Of Goode and evil - Review of "Paedophiles in Society: Reflecting on Sexuality, Abuse and Hope" By Sarah D. Goode

O’Carroll, Tom
Type of Workbook review
  • Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2011 - £55 Hardback; 248 pages; ISBN 9780230271883
  • Included for download - see end of this entry

Sociologist Sarah Goode’s latest book is not primarily a work of research within her discipline; rather, it takes us on an ambitious grand tour in a bid to situate paedophilia historically and cross-culturally.

“We have got ourselves into a pickle sexually”, she says, proposing a way out of it that many will regard as both bold and humane. As will be seen, I beg to differ.

Paedophiles in Society follows an earlier companion volume, Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children (Routledge, London, 2010) in which Goode reported a research project on the daily lives of 56 “minor-attracted adults” (MAA).

The new book can be read independently. It should be noted, though, that only the first volume considers the harm that is intrinsic, or is allegedly so, to every adult-child sexual contact, no matter how loving and non-coercive it might be. This is a crucial issue, to which I shall return.

Goode begins the Preface to Paedophiles in Society with the large claim that this will be unlike “any other book you may have read on paedophiles, or adult sexual attraction to children, or child protection”; instead of focusing on medical, forensic, psychological, psychiatric, legal or criminological aspects, it promises to be “a book about ordinariness, about culture and society around us”.

It is not, in fact, unique in this regard as it follows several such works, including James R. Kincaid’s groundbreaking

  • Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (about contemporary culture as much as that of the Victorians) and his later
  • Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting

Goode rightly acknowledges her debt to Kincaid, although the two writers are very different in where their understandings of sexuality take them.

Goode’s Preface ends by stating her aim

  • “to satisfy a need for information on paedophiles which does not assume they are monsters, mad, evil or ‘other’, and which seeks to locate paedophiles in their everyday context, in society.”

Civilized readers, including the highly humane Jim Kincaid himself, would no doubt at this point be thinking “so far so good”, but whether Goode truly delivers on this promise is another matter, as we shall see.

Outlining the scope and structure of the book deep into her opening chapter, Goode finally gets around to the point that genuinely distinguishes her unique contribution, or, at least, a viable Unique Selling Proposition.

  • “Crucially,” she says, “previous work has not adequately addressed the distinction between sexual attraction and sexual behaviour.”

While sexual attraction towards children overlaps with sexual offending against them, there are those who experience such attraction without offending. She believes too little support is given to the non-offenders, and more thought and resources could profitably be devoted to studying how such people stay offence-free and how offenders and those tempted to offend could be encouraged to follow their example.

Despite her disclaimer that the book is not a work of criminology, it soon becomes abundantly clear that the author is overwhelmingly motivated not so much by a wish to understand paedophiles, nor to delineate society’s stance on paedophilia, as to reduce child sexual abuse (CSA), as reflected in her sub-title, Reflecting on Sexuality, Abuse and Hope.

In addition to being an academic sociologist at the University of Winchester, she is also director of that university’s Research and Policy Centre for the Study of Faith and Well Being in Communities (or was: the “Study of Faith” has lately been dropped). She is a Christian (a point she does not mention in this second volume though she does in the first), and although she plainly hates the “sin” of CSA, she makes strenuous efforts to love the sinner who repents, and has nothing but praise for those who are valiantly victorious in fighting the good fight against the sin in their hearts.

Goode starts, in her first chapter, by outlining the confusion she sees in our culture’s view of paedophilia and CSA. Although offenders are routinely demonized in the news media, Hollywood movies, “survivor” memoirs, and “misery lit” about wrecked childhoods of lost innocence, the public is sometimes ambivalent.

When a known and loved friend or relative is accused there will be disbelief, or a feeling that what he did (it is nearly always a “he”) could not really have been all that bad. When the figure is famous, such as film director Roman Polanski, friends and fans alike tend to rally round.

Whoopi Goldberg, for instance, claimed in an interview cited by Goode that Polanski’s offence was not “rape-rape” but sex with a willing, albeit under age, partner. This flew in the face of grand jury testimony given by the 13-year-old girl in question, and cited extensively by Goode, indicating that the offence had been totally non-consensual and the child had repeatedly pleaded with him to stop. However, Goode’s claim is weakened by the fact that Polanski disputed the girl’s account and was only ever found guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, not rape. So Goldberg could have been correct.

The case of the late entertainer Michael Jackson, also raised by Goode, is likewise complicated: a jury found him not guilty (rightly, because the key prosecution witnesses were patently unreliable) of the only CSA allegations he ever faced in court. In two other cases, though, he was obliged to offer millions of dollars to buy off the parents of highly credible child accusers, a deeply suspicious fact which vast numbers of devoted fans proved determined to ignore or discount.

As someone who has written a sympathetic but candid study of Jackson’s intimate friendships with pubescent boys, I can attest to the righteous fury that faces those who challenge the superstar’s innocence: a months-long campaign by fans in 2010 against my then forthcoming book [*] utterly sabotaged its launch.

Paedophiles on the internet are the theme of Goode’s second chapter. Mercifully, this is not just yet another exposé of the online child pornography menace, or of youngsters being groomed on the social media sites. Instead, Goode notes the hitherto largely unremarked burgeoning of websites run by MAAs who use their sites to promote a philosophy of non-offending.

“Child grooming” is a major theme of the chapter not as an illicit activity but as a Wikipedia entry. Goode examines the edits to this entry over several years as a case study of a struggle between rival camps to “spin” the term’s definition and usage in opposing directions.

Paedophiles with a radical agenda of sexual liberation, she finds, were for some years engaged in a long campaign to tie the concept to positive connotations. In their eyes, grooming could be a good thing. Rather than just winning a child’s confidence as a prelude to making sexual advances, it could be synonymous with the classical concept of mentorship i.e. taking an active and positive role in a child’s education and acquisition of life skills. Other editors, with their own anti-CSA agenda, fought back and eventually wrested control, perhaps by dint of sheer superior numbers.

Goode offers this detailed study as “an encapsulated moment of cultural knowledge-construction”. So it is, although it does not support her broader thesis that sexual liberation and child protection discourses are engaged in a titanic battle for dominance, with the former in serious and imminent danger of winning. Such a struggle must engage two Titans of comparable strength, but the more obvious and honest observation would be that pro-paedophile voices are almost entirely excluded from the mainstream media and that it is always open season for everyone from politicians and police chiefs to comedians and chat show guests, to pour scorn and heap hatred on paedophiles. This would not be acceptable or even legal if the target were gays or gypsies or Jews. This is not a battle between titans, but one mighty Titan grinding its huge hegemonic foot into the faces of paedophiles, snuffing out their small opinions like crushing a cigarette butt.

Superficially, what Goode is doing with this exercise is being very painstaking and scrupulously scholarly in her detailed observation. She homes in on an extremely rare example of paedophiles who have managed, against all the odds, to get a word in edgeways, and exposes their allegedly sinister game plan to seize control of the language. What this account plays down is not just that the good guys won in the end, as was inevitable, but that by far the most significant part in the social construction of the “child grooming” concept had been achieved long before the Wikipedia entry came along.

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first use of “grooming” as a strategy of “friendly molesters” to a 1985 report in the Chicago Tribune.

Ray Wyre, a British pioneer of sex offender treatment, used the term "the grooming process" in his Working With Sex Offenders in 1987. Incidentally, he pointed out that “monsters do not get close to children – nice men do”.

More significantly, though, by the turn of the millennium the concept had been quietly gaining currency in victimological circles, including those of feminist “professor of sexual violence” Liz Kelly, whose help Goode acknowledges. Kelly was a formidable presence in the major law reform review leading to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 in the UK, legislation which introduced meeting a child following sexual “grooming” as a criminal offence.

By this time, in other words, “child grooming” had already been shaped and had gained traction at the highest levels of the political system, at least in the UK. By the time of the Wikipedia tussles Goode focused on, which took place from 2005-2009, the battle for the social construction of the term was all over bar the shouting – or rather the whimpering – of a few crushed paedophiles.

Goode’s connection with Kelly suggests she must have been well aware of this, but she deliberately played the point down in order to exaggerate the supposed influence of the paedophile liberation discourse.

This lack of balance unfortunately sets the tone for the rest of the book. Indeed, it becomes more and more obvious and egregious with every page, so that one begins to feel the author has little interest in convincing sceptics of her case. Instead, it seems she is bent on rallying familiar allies (feminists and religious sin sniffers like herself) with a purely emotional appeal, largely by retelling, at inordinate length, old sagas of historic and worldwide male perfidy, callousness and brutality towards women and children, mainly in contexts far removed from paedophilia and CSA.

The idea, in fairness, has a significant kernel of truth. One can have no quarrel with her view that paedophilia is a largely male phenomenon and, far from being a uniquely wicked form of deviance, is part of a continuum of male sexuality that has much to answer for right across the spectrum. But in a book of only 228 pages including the References and Index, did we really need to be regaled for page after page with detailed, highly-emotive atrocity accounts of

  • rape and terror from the Congo to Korea (four pages),
  • Chinese foot-binding (four pages), and
  • female genital mutilation from ancient Egypt to modern sub-Saharan Africa (6 pages)?

Goode acknowledges that such appalling behaviour is culturally mediated and is thus not inevitable. She applauds the emergence of more sensitive, caring, less domineering, expressions of manhood that have become a significant element of contemporary life following the feminist breakthrough of recent decades. If Old Adam can be transformed into New Man, she argues, it must also be possible for the paedophilic leopard to change its spots and stop preying on children.

It sounds good, but sadly the premises of the argument are simplistic and misguided. Critically, it assumes that all men are fundamentally alike not just in their sexuality but also in their temperament. It ignores the very clear message from modern psychology that, regardless of the culture, there is always a proportion of people (more men than women) who lack empathy, and are much more capable of manipulative, exploitative, and downright criminal behaviour of all kinds than others. These have been not just the violent rapists of history, but also ruthless tyrants and cultural enforcers and tone-setters of all kinds, from bearded patriarchs to jungle mercenaries to bullying, sexually harassing bosses in modern corporate life. Such people will never turn into New Man in their hearts, though they may be convincingly charming for tactical advantage.

Mercifully, although such men are good at elbowing their way into leadership roles, they are few in number – only an estimated 25% even in UK prisons. The rest are nicer, more naturally cooperative, pleasant people.

And here is the key point: this includes the paedophiles, whose behaviour towards children is not generally unkind or coercive, far from it. As the Cambridge criminologist Donald West [*] noted many years ago,

  • “their approaches to children are almost always affectionate and gentle, and the sex acts which occur, mostly mutual display and fondling, resemble the sexual behaviour that goes on between children”.

Even Goode finds she cannot escape this glaring reality when confronted with research into how mutually desired paedophilic relationships actually work, as opposed to the considerably rarer cases of true victimhood.

The latter only seem commonplace because we are so much in thrall to “survivor” narratives – and even more so to those inevitably grim, but also extremely rare, horrors which are not in any sense survived. So deeply are we in the grip of the latter, indeed, that while the exceedingly rare abduction-rape-murder of a child by a stranger remains a much replayed legend for a whole generation or more, we forget after a day or two the many cases every year about a father wiping out his entire family, often in revenge over a spouse’s real or imagined transgressions.

There can be no doubting the harm caused to children when they are terrorised, whether by an abducting stranger or a berserk father, nor when fear and stress are part of a regularly brutal incestuous household, as in a ghastly scenario like that of Josef Fritzl, who held his children captive in a cellar for years, or in a more “normal” abusive relationship.

But it is by no means obvious to a more enquiring and philosophical mind that there is anything intrinsically traumatic in fondling a child’s genitals. Mothers touch their children all the time, including genitally during washing. Why should touching a child for sexual pleasure, whether that of the child or an adult doing it, be any different?

To her credit, instead of just assuming harm, in her first book Goode pondered this question to the best of her ability. Her approach, though, was hardly an improvement on unfounded assumptions. We were treated to instead to 12 pages of unsupported assertions, with no reference to any research that might have presented an inconvenient challenge to her dogma.

She acknowledged that "CSA" could occur in a context of "trust, love and tenderness" rather than forceful assault. But, she said,

  • "Even in contexts where there is a cultural consensus that adult sexual contact with children is acceptable, and where no obvious social disapprobation, censure, shame, guilt, punishment or criminal consequence arises from this behaviour, I argue that it remains fundamentally harmful to the child."

Yes, she certainly argues. But of evidence we hear nothing whatever. Those who argue against inherent, inevitable harm are just "deluding themselves", she says. End of argument!

But not the end of her opinionating. After waffling on for page after page, Goode appeared to realise with some anxiety that she was not really managing to nail down any sources of harm, except those resulting from society's adverse reactions.

Eventually, she said an understanding of CSA could be developed

  • "which is firmly rooted, not in the vagaries of socio-cultural or legal fashion, but in the biology, neurology and psychology of the developing child".

But, again, she offered no evidence! Not a single research paper was cited! It was as though this sociologist, who would usually be wary of such “essentialism”, was just vaguely hoping "hard science" would one day coming riding over the hill to the rescue!

Apparently sensing she had still not exactly clinched her case, she turned to psychoanalysis for dubious support, and finally ended up, like Eddie Cochran with his summertime blues, taking her problem to the United Nations! The UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child, she informed us, was based on the view that children need protection. But protection from what source of harm? Still, we were not told. In the next paragraph we found her writing about "The invisibility of harm related to adult sexual contact with children..."

Invisible, eh? Wrapped in Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, no doubt, stolen by the evil Voldemort!

In the book presently under review, though, her problem becomes much worse when, in chapter five, she confronts research based on interviews and psychometrics with children conducted by Dutch social psychologist Theo Sandfort.

This work was possible thanks to an exceptionally liberal era over thirty years ago in the Netherlands when adult-child sexual relationships were tolerated as long as the child was obviously a willing participant. Such were the 25 boys interviewed by Sandfort, each of whom was willingly in a sexually active relationship with an adult male at the time. As anyone can see for themselves on reading what the boys told Sandfort in their own words, all of them were plainly very good friends with these grown men. Even Goode is reluctantly forced to admit it.

What she plainly cannot abide, though, and struggles to explain away, is the boys’ relaxed attitude towards the sexual side of the friendships, and the pleasure they said they derived from it. It simply could not be so! They must have been brainwashed!

As for the careful quantitative study conducted by Sandfort, which thoroughly surveyed and analysed such factors as how each relationship impinged on the boys’ everyday lives – did it have a bad effect on their school work? their other friendships? their home life? and so on – Goode simply ignores it entirely. No doubt the results were not to her liking: the boys’ relationships with paedophiles were associated with beneficial effects, not deleterious ones.

Faced with such unhelpful research, Goode’s response mirrors that of our culture more widely:

  • ignore it, or if that policy threatens to be unsustainable,
  • get shrill: downplay the evidence but thunderously denounce the enemy’s iniquities; get dirty;
  • get personal.

In the case of Sandfort, Goode’s tactic is one of vicious innuendo against a highly regarded scholar later renowned for his work in the international fight against AIDS, who became President of the International Academy of Sex Research.

This followed the 40-page chapter four, in a book of only about 200 text pages remember, devoted entirely to an attack on 20th century giant of sexology (and eminent biologist) Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey’s foundational work in providing a wealth of information on child sexuality, including the capacity of both boys and girls to reach orgasm from the earliest years, has always been significant background to claims that children should be allowed a degree of sexual expression and autonomy, including claims that sexual intimacy with an adult need not be unthinkable. Hence Goode’s need to trash his work. [*]

That would have been a legitimate goal for her had she stuck to giving reasons why Kinsey’s research results allegedly fail to stack up. But what she gives us instead is merely a rehash of Judith Reisman’s long campaign (“situated firmly within the intellectual compass of the American political right”, as Goode admits) of tabloid-style character assassination against Kinsey in which he is absurdly presented as a latter-day Dr Mengele, presiding over unethical experiments in infant rape. A careful study shows that Kinsey could be accused of being insufficiently candid about some of his sources. Nothing worse.

It is time for me to declare an interest.

Goode would have no difficulty in launching an ad hominem attack against me too, as I have for decades campaigned and written in favour of children’s sexual autonomy from the perspective (not as self-interested now as in my younger days) of someone who is himself sexually attracted to children. My work has been taken seriously within academia but it has also landed me in trouble with the law.

Indeed, I am mentioned in both of Goode’s books and she visited me twice in prison in the UK as part of her research for the earlier one.

In retrospect I feel she exploited and abused me by misrepresenting her beliefs and intentions – a feeling also expressed (I am reliably informed) by many participants in her MAA Daily Lives project. Having already heard of her by the time she came to see me in HMP Wandsworth, I enquired about her religious beliefs and whether she saw active paedophilia as in any way evil or sinful. Her books tell me she does, but at that time she was evasively reassuring. I cannot now say for certain whether she was as outright dishonest as St Peter denying Christ, or whether she was merely obscuring the truth, as in Bill Clinton’s protestation that he never had “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky.

Either way, misleading people and using them as a disposable means (Kant would frown) towards a noble end sanctified by God is a dangerous trait to which religious zealots have always been particularly susceptible. Down the centuries it has justified the burning of heretics, torturous inquisitions, and every variety of mendacity.

I am happy to concede, though, that Goode sincerely believes her cause – the protection of children – is indeed a noble one, in which I would entirely support her if we could only agree on what they need to be protected from. Fundamentally, it may be possible to locate Goode’s view in a psychological problem she herself identifies. She has an interesting riff on dualism going back to the Bronze Age, in which we see the origins of the great mental split we make between good and evil.

Goode sees this psychology as the basis for male-dominated priesthoods and the imputing of inferiority and evil to the female Other, allowing women (and by a subtle extension children, including male ones) to be abused without guilt. The case is not well made out in the book’s sketchy presentation, but it occurs to me that Goode is herself labouring under a binary, Manichean delusion. She all too readily assigns evil intentions not to those who feel bad about being sexually attracted towards children – whom she bravely and admirably wants to see treated with respect and dignity if they resist temptation – but to those who support a more liberationist discourse, whether as disinterested researchers such as Kinsey and Sandfort, or as paedophiles like myself.

If she and our culture absolutely must think in simplistic binary terms, it would make more sense to doing the splitting in a different way.

Instead of

  • “good age to have sex” v. “bad age” (with evil paedophiles attacking or grooming children), it should be more a case of
  • “sex good” v. “violence evil” (including non-physically forceful acts of selfish, callous, manipulative or coercive violation against people of any age).

There are ways in which this could be translated into practical policies, but Goode’s book sadly takes us off in the wrong direction.