A philosophy professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, Stephen Kershnar, has been suspended for allegedly advocating child molestation. In a pair of videos that went viral, he said it’s “not obvious” it’s wrong if a grown man decides to have sex with a consenting participant even if the minor is 12 years old.
He went even further, asking if it is wrong to engage in a sexual act even with a one-year-old child: “There are reports and some cultures of grandmothers performing oral sex on baby boys to calm them when they have colic. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s kind of widely reported as happening in at least one culture and it works.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s received a slew of death threats, more than the university can count, according to its direct human resources. And, as noted, he was suspended. (The university does not call this a suspension. It says “the professor is assigned to duties that do not include physical presence on campus and will have no contact with students for the duration of the investigation.)
Most people find the idea of pedophilia repugnant and the purpose of this article is certainly not to disagree with that. Pedophilia is rightly condemned. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to punish a university professor for his speech on a subject, however controversial.
First of all, despite numerous reports to the contrary, Professor Kershnar does not personally support pedophilia. As reported in Newsweek, he has publicly stated that pedophilia strikes “many people, myself included, as sick, disgusting and evil”. He tends to put things in a way that implies he doesn’t see a moral issue in sex acts with minors, but it’s a standard teaching method to say something like “I don’t see the moral problem with X” and ask the student to explain what the moral objection to X is.
It is an extremely useful educational tool. In fact, many of the things that people once considered deeply morally wrong, such as same-sex marriage and interracial marriage, are now viewed very differently. The fact that people regard something as morally repugnant is no reason to punish people who question that repugnance. In some cases, the dissenter will end up persuading the majority to change its mind. But even when this is not the case, it is useful for society to be encouraged to discuss Why something is immoral. A clearer analysis can lead to better protection of the very values society cherishes.
For example, society could review incest laws. A strong argument could be made that society places too much importance on genetics and possible birth defects to condemn incestuous sex. This leaves half-siblings and even stepchildren unprotected in many states until they are past the age of consent, which is as low as 16 in some states.
So the benefit of allowing people to challenge even taboos such as pedophilia and incest laws is that encouraging society to think about why we have these laws can help society change and improving these laws over time. There is nothing wrong with discussing the age of consent, the importance of the age difference between the victim and the perpetrator, and the type of acts that should be considered sexual for the purposes of law. (One school once suspended a 6-year-old boy for kissing a girl on the hand and another suspended a 14-year-old couple for hugging in the hallway, so common sense doesn’t always prevail here.)
It is also worth asking what harm is there in tolerating Professor Kershnar’s free speech. He is a professor of philosophy at the university – his videos are not intended for minors. The chances of someone deciding to commit incest in the real world because they heard a professor questioning conventional morality on a video are extremely low. The odds of a state legislature getting rid of child molestation laws (instead of perhaps helpfully amending them, as noted earlier) are equally slim.
And Professor Kershnar is a serious scholar, whose work on sexual morality is published in serious academic journals. This is not a case of a professor using his title to promote his own personal sexual morality. Punishing a professor for expressing his philosophical views is a fundamental violation of academic freedom. At a time when the political right and political left are keen to censor each other to ban anti-revival speech or critical race theory, the last thing society needs is more censorship.