Is public hatred of pedophiles driving innocent, afflicted men away from the help they need?
This article is not written in an attempt to influence your moral perception of sex crimes committed against children. They are likely decided and righteous. This is written to assert a simple fact that has been completely absent from any of the recent discussion of pedophilia - that there is a real and important difference between pedophilia (meaning sexual interest in children) and child molestation.
We cannot cure pedophiles, but we can help and treat them. There are indeed pedophilic persons who have stayed celibate; not committing crimes against children, who have remained in society. I worry that failing to make the above distinction has made the public demonization of innocent men socially acceptable. Furthermore, properly considered, our visceral public hatred of pedophiles could actually be making it harder for us to tackle the threat they pose to children.
The "Savile effect" is in full force: Dave Lee Travis, Rolf Harris, Freddie Star and Jim Davis have all been investigated. Over 600 "previously unknown" figures were arrested in a single operation of "unprecedented size." "It's a good thing... we should treat them like terrorists," proclaimed Dai Davies, a former Head of Royal Protection and Chief Superintendent at the Met on BBC News that night. After Cyril Smith, Theresa May announces Government probes into an alleged pedophile ring within Parliament itself. Figures at the heart of the establishment, figures at the height of fame, and figures from quite ordinary and 'unknown' walks of life are all quite suddenly being rigorously brought to justice.
Is this a sea change? Did Savile signal a moment of critical mass, when our society shifted from one where establishment cover-ups to protect politicians, judges, police officers and popular entertainers were commonplace, to one that systematically and relentlessly roots them out? Or is this simply the latest wave of media interest into pedophiles? Previous waves have come and gone for the past thirty years. "The media certainly ran with [these stories about child abuse]. There were investigations and criminal findings. But somehow all were somewhat self-contained," explained an anonymous social worker who has worked in child protection for 30 years.
This time is different. The scale is unavoidable. Finally the press and society is joining up the dots - these are all cases of child abuse, each a heinous crime that must be reprimanded with the same hard-nosed response. "I thought pedophiles were rare - but then I read the newspapers," was the title of a column in the Spectator last week. But pedophiles have been present in all cultures at all times - finally our culture is moving to decisively end the suffering they cause.
I support the recent zeal and urgency to expose and peruse emerging crimes of the past. I am depressed and saddened to learn of the systematic and sinister way crimes against children have been hidden away in my society. Yet, I'm increasingly concerned that at this time of peaking public interest and damnation, we are building and fostering a social characterization and stereotype of pedophiles that is ugly, ignorant, violent almost, in its condemnation.
I am no expert on the subject, but what is clear is that pedophilia is what is known as an innate quality. It is not something pedophiles choose to be. It's a form of sexual deviance, of which there are many forms, which the press and indeed most of us consider pretty 'messed up.' Yet, it's something that I would consider an affliction. It is commonly described as an 'illness' after all and is considered by many Psychiatric Associations as a 'mental disorder.'
Our society is very currently however, pushing in all areas to insure innate qualities are not punished in people. Words like homophobic, sexist and racist have only entered the public lexicon in the past century; and more recently, transphobia and Islamophobia.
We live in a progressive society that is making positive steps to ensure that people are not persecuted in any way because of arbitrary social or biological facts about them. Not at all in a redistribution sense (if only), but there is a pervasive liberal convention that no one should be at all punished, disadvantaged or subordinated simply because of their religion, sexuality, race, disability or any other thing they can't control.
We have made bold steps to ensure that disabled people are held back as little as possible. Afflictions, conditions and handicaps, sustained and innate, are treated with understanding and compassion. Recent campaigns to 'end the taboo' around mental illness and even the glory of the London Paralympics are testimony to this. But is pedophilia a mental illness / disability too far? Can society really offer these people help and hope, or must we completely ostracize them?
Sex crimes against children - venerable, innocent agents who don't even posses the ability to give consent - are some of the clearest imaginable moral 'wrongs' society can easily agree upon. They are crimes most people find excruciating and sickening to imagine, let alone contemplate occurring in their community, lest their governance.
Acting on a pedophilic urge is objectively wrong, in all contexts, historical and cultural (No, it simply was not 'different' back then or there). But remember, I am talking about the condition of being a pedophile - different from being a sex offender. All pedophiles, regardless the crimes that they have or have not committed, are increasingly branded as the very embodiment of evil, because they posses a characteristic they did not choose.
We live in an age of anxious moral uncertainty. Long standing but blind historic clarity about right and wrong is dissolving and our pluralistic society is constantly maneuvering between intolerance and relativism to preserve any sense of credibility or common purpose. It is within this climate that the characterization - stigmatization - of the pedophile has emerged. A personification of evil that tabloids, cabinet ministers and parents at school gates can discuss with levels of moral certainty that they crave when touching upon other current topics. An unchallenged, black and white, hated stereotype of the pedophile has become the norm.
The on going legal and social crack down on sex crimes against children is not a 'witch hunt'. It's well overdue. But as shocking as these revelations are, during this period we must be cautious of crude social stigmas. The only way to treat pedophiles and prevent their crimes is if pedophiles know they are different from child molesters. Still very little is understood about, but about 1-2% of the male population is generally thought to suffer from it. Even less is know about female pedophiles. None, however, are born criminals and many can live without committing terrible crimes.
It's not a pleasant exercise, but imagine being born a pedophile in today's society. Passing through puberty and realizing there was something wrong with you. Coming to terms with what it was that made you a demonized figure of hate in your community, regardless of the fact that you had not harmed a child. Would you seek help?