I write this article, I worry about what you will think of me. Saying
anything remotely sympathetic about paedophilia is bound to invite grave
suspicions. Even academic interest in the topic is cause for concern; why is
he interested in that? The only acceptable attitude to paedophilia seems to
be outright condemnation. All you need to know is that it is bad. Very bad.
The Jimmy Savile
affair has sharpened attitudes. It has also shown how insidious and
pervasive the sexual abuse of children is, and how brazen it can be.
Apparently child sexual abuse can occur under the noses of television
producers, in front of cameras on national television, without anyone
noticing. Or did they turn a blind eye? Sexual crimes against children seem
to occur everywhere, even in places considered sanctuaries of family values:
children's programmes, Top of the Pops, hospital wards, care homes,
churches. It seems that no child is safe from the predatory reach of the
Public reaction is hardly
surprising: perpetrators must be exposed, vilified, punished, removed from
society; everything possible must be done to protect children from them.
Those who tolerate them or fail to recognise them are also guilty; heads
Surely the best way
to tackle so serious a scourge – like any other major public health scare –
is to commission an expert study of it, so that we can design and implement
safeguards based on the best scientific evidence. Yet, as I have said,
anyone who takes this approach to paedophilia provokes suspicion. How can
they be so objective and neutral and calm? Are they perhaps harbouring
perverse tendencies themselves?
outcome is that few medical scientists want their professional reputations
associated with this topic. Those who do work on it are relatively unknown,
and keep themselves to themselves. Frequently they are constrained further
by issues of doctor-patient confidentiality. As a result, ignorance of
paedophilia is almost as widespread as the crime itself. Pitifully few
members of the public (and the journalists who inform them) are capable of
answering such simple questions as: what is paedophilia? What causes it? How
is it treated? Is it curable?
The same applies to
more complex questions such as: why are most paedophiles male – or are they?
Does consensual sex with a 15-year-old count as paedophilia? Are people who
download child abuse images likely to perform actual paedophilic acts? If
breastfeeding arouses erotic sensations in a mother, is she a paedophile?
What is the tipping point between normal and perverse pleasure in children?
Is this a moral or a medical distinction? If it is a medical one, should the
carrier of the disease be morally blamed? What if perpetrators were
themselves the victims of childhood sexual abuse, as they almost always are?
And if they are, do they have a choice as to what they become?
The answers to these
questions are under-reported and patchy, and also unreliable and capable of
enormous misunderstanding. News stories about paedophiles are frequently
followed by sweeping moral panics which lack a sense of rational judgment
based on objective evidence and sound debate. Instead, fear and loathing
dominate the social landscape, sometimes generating false suspicions and
accusations directed at innocent individuals – veritable witch-hunts – with
tragic consequences. Why is this so? And what can we do about it?
We now embark on a
brave experiment. To try to rectify the current situation a new charity, the
Loudoun Trust, has been formed, bringing together specialist academics and
practitioners. It will compile a database of reliable information on the
causes, mechanisms and meanings of sexual crimes against children, and is
committed to making this information accessible. Initiated by friends and
associates of the legendary Observer editor, the late David Astor, and
formally launched at the House of Lords, the trust believes that the public
interest is best served by evidence-based information on this difficult