Pedophiles "fantasize about raping children". That phrase produces over two pages of Google hits today. As with many contentious issues, "Non-offending pedophiles: accept or condemn?" is conducted as a war online, hearts and minds being won and lost with slogans and appeals to emotion. "You fantasize about raping children" is perhaps the most effective verbal weapon in the arsenal of the "condemn" side. As propaganda, it's a stroke of genius.

This post seeks to unpack that phrase and defuse its undeserved power.

The phrase implicitly concedes one point. It allows for the idea that many pedophiles never rape children and some of us never will. But our opponents feel we deserve fierce condemnation even if we will never harm a child, and seek to score points because we fantasize about something most people find disgusting.

The pieces for a syllogism are there.

1. A pedophile is by definition sexually attracted to children.
2. Everyone fantasizes about sexual intercourse with the people they are attracted to.
3. Sexual intercourse with a child is rape.
4. Ergo, all pedophiles fantasize about raping children.

In isolation all the points look pretty solid. The key weakness is the linkage between a fantasy and what the fantasy would be if carried out.

Compare this syllogism for an ordinary guy called John:

1. John fantasizes about sex with Scarlett Johansson (an arbitrarily chosen attractive celebrity).
2. There's no way on earth Scarlett would consent to sex with John.
3. If John had sex with Scarlett it would be rape.
4. Ergo, John fantasizes about raping Scarlett.

But that doesn't sound so convincing, does it? We know that in his fantasies, John is probably transforming Scarlett into someone who is enthusiastic about sex with him, and he is not fantasizing about raping this transformed person he has imagined. Like most people, he is probably very good at keeping fantasy and reality separate, and poses no danger of raping the real Scarlett.

So what's different about the two cases? Scarlett quite probably does like the idea of sexual intercourse with the right man at the right time. John and that man have many superficial similarities, including their physical bodies, so when John imagines substituting himself for one of Scarlett's actual sexual interests in her mind, it is a small transformation.

By contrast, no 4-year-old girl wants to have intercourse with an adult man, and full penis-in-vagina sex would cause great pain and physical damage if it was possible at all. But wait -- how did we go from "child" straight to "4-year-old girl"? In the war between non-offending pedophiles and opponents, the opponents will naturally pick the case that makes their point. They want you to imagine 4-year-old girls, and the <availability heuristic> will be working in their favor.

A major source of confusion is that there is no agreed definition of who the opponent is. "Pedophile" in common usage includes those who do sexual things with minors -- which includes boys and girls in the 13-17 range, including a great many who are sexually mature in physical terms. Young teens are not all that different from Scarlett, psychologically. They are very interested in the idea of sex and look forward to it with the right person at the right time. Adults who fantasize about sex with young teens are unlikely to be fantasizing about rape any more than John was fantasizing about raping Scarlett.

Fantasies can cover a great deal of ground, but surely they include all cases of actual child sexual abuse, which cover plenty of ground themselves. Boys are on average less picky about their sexual partners than girls are. Most abuse does not involve physical force, and a great deal involves no clear coercion. Sexual abuse of young teens comprises most of child sexual abuse, and abuse becomes much rarer as age goes down. This mirrors people's attractions. Most ordinary men feel a strong attraction to girls in their mid-teen years. But among true pedophiles (much rarer to begin with), attraction to 4-year-olds is much less common than to 10-year-olds.

As we go down in age to prepubescent children, the psychology changes. Now, the transformation required in the imagination is a bit more, and includes changing not just the target of the young person's sexual interest but their interest in sex at all. Sexual abuse of younger boys and girls usually involves no penetration but things like oral or manual stimulation. Judging from conversations online, those who fantasize about younger girls typically limit their fantasies in these ways as well. Yet fantasy itself has no limits. We can fantasize about flying through space in nothing but our clothes (if that), and dispatching our enemies with bursts of energy from our fingertips. Fantasizing about a 4-year-old girl who has a strong sex drive and a vagina like an adult woman's is no harder.

Morally, there is no relevant difference between the imaginary version of Scarlett and this imaginary 4-year-old girl. The closest real-life analogs would not consent to the imagined sex, but no real people ever find out about the fantasies.

The "you fantasize about raping children" gets a further boost from the fact that in most people's minds, the typical pedophile is a child rapist. Those are the ones who make the biggest news headlines. It seems highly plausible to an average person that the non-offending pedophiles are fantasizing about doing what the notorious offenders have actually done. But this is totally unwarranted. If somehow the primary way heterosexual men came to your attention was because of news of rape convictions, it would be easy to assume that John was actually fantasizing about raping Scarlett Johansson.

Another problem is that most people have no idea how it would feel to find a prepubescent child sexually attractive. It is foreign. It is icky. If someone claims that sexual fantasies involving them are fantasies of rape, that fits right in with the negative emotion and is easy to accept without question.

Further complicating matters is the fact that of course a few pedophiles do have darker fantasies. The simple retort, "No pedophile ever fantasizes about raping a child!" isn't accurate.

The water gets murkier because sex-positive people do not in fact want to condemn people who have antisocial fantasies. "A few pedophiles do fantasize about raping children and I hate them more than you do!" isn't going to work either for good-hearted people.

For those who are willing to look carefully at the issues, I believe I've explained why "You pedophiles fantasize about raping children" is fundamentally wrong. When called upon to refute it, the best I can do is to give a short version of the John and Scarlett story. But the accept-versus-condemn-non-offending-pedophiles war is not fought with careful reason but with slogans and appeals to emotion. I'm all ears if anyone has a succinct, hard-hitting retort to "you fantasize about raping children." I can't think of any.

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