Rachel Hope Cleves is a professor of history at the University of Victoria. Nicholas L. Syrett is a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas.
The hashtags #RoyMoorePedophile and #RoyMooreChildMolester have trended on Twitter over the past week. The New York Daily News ran a column that called Roy Moore an “accused pedophile” in its headline. In a live interview on MSNBC, Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said, “Roy Moore is a pedophile. He’s a child molester.”
The outrage against the Republican Senate candidate from Alabama is entirely fitting, but the terminology is not. Moore is not a pedophile. If you believe his accusers, as we do, he is a powerful man who has serially harassed and even assaulted teenage girls.
The difference matters. Moore’s alleged crime was not a sexual orientation toward children. It was his willingness to exploit the unequal power structures of gender and age to victimize young girls who couldn’t stand up to him. To understand Moore as a monster outside medical or societal norms is to ignore the ways that his position enabled him to take advantage of his alleged victims. Much like the claims of sex addiction offered by other powerful men in recent weeks, accounting for sexual abuse with a diagnosis of pedophilia obscures the way that abusive behavior fits into our everyday sexual system that privileges powerful men to take advantage of the younger, the female and the less powerful.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines pedophilic disorder as when an individual over 16 experiences “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).” As far as we know at present, the youngest girl whom Moore allegedly pursued was 14 years old. Other accusers were 16 or 17 years old when he approached them. These teenagers were not prepubescent children.
History offers a more useful perspective, in this case, than psychology. The United States has a long history of age asymmetry when it comes to dating, courtship and marriage. Throughout U.S. history, most men have dated and married younger women, including girls. Men’s suitability for courtship and marriage was historically predicated on their independence and their ability to support a family, whereas women and girls were legally presumed ready for marriage once they had reached puberty.
The laws that regulated marriage used to allow girls to marry before boys. Only starting in the 1970s did states equalize their laws to treat boys and girls similarly when it came to marriage. Sexual age-of-consent laws similarly applied only to girls when they were first passed in the United States beginning in the 1880s, in large part because reformers had well-founded fears that older men were targeting working-class girls for sex.
In a culture such as ours that has historically idealized and fetishized youthful beauty and that has valued girls and women for physical appearance, far too many older men have used their relative power to take advantage of younger women and girls. The environment Moore grew up in teaches men that they can use their age, class, gender and power to gain for themselves sexually and to target working-class girls who are unlikely to retaliate.
One of Moore’s accusers alleged that he assaulted her when she was 16, telling her: “You’re just a child. I am the district attorney of Etowah County and if you tell anyone about this no one will ever believe you.” That suggests that Moore might have targeted those he found attractive and those he believed he could either overpower or silence, or both. That would also make Moore a cagey planner of sexual assault, not a pedophile.
Like Moore’s alleged victims, the vast majority of those who suffer child and teenage sexual assault are girls. But this does not demonstrate that the United States is a nation of men afflicted with pedophilia. Rather, what we should take from the sobering statistics about assault and abuse is that many men use the power of their gender and age to target those who are particularly vulnerable and those they can pressure into silence.
In the midst of a storm of allegations against powerful men in the world of politics and entertainment, we should see Moore not as an outlier but as another man who allegedly used his position to focus on those who he believed were the most vulnerable.
So enough with the #RoyMoorePedophile tweets. The right hashtag for the Roy Moore story is #MeToo.