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Paedophiles: The Ordinary Monsters Hiding in Plain Sight

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How do you spot a paedophile? With great difficulty. While media coverage of cases of horrific child abuse and murder use terms such as 'evil', 'monster' and 'fiend' to describe perpetrators, the reality is that paedophiles generally look the same as everybody else.

Paedophiles are deeply damaged individuals who commit repulsive crimes against children, but they are not supernatural entities and nor do they typically lurk in the shadows waiting to pounce. As Operation Yewtree has demonstrated, paedophiles can be extremely charismatic and are often those perceived to be "respectable" pillars of society.

There is an understandable revulsion felt by the public about paedophilia, but sensationalist reporting of these offenders will not help us to comprehend their behaviour - instead it actually makes it harder to protect children. If we label offenders as looking or behaving a certain way, then we merely help to obscure their identities and make it easier for them to operate without detection.

Child abuse can happen anywhere where children are, and abusers can be anyone. The sad fact is that children, naturally trusting and keen to please adults, are more likely to be abused by someone they know.

When Christine Bicknell, grandmother of murdered 12-year-old Tia Sharp, gave interviews about paedophilic killer and her partner of five years, Stuart Hazell, she said: "He seemed like the perfect guy. He was affectionate, great with the kids, good around the house with the housework."

Ms Bicknell and Tia's mother Natalie Sharp have faced strong criticism since Tia's disappearance. Christine has said that people ask how she couldn't have known. The fact the family were working class and lived on a council estate has led some commentators to unfairly link their alleged "lifestyle" to Tia's death. Yet the entire debate is misleading; Tia was much loved and her family have been left devastated by her death.

As was the case with Mick Philpott and linking his crime to 'benefits culture', Hazell's actions are not attributable to his status in society, but to the fact that he was a paedophile with a sexual urge towards young girls.

Tia's grandmother said she had tried to protect Tia from danger, little realising that the danger was already in her own home. "I'd warned her about all the evil people out there, the paedophiles and sickos, and had the stranger danger chats."

Stuart Hazell had forged a "close and loving" relationship with his step-granddaughter, and looking at the CCTV footage of their last shopping trip, how could anyone who saw them together in the supermarket that day have possibly known of the impending tragedy?

Ms Bicknell is not the first woman to find herself living with a dangerous paedophile, and she will not be the last.

The statistics on child sexual abuse make for grim reading. In 2011/12, 17,186 sexual crimes against children under 16 were recorded in England and Wales. Considering child protection experts believe there is under-reporting of such crimes, the numbers really suffering abuse are likely to be much higher.

More than one third (37%) of all rapes recorded by the police in England and Wales in 2011/12 were committed against children under 16 years of age.

Child sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking cuts across class, race, gender and occupations. Social worker Janet Foulds, a member of the British Association of Social Workers who specialises in therapeutic work with children who have been abused, is concerned that biased or dramatised media reporting is in danger of obscuring this truth.

"Certain cases understandably attract a lot of media interest. The crimes committed are shocking and the damage done to the children is considerable", Ms Foulds comments. "But picking out certain factors such as class or race is misleading and actually harmful in dealing with the wider issues of child protection, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation."

Ms Foulds is also concerned that media reporting that demonises offenders and brands them "evil" can also have a very harmful effect on how victims perceive themselves. "There is a real danger in the media stereotyping of both offenders and the children and young people involved. It is just too comfortable for some people to think it is only one group of offenders, such as Asian men, rather than thinking about the problems in terms such as gender."

While many abusers have been abused themselves, and Stuart Hazell's barrister said in mitigation that Hazell was raped in a homeless shelter at the age of 16, we must be careful when we are seeking to explain and understand, but not to excuse child sex offenders, that we don't wrongly label victims as potential abusers.

Janet Foulds explains: "Common to almost every child, young person or adult who has suffered in this way, are the feelings of worthlessness, a sense of being to blame and a feeling that they were seen as objects rather than children or people. Sex offenders objectify children for their own gratification rather than seeing them as human beings".

Media reporting that tags offenders as "evil" can make victims feel that they too are complicit in the offences. In the recent child sexual exploitation cases, the media focused on race and faith and made assumptions about supposedly inherent attitudes to women held by Asian or Muslim men, yet there are other organised groups of offenders who are not Asian.

The success of Operation Kern in Derby in July 2012 has attracted minimal media coverage, despite leading to the conviction of eight men, only one of whom was Asian. While the men did not know one another and were not operating together, they were all prolific offenders living in the same area.

As with child deaths, the way that the media picks and chooses which cases to report perpetuates the view that these crimes occur in only one type of community

Janet Foulds says: "The default position for many people facing the trauma of child abuse is still denial and minimising. It helps us to cope. The truth about prevalence is uncomfortable and needs to be owned by everyone. Perhaps it is also time to ask what is happening to men that they are increasingly viewing extreme images of pornography online."

While some abusers are women, crimes of sexual abuse and violence are predominantly perpetrated by men and boys. The proliferation of men viewing disturbing online images of extreme sexual abuse has to make us question what this says about attitudes towards women and children; although there are some commentators raising it, why isn't this issue commonly used by the media as the basis of the debate?

After the conviction of Mark Bridger for the murder of April Jones, The Guardian reported "striking parallels" between Bridger's case and that of Stuart Hazell. Both men had no previous convictions for abuse but carried out sexually motivated murders after viewing images of child sexual exploitation, the paper said.

Jim Gamble, the founding head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), told The Guardian there was a theory that men such as Bridger and Hazell became caught up in a "spiral of abuse".

"They begin to want more, they want access not to still images but to video images, and then they want to get more real experience. And through the internet they realise that they are not alone," Gamble said.

Sensationalism sells papers, but media portraits of monsters and demons do not assist us to identify potential offenders. It is probably easier to spot the warning signs that a child is being abused rather than attempt to identify potential abusers just by looking at them.

Nor should children have to take responsibility for identifying potential abusers.

Janet Foulds believes it isn't reasonable to expect children and young people to work out who is safe or otherwise, especially given the complexity of grooming in many instances. "We need to learn much more about how offenders organise themselves. We also need to continue to highlight the need for services for these children. Preventative work, good training for professionals and access to support services to help children to deal with their experiences, are so important. To ignore or diminish the traumatic sexualisation of children is to store up many problems for them, the children to come and for mental health services in the future," she says.

"We don't want to spoil their childhoods but somehow we need to help them to understand that abusers can be anyone. Children need to be encouraged to tell someone who can help them if they are worried.

"Paradoxically, in warning children not to talk to strangers, we may be deterring them from asking other strangers who may be able to help if they feel they are in danger."

Parents are often advised to strike the right tone between awareness and scaremongering about paedophilia when making children aware of the dangers. Perhaps it is time for the press to follow suit, so that children can be better protected.