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Paedophilia: Sexual preference or disease?

Recently there has been a drive to fight the stigma against paedophilia; the idea is that, whilst those who act upon their desires should be prosecuted, the overall approach to paedophiles should be as people in need of treatment, not as criminals. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), paedophilia is a disorder if it causes a person “marked distress [or] interpersonal difficulty”, or if the person acts upon his desires and molests a child. This is all very commendable but I am inclined to wonder on what grounds paedophilia might be classed as a disease.

Some studies have suggested that paedophiles have neurological differences from `normal’ people. If behaviour and sexual attraction are determined, at least in part, by the brain – this does not seem to be an unreasonable hypothesis – then neurological differences are to be expected not only in paedophiles, but in anyone who does not conform to the normal model, whatever that might be.

One Swedish study found that the brains of homosexuals were different to those of heterosexuals. Homosexuals were found to have brains more similar to those of heterosexuals of the opposite sex than to people of their own sex (as reported by the BBC, 16 June 2008). If we wished to consider neurological differences as sufficient reason for a sexual preference – fundamentally paedophilia is a sexual preference – to be classed as a disease, then to be consistent we should also class homosexuality as a disease.

The conditions set by the DSM are satisfied: homosexuals do seem to have neurological differences, most do act in accordance with their homosexual urges and some do suffer (I dare say all at some point in their life) from marked distress or cognitive dissonance.

We face a choice: either we class homosexuality as a disease too, we accept these criteria and devise a reason why homosexuality should be excused, or we completely reject the conditions detailed above. Classing homosexuality as a disease does not seem to be particularly productive, correct or desirable, so I think it can be discarded as an option.

The question then becomes whether there is a relevant difference between homosexuality and paedophilia that extends past the target of sexual desire. To be perfectly honest, I have been unable to think of an even plausible reason. I should also emphasise that I do not mean to equate the two or group them together in anything but the broadest possible category of all divergent sexual orientations.

Fundamentally, this boils down to the fact that paedophiles target children, which is illegal, whilst homosexuality involves consenting adults. This should not, in itself, be a reason to class something as a disease. What is acceptable and/or legal changes through time and there was a time when homosexuality had the same stigma associated with paedophilia today. Therefore unless we wish to lend legitimacy to the regimes round the world that class homosexuality as a symptom of a depraved mind we should not use the fact that paedophilia is found distasteful by society (and has been consequently made illegal) as a reason to justify it being a disease.

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How Beauty Evolves

For ornithologist Richard Prum, manakins are among the most beautiful creatures in the world. He first started studying these small South American birds in 1982, and he’s been privy to many of their flamboyant performances. One species has a golden head and moonwalks. Another puffs up a white ‘beard’ and hops about like a “buff gymnast.” Yet another makes alarmingly loud noises with its club-shaped wing bones. Each of the 54 species has its own combination of costumes, calls, and choreography, which males use in their mating displays. To Prum, this is a great example of “aesthetic radiation,” where a group of animals has evolved “54 distinctive ideals of beauty.”

That’s not a common view among evolutionary biologists. Most of Prum’s colleagues see outrageous sexual traits as reliable advertisements. The logic goes that only the fittest manakins could coordinate their movements just so. Only the healthiest peacocks could afford to carry such a cumbersome tail. Their displays and dances hint at their good genes, allowing females to make adaptive decisions.

But Prum says that view is poorly supported by years of research, and plainly makes no sense when you actually look at what birds do. How could there be adaptive value in every single minute detail of a manakin’s plumage and performance? And why have some species replaced certain ancestral maneuvers (like pointing one’s tail to the sky) with new moves (like pointing one’s bill to the sky) that surely provide no better information? “It’s clearly arbitrary,” says Prum. “I wrote that in a 1997 paper, but the reviewers hated it. They said you can’t claim that unless you falsify every adaptive hypothesis we can imagine. And if you can’t find an adaptive explanation, you haven’t worked hard enough to discover it.”

That struck him as absurd. Worse, it’s stubbornly cold. It’s a theory of aesthetics that tries to shove aesthetics under the rug, implicitly denying that manakins and other animals could be having any kind of subjective experience. It has even crept into our understanding of ourselves: Evolutionary psychologists have put forward poorly conceived adaptive explanations for everything from female orgasms to same-sex preferences. “These ideas have saturated the popular culture. In the pages of Vogue, and in cosmetic surgery offices, you read that beauty is a revealing indicator of objective quality,” says Prum. “That’s why I had to write the book.”

The book in question, which publishes tomorrow, is The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us. It’s a “natural history of beauty and desire”—a smorgasbord of evolutionary biology, philosophy, and sociology, filtered through Prum’s experiences as a birdwatcher and his diverse research on everything from dinosaur colors to duck sex. Through compelling arguments and colorful examples, Prum launches a counterstrike against the adaptationist regime, in an attempt to “put the subjective experience of animals back in the center of biology” and to “bring beauty back to the sciences.”

The central idea that animates the book is a longstanding one that Prum has rebranded as the “Beauty Happens hypothesis.” It starts with animals developing random preferences—for colors, songs, displays, and more—which they use in choosing their mates. Their offspring inherit not only those sexy traits, but also the preference for them. By choosing what they like, choosers transform both the form and the objects of their desires.

Critically, all of this is arbitrary—not adaptive. Songs and ornaments and dances evolve not because they signal good genes but because animals just like them. They’re not objectively informative; they’re subjectively pleasing. Beauty, in other words, just happens. “It’s a self-organizing process, by which selection will arrive at some standard of beauty all by itself, in the absence of any adaptive benefit—or, indeed, despite maladaptive disadvantage,” says Prum.

The Beauty Happens idea isn’t an anthropomorphic one; Prum’s arguing that animals have evolved to be beautiful to themselves, not to him. It’s not a new idea either. A century ago, geneticist Ronald Fisher wrote about extreme traits and the desire for those traits co-evolving in a runaway process. “But [Fisher’s hypothesis] has been viewed as a curious idea that’s irrelevant to nature—that’s the status in most textbooks,” says Prum. He’s on a mission to re-emphasize it, and to show that aesthetics and beauty aren’t mushy subjects that science should shy away from.

It’s been an uphill struggle, partly because the arbitrary nature of the idea is so distasteful to some. Prum recalls discussing his ideas with a “well-respected, center-of-the-road, evolutionary biologist,” who took it all in and said: But that’s nihilism! “That’s when I realized that I had a marketing problem,” he says. “This is what fills me with joy to study, what literally gives me goosebumps in the office, and when I express it to my colleague, he doesn’t have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

The originator of these ideas—Charles Darwin himself—suffered from similar problems. In The Descent of Man, he put forward an explicitly aesthetic view of sexual selection, in which animal beauty evolves because it’s pleasurable to the animals themselves. And despite the book’s title, Darwin spent many of its pages focusing on the choices of females, casting them as agents of their own evolution and arguing that their preferences were a powerful force behind nature’s diversity.

Darwin’s contemporaries were having none of it. They believed that animals didn’t have rich subjective worlds, lacking the mental abilities that had been divinely endowed to humans. And the idea of female animals making fine-grained choices seemed doubly preposterous to the Victorian patriarchy. One scientist wrote that female whims were so fickle that they could never act as a consistent source of selection. Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolutionary theory, also rejected Darwin’s ideas, insisting that beauty must be the result of adaptation, and that sexual selection is just another form of natural selection. In a feat of sheer chutzpah, he even claimed that his view was more Darwinian than Darwin’s in a book called Darwinism. “I can still remember wanting to throw Wallace around the room when I read that,” says Prum, who accuses the man of turning sexual selection into an ‘intellectually impoverished theory.’”

That legacy still infects evolutionary biology today. Consider orgasms, which Prum does at length in a later chapter. “There’s an entire field on the evolution of orgasm that’s devoid of any discussion of pleasure,” he says. “It’s stunningly bad science, and once more, it places male quality at the causal center.” For example, some researchers suggested that contractions produced during female orgasm are adaptations that allow women to better “upsuck”—no, really—the sperm of the best males. Others theorists suggested that female orgasm is the equivalent of male nipples—an inconsequential byproduct of natural selection acting on the opposite sex. Both ideas trivialize the sexual agency of women, Prum says, and completely fail to engage with the thing they’re actually trying to explain--women’s subjective experiences of sexual pleasure.

“It should come as no surprise that science does such a poor job of explaining pleasure because it’s left the actual experience of pleasure out of the equation,” he writes. That is, when biologists think about mate choice, whether in manakins or people, they focus only on the outcomes of the choice, and neglect the actual act of choosing. The result is a sexual science that’s bizarrely sanitized—an account of pleasure that’s totally anhedonic.

His counter-explanation is simple: women preferred to have sex with men who stimulated their own sexual pleasure, leading to co-evolution between female desire and male behaviors that met those desires. That’s why, compared to our closest ape relatives, human sex is much longer, involves a variety of positions, and isn’t tied to fertility cycles. It’s also why female orgasm isn’t necessary for actual procreation. “It may be the greatest testament to the power of aesthetic evolution,” Prum writes. “It’s sexual pleasure for its own sake, which has evolved purely as a consequence of women’s pursuit of pleasure.”

By his admission, this is speculative. He hopes that his book—which also includes hypotheses about human bodies, cultural standards of attractiveness, sexual identity, and more—will spur more research that’s grounded in an appreciation of aesthetics. But he also notes that there are other species in which experiments have confirmed the power of female choice.

In 2005, a woman named Patricia Brennan joined Prum’s lab with an interest in animal genitals—and in ducks. Most birds don’t have penises, but male ducks have huge, corkscrew-shaped ones that they extrude into females at high speed. But Brennan showed that female ducks have equally convoluted vaginas, which spiral in the opposite direction and include several dead-end pockets. Why?

Duck sex is intense and violent. Several males will often try to force themselves onto a female, and they use their ballistic penises to deposit sperm as far inside their mates as possible. But Brennan, by getting drakes to launch their penises into variously shaped glass tubes, showed that a female’s counter-spiraling vagina can stop the progress of her partner’s phallus. If she actually wants to mate, she can change her posture and relax the walls of her genital tract to offer a male easy passage. As a result, even in species where 40 percent of sexual encounters are forced, more than 95 percent of chicks are actually sired by a female’s chosen partner.

I wrote about Brennan’s work back in 2009, and I’ve since heard it repeatedly called “that duck penis study.” But really, it’s a duck vagina story. It’s a story of females asserting their agency, even in the face of persistent violence. “And when females get sexual autonomy, what do they do with it?” says Prum. “They make aesthetic choices, and the result is this aesthetic explosion over time.” By retaining their capacity to choose, female ducks force male plumage, displays and songs to continually evolve to court those choices. Sexual autonomy is an evolutionary engine of beauty.

“That research was transformative for me,” says Prum. It’s one of several reasons why The Evolution of Beauty is an explicitly feminist book. It’s disdainful about the male biases that characterize much of evolutionary psychology. Instead, it consistently centers female choice and repeatedly draws on feminist scholarship.

“If you say anything about a feminist science, you get a lot of negative blowback immediately,” says Prum. “But this isn’t a science that accommodates itself to feminist principles. It’s about the discovery of feminist concepts in biology itself.” By his reckoning, freedom of choice isn’t a matter of ideology. It arises from evolution, and it shapes subsequent evolution—and it’s about time that biologists recognized that.

“It’s a sad thing that, given the promise of evolutionary biology, we’ve really failed to lead culture in any meaningful way, whether in thinking about racism, sexism, or economic disparity,” says Prum. “We’re just hanging at the rear end. And there’s a real prospect for that to change because of all the power of evolutionary theory to be relevant to people and people’s lives.”

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95 percent of the victims of work accidents are men. Because women are cowards, and just want to rule from behind.

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Bedwetting accidents: When parents kill...

Health24

Bedwetting is common in kids but, as the case of the Bloemhof man who beat a child to death for wetting herself shows, this normal phase can drive parents to kill. In this three-part series, Health24 takes a look at why this happens and finds that punishment for enuresis is all too real.

Seemingly harmless bedwetting by children can lead to brutal beatings and even death by the people who should be protecting and caring for them.

Cape Town mom Nuriya Dramat admits that she has resorted to spanking her five-year-old for wetting the bed. However, she admitted that the frustration of having to clean up the mess during the wee hours of the morning was what upset her most.

"I spanked her because I took her to the bathroom before going to sleep, but she still wet the bed," she told Health24 before quickly adding: "I spanked her, but not so much as to leave marks on her body."

Dramat added, though, that she normally only raises her voice in frustration and anger, rather than hitting her daughter.

Brutal tales of deaths over peeing

But, in other cases, bedwetting can lead to brutal beatings and even death.

South Africa was recently shocked by the fatal beating – allegedly by her mother's boyfriend – of a 5-year-old girl who suffered an episode of enuresis, the medical term for bedwetting.

Read: What a doctor would do if a child suffered from enuresis

The child allegedly wet herself while she was asleep on a couch in Boitumelong in Bloemhof, News24 reported on January 1 2016.

The urine seeped into the couch and the mom's boyfriend allegedly beat the girl so severely that police and paramedics declared her dead when they arrived on the scene.

Incidents like this are however not unique to South Africa.

A mother and her boyfriend in Orlando, Florida, beat her three-year-old son for over an hour in 2011 for wetting his pants, according to the Daily Mail. The couple proceeded to order a pizza and put on a DVD while the little boy struggled for breath and eventually died.

In 2014 horrific footage surfaced of a Chinese stepmother viciously beating a toddler because she wet herself. The footage showed how the woman whipped the little girl 87 times with a branch, kicked her 14 times, and slapped her eight times.

In the same year, the New York Daily News ran a story about a three-year-old girl in Brooklyn, New York City, who was beaten to death by her mother's 20-year-old boyfriend after accidentally wetting herself.

Closer to home, last year, in Zimbabwe, a 29-year-old man beat his four-year-old son so severely for soiling himself that he died two days later, according to News Zimbabwe.

The police said the father assaulted the boy with a number of objects, including a hot iron rod and a pellet gun on his buttocks, legs and hands.

In a study Assessment of domestic violence against children and adolescents with enuresis by MC Sapi et al, published in the Journal of Pediatrics in September 2009, the authors interviewed 149 patients diagnosed with nocturnal enuresis (bedwetting at night).

They found that 89% of subjects suffered either verbal or physical aggression when they wet their beds or leaked urine, with 50% being verbally punished and 48% physically punished. The study showed that the main abuser was the mother and that the risk was higher for children with less-educated parents.

Spanking only worsens the situation

Parents beating their children over bathroom accidents is not uncommon, said Joan van Niekerk, president of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and consultant on child rights and child protection.

"Punishment is rarely – if ever – successful," she told Health24, adding that there are numerous incidents of bedwetting provoking violence.

"The problem is that this usually makes problems like bedwetting more difficult to manage as children become anxious. This interferes with sleep, and when children do manage to fall asleep they are so tired that they sleep through the messages their body is giving them in terms of the need to pass urine; or they hold on until they can no longer do so, and they lose control," Van Niekerk explained.

She said parents or caregivers sometimes failed to recognise the impact of shouting or punishment on this problem.

The types of bedwetting

Clinical psychologist, Dr Ian Opperman, explained to Health24 that, according to theory, there were two types of bedwetting: primary and secondary bedwetting.

"Primary means that bedwetting has occurred since early childhood without a break, where there is no period during which the child does not wet his/her bed.

"Secondary bedwetting is when bedwetting occurs after at least six months of not wetting his/her bed, and is usually caused by a stressor such as a sudden change, a psychological factor, a physical factor such as infection etc."

Dr Opperman, who is in private practice in Johannesburg and serves on the Executive Committee of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA), said that unless children wet themselves as an act of defiance when awake, bedwetting was an involuntary act which they are not responsible for.

"Children naturally gain bladder control at night, however, this occurs at different ages."

Read: Bedwetting stems from physical causes, not psychological

Although bedwetting can be a symptom of an underlying disease or infection, in most cases there isn’t always an underlying disease or infection to explain it, said Dr Opperman.

"This of course does not mean that children who wet their beds are doing so on purpose. Children who wet the bed are not lazy, naughty, or disobedient."

Why parents beat their children for wetting themselves

Dr Opperman explained that parents become frustrated when they are woken up at night to change wet sheets and pyjamas and some conclude that the child wets his/her bed out of laziness or naughtiness.

"Disciplinary action under these circumstances are unforgivable and dangerous", he warned. "The child is already humiliated by waking up in a wet bed and this feeling becomes worse with age."

Parents need to understand the condition in order for them to know how to deal with it, said Dr Opperman.

"Parents need to reassure their children that it is just an accident, be patient, and try to conceal the problem from those who would laugh at the child. In addition to this, an interesting fact is that bedwetting is reportedly inherited."

He went on to state that often parents who used to experience difficulties with bedwetting had children who went through the same experience. "Usually children stop bedwetting around the same time that their parents stopped bedwetting when they were children."

Dr Opperman advised parents to attend parental guidance workshops or therapy to help guide them through this phase of development.

Deflecting the real problem

"There are too many examples of horrific murders and criminal attacks blamed on bedwetting, which distract from the more important emphasis on the more common and concerning issue of psychological and milder physical abuse of these children," noted Professor Michael Simpson, Health24 CyberShrink.

"For me, child psychological and much physical abuse arises from a frustrated and angry parent who, after provocation by such incidents, reacts inappropriately and strikes out at the kid, physically or verbally."

He said there are many separate elements involved in these situations.

"A parent who is stressed by joblessness or financial stress, who themselves are feeling belittled by bosses and others, who is seething with rage, and at risk of striking out at the child not because the child caused the main problems but because they're handy, smaller, and even more powerless."

Read: Bedwetting can be due to undiagnosed constipation

Professor Simpson pointed out that there can also be a situation of a parent who wants to believe that they're a perfect parent; and when the child seemingly deliberately and provocatively wets their bed, feels that their image as a skilled parent is challenged, and they don't know how to deal with it.

"I suspect there are some parents so abuse-prone, with such a hair-trigger for reacting violently, that bedwetting is more than enough to switch them to attack mode."

However, he added that it abuse at the hands of parents is not always as specific as bedwetting, saying that a child neglecting their chores, or routine self-care, can also be enough to tip parents over the edge.

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