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2. A Very ‘Typical’ Immoral Panic

The Perils of Researching Intergenerational Sexualities


[This report is a part of the report of the Ipce Meeting in October 2007, presented in the former Ipce Newsletter # E24. There, it is section 3.1, there for the time being named "Reflection, Research and Reaction". By making the former Newsletter, this section of the report of the Meeting was still not ready: the speaker had still to revise the provisional text. Here is the report as it is authorized  by the speaker.
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The empirical component of this research involved establishing a dialogue with an Internet-based group which seeks to work for a better understanding of child and intergenerational sexualities. Unbeknown to anyone this group had been infiltrated by a right-wing Conservative group. This group then passed on this information to a freelance tabloid journalist, who subsequently published articles in various newspapers. 

The content and tone of the articles sought to paint the researcher as a paedophile, and that his/her University should not be supporting such research. This was followed up by further “revelations” a year later after sensitive interview transcripts had been stolen from his/her office and passed on to that particular journalist. Some excerpts from these were printed in a number of newspapers. 

Throughout this period the researcher was also subjected to harassment from journalists, offensive phone-calls and emails, two lengthy University senate investigations into his/her work, having to explain the research to officers from the Serious Crime Squad; and experiencing a newspaper taking a photo of him/her inside his/her house when his/her father was close to death. 

Throughout this period the media (both tabloid and broadsheet) presented the research as potentially dangerous. For example, one author stated that it would ‘play into the hands of abusers’, and that ‘victims of abuse sometimes report positive experiences, but this was often a result of manipulation by their abuser or a coping mechanism’. Others suggested in Orwellian fashion that ‘ethics’ committees should scrutinise any future research on what they deemed ‘sensitive subjects.’ 

Common experiences of critical researchers

The following represent common strands experienced by a range of other critical researchers on this topic. 

The first concerns the particular form such attacks take. 
For example, the media (in the form of newspapers, television, internet sites) present the individuals (and their findings) in specific ways as either: irresponsible, unsound, derisory, or with an underlying agenda. Such researchers are effectively “tarred with the brush” of their subject matter and accused of either being a paedophile, or having paedophilic sympathies. 

Vern Bullough called this the ‘Pedophilia Smear’, whereby, ‘self-appointed guardians of American morality like Laura Schlessinger’ target sex researchers.

[* See V. Bullough, ‘The Pedophilia Smear,’ Accessed 10 October 2002.]

This involves demonising such research as somehow ‘beyond the pale’, and the researchers themselves as insensitive and/or monstrous – a depiction further consolidated by gathering the opinions of professionals and some academics (either in the field of child protection or sex offenders) in a ‘rent-a-quote’ manner, in order to counter (or rubbish) the research(ers). 

In such presentations, professional discourses are often presented as ‘higher truths’ as experts and workers in the field, with ‘obvious’ superiority in the epistemological hierarchy, as opposed to the opinions of the researchers who are in turn presented ‘through a discourse of derision’ as in some way lesser or irrelevant. 

Secondly, the researchers or commentators become the focus of sustained political attention from a variety of online and offline pressure groups, mainly based in the US but also in the UK. Here, the regional dimension of the attacks is superimposed with a political component, with the main groups involved usually Christian fundamentalists, or right wing conservatives, but also including professional children’s charities and child sexual abuse (CSA) organisations. 

The representatives of such organisation use their platform to proclaim a moral superiority: that they alone speak for children and/or victims, and that explains their right to attack the research(ers). 

Thirdly, an institutional dimension emerges in which mainstream politicians (usually right wing conservatives either US Republicans or UK Tories) are either encouraged, or directly involve themselves in displays of pique or moral outrage that such researchers should even criticise the dominance of CSA, question notions of childhood sexual innocence, or discuss paedophilia. 

This ranges from fairly low-level comments from local politicians, children’s charity representatives or church leaders rebuking the researchers, stirring up populist opinion to their cause, and questioning whether public monies should even be spent on such work. Direct pressure is then exerted on a particular funding body or institution (academic or book publisher) to cease supporting such work.

A final common theme experienced by the researchers and commentators criticising mainstream views on CSA is the more personal and potentially distressing aspects of media harassment of themselves and their families, threats to career and future funding applications, and most sinister of all personal endangerment – including death threats - via phone, email or face-to-face.

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