Wed, Jan 09, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Academics differ on how to approach pedophilia

In the UK, the scandal over the late TV presenter Jimmy Savile, who is accused of sexually abusing underage girls, caused public revulsion, but experts disagree about what causes pedophilia, with some saying it is a sexual orientation like any other and others even claiming consensual pedophilic relations are harmless

By Jon Henley  /  The Guardian, LONDON

This is radical stuff. However, there is a growing conviction — notably in Canada — that pedophilia 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 University Mental Health Letter of July 2010 baldly stated that pedophilia “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, [pedophilia] is learned behavior,” said Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a charity dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse. “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 pedophilia 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,” he said.

If the complexity and divergence of professional opinion may have helped create today’s panic around pedophilia, a media obsession with the subject has done more. A sustained hue and cry exemplified by the London-based News of the World newspaper’s notorious “name and shame” campaign in 2000, which brought mobs on to the UK’s 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,” said Kieran Mccartan, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of the West of England.

However, the reclassification of pedophilia as a sexual orientation would play into what Goode calls “the sexual liberation discourse,” which has existed since the 1970s.

“There are a lot of people who say: ‘We outlawed homosexuality and we were wrong.’ Perhaps we’re wrong about pedophilia,” she said.

Social perceptions do change. Child brides were once the norm — in the late 16th century the age of consent in England was 10. More recently, campaigning organizations of the 1970s and 1980s such as the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) and Paedophile Action for Liberation were active members of the NCCL when it made its parliamentary submission questioning the lasting damage caused by consensual pedophilic relations.

Even now there is no consensus on that fundamental question — as Goode found. Some academics do not dispute the view of Tom O’Carroll, a former PIE chairman and tireless pedophilia advocate with a conviction for distributing indecent photographs of children following a sting operation, that society’s outrage at pedophilic relationships is essentially irrational and not justified by science.

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