedophiles have been protected by the church for so long. On the other hand, what do we mean by sex abuse? Is a quick fondle as bad as sodomy? Most people would say not, yet when it comes to talking about "children" (another category of perpetually shifting definition), fondling and rape are often tossed together and treated as equivalent evils. In fact, long-term studies of victims of "childhood sex abuse" have shown that many forms of what we consider abuse—mostly groping and asking to be groped—do not seem to leave the sort of ghastly psychic scars that one might predict. (Forced sodomy, intercourse, and fellatio are another matter, and seem to be far more psychologically damaging.)

I know I'll open myself to universal condemnation for even broaching this side of the story, and maybe it's because I hear too much from the sexology research crowd, who talk among themselves of these unpopular findings but almost never broach them publicly. But considering how harsh and bleak and punitive is the worldview promoted by such keepers of our youth's virginity as John Ashcroft, I can't help feeling that our hysteria and fears are misplaced.

Not long ago I interviewed Richard Dawkins of Selfish Gene fame on the topic of bullying, which he predictably experienced as a boy in an English boarding school. "To compare it with that other fashionable target of well-meaning hand-wringing, pedophilia, I experienced both at school, and there's no question which was the more distressing and damaging," he said. "To have a middle aged schoolmaster stick his hand into my shorts was acutely embarrassing and unpleasant but not cruel, and it certainly didn't come close to doing lasting damage (nowadays it would do lasting damage but ONLY because of the court cases, the prying social workers, the cross-examinations by lawyers, etc). But the bullying by fellow schoolboys was undoubtedly VERY cruel and VERY distressing."

So, I guess I'd rather see virtual child pornography than real-life nastiness, and there's nothing nastier and lower than some of the antics here in Washington, D.C.

Natalie

Natalie Angier is a science writer for the New York Times and the author of Woman: An Intimate Geography.