Narrative and Moral Certainty

by bjmuirhead

One issue which has been present throughout almost all of my thinking about the nude, whether of children or adults, is morality, i.e., questions such as: Is the creation of and looking at nudes morally acceptable or reprehensible? Are nudes pornographic, and if they are, are they morally acceptable or reprehensible?

When moral questions such as these are asked, we need to acknowledge that many of our words are moral judgements in and of themselves. “Pornography”, e.g., is a moral category thought by many people (in public, at least) to be morally reprehensible because pornography either shows sexual activity, or is intended to arouse sexual desire, or both. Furthermore, pornography has been condemned since the printing press made it readily available to the general public, prior to which time, it was confined to the rich who could afford to own a singular object. (see Berkowitz 2012 , 191–206) The term “pornography”, therefore, carries a long historic weight of negative moral judgement from which it only now is beginning to escape.

Irrespective of religion and law, however, people always have enjoyed sex, and as soon as pornography became readily available, there was no stopping it, or the pleasure many find in it—morally and legally condemned, pornography has maintained a growing presence none the less.1 Simplistically, because people enjoy pornography, it has become and has remained a part of our culture. Equally simplistically, those who hold power and who for some reason want to stop the enjoyment of sex and/or pornography, create reasons for why these pleasures are bad for us. These reasons, whatever their justification or foundation in history and culture, are the morals and ethical viewpoints by which we judge our behaviour and the behaviour of others.

As human beings we assume certainty, that our beliefs concerning what is morally “right” or “wrong” are correct, that our ways of living, the ways we behave in our lives, are the correct and best ways of living and behaving. This assumption of certainty is valuable to us in our everyday lives. There is no way, however, in which we can know that our moral beliefs are true and correct in any absolute or universal sense, i.e., that they apply to all people at all times. We merely assume, out of our non-critical certainty, that this is the case.

Traditionally, one appealed to God, and the revelations and teachings of of God’s prophets for whatever certainty was needed to underpin our beliefs and behaviours. Those with a different God (or with many gods) were said to be wrong—their God was a false god (mutatis mutandis for those with many gods). Needless to say it is obvious that for those with no belief in any particular god, and hence in the teachings advanced in that god’s name, there can be no moral certainty unless it is found in some other area of life, in some other not necessarily transcendent belief. In the secular West, this is found in “science”, and especially in psychology, whose advocates often pronounce on what is “right” and “wrong” on the basis of how people are affected by specific behaviours.

But what does psychology tells us?

The best answer to this may be to note that many of the certainties of psychology are relative and morally suspect.

As a somewhat questionable science, the results of psychological research often seem to be contradictory, depending on the questions with which the research began. This is not peculiar to psychology; the results produced by all science depend, to some extent, on the questions with which the research begins. Psychology, however, along with philosophy and literature, has a solid grounding in the morality (the social norms qua the normative narratives) of the culture and, to a lesser extent, in the morality of the researchers. Consider, e.g., paedophilia and “child sexual abuse” (CSA), where the assumption presented in the narrative is that all instances of sexual contact between adults and anyone much younger—a child or an adolescent—inevitably causes long term and serious harm to the child or adolescent, and always is abuse of an unwilling victim. These are assumptions which appear to be held by the majority of psychologists, teachers, parents, politicians, and so on. Moreover, these assumptions contained within the narratives of childhood and child sexual abuse are moral assumptions which we take to be absolutely true, and which guide a great deal of thinking, writing and research into this area.

The all but universal hatred of “child molesters”, the associated moral outrage (which also are parts of the narrative), coupled with the belief that “victims” always are harmed deeply, prevents a lot of research which contradicts these beliefs from being conducted and/or reported. (Wakefield 2006 ) Those who have researched the “truth” of these assumptions about the effects of child sexual abuse have found the “the negative effect of child sexual abuse are not as pervasive, severe, and long lasting as generally assumed.” (Wakefield 2006 ) But, those who come out and say this publicly usually are accused of being paedophiles or, at the very least, of encouraging and promoting paedophilia. These, of course, are the same moral attacks which have been levelled at many artists and photographers who use children and adolescents in their work. The result, needless to say, is that psychologists (and artists) cease working in this area. The effect of this, for those who care, is that all psychological research into the nature and effects of paedo-sexual activity are brought into question—if the research begins on the basis of unquestioned moral assumptions which guide the research, the result is bound to conform to those moral assumptions. Needless to say, this applies to all areas of psychological research, not merely paedophilia. Importantly, it also applies to our thoughts and actions in everyday life.

The moral assumptions we make extend further than this, however; they can lead us to ignore distinctions which may alter the research results. For example, Rind, Tromovitch and Bauserman (1998 , 46) pointed out that the definition of child sexual abuse “needs to be refined to take into account the young person’s perception of his or her willingness to participate and his or her reactions to the experience.”

 This appeal to the reported experience of “victims” who claim not to have been traumatised by the experience does not deny that some are traumatised, rather it is to point out that many are not, and attempts to establish a division between those who are and those who are not traumatised. According to the narrative of “child sexual abuse,” however, we know that CSA always harms the victim, even if they do not know and acknowledge this; we also know that no “child” could ever want sexual contact with an adult, nor could they enjoy such contact—any paedophile who suggests that their “victim” wanted and enjoyed the sexual contact clearly is lying and making excuses for their actions, excuses which further prove the paedophiles perversity and moral culpability. (That children mean something different by the term “sex” does not invalidate this point. Many bodily pleasures which adults call sexual are not known as such to children, such as manipulating their genitals to evoke pleasure. A child does not need to think of this as sexual or masturbation in order for them to enjoy the effects.)

The problem of the “willing victim” has quite a long history, and willing victims are now presumed to have experienced some prior trauma which has led to their apparent willingness to explore physical contact (sex) with an adult, which now leads to further trauma and psychic harm. In any event, the general public belief seems to be that there must be some form of coercion or perhaps threat of violence which induces the “victim” to be “willing”.

As Naudé (2005 , 41) points out, however, “violence and overt coercion are not generally characteristics of paedosexual behaviour and do not play a meaningful part in adult-child relationships.” Hence, Naudé agrees with Rind, et al, when she says that it is important to distinguish child rape from paedophilia, and that we need to avoid using “paedophilia” to mean “child sexual abuse”. (2005 , 41) In the prevailing narrative of child sexual abuse and paedophilia, however, there is no distinction between violent child rape and a caring relationship between an adult and a child—indeed, the latter is regarded as impossible, to the point where even non-sexual relationships between an adult and a child are subsumed into the narrative of child sexual abuse via the narrative construct of grooming. (It isn’t that grooming doesn’t occur, rather it is that all caring relationships between an adult and a child tend to be taken as instances of an adult grooming a child for future sexual abuse, which inevitably will harm the child.)

In cases where the child is “willing” (for whatever reason, it seems), and expresses no pain, trauma, and the like, it has been suggested that the value neutral term adult-child sex be used; in cases where the young person felt that they had not freely participated in the encounter, and if negative reactions were experienced, then the term child sexual abuse would be appropriate. (Rind et al. 1998 , 46) Although this suggestion was designed to take into account the reality that paedophilia and child rape/abuse are quite different—and so enable more accurately aimed research into the effects and causes of both—the idea of acknowledging the “victim’s” experience, their thought and feelings, steps far outside the narrative that is the social norm. The idea is not especially contentious in itself, but in this instance the proposal directly challenges, indeed, undermines, a widely held moral position. This much was acknowledged by Rind, et al, (1998 , 45) when they noted that the classification of behaviour as abuse simply because it is “immoral” and/or illegal is problematic, and tends to obscure the nature of the behaviour.

These ideas are so far outside the normative social narrative of child sexuality and child sexual abuse that they prompted outrage and censure of the American Psychological Association and the Rind paper in particular by the United States congress. What was held to be more important, over and above any research results, was morality, however unrelated to reality the moral position happens to be. What also is apparent is the moral force behind the formation of research questions, in that few researchers now research questions such as the effects of child-adult sex; rather they research the extent and nature of the harm where the latter is a given. (see Wakefield 2006 , Bullogh & Bullough 1996 )

I am, of course, exaggerating, but not so much as to distort the situation beyond recognition. In any event, what is important are the narratives and what we make of them, whether we choose to adopt the general narrative of child sexual abuse and child pornography, or whether we choose to take notice of, and perhaps adopt, the narratives of artists who work with images of children. It may be more important, however, to understand that when we accept or uphold a particular moral view, we do so on the basis of the narratives which contain and support that view.

The moral statements themselves, are easily made and quickly supported by the retelling of stories (narratives) of the dreadful effects of child abuse (all other non-parental child-adult relationships being subsumed under the rubric of abuse) and the supreme nastiness of “paedophiles”. Moral statements about photographic artworks being no more than child pornography, and hence a form of abuse in themselves, are just as easy to make, though somewhat less easy to tell stories about when the artist is well known and respected. Indeed, if the stories were not easily told, they would have no place in our moral repertoire, where they act as memories—with each retelling we add and subtract details, making them more dramatic and believable, more certain within our own moral world. That psychological research has, on occasion, submitted to the cultural narrative and it’s questionable beliefs, requires that we suspend our belief in the results which are provided as proof that the narrative is true.

Stories grow and grow, and on an immediately personal level, they act to explain what has happened and what is happening, they provide certainty about events, within the context of which we can explore and even alter our beliefs about what is or has happened. On a cultural level, stories enter a more sophisticated existence as cultural narratives which provide the general morals and beliefs of the society, within which we create our personal stories in a mingling of the experiences we have and the cultural narratives. The more specific narratives of science, including psychology, literature, art, philosophy, exist in much the same space, somewhere between personal experience and cultural narratives. Within this space, and each in terms of its own narrative styles, there is an attempt to discover some form of “truth”.

It is a great pity—that most damaging of emotions—that we continue to believe the cultural narratives with an all but unthinking certainty that all too often is entirely unjustified.

© Copyright 2014 BJ Muirhead All rights reserved



Berkowitz, E. (2012), Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire, Counterpoint, Berkeley.

Bullogh, E. V. L. & Bullough, B. (1996), ‘Problems of research into adult/child sexual interaction’, IPTJournal 8(2).

Naudé, J. (2005), Reconstructing paedophilia: An analysis of current discourses and the construct of close relationships., Master’s thesis, Psychology.

Rind, B., Tromovitch, P. & Bauserman, R. (1998), ‘A meta-analytic examination of assumed properties of child sexual abuse using college samples’, Psychological Bulletin 124(1), 22–53.

Wakefield, H. (2006), ‘The effects of child sexual abuse: Truth versus political correctness’, IPT Journal 16(2). Viewed 28 July 2014. This article has since been removed from the IPT website.

1Religion and law once were the same thing, so to speak, but the Roman Catholic church also had not been able to stop people having sex on days when it was forbidden. What hope did they have with pornography?