A response to Jon Henley’s article on paedophilia

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.”

Ralph Underwager was a high profile US consultant psychologist to the Cleveland Inquiry. He was exposed as contributing to a Dutch Paedophile magazine Paidika (1993) in which he wrote “Paedophiles should become much more positive. The should directly attack the concept, the image, the picture of the paedophile as an evil, wicked, and reprehensible exploiter of children”. He went on to say:

“Paedophiles need to become more positive and make the claim that paedophilia is an accceptable expression of God’s will for love and unity among human beings”.

No wonder many more enlightened academics like Dr Liz Davies talk of the “child sex abuse lobby”. She argues some academic writings have to be located in the context of what is known about those who spread those viewpoints and their agendas. Their views were clearly expressed in a document dated 1975 where Paedophile Information Exchange submitted evidence to the Home Office.This proposed abolition of the age of consent and the removal of consensual sexual activity at all ages from the criminal law.

Jon Henley goes on to make a number of other claims that deserve further challenge. They are listed in bold:

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.

If there is such a person, daring to call themselves ‘liberal’ then I would want to know why they have not developed their thinking since the 70s to understand the dynamics of child sexual abuse and of child sexual abusers in a context of prevalence studies, survivor accounts and research, academic research and the findings and recommendations from hundreds of Inquiries. I cannot imagine why a Professor would want to situate themselves as seeing things differently from someone working in child protection. This would imply that they are confidently situating themselves outside the law, policy and practice guidance relating to the safety of children from sexual crime and abuse.

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.

It is commonly stated that most abuse of children is by the family or by people well known to the child. That is almost certainly true. But Dr Liz Davies argues that we do not have full statistics of abuse of children by ‘strangers’ e.g. the children who go missing and are never found are not counted by anyone and abductions do not count within the child sex abuse statistics. If there is one point we can learn from the Savile expose – it is that it highlights the extent of ‘stranger’ abuse. This is very important too.

MAPPA statistics do not differentiate between sex offending against adults and those against children which makes analysis difficult because the numbers of known offenders against children are not easily accessed. There is also substantial under-reporting of all forms of child abuse. It is important to compare prevalence statistics, such as NSPCC research citing that nearly a quarter of young adults experienced sexual abuse during childhood, with the numbers of children subject to a protection plan for child sexual abuse which, in 2012, were just 2300 in England and Wales. Where are the statistics of children illegally adopted, children trafficked for domestic and sexual exploitation, children who are victims of the “global industries of child abuse” such as online abuse and abusive images? All these forms of child sexual abuse are under-reported and largely absent from the official statistics.

…a sample of boys in paedophilic relationships felt positively about them
In order to sexually abuse a child a perpetrator will often groom the child and so it is not uncommon for a child to have some positive feelings towards the person harming them. The perpetrator may also be someone who is close to them and the child wants the abuse to stop but does not want to lose the relationship. This is no way suggests that the abuse is justifiable. In fact a state of confused emotions and responses adds to the severity of the trauma experienced by the child. That this is not obvious to Jon Henley is alarming to me.

Whether or not a child voluntarily entered into sexual relations with their abuser, and how positive or negative they felt about it at the time, is irrelevant when it comes to both the long-term effects of child sex abuse, and how seriously we should treat the abuse. Even if it is true that for some survivors of this type of consensual abuse there were no “undesirable outcomes” (though this is surely hard to quantify), this is certainly not true for all, or even many, if any, children who entered into abusive relationships voluntarily; and to draw a distinction between children who were violently abused and children who submitted willingly is irresponsible and damaging when children who submitted willingly are already more likely to feel shame, self-blame and not seek help due to their belief it was their own fault.

I hope Jon Henley reflects on how his features piece has, inadvertently I’m sure, lent credibility to bogus claims about child abuse that make it harder for policy makers to act decisively. In the few short weeks I’ve been looking at this subject, I know that we are failing children today. We have to act with boldness and at scale. I’m talking to colleagues about what Labour’s future policy in child protection might look like. I hope to talk to colleagues from other parties also.

Survivors of child sex abuse commonly suffer from depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, phobias, flashbacks, disturbing thoughts, intrusive memories, self-harming, alcoholism, eating disorders, and feelings of shame, anger and worthlessness. This is the reality, but Jon Henley doesn’t voice it in his piece.

48 comments ↓

There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment