Food marketing to children, and the responsibilities of parents

The Vitality ObeCity Index 2017 (pdf), released in October,  “analysed data from Vitality members living in six cities across South Africa” in order to present an overview of South African eating trends and health statistics. The report describes some positive trends, while highlighting that “we still have a lot to do to combat obesity”.

I contributed three opinion pieces on science communication, the food industry and marketing to children, and the importance of consumers making informed choices. Here’s the last of the three contributions.

DignitySA on Belgium’s child euthanasia decision

This is too interesting an issue to be posted on Facebook alone, so I’d like to share Prof. Sean Davison’s (of DignitySA) comment on Belgium’s recent Parliamentary vote to approve (voluntary) euthanasia for children. As many readers will know, I support voluntary euthanasia, and in a local context, support Davison and DignitySA’s efforts in campaigning for a right to die in South Africa. You can “like” DignitySA on Facebook, and/or become a member via the DignitySA website.

What the Belgian Parliament has voted to allow is unprecedented, in the sense that it will allow for voluntary euthanasia (in short, you choose to die – we’re not talking about “pulling the plug” on a comatose person) for a child of any age, rather than only children of a certain age (in the Netherlands, voluntary euthanasia is permitted for children 12 and older).

On their Facebook page, Davison offered this comment:

I can understand that the Belgian law makers were motivated by compassion when passing this law but it is hard to believe that a child has the capacity to make an informed decision about whether to live or die when adults struggle with the concept. So often an adult who has chosen to end their life when terminally ill will cling on and cling on, unable to follow through with their decision. How can a young child be expected to make such a decision?

Our culture and humanity has determined the age when a person is responsible and mature enough to be able to vote, to join the army and die for the country, and to get married.

It is this same responsibility and maturity a person needs to be able to make a decision on whether to live or die. This is not a choice that should be given to a child.”

I can understand a conservative stance on this, but don’t agree with it. Ages of maturity are convenient fictions that correlate with competencies of various sorts, yes – but we use those convenient fictions only because it’s too time and labour-intensive (or, practically impossible) to determine whether the competencies actually exist in individuals.

At the age of (roughly) 16 (or 18), we know that most humans will be safe enough drivers, or responsible enough drinkers, etc. If we had the means, money and time, we’d want to be able to test 15 year-olds to see whether they were capable of these things, just as we’d want to test 19 year-olds and deny them these rights, if they aren’t capable of using them responsibly. At least, that’s my view.

Assisted suicide is one of those issues where the demand is so low, and infrequent, that the relevant competencies can arguably be tested directly, allowing us to do away with the convenient fictions.

In this case, the Belgian Parliament has ruled that “Children, just as adults do now, will need to go through extensive psychological evaluations with multiple doctors. Parental consent will be required as well as a written request by the patient.” For comparative purposes, consider that in the Netherlands (for children 12 and older), only 5 children have met these criteria and chosen suicide since 2002, so there’s no reason to believe this is creating a slippery slope.

As difficult as these decisions are – even more so for people we regard as more vulnerable – the Belgian stance seems logically consistent, and reasonable. Having said that, I’m sympathetic to the caution. It’s just that we’re not going to fix all our our anachronistic moral standards without some moral courage.

Paedophilia is not (yet) child abuse

Originally published in Daily Maverick

When you hear reports concerning an “alleged paedophile” like Johannes Kleinhans, due back in court this week, it’s difficult to think of his possible crime as anything other than sexual abuse of a minor. But that’s not what paedophilia means. Furthermore, our instinctive horror at the possibility of children being sexually abused might sometimes be counterproductive, in that it leads us to scare potential abusers away from treatment.

Some think that “treatment” for paedophiles is impossible, and that they should simply be locked away for good. Still others think that locking them up is not enough, or that the prison time should come with a guarantee of experiencing some sexual abuse yourself. “Papa wag vir you” (Daddy is waiting for you) is one of the more polite comments to one report on a US Peace Corps volunteer, facing imprisonment for sexually abusing five KwaZulu-Natal girls.

These responses are understandable. I cannot imagine the terror that parents might feel when thinking about these threats to their children – or even the legislative responses to those threats, like when you find out that South Africa’s sexual offenders register lists only 40 names (thought to be a small fraction of the true number).

All paedophiles are attracted to young children, often sexually, but not all those who sexually abuse children are paedophiles, and not all paedophiles are child molesters. Paedophilia describes what you’re attracted to – not what you do with that attraction. For a celibate male priest, a hetero- or homosexual orientation  could be a problem, regardless of whether he’s attracted to adults or not. He remains celibate, though, until the attractions are acted on.

Of course these things are not the same in terms of the extent of damage that can be caused to the victims of sexual assault. Children are easier to victimise than adults are, regardless of your view on whether long-term trauma is more or less likely at any given age.

Nevertheless, it’s the sexual abuse of children that we want to criminalise, not  the fact that someone was unfortunate enough to be born with sexual desires they are unable to pursue  (or can only pursue  under threat of severe consequences). I’m not comparing adult sexual abuse to child sexual abuse, except to say that what sort of target an abuser would pick – if they were to abuse someone – is a separate matter from whether they are an abuser or not.

So, a paedophile is a potential abuser of children. It’s not a crime to be a potential anything, though – if it were, few of us would escape imprisonment thanks to our constant potential to break laws, whether the more trivial speeding while driving to the less trivial theft or murder. We don’t do these things for various reasons, including fear of punishment – but also because we don’t want to do them. We might not even want to have the desires we do.

This is the case for many paedophiles, such as Spencer Kaplan or the man who wrote to sex-advice columnist Dan Savage to say that he “walk[s] around every awful day of [his] life knowing that there is no one out there for me” – in other words, that his life can never contain any sexually fulfilling interactions with other humans, because he’s attracted to the wrong sort of humans. I remember listening to another paedophile (but this time, someone who was himself still in adolescence) calling in to Savage’s show, expressing bewilderment at what he should do. He knew his urges were wrong, and he knew that he shouldn’t act on them. He just didn’t know how he could be helped to live with this self-denial for the rest of his life.

We need to help potential child abusers to not become actual child abusers. And speaking of paedophiles as if they are already abusers isn’t helpful because it shames them, and because it runs the risk of driving underground exactly the sort of people we want in plain sight – and in treatment.

In the US, an organisation called B4U-ACT offers counselling for those they call minor-attracted people, and similar support mechanisms exist in Canada, Germany and elsewhere. In Greece, paedophilia is regarded as a disability, with social support grants available to those who are willing to present themselves for diagnosis. But who would do such a thing as present with paedophilia, when everyone understands that to mean you rape children?

Dehumanising people can’t be a productive strategy for getting them to treat others as human, rather than as objects for sexual abuse. Some of the articles linked to above contain examples of sufficient verbal abuse, or a complete lack of sympathy, that we shouldn’t be surprised when potential offenders want nothing to do with treatment. We’re telling them we don’t care.

Yet, we remain surprised to hear of cases where some “monster”, “lacking all humanity”, and so forth, has committed some horrible crime. There’s no question that the sexual abuse of children is a horrible crime, and that we should do all we can to make sure it never happens. But making sure that it never happens might well include our own obligation to avoid the lesser crime of refusing someone the treatment they need, and that might protect your – or someone else’s – child.