Why rioting against paedophiles misses the point: a discussion piece (2001)

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

Let us first list the things that can probably be taken for granted where the anti-paedophile hysteria is concerned as being common to informed and sensible people in the labour movement and outside it.

We are in favour of the rule of law and opposed to witch-hunts and mob action against alleged, suspected, or newspaper-denounced paedophilia.

The News of the World's self-serving campaign - according to those professionally concerned in this task - makes control of known paedophiles more difficult, and thus increases the risk they pose to children. The NoW's campaign is a gross offence against decent public standards as well as incitement to violence.

That, though it is useful and necessary to use the term "paedophilia" to designate adults who treat children, their own and other people's, as sexual objects, "paedophilia" is not a condition, but a complex of conditions. The predatory "outsider" stalking children is not identical to the molesting parent or relative, nor is the proper way of dealing with the problem necessarily the same.

The drive for vindictive punishment and "revenge", which is a serious part of the calls for mandatory life sentences for paedophiles, should be condemned as regressive and uncivilised.
Treatment, and where possible preventive treatment, rather than punishment, is the proper approach to people who, no matter how much we deplore what they do, are themselves victims of a sexual-psychological "condition" (and many of them former child victims of paedophiles).

The press hysteria whipped up against murdering paedophiles grossly misleads about the nature of the problem. Vastly more children die in road-crossing accidents than known victims of sexually-driven crimes. Probably the proportion of people sexually orientated to children whose sexuality is linked to a drive to murder in panic or to protect themselves is no greater than the number of murderers amongst those whose sexual drive is directed at adults.

Paedophilia is not, contrary to the opinion of the press campaigners and the vigilantes, mainly a threat children face from outsiders but in at least 80% of - three out of four - cases a threat from within their own family, from parents and other family members.

That a legal age of consent which forbids adults to sexually use children is necessary, and should be enforced. (That is true even if one thinks the existing age of consent is too high and inflexible, and would prefer as I would some system such as that of the Dutch, in which sexual activity between, say, a 17 or 18-year-old and a 13-year-old is regarded as tolerable, whereas relations between the 17/18-year-old and a ten-year-old is not, or relations between a 20-year-old and the 13-year-old is not. The introduction of an age of consent was a historically progressive step in the protection of children.)

That one of the greatest scandals associated with paedophilia is this: that treatment for those who can be treated is not available until after an offence has been discovered and an indictment brought, and then it is usually token, inadequate and far from "state of the art" treatment. This is perhaps the worse consequence of the punishment syndrome concerning paedophiles. That paedophilia is endemic in orphanages and care homes and in every sort of institution to whose care children are consigned full-time - and probably has been for as long as they have existed. Apart perhaps from outright abusers of children, the greatest criminals in this are all those, whether or not they themselves are sexually focused on children, who have colluded in this system. It is scarcely possible that vast numbers of people have not known how things stood.

That, when all this is said, the central question in this issue, the thing against which all else has to be defined, and where necessary to which other considerations have to be subordinated, is the right of children to be safe, to have the necessary space in which they can develop, and to be allowed to grow up free of the risk of having predatory adults inflict on them experiences that will maim and scar them for the rest of their lives.

However, except for the idea that the protection of children has to be seen as central, these considerations do not get us very far in coming to grips with the problem - or in understanding why decent working-class people in a number of different areas across Britain this summer whipped themselves into vigilantism and mob violence and engaged in a witch-hunt against paedophiles and suspected paedophiles. The News of the World's "name and shame" campaign and the broader media exploitation of the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne, account for the timing and the extent of the hysteria. They may have ignited the vigilantism, but they did not create the underlying fear for their children and the all-pervasive sense of insecurity which millions of people plainly do feel. That is what made what happened possible.

The murder of Sarah Payne served to light up the less dramatic paedophile background out of which paedophile murder of children for self-gratification was/is seen to emerge in all its special terror and horror. The press campaign did the rest.

Nor can the calls for mandatory life sentences be dismissed as only a savage gut-level aggressive urge, licensed by indignation, or a drive rooted in the nature of paedophilia and of paedophiles' victims, to exact maximum vengeance.

It also expresses a widespread sense of helplessness and awareness that the existing law is inadequate for dealing with the problem of people who, subjected to limited punishment for a specific misdemeanour, are then released - if they are locked up at all - and left to walk around as a crime-waiting-to-happen to another child or other children.

Paedophilia is a unique problem, in both the nature of its victims and in the lifelong consequences for them of what is done to them. It is a "condition", in most cases perhaps an ineradicable "condition", and not merely a one-off impulse or an opportunist crime. Nor is it something, like serial burglary on a run-down housing estate, which is only determined by poverty, bad education, deprived social existence, that is, by structural, external things for which a fundamental "cure" exists - social change. Least of all is paedophilia - in the harm and life-long irreversible damage it inflicts on the victim - like other serial crimes, even terrible crimes such as rape that inflict lasting damage on adult victims.

Paedophilia is a mis-shaping, a malformation of sexual personality. Others take as their sexual objects - naturally with much variation - other adults and direct their sex drive towards other adults. Paedophiles take as their sexual object people in process of formation who are not anywhere near, and by definition cannot be anywhere near, a position of equality with the predatory adult: children, before their own sexual and emotional personalities are fully formed, before they have reached an age at which there is any meaningful possibility of real choice in the matter. Any attempt to draw a line between force and consent here becomes meaningless.

Rapist force is only an addition to the intrinsically coercive, power-unequal relationship central when an adult sexually "hits on" children. The damage done to a child is enormous and will be irreparable: the victim will have to live with it through life. More, paedophilia is part of a self-reproducing chain: victims, though not all of them, often become victimisers. Because the condition is a malfunction of the sexual personality, the sexual aims and objects of the paedophile possess all the strength, immutability and implacability of the human sex drive - directed at children.

To function sexually, the paedophile has to suppress as best he can awareness of harm and damage to children. He or - in one in four cases - she must ward off the tremendous pressure of general social attitudes to children and against what he is and does. The result is a high degree of self-cutting off, of denial and, often, a compensatory paranoid self-righteousness.

That, with much encumbering detail and qualification stripped away, defines the nature of the moral, legal and civil libertarian dilemma in dealing with paedophilia.

Awareness of it is at the root of much of the exasperation and hysteria that erupted around the killing of Sarah Payne. Because of the nature of paedophilia and of its victims, the conventional liberal legal formula about the civil rights of the citizen seem to many to miss what is specific to the problem.

Leave aside, for the sake of argument, all moral repugnance and all urges to revenge by the meting out of condign punishment. On one side is the right of the paedophile citizen to be judged for what he does and not for what he is or what he may do in the future; his right to be subjected only to the exactitudes of the criminal code for proven specific offences against a law, and only for specific offences - the citizenship rights, say, of a serial burglar, rights that socialists and democrats would consider generally inalienable. On the other side is the right of children in their growing to protection and, occasionally, as with Sarah Payne, the right to stay alive. These two sets of rights are seen to be in irreconcilable contradiction to each other. The widespread feeling that this is so breeds distrust and contempt for the law on this issue and pushes many people towards an attitude to paedophiles' civil liberty which easily merges into general right-wing attitudes towards "law and order".

It has led to mob violence in which fearful parents expressing their angry sense of helplessness and powerlessness and the feeling that they cannot protect their children, made up at least a sizeable part of the mob.

Arguments from general libertarian principles that do not get to grips with the problem will not convince people who, if they feel that choice needs to be made, will decide that the protection of children must have precedence over the civil rights of people whose condition, whose innermost being, compels them to be, to continue to be, predators on children.

The only possible argument against this position is from general commitment to individual civil rights - in this case the civil rights of paedophiles to be judged only for what they do, incident by incident, and not for their condition, their state of being or their propensities: the argument that to violate this right in the case of paedophiles would over time have very bad consequences for the whole of society; and therefore that avoiding that has to be given precedence over drastic action to protect children.

It is a weighty argument and all the more so because paedophilia is, perhaps inextricably, entwined with our existing family structures. A weighty argument. Yet who would use it against defining someone whose behaviour and the opinion of doctors indicate that he is a homicidal lunatic, or against curtailing his liberty to the degree that is necessary for the protection of other people?

Despite the recent press campaign, paedophile sex-killers are, as I have already said, proportionately, no more numerous than are sex-killers in other sexual orientations. But adults sexually using and abusing children is, on all indications, very widespread indeed. If it is true that paedophilia does immense and irreparable damage to its victims and if paedophilia is a state of being, a set and in most cases an irreversibly formed sex character, drawing on the whole energy of the person to the extent that any sexual orientation does - then why is it not best characterised as a form of criminal lunacy and, varying case by case, best legally treated as such?

Finally, it has to be emphasised and re-emphasised that the great bulk of the problem of paedophilia is inseparable from the general condition of children in the family. It is the most serious of a large complex of problems which also include emotional and physical abuse of children. Some of those demonstrating against the NoW-named paedophiles - or people with names similar to those so named - will have been hypocrites and others will be the equivalent of a certain type of homophobe - in a latent state of what they furiously denounce. Except that in the case of paedophilia this is greatly to be preferred to the alternative. Some will have been confused and disorientated women who have turned deliberately blind eyes and not let themselves see terrible things in their own homes. That is why the News of the World campaign and the vigilantism it stirred up is, in the last analysis, largely beside the point.

Editor's note: We invite readers to comment on the views expressed in this article.