Named and Shamed: Why We Hate Paedophiles

By Matteo Tiratelli

On 8 December 2008 the convicted paedophile Andrew Cunningham “was hacked to death and had his genitals mutilated by a vigilante mob after young girls were seen in his caravan”. On 16 July 2014 “more than 600 suspected paedophiles, including doctors and teachers, were arrested across Britain after a six-month investigation led by the National Crime Agency”. From October 2013 to June 2014, Rebekah Brooks made it clear throughout her phone-hacking trial that fighting paedophilia had been her raison d’être as an editor, often mentioning The News of the World’s campaigns in favour of Sarah’s Law. It’s clear that we all hate paedophiles; abusing an adult is terrible enough, but there is nothing more evil than abusing a child.

Marriage with girls under 12 has been forbidden in England since 1275 CE and sexual activity with such a “maiden within her age” was, even then, considered statutory rape. However, such laws were rarely enforced and there are many recorded instances of very young girls being married to significantly older men. Even more recently children have been seen as dependent adults. In Robert Roberts’s The Classic Slum, which describes life in early 1900s Salford, he documents attitudes toward children whereby they were seen as “incomplete adults… at least until they started to earn money”, at which point it was expected that they “should work to compensate parents for the ‘kept’ years of childhood”. This is not to suggest some simplistic moral relativism, but to show that our contemporary hysteria about paedophilia is in many ways a modern phenomenon. And the historical and cultural specificities of this hysteria are very often ignored.

The attitudes underpinning this hysteria, however, are not completely new. All transformations involve bringing some pre-existing element to the fore; it is the whole that is new, not necessarily the parts. It was with Romantic Movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that children were first conceptualised as innocent and angelic, as emblems of virtue and vulnerability. If human nature was essentially good then children embodied a purer, uncorrupted form of this goodness. They were naturally virtuous and needed protection from adult vices (which were normally assumed to be of a sexual nature). Guides to childrearing from the time are revealing: advising parents to cover up their children and preventing them from sharing beds with servants. Thus, from the outset children’s innocence was tied to their exemption from original sin. However, this conception of childhood remained the concern only of aristocrats, artists and pedagogues for the next few centuries

The rise of this conception of childhood was tied to a wider political campaign of modernisation and uplift. Beginning with the Factory Acts of 1802, the 19th century saw a growing movement to exclude children from the formal economy. Although these initial laws were little enforced and children continued to be employed in factories across England until the end of the century, the various campaigns did build a growing consensus, at least amongst the middle classes who did not depend on their children for income. Significantly though, the campaigns of Robert Owen, Sir Robert Peel MP and others rested on reimagining childhood as an innocent time for learning and development, not as a period of free labour for parents. This romanticised image of childhood was from the start tied up with notions of political, social, and moral development. It was taken up as a symbol of modernity and promoted by the many utopian social engineers of the 19th century.

Meanwhile a figure was emerging from the shadows who posed a grave threat to these innocent, frolicking children. The young disciplines of psychiatry and psychology were medicalising perversions and constructing new bodies of knowledge around a new object: the “pervert”. This subtly changed the meaning of paedophilia. No longer was it merely a way of identifying a set of actions, it was now a way of defining a person: a person with a case history, a past, a childhood of his own. His paedophilia was inscribed into every part of him; he was no longer just a pederast, his whole being was defined by his paedophilia. In this way the threat to our vulnerable children was embodied and given definite form. The monster was born.

Today it is unquestionable that we think of children as innocent and as vulnerable; but, these two are not synonymous and their interplay throws light on the peculiar threat of paedophilia. Children are obviously vulnerable: they are small, weak and dependent on their parents in a way which is highly unusual amongst other mammals. However, they are also vulnerable in a more subtle sense. The innocence which characterises childhood was historically founded on their asexuality; children had yet to develop “adult vices”. (In a way children are obviously sexual; any parent will tell you that infants can be obsessed with their genitalia but at some point this “innocent play” becomes shameful masturbation which is hidden away as the child enters the difficult in-between stage of adolescence.) Paedophilia is therefore dangerous not only in a physical and emotional sense, but also because it destroys the metaphysical state of childhood. A child sexualised by abuse is no longer a child. Paedophilia therefore poses a unique threat to the sanctity of childhood.

Since the sexual liberation of the long 1960s, this paedophilic threat has been brought into a new light. Although much is often made of the fact that during the 1960s sexual relations with young girls were considered acceptable, this is probably more a reflection of the historically unusually young marriage ages of the 1950s and 1960s than of the era’s sexual liberation. (Those proud Man Boy Love advocates might well disagree with me here.) Crucially, however, the process of sexual liberation was one of piecemeal progress and constant setbacks and every new tolerance was accompanied by the shadow of intolerance. Just as liberalism defines its freedoms in the context of specific (but often undefined) dangers, increasing tolerance became focussed on the ideal of “mutually consenting adults”. This meant paedophilia was a perversion that would remain forever outside of the scope of sexual liberation. It became the emblem of the intolerable; just as no democrat should be expected to tolerate National Socialism, paedophilia was beyond the pale of even the most liberal minded.

Another key part of our contemporary hysteria is founded on an institutional confusion about paedophilia. Well into the 1970s studies were being published which claimed that consensual adult-child sexual relationships had no negative consequences. The Diagnostics and Statistical Manual has variously classified paedophilia as a sexual deviation, a sociopathic condition and a non-psychotic mental disorder. Some scientists have claimed that there are certain neurological or genetic conditions that lead to paedophilia; something vehemently denied by those who work with sexual offenders who see it as a learned behaviour often triggered by childhood trauma. Perhaps due to this lack of consensus, paedophilia has in the public realm been dealt with through pop psychology and violent moralism. When this is combined with claims that between 1 and 2% of all adult males have paedophilic tendencies and fuelled by the News of the World’s “name and shame” campaign of 2000, it is small wonder that panic has set in.

Although the British press did not manufacture our hysteria out of thin air, they were instrumental in stirring the violent vigilantism of the 1990s. This particular type of localised direct action was focussed on a fear of “paedophiles in the community”. Building on the release of notorious paedophiles such as Roger Oliver and Graham Seddon, the press became enthusiastic observers: Parents in dark as paedophiles stalk schools (Guardian, 24 November 1996), Angus mums on alert over local sex offender (Press and Journal, (Aberdeen) 17 June 1998), Give us the Right to Know (Torquay Herald Express, 2 September 1997). However, the local press in particular moved beyond merely reporting these stories and started publishing the names and addresses of local, convicted paedophiles: leading directly to vigilantism. There was also a class dynamic to this vigilantism. When paedophiles were released from jail they were inevitably relocated to housing estates. They were released into working class communities that already felt neglected by and alienated from the state and that were now asked to harbour convicted paedophiles. Institutional incompetence was already a reality for many of these communities, and so, for some, vigilantism seemed like the only way to protect their children.

The most recent instance of our hysteria is coloured by something else: a quickly denied and firmly repressed feeling of guilt. In a specific sense we were all involved in creating the personas of Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris, Lionel Gamlin et al., and giving them the fame which enabled and protected them for so many years. Even those who did not watch their shows, or who dared ask quite how weird these men really were, were part of a society that gave Saville an unassailable platform. And the institutional secrecy of the BBC is not obviously the fault of the British people anymore than the mass of the Irish people is responsible for the covert world of the Catholic Church. But nevertheless there’s a lingering feeling that these institutions only assumed the form they did because people deferred to them; that their cultures and influence were the result of our actions and our attitudes towards them. Either way feelings of guilt by association can easily seep through the stricture of individual responsibility. And it is this guilt that leads us to overcompensate, to bury our guilt in a tirade of hate.

There is also a more general sense of guilt that permeates discussions of paedophilia. Light entertainment, fashion, music, cinema; these all seem to insist on a sexualisation of the young. Miley Cyrus did not suddenly become sexualised last year when she took a few clothes off and started twerking; even in her days as a virginal Disney princess she was sexualised (although in a less aggressive and non-threatening way of which dads could be proud). We want desperately to believe that children are innocent but are unable to resist the appeal of young girls crying on the X Factor, unable to turn our heads from Kate Moss’s much younger sister posing with glossy lips slightly parted, unable to pull ourselves away from a voyeuristic obsession with families torn apart by paedophilia and abuse. Maybe our hysteria is so loud because, in the words of Andrew O’Hagan, “the joy of execration must match the original sin”.

And we should be asking whether violent hysteria is an appropriate reaction. Clearly raping a child is terrible, but this is different to just being sexually attracted to children and “paedophiles” may not always act on their desires. Much recent discussion of virtual child porn and child robot sex dolls touches on this but seems to be missing the point. If an alien race who were completely mentally developed but superficially resembled children came to earth, then some paedophiles might find release there. But this is sidestepping the real issue: people who are sexually attracted to children qua children, with all that entails. That person is a paedophile (in that he is attracted to children) but if he or she never acts on those desires then he is not a child molester. Life for a repressed paedophile must be extremely hard and, if we are serious about preventing the molestation of children, then they need institutional support – what we don’t need is unquestioning moral outrage and disgust.

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