Britain is not short of written pieces about paedophilia. In the wake of endless celebrity scandal (1970s’ stars now appear more frequently in arrest warrants than New Year’s honours lists), we search voraciously for causes and reasons, speculate on the latest arrests and nod at ferocious, hate-filled diatribes. So it is with no little trepidation that I put pen to paper to write in defence of the most maligned, hated and abused minority in British society. It is a feeling I have had for a long time- a sense that there was something deeply intolerable and wrong about the derision, scorn and anger heaped on those who are suspected of viewing child pornography or indecently touching children.
They are uncomfortable words, are they not? I feel a deep sense of moral recoil even as I write them. But, as Sen said, “to let our hearts be governed by anger and outrage is to refuse humanity”. I feel we must look beyond that recoil, that nauseating anger and try- in these most difficult of circumstances- to find a reserve of empathy and understanding. I will be clear on my position here. Our foremost duty must be to protect children who are at risk. The crimes are indeed horrific and horrifying; the damage is clear and deep. To jail those who pose risks to children, or who committed their crimes for ‘kicks’, for sadistic pleasure or without regret and sorrow is unavoidable.
But I would urge that we feel revulsion at the act and not the perpetrator, attack the crime and not the criminal. For- and I say this mindful of its weight and controversy- paedophilia is a disorder and not a crime. The psycho-sociological studies are clear on this point, if in dispute about causation. There are interesting (and heart rending) stories online that detail the daily struggle of those who have a sexual predilection for children and refuse to act on it. Despite difference and demonization, beneath the label of paedophile, these are just people- people who have families, friends, jobs, lives. More broadly, these are people who are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, poor social skills and weak self-concept. In many ways, these people are victims; indeed, many paedophiles were the literal victims of child abuse when they were younger and are irresistibly drawn to it as adults. They must live in a permanent climate of struggle, self-hate and- most of all- fear of being exposed by an unforgiving and crude society whose only response is unthinking, uncontrolled hatred.
We offer them no help. Society gives no support. Instead, they are met with lacerating tabloid articles, cruel exposes that threaten their personal safety and celebrated ‘paedophile hunters’ who trap their targets before mocking them for an internet audience. Not only is this distasteful, it is counterproductive: in order to prevent abuse, we need to engage with and provide psychological care for those who are drawn to children. They will never come forward and seek it if society treats them as monsters who lack rights and respect. Indeed, we should celebrate those who, despite their sexual orientation towards children, resist their desires and live difficult, virtuous lives. Most of all, we must have a grown up conversation that talks about the causes of paedophilia and the ways of helping those who suffer from it.
How we treat paedophilia is ugly. Paedophiles have been tacitly agreed to be a unique group in society whom it is right to hate, to hurt, to hunt. To fulfil the duty of a nation justly famed as tolerant, moderate and mild, we must do the difficult thing. We must find compassion, respect and help in place of easy moral outrage and anger free from rationality or restraint. To do otherwise is not civilised, it is not justified and- most of all- it is not British.
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