by Grace Boey
When Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was first published in 1955, the novel generated an enormous amount of controversy. Narrated by Humbert Humbert, a fictional literature professor in his late thirties, the tragicomedy depicts his obsessive sexual relationship with 12-year-old Dolores Haze—the eponymous Lolita.
60 years down the road, the book remains as controversial as ever. A large part of this seems to be that Lolita, despite our moral condemnation of child sex, somehow manages to elicit the reader’s sympathy for its pedophilic ‘protagonist’ (who is, possibly, more accurately described as a hebephile). Beyond our contempt for Humbert, there is also disgust with ourselves. How dare we even think of sympathizing with such a pervert? Surely by doing so we inch closer to condoning sex with children.
Such confusion reflects unresolved thoughts and feelings about sexual deviation in general. What does it mean to sympathize with perversion? Where, exactly, lies the wrong in what many of us think of as sexual deviance—such as pedophilia, zoophilia, homosexuality, and various other unusual forms of sexuality? What specifically is it that’s so outrageous about the affair between Humbert and Dolores? To answer such questions, we must delve into the field of sexual ethics.
Sex: the moral minefield
Why is the ethics of sex even a thing? For one, sex is a significant act which plays a big part in an individual’s life. How someone practices (or doesn’t practice) sex is intertwined with their emotions, relationships, expression and identity. Moreover, sex is an act involving our own bodies that we either wish to participate in, or don’t. In deontological terms or rights-speak, there are important rights and potential violations surrounding sex. From a consequentialist perspective, there is the potential for both great harm and utility to arise from sex. All this makes sex something we should tread around pretty carefully.
Historically, sexual dynamics have also played a huge role in ordering society (and continue to do so). Our psychological perceptions of morality often end up having a lot to do with maintaining social order. Fields like experimental moral psychology and evolutionary psychology seek to uncover these mental biases. It has been, for example, suggested that moral judgments about promiscuity may have come about as a way of keeping a gender-based social order intact; sleeping around is more likely to be considered a moral violation in places where women are economically dependent on men.
So thinking carefully about the morality of sex is important, because there are substantive deontological and consequential concerns surrounding its practice, and also because it is important to check the psychological biases we have towards our moral judgments about sex.
Orientation versus behaviour, deviation versus disorder
There are two important distinctions to make when analyzing the morality of any sexual phenomenon: that between internal orientation and actual behaviour, and that between statistical deviation and disorder.
To understand the distinction between orientation and behaviour, consider the following: many of us have had murderous thoughts or violent fantasies directed at other individuals; however, we stop ourselves from carrying these desires out because we know that doing so would be wrong. So unless we really believes in involuntary thought crimes, we must acknowledge the substantive moral distinction between internal desire and action.
This is something like the distinction between sexual orientation and related behaviour. Though certain internal orientations generate desires which predispose one to certain types of behaviours, the two things are distinct. Pedophilia, for example is an orientation; sex with pre-pubescent children is an act. The former entails experiencing involuntary desires to commit the latter. Yet, there are non-pedophiles who non-pathologically and non-recurrently engage in sexual activity with children, and there are pedophiles who choose not to act upon their desires. There is even a ‘Virtuous Pedophile’ online group—a community of those who are involuntarily attracted to children, but commendably resist the urge to sexually abuse them.
Moving on, it’s also important to distinguish statistically atypical sexuality from sexual disorders. Consider this question: when is it desirable to ‘cure’, ‘treat’ or ‘manage’ someone’s unusual sexual preferences?
It helps to take a look at the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). DSM-V distinguishes between atypical sexual orientations (or ‘paraphilias’) that are benign and paraphilic disorders. A paraphilia by itself does not automatically justify or require psychiatric intervention. A paraphilic disorder, on the other hand, “causes distress or impairment to the individual or harm to others”, and calls for psychiatric treatment.
In formulating this distinction, DSM-V’s paraphilia sub-work group noted the following:
“The important thing for us was distinguishing between benign paraphilias versus paraphilic disorders that cause real anguish to the individual or predispose the individual to violate the rights of other people or harm them in serious ways.”
There are, of course, substantive reservations to be had about DSM-V and DSM in general, the practice of labeling certain things as ‘disorders’ or ‘psychopathologies’, or—for that matter—the odd fact that the APA finds it necessary to outline benign paraphilias in a mental illness manual at all. Yet, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that it is beneficial and desirable to help someone out with his involuntary orientation when it causes harm to others, or causes distress or impairment to himself.
The necessity of treating such paraphilias should not be a moral judgment on anyone for their sexual orientation; intervention is something that is simply done to protect the individual as well as others.
Case studies in deviance
By applying what’s been said above, let’s consider three cases studies of sexual ‘deviance’ in turn: pedophilia, homosexuality and objectophilia—sexual attraction to inanimate objects.
As previously discussed, pedophilia is an orientation, whereas having sexual relations with children is the harmful act. This act is always seen as sexual abuse, for at least two reasons: children lack the developmental capacity to meaningfully consent to intimate acts, and there is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that sexual acts between adults and children tend to cause significant, long-lasting psychological harm to children.
To have sexual relations with a child, then, is morally wrong—whether or not the perpetrator is a pedophile. Also, while simply existing as a pedophile warrants no moral judgment, it is certainly in everyone’s best interests if the individual controls his impulses, or receives treatment to manage his sexual desires. Not only is it harmful to children if he shouldn't, it's also distressing for the pedophile himself to know that his involuntary sexual desires should never be fulfilled. In this regard, professional help mitigates any harm caused both to potential victims and the pedophile himself.
Something else that’s thought of as deviant by many is homosexuality. Note, again, that homosexuality—sexual attraction to other members of the same sex—is the orientation, whereas sexual relations between members of the same sex is the act. In this case, such an act committed between two consenting adults causes no harm to anyone involved. Our moral verdict should be that there is nothing wrong with homosexual orientations or same-sex acts.
Attempts to argue against legalizing gay rights by comparing homosexuality to pedophilia, then, fail as the slope from one to the other turns out to be not so slippery at all. Other than the fact that both pedophilic and homosexual orientations appear to be statistical minorities, the two cases have nothing more in common. The morality of gayness has nothing to do with pedophilia or other potentially harmful deviances.
The final case study to be examined is the curious one of objectophilia, or object sexuality. Anyone unfamiliar with this sexual orientation can start by acquainting themselves with Erika Eiffel, the object-sexual who married a certain world-famous tower.
The inanimate, lifeless subjects of an object-sexual’s affection are not things to which the concept of consent applies; neither are these objects capable of suffering from harm. So unless one takes serious issue with the use of sex toys on the grounds that a dildo be harmed or cannot give consent, there’s really nothing immoral about people having ‘sex’ with balloons, cars or bridges.
But one thing should be noted about object-sexuals: although there are plenty of them who get along just fine, at least some cases are said to be linked to the individual’s inability to develop meaningful relationships with people—an inability that persists in causing them genuine personal distress. In such a case, ‘treating’ the object-sexuality may be a necessary step along the way of helping the individual develop healthy human relationships. In such a case, treatment is desirable only because it is beneficial to the individual’s well-being.
Sympathy for the Devil
Returning to Lolita: it's easy for readers to experience spurts of sympathy for Humbert. Dolores, after all, was the one who initiated the affair, and she was hardly unacquainted with sex when she did it, having lost her virginity at a summer camp to a young man named Charlie Holmes. Humbert paints a portrait of himself as an unwitting accomplice to the entire affair, seduced by a manipulative nymphet who was all too good at getting what she wanted. He appears, as well, to fit the criteria for pathological pedophilia or hebephilia, having exclusively been attracted to young girls from the start. Humbert, it seems, was set up for depravity from the start. It is completely natural to pity anyone set up for desires that are so strong, yet so utterly wrong and harmful.
Yet make no mistake: despite his efforts to portray otherwise, Humbert knew exactly what he was doing when he acted upon his desires, and had numerous opportunities to remove himself from the situation long before his temptress made her advances. And the fact that she advanced upon him is of no consequence: she was still a child with a child's mentality (as he himself observed numerous times). As the party with more experience and more power, Humbert should have known better than to succumb—and it is here that the immorality of Lolita lies.
As the novel progresses, it becomes sadly obvious that young Dolores was not fully cognizant of her best interests when she initiated the affair. Along the way she becomes irreparably damaged by their relationship: she learns to view sex as a transaction, and enters a confusing cycle of resentment and dependence on Humbert that characterizes so many real-life cases of child sexual abuse. Dolores, in the end, escapes to land up broke and pregnant in a clapboard shack, dying at the age of 17 after a stillbirth on Christmas day.
Ultimately, the essence of what should outrage us the most about Lolita is captured in its last scene. As Humbert stands atop a mountain and gazes at the town below, it dawns upon him that a little girl has been robbed of an innocent childhood:
“What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that … I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”