Recently, I wrote a blog about a 10-year-old girl photographed in poses designed to look seductive, wearing very adult clothing, by the French edition of Vogue magazine. I objected for a number of reasons, including my belief that sexual images of children, marketed to the public, can actually "create" pedophiles.
Many of those who posted comments about the blog supported my criticism of Vogue, but objected to the notion that one's sexual orientation can be shaped by one's environment, including cultural forces. They asserted that sexual orientation and the behavior resulting from it is entirely genetic, or "inborn."
I disagree. As a psychiatrist who has helped adolescents and adults make sense of their sexuality, I am convinced that, for many people, environment and social influences do indeed impact sexual desires and sexual behavior.
Some percentage of men deprived of access to women (by, for example, incarceration) may exhibit more homosexual behavior than they had previously. Whether or not they harbored underlying homosexual tendencies misses the point; in some cases, those tendencies would not have been expressed were it not for them being placed in an environment that normalized homosexuality—in this case, prison.
Similarly, some adult men who have unresolved issues connected to important females in their lives during childhood and adolescence will close the door (perhaps permanently) to intimacy with females and find their sexual drive directed out of necessity toward males. They may not be unhappy about this situation, but the outlet for their erotic drives might indeed have been based partly on the tenor and tone of their early relationships, not purely on their genetic makeup.
When a magazine publishes photos of a child which are intended to be erotic, and when many thousands of adult women purchase that magazine, thereby blessing its content, that normalizes the notion that children are appropriate objects of sexual fantasy. And it has the potential to encourage men who would otherwise never have expressed their unconscious sexual interests in children to actually act upon them.
Here's a concrete example: I treated a man who was attracted to adult women, but also attracted to little girls. He was so convinced that his pedophilia was socially unacceptable and morally reprehensible that he stayed home most of the summer, rather than work as a handyman. He was petrified he would encounter little girls in bathing suits and be unable to control his impulses. He let me prescribe him two medications to increase his impulse control.
Now, I just don't see any reason why we would want to lead such a man to believe that his pedophilia isn't morally reprehensible by having him happen upon a mainstream magazine that dresses a 10-year-old girl like a 25-year-old woman and positions her as though she is hoping to have sex.
The same can be said for the celebration of transgender surgeries. When those who resort to major surgery to "become" female or male are applauded on talk shows, rather than being empathized with because they are on tortuous, tragic paths through confused identity issues, that can encourage people to think that their own very understandable ambivalence about some aspects of masculinity or femininity could mean, instead, that they are trapped inside the wrong body. It can actually kindle gender dysphoria that was not consciously present and would never have been psychologically debilitating.
We humans are powerfully influenced by one another and by the cultural values and perspectives we promulgate. Those influences can impact sexuality so dramatically as to determine not only whether one acts upon sexual feelings toward men or women or children, but also whether one ever feels such desires at all.
When a society embraces the notion that children are sexy, that society can actually create pedophiles who would have lived and died swearing they had no such inclinations.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.