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[Newsletter E 10] 

The demonisation process

Sexual Privacy for Paedophiles and Children
Paper delivered by Tom O'Carroll to the Symposium on Sexual Privacy at the annual meeting of the International Academy of Sex Research, Paris, June 2000

[] I have briefly mentioned the over-broad impact of child pornography laws on people who would not generally be considered paedophiles, such as the ordinary parents who sometimes naively suppose pictures of their naked kids playing in the bath will be regarded as innocent at the photo lab. What the British Columbia judges understood, however, goes far beyond the problem of over-broadness. It is something deeper and more subtly important. They understood that even when law enforcement is apparently successful in targeting paedophiles rather than so-called normal people (a false dichotomy, by the way []) the intention behind such targeting is a dangerous one for society. The wording of the various laws against child porn, in Canada and elsewhere, generally has nothing to say about paedophiles. The laws speak only of the protection of children, not the thoughts and desires of potential offenders.

But law enforcement officers speak a different language, a language shared with politicians and the media in the last quarter century, during which the child porn laws have been developed. It is the language of demonisation, in which the word "paedophilia" has popularly come to symbolise pure, undiluted evil, with the implication that nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of a ruthless war to bring about its extirpation. It is a language in which police, politicians and journalists have colluded to link unreasonably a particular sexual orientation with moral degeneracy and high levels of harm.

The issue of harm

Like the child porn laws, the recent landmark paper by Rind, Bauserman and Tromovitch makes no mention of paedophilia. But its findings could hardly be more significant to the view society takes of paedophiles, as I imagine many of you already know. This meta-analysis based on 59 studies of college students showing the effects on those who had been involved as children in sexual encounters with adults provides an important corrective to the view that such encounters are always gravely traumatic. A careful statistical analysis showed that many problems which the original researchers had uncritically assumed to be caused by sexual abuse could more plausibly be attributed to generally inadequate family environments, with which they were much more strongly correlated.

Similarly, the harm supposedly caused to children from being photographed naked or taking part in sexual activity with their peers or with grown-ups has been greatly exaggerated. There is no more intrinsic reason why any harm at all should result from such activities than from children going with their parents on a naturist holiday. Not that there is no need to for genuine concern. We are right to worry over the possibility that children will be exploited against their will, that rape or sadistic attacks will be perpetrated on camera. The production of such pictures is vanishingly rare, however, and there is no shortage of criminal law to deal with any perpetrators who are caught. Even in such cases, though, we would be hard put to blame the private viewer of such material for creating a market in it. There is no means, no even on the Internet, to buy and sell such material. Illegal images may be posted, but this will invariably be done anonymously or with a phoney "from" address for obvious reasons. This means that it is impossible to make money on these activities. From time to time someone may naively hope do so, lured by claims in the media that it is a profitable business. These commercial attempts have always been stopped very quickly: If the potential customers can find the producer then so can the police. The notion that there is a vast child porn industry, organised by some ruthless mafia, is simply a myth.

Throughout the Western world, and increasingly beyond, we find barriers being set up between adults and children. In the name of protecting innocence we are enforcing emotional and physical separation of age classes in a sort of generational apartheid that sees fathers afraid to hug their children too affectionately and teachers' unions advising that teachers should keep a minimum gap of one metre between themselves and their pupils. The barriers are invisible but strong, enforced by a climate of fear people are becoming terrified of being identified as a paedophile.

And what is a paedophile?

As sex researchers you might think he or she is a person who is exclusively or to a significant degree sexually attracted to pre-pubertal children. But as observers of the social and political scene you would have to conclude that a paedophile is a monster who attacks and defiles innocence. On this definition there can be no such thing as an innocent or non-practising paedophile, though there are in fact saintly individuals who manage heroic life-long feats of restraint people who, especially if they are elderly bachelors, find themselves rewarded with nothing but constant suspicion. A paedophile thus by definition cannot be an affectionate person, nor can a child be fond of him once he is unmasked like some alien in a horror movie. He may for years have seemed to be a pleasant, caring, kind, decent, honourable man, but of course that is all part of his cunning disguise. And there can be no legitimate private thoughts and private fantasies where such a monster is concerned.

The sting operations and mass police raids we have seen in recent years against child porn actually have a significance that does not readily meet the eye. The deep purpose of both kinds of operation is not the investigation of lesser crimes such as the private possession of pornography. The underlying purpose is to invade the privacy of the mind not in order to find out what offences someone has committed but what kind of person he is. Possession of child porn is being used to generate evidence of paedophile identity, of paedophile ethnicity, one might almost say, such that often entirely harmless people can be registered and henceforth viewed with lifelong suspicion, surveillance and coercion. []

This invasion of private fantasy makes for a cast-iron guarantee that grave injustices will be perpetrated, not least because it flies in the face of evidence that pornography may be used cathartically: its possession may well indicate an intent not to get sexually involved with a child but to find sexual gratification with pornography as a substitute.

Read more about the witch hunt and the demonisation process


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[Newsletter E 10]