(An edited version of this essay appeared as an op-ed under the title “Changing the language of sex-crimes against children,” Boston Globe, 11/23/98.)
My ten-year-old daughter brought us the news. She told of a little boy across town who had been kidnapped, raped, and killed. She insisted I turn on the TV to find out more. I hesitated, wanting to protect her, as if protecting her from the truth were the same as protecting her from evil. I turned on the news.
Mostly I was concerned for my daughter’s feelings. But as a parent, my heart also ached for the parents of this boy whose name we did not yet know. And as a man who was raped at age ten by a coach who, before he was stopped, went on to devastate the lives of hundreds of children, I felt an old rage surface again. Soon we would learn that the boy’s name was Jeffrey Curley.
Because of my own history, I have been trying to understand the enormity of this evil for a long time now. I have come to few conclusions except that we have to begin with a different set of terms if we are to avoid the same fear, helplessness, and despair that have incapacitated us so far and continued to place children at risk.
I believe we have been misled by the language we use, by the way we talk about those who would harm our children. Our words are important. Words are how we think. We talk of them as “sick.” We use names that accept their denial and distortion. We become tangled in language that does not reflect reality, but hides it until, over and over, child after child, it is too late.
Let’s begin by refusing to use the word “pedophile.” The word comes from Greek and means, literally, “one who loves children.” What an Orwellian inversion! To use this word to describe those who violate children, and in many instances kill to silence them, is to help the wolf into his wooly disguise.
The term pedophile is more than a poor word choice, however; a pseudo-medical term, it asks us to see such evil as arising from disease or illness, evil in its effect, perhaps, but no more intentional than other natural misfortunes like diabetes, say, or muscular dystrophy. This makes the violation of children a part of the natural order and the perpetrator one who cannot help himself.
In place of the term pedophile, then, let me offer an alternative: pedoscele, from Latin “scelus,” meaning “evil deed.” Try it. Ped-o-skeel: one who does evil to children.
And let’s stop calling them “sex offenders,” as if their crimes had anything to do with sex. (Perhaps Jeffrey Dahmer was a “food offender.”) As the poet Linda McCarriston once pointed out, “Saying ‘the man had sex with the child’ is like saying, ‘The man had dinner with the pork chop.'”
The rape of a child is a violent act of contempt, not an expression of sexuality or affection. Pedosceles want us to believe otherwise. This is why they talk of “love” between men and boys. All too often we fall for it. For example, in a newscast about the man who had devastated the childhoods of several generations in my hometown, including mine, a TV commentator said that the defendant had “admitted that he is overly fond of young boys.” (The word “pedophile” is there, in the shadows.) At that pre-trial hearing, one boy said the man had threatened to cut off his genitals if he told. Another boy testified that the man threatened to shoot his little brother. Overly fond indeed.
A couple of years ago a pedoscele named Thomas Hamilton massacred a kindergarten class in Dunblane, Scotland. He had been driven, unwelcome, from one community to another for decades, but police were not able to find parents unashamed to take a case to court. Instead, he was shooed along, referred to as a “misfit,” and became, each time, the next community’s problem. The subsequent slaughter, like the murder of Jeffrey Curley, unmasks the real nature of this type of child abuse. At its core is a hatred of that naivete and vulnerability we call innocence. Men like Thomas Hamilton, or Jesse Timmendequas who killed Megan Kanka, or the murderers of Jeffrey Curley, cannot stand that quality and must defile it. Failing that, they must kill the child who represents it.
While we’re at it, let’s retire the word “molest.” On a family vacation recently, we took a day trip to a bird sanctuary where the signs read: Do Not Molest the Birds. Look it up. It means to bother. Bother? Excuse me, sir, you’re bothering my child.
Even speaking informally we communicate mostly ignorance, discomfort, and confusion. I have heard the word diddle used to describe (and dismiss) the violation of children, as in “He likes to diddle little boys.” It is a word that seems made to order, silly sounding, sniggering, naughty. Diddling, fondling, fooling around – great foggy euphemisms into which real children like Jeffrey Curley vanish.
We need to create safety for our children. But the first step in doing so is to see reality clearly. Using language that reflects the real nature of the crimes committed against children, maybe we can figure out, at long last, how to protect them from people who – make no mistake about it – hate them for being what they are: young, trusting, and innocent.