Masking hegemonic masculinity: reconstructing the paedophile as the dangerous stranger

British journal of social work

Cowburn, Malcolm, & Dominelli Lena
Type of WorkResearch Report

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Public recognition of the significant numbers of children who have been subjected to sexual violence is becoming more evident as the media exposes a prurient interest in sex offenders through its handling of high profile cases of paedophiles - men who have been either recently convicted of sex offences against children or released from prison having served their sentences for such offences (*1). 

  • (*1) We use the word ‘he’ to refer to sex offenders, since most of them are men. There are women sex offenders, but they are a small proportion of the overall sex offender population. Moreover, we take the view that their problems are different and so they require another study.

The media’s approach emphasises the view of the sex offender as a threatening stranger from whom the innocent public must be protected (Kitzinger, 1999). In advancing this image, the press engages in a process that features ‘the paedophile’ as an external threat; creates a ‘moral panic’ that focuses attention on the extent to which the dangers that paedophilic sex offenders pose can be assessed so that people can go about their business with minimum disruption from the sexual predators who will pounce on them if they do not exercise vigilance; and assists in masking the relevance of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (Connell, 1995) in men’s sexual abuse of women and children.

We share the media’s desire to create a society free from sexual violence. However, we are not convinced that the current perspective on the problem will meet this objective. We adopt this stance because we feel that the press in redefining the issue as it does, raises expectations about protection which cannot be fulfilled within the present state of professional knowledge about sex offenders. 

Additionally, we do not think that it suffices to concentrate public discourses about sex offenders primarily on ‘stranger- danger’. Too many women and children have been and are being abused within the allegedly safe boundaries of their homes by men they know and trust (Rush, 1980; Newburn and Stanko, 1994, Ehrlich, 1998). And, their approach ignores the relevance of gendered power relations in sexual violence and fails to consider how sex offenders might be rehabilitated. 

Finally, we are concerned about the silencing of feminist insights about hegemonic masculinity resulting from media-led discourses on this subject.

In this article we argue that the current social construction of ‘the paedophile’ creates a media-orchestrated ‘moral panic’ that masks hegemonic masculinity and diverts attention from the extensive variety of forms of sexual abuse perpetrated upon women and children that take place in both the private and public domains. 

The media has been aided by professional discourses that perpetuate the myths of ‘scientific certainty’ and gender neutrality in searching for methods of risk assessment that can accurately predict whether a convicted sex offender will re-offend. This approach has created unrealistic expectations of professional practice with convicted sex offenders, while those who are unconvicted continue their secret assaults. 

Furthermore, the adoption of the paradigm of exact science and ignoring the (larger) group of unreported and unconvicted sex offenders have promoted the false expectation that community safety can be achieved by more sophisticated risk assessment methodologies and greater diligence on the part of workers within the criminal justice system. In focusing on the public domain, this position maintains the private-public divide that suggests the private arena is safe whilst a few ‘paedophiles’ cause problems in the public realm, thereby precluding the unmasking of masculine dynamics that oppress women and children in both domains.

We are aware that there are questions about the civil rights of sex offenders raised by the media’s viewpoint on the issue, but we will not be exploring these in this article (see Power, 1999). Moreover, our focus is men sex offenders, so we will not consider women sex abusers here. We feel this is an important topic which should be addressed in its own right (see Saradjian, 1996).

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The ‘paedophile’ has been (re)constructed as a ‘dangerous’ stranger through the creation of a ‘moral panic’ largely orchestrated through the media. This casting of ‘the paedophile’, we have argued, denies voice to victim-survivors whose safety cannot rest on tools of assessment that are unable to consider unconvicted perpetrators of sexual violence and the large amount of sexual abuse of children committed by people known to them, often in an allegedly safe environment - their homes. Thus, discourses equating community safety to procedural risk assessments contribute to silencing victim-survivors who may be experiencing sexual abuse whilst these discourses are taking place.

Moreover, the idea that the danger posed by an individual ‘paedophile’ can be assessed by professionals using ‘risk assessment’ tools to control his behaviour is inadequate. Our critique suggests that the objective of ‘protecting children’ is unlikely to be realised if it relies on risk assessments and the establishment of ‘safe houses’ without unmasking the role masculinity plays in perpetuating sexual violence against them.

The ‘moral panic’ around ‘paedophiles’ has also encouraged ‘the community’ to take a greater interest in the safety of its children and promoted the establishment of ‘vigilantes’ groups. Their task has been to provide community safety in the face of what they consider inadequate responses by those officially entrusted with securing their safety, that is, the police and the probation service. 

Our critique of vigilante efforts has exposed their failure to ensure children’s right to live in violence-free environments at all times. To achieve this aim requires us to consider and resource ways of rehabilitating convicted sex offenders and tackling the social relations which endorse the sexual abuse of children by vast numbers of men who are either not brought to the attention of the police or if charged, not convicted. We have also identified the need to redefine masculinity within more nurturing parameters and to appreciate children as a community responsibility.