The Jimmy Savile scandal caused public revulsion, but experts disagree about what causes paedophilia – and even how much harm it causes
A 1976 the National Council for Civil Liberties, the respectable (and responsible) pressure group now known as Liberty, made a submission to parliament’s criminal law revision committee. It caused barely a ripple. “Childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in with an adult,” it read, “result in no identifiable damage … The real need is a change in the attitude which assumes that all cases of paedophilia result in lasting damage.”
It is difficult today, after the public firestorm unleashed by revelations about Jimmy Savile and the host of child abuse allegations they have triggered, to imagine any mainstream group making anything like such a claim. But if it is shocking to realise how dramatically attitudes to paedophilia have changed in just three decades, it is even more surprising to discover how little agreement there is even now among those who are considered experts on the subject.
A liberal professor of psychology who studied in the late 1970s will see things very differently from someone working in child protection, or with convicted sex offenders. There is, astonishingly, not even a full academic consensus on whether consensual paedophilic relations necessarily cause harm.
So what, then, do we know? A paedophile is someone who has a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children. Savile appears to have been primarily an ephebophile, defined as someone who has a similar preferential attraction to adolescents, though there have been claims one of his victims was aged eight.
But not all paedophiles are child molesters, and vice versa: by no means every paedophile acts on his impulses, and many people who sexually abuse children are not exclusively or primarily sexually attracted to them. In fact, “true” paedophiles are estimated by some experts to account for only 20% of sexual abusers. Nor are paedophiles necessarily violent: no firm links have so far been established between paedophilia and aggressive or psychotic symptoms. Psychologist Glenn Wilson, co-author of The Child-Lovers: a Study of Paedophiles in Society, argues that “The majority of paedophiles, however socially inappropriate, seem to be gentle and rational.”
Legal definitions of paedophilia, needless to say, have no truck with such niceties, focusing on the offence, not the offender. The Sex Offenders Act 1997 defined paedophilia as a sexual relationship between an adult over 18 and a child below 16.
There is much more we don’t know, including how many paedophiles there are: 1-2% of men is a widely accepted figure, but Sarah Goode, a senior lecturer at the University of Winchester and author of two major 2009 and 2011 sociological studies on paedophilia in society, says the best current estimate – based on possibly flawed science – is that “one in five of all adult men are, to some degree, capable of being sexually aroused by children”. Even less is known about female paedophiles, thought to be responsible for maybe 5% of abuse against pre-pubescent children in the UK.
Debate still rages, too, about the clinical definition of paedophilia. Down the years, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – “the psychiatrist’s bible” – has variously classified it as a sexual deviation, a sociopathic condition and a non-psychotic medical disorder. And few agree about what causes it. Is paedophilia innate or acquired? Research at the sexual behaviours clinic of Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health suggests paedophiles’ IQs are, on average, 10% lower than those of sex offenders who had abused adults, and that paedophiles are significantly less likely to be right-handed than the rest of the population, suggesting a link to brain development. MRI scans reveal a possible issue with paedophiles’ “white matter”: the signals connecting different areas of the brain. Paedophiles may be wired differently.
This is radical stuff. But there is a growing conviction, notably in Canada, that paedophilia should probably be classified as a distinct sexual orientation, like heterosexuality or homosexuality. Two eminent researchers testified to that effect to a Canadian parliamentary commission last year, and the Harvard Mental Health Letter of July 2010 stated baldly that paedophilia “is a sexual orientation” and therefore “unlikely to change”.
Child protection agencies and many who work with sex offenders dislike this. “Broadly speaking, in the world of people who work with sex offenders here, [paedophilia] is learned behaviour,” says Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a charity dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse, and, before it closed, manager of leading treatment centre the Wolvercote Clinic. “There may be some vulnerabilities that could be genetic, but normally there are some significant events in a person’s life, a sexually abusive event, a bullying environment … I believe it is learned, and can be unlearned.”
Chris Wilson of Circles UK, which helps released offenders, also rejects the idea that paedophilia is a sexual orientation: “The roots of that desire for sex with a child lie in dysfunctional psychological issues to do with power, control, anger, emotional loneliness, isolation.”
If the complexity and divergence of professional opinion may have helped create today’s panic around paedophilia, a media obsession with the subject has done more: a sustained hue and cry exemplified by the News of the World’s notorious “name and shame” campaign in 2000, which brought mobs on to the streets to demonstrate against the presence of shadowy monsters in their midst. As a result, paranoia about the danger from solitary, predatory deviants far outweighs the infinitely more real menace of abuse within the home or extended circle. “The vast majority of sexual violence is committed by people known to the victim,” stresses Kieran Mccartan, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of the West of England. Only very rarely is the danger from the “stranger in the white van”, Mccartan says.
Tom Watson MP
January 4th, 2013 |
Jon Henley had a piece in yesterday’s Guardian, entitled “Paedophilia: bringing dark desires to light”. He’s received a furious response on social media and I can see why. Many involved child protection will find it hard to see it as anything other than the commentariat’s backlash, a contrarian response to a public outcry over recent revelations about child abuse by the rich and famous.
That may be harsh, and I felt a considered response was important. These thoughts are my own, but I have lent heavily on the work and advice of Dr Liz Davies, a leading academic in the field of child protection.
In a brief Twitter exchange, Jon pointed me to the final two paragraphs of his article. Quoting senior lecturer Sarah Goode he writes, “If we can talk about this rationally – acknowledge that yes, men do get sexually attracted to children, but no, they don’t have to act on it – we can maybe avoid the hysteria. We won’t label paedophiles monsters; it won’t be taboo to see and name what is happening in front of us.”
The sub-heading for the article claimed: “The Jimmy Savile scandal caused public revulsion, but experts disagree about what causes paedophilia – and even how much harm it causes”
My main argument against this article is that this approach ignores the evidence of the experiences of abused children, the experiences of adult survivors of child abuse and the experiences of many professionals who work to protect children. It is a risky strategy at the current time because so many of those who promoted the rights of the ‘paedophile’ have in later years been convicted of sexual crimes against children. Equally, so many of those whom this lobby attacked have been vindicated in their efforts to protect and gain justice for children and survivors.
For Jon, the current public discourse is hindered because of moral panic around child abuse. Saying “If the complexity and divergence of professional opinion may have helped create today’s panic around paedophilia, a media obsession with the subject has done more: a sustained hue and cry exemplified by the News of the World’s notorious “name and shame” campaign in 2000, which brought mobs to the streets, to demonstrate against the presence of shadowy monsters in their midst.”
Defining moral panic this way with respect to the sexual abuse of children is shows a failure to understand the term. Stanley Cohen, author of “Folk Devils and Moral Panics” defines moral panic as “when a condition, episode, person or group emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests. Those who start the panic fear a threat to prevailing societal values”. Opposing the sexual abuse of children and upholding their human rights doesn’t fit this definition. Prevailing societal values are not under threat by those who challenge child sexual abuse because this society clearly legislates and upholds the rights of children to be protected from harm and all forms of abuse. The concept of a ‘moral panic’ is an academic argument being exploited to attack those who are striving to protect children from harm. They would never say that those who oppose racism are part of a moral panic so why apply it to those who oppose childism (to borrow an “ism” from the experts)?
The part of the article that concerns me most is where it touches on the experiences of the liberation campaigns of the1970′s saying: “The reclassification of paedophilia as a sexual orientation would, however, play into what Goode calls “the sexual liberation discourse”, which has existed since the 1970s. “There are a lot of people,” she says, “who say: we outlawed homosexuality, and we were wrong. Perhaps we’re wrong about paedophilia.”
The Paedophile Liberation Front and Paeodphile Information Exchange emerged also in the 70s. It is wrong though to suggest that everyone around at that time agreed with the extension of the ‘rights’ movement into including a child’s right to ‘sex’ with adults. This was definitely not the case. These groups were always on the very margins of the freedom and civil rights movements. Some of this pro-paedophile lobby, though, infiltrated academia and professional circles including the children’s charter and rights movement. Brian Taylor’s book “Perspectives on Paedophilia” (1981), the most depressing on my Christmas reading list, is one of the main examples of professionals who promoted this view. Some of the contributors were subsequently convicted for sexual crimes against children as was Tom O’Carroll, author of the “Radical Case for Paedophilia” (1980). Peter Righton, in Taylor’s book, wrote about boys expressing appreciation for the consideration and attention they received which they rarely got in their own homes and most felt they benefited. He was convicted in 1992 of importing and possessing abusive images of boys.
These claims, bogus of course, are perhaps why people were so angry at Jon Henley’s comment piece. The very fact that a respected features writer on The Guardian lent his authority to a number of pseudo-intellectual claims like these is deeply upsetting to many who campaign to expose child abuse as Britain’s hidden scandal.
Here are further examples of how leading writers of the time were captured by the language of liberation:
Cambridge criminology Professor, Donald West, author of “Children’s sexual encounters with adults. A scientific study” wrote about paedophiles ‘coming out’ in the late 70s, which aroused a “witch hunt” against paedophiles:
“there is an urgent need to distinguish between those adults who use force to obtain sexual contact with children and those who do not, as well as between children who just endure what is done to them and those who actively participate in sexual relationships with adults’.
“This study is concerned with adult sexual experiences with children.. its central aim is to give voice to the viewpoint of the paedophile”.
He criticises the prevalence statistics stating that they mainly include “relatively innocuous advances”. He also states that it is “unwise to overdramatise institutional abuse” as many boys “did not take the behaviour at all seriously or felt the need to make a formal complaint.”
- Ponerized society: UK’s Guardian publishes favourable article on pedophilia – ‘Bringing dark desires to light’ (sott.net)
- A response to Jon Henley’s article on paedophilia (tom-watson.co.uk)
- Paedophilia: bringing dark desires to light (guardian.co.uk)
- Here come the pedophilia apologists (seeker401.wordpress.com)
- Normalizing Pedophilia (newsforcatholics.wordpress.com)
- The normalization of Pedophilia By: Timothy Whiteman (lacykitkat.wordpress.com)