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In Defense of Stigma

By Douglas Groothuis


We hear people claim that it is wrong to label something a "stigma" and that we must not stigmatize people. Some now even assert that we must retire the word "pedophile" since it stigmatizes people who are erotically attracted to children. Rather, we must speak of a "minor-attracted person" (or MAP). A student in one of my classes told me that the word "transvestite" must not be used, since it stigmatizes cross-dressers. I said that it was a descriptively accurate term for men who dress like women (and vice versa, although that is less common) and that I had not heard of its descent into a derogatory insult. I will continue to use it where appropriate and necessary. This raises the question of whether anything should be stigmatized. I argue that some stigmas are good and should be applied appropriately. Otherwise, we will sink in a sea of relativism and antinomianism.


One can stigmatize a particular proclivity, behavior, or person while still seeking the well-being of those so stigmatized. The sociologist Erving Goffman defined stigma as an “attribute that is deeply discrediting.” For example, a convicted pedophile has been correctly discredited to work with young children. Of course, people can be stigmatized for the wrong reasons, such as their race, physical appearance, handicaps, or other features beyond their control. And those suffering from moral stigmas may repent of them and lead new lives. However, it is not loving to endorse a sinful bent or behavior. One can correctly assign a stigma without hating or seeking harm for the person so stigmatized. We can stigmatize something without cursing the person who practices the stigmatized behavior. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14). We can add this to that command: bless those who are rightfully stigmatized, and do not curse them.


Moreover, one should apply the standard used to identify the stigma to oneself first, as Jesus taught:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5)."


Without proper stigmas, we cannot create or maintain a decent society. We simply cannot accept every action or every lifestyle. Wrongdoing and wrong living are real and should be rejected and shamed. Some desires (such as erotic desires for children) are, in themselves, disordered loves and should be stigmatized as such. Having such disordered desires is not on the order of having brown hair or white skin or being tall. This is the reality of concupiscence, which is due to original sin. Our sinful natures are sexually disordered, to one degree or another, in one way or another. For Jesus and the Bible as a whole, desires not acted on may also be sinful:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).


Some engage in heterosexual lusts and immoral behaviors with adults and have no sexual desire for children. Their concupiscence differs from that of a pedophile. We are all sinners, by nature and by choice, but sin affects each person differently. We are disordered in various ways. However, we should all struggle to master ourselves to walk the narrow path laid out by Jesus (Matthew 7:13-14).


It is especially important that pedophilic behavior be stigmatized and illegal, since it is tantamount to rape. A culture that countenances pedophilia is an anti-child and anti-God culture. Jesus had strong words for those who mislead or abuse children (Mark 9:42).


People with pedophilic desires need not act out on these desires and may receive help with this sexual disorder. The same goes for transvestitism (Deut. 22:5). These desires must not be normalized, since they are morally wrong. They should be stigmatized and, thus, resisted in one’s inner and outer life.


The rejection of all stigmas means the descent into nihilism and anarchy. Those who say no to nothing say yes to perversity. But even those who rail against stigmatizing, stigmatize those who stigmatize pedophilia and transvestitism, deeming them as phobic or censorious or worse. So, stigma is an inescapable concept for anyone seeking to make significant moral distinctions. The question for us all is discerning what is stigma-worthy and what is not. For Christians, our test book is the Bible. This means that we take all that the Bible says as objectively true and we take that objective truth as the standard for analyzing everything else. Notice what Paul writes about Scripture:

"the Holy Scriptures…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17)."


The Bible not only teaches the way of salvation through “faith in Jesus Christ.” It is also our standard for “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness,” so that we are equipped for serving God regarding the truth that God has graciously revealed in the Bible.


The Bible, rightly understood and applied, tells us what to stigmatize and what to praise, as well as which thoughts and actions are commendable and which thoughts and actions are contemptible. Because of this, we should defend the biblical use of stigmas in order to honor God’s moral order and to speak the truth in love to our neighbor (Ephesians 4:15).

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