From: Dennis Howitt,
Paedophiles and Sexual Offences Against Children,
John Wiley & Sons, New York e.a. 1996,
Paedophiles have a role in modern demonology alongside nefarious others such as joyriders, drug users, illegal immigrants and pornographers. Their creation as such is not new, but only in the latter part of the twentieth century did their evilness significantly enter professional lore. This was not a function of ignorance since there was sufficient data available to establish sexual abuse as a common feature of childhood.
Salter (1988) lists seven surveys published between 1929 and 1965 that demonstrate high levels of abuse
(Hamilton, 1929; Terman, 1938; Landis, 1940; Terman, 1951; Landis, 1956; Kinsey et al., 1953; Gagnon, 1965),
years before sexual abuse became a major issue of social concern. Many professionals must have come across incestuous abuse in their working lives. The rates of reported incest had remained fairly stable until very recent years and there was no explosion of cases sufficient to explain the increasing professional concern about sexual abuse emerging in the 1980s (Howitt, 1992). The real issue lies more in the ways abuse is constructed than in any other shifts that might have taken pace.
It is difficult to assess the extent to which there has been a change in public attitudes towards offenders. The cultural relativistic position which appears in the historical and cross-cultural perspectives on adult-child sexual involvement is extremely sketchy.
It does not really provide convincing evidence of the general acceptability of such contacts even where they are known to have taken place from the historical record. In essence, these are matters about which we will probably never know much. Nevertheless, the public response to adult-child sexual abuse does not follow professional concerns but, in many ways, predates it.
In Britain, for example, among the most
notorious of criminals are Ian Brady and
Myra Hindley, who in the two years ending in 1965 murdered a number of children, whom they buried on Saddleworth Moor. The children were sexually assaulted and tortured before being killed. The prospect of their release produces considerable public outcry whenever it is mooted.
Hindley, for example, is portrayed as a scheming, manipulative woman who seeks publicity for her "contrition" to secure her release. In many ways, they are the archetypal child sex offenders in the eyes of the general public: sadistic, evil child killers.
At the other end of the scale, the career of singer Jerry Lee Lewis hit the doldrums in 1958 when he was forced to leave Britain after it became public knowledge that his "bride" was just 13 years of age, 9 years younger than himself.
Whether or not legally permissible in the southern states at the time, by definitions if abuse that are applied by child protection specialists now, this certainly would be classified as "abuse" because of her age and the age difference between them.
At the very least, these examples suggest that the public's potential for outrage was readily aroused by such extremely different episodes.
This thread of public concern about sexual abuse has arisen in a number of contexts, and the response has varied from humour to anger. Recently, the problem has been in connection with media personalities, as in the cases of the allegations against the film comedian and director Woody Allen and the popular singer Michael Jackson.
Humour was more often the public response to the case of the Rolling Stones involved with an underage girl. However, more significant are the notorious cases of the misdiagnosis of child sexual abuse based on
paedophile groups (e,g. the McMurray case in the USA),
satanic abuse (Rochdale, England),
ritual abuse (the Orkney Islands, Scotland), and
fears of the rampant buggery of children (Cleveland, England),
These were more notorious for the embarrassment they cause child protection agencies due to their implications that the system designed to protect children did them great harm because of the dogma adopted by some workers.
There are a number of possible reasons for
the increased willingness to regard paedophiles as devils incarnate. Very
few of these can be accounted for by "moral panics", in which,
critical and concentrated concern is expressed over a certain social phenomenon (Cohen, 1972; Parton, 1985).
This concern leads to demands for urgent action to be taken to deal with this now "hot" problem from nebulous groups in society. One of the broader social functions of "moral panics" is to reassert ideologies that are beginning t or slip from dominance.
Essentially, the process involves the
creation of the belief that a particular "folk devil" poses a
major threat to society, which may be totally disproportionate to the problem.
example, fear of violent crime is far greater than the known risks of victimization would imply.
Moral panics are most clearly seen in cases such as the delinquency of young people during the 1950s and 1960s (Cohen, 1972). They are perhaps also to be seen in concerns over the "family" and "family values", which lead to outrage about single parents, divorce and teenage pregnancies.
Such ideas seem far less appropriate when discussing many of the issues related to child abuse. The resurgence of interest in child abuse in the 1960s is difficult to explain in terms other than political demands for something to be done about the urban violence of the USA of the 1960s and the willingness of the medical profession to offer a "foolproof" solution to the problem of violence against children by suggesting that child abusers could readily be identified clinically (Kempe and Kempe, 1978).
The history of the child abuse movement is more of a web involving the interplay of the needs of state politics with the process of professional development responsible for the "child abuse industry" (Pride, 1987).
Similarly, the inclusion of child sexual abuse into the professional debate is more easily seen in terms of the consequence of the work of political activists, especially feminists, highlighting a fistful of issues related to sexual politics, including domestic violence, rape, date rape, sexual harassment, pornography and so forth. In many cases, rather than being a general, public arousal of concern about an issue, the broader public's attitude to some of these issues was sometimes antipathetic to the new message.
Neither can we see the creation of the demonology of the paedophile as a rational process, even where there seems to have been a basis in research evidence.
For example, the Cleveland child sexual abuse scandal of 1988 (Butler-Sloss, 1988; Jervrs, 1988) involved the local authority taking children into care on the basis of the RAD test, in which there was claimed to be a characteristic
response of a child's anus to the separation of his or her buttocks diagnostic of anal abuse (Hanks, Hobbs and Wynne, 1988). The use of this test led to untrustworthy diagnoses of child sexual abuse. The medic largely responsible for the entire episode had attended a professional seminar which promoted the use of the test and proclaimed that such abuse was common.
All of the parents alleged to have abused their children in the Cleveland affair were men. This fits in well with the view of the basic paradox of the homophobia of male sexuality, which hides their sexuality's true nature (e.g. Campbell, 1988). But a rational process underlying the creation of a social issue is difficult to square with the research facts from which all of this stemmed.
Going back to Hobbs and Wynne's (1986) original publication of the use of the RAD test as a means of diagnosing the anal abuse of children, men were not the only putative perpetrators (Howitt, 1992). Of the 35 cases that they included in their study, six involved a woman. Of these six, two were apparently in collusion with a male partner, one with a female partner, and the remaining three acted alone. Quite simply, the emerging social process of abuse allegations did not reflect the original research data well.
One feature of concern about sexual abuse in recent years has been the creation of the idea that adult-child sexual relations are organized and networked, rather than being individual adult-child a contacts. The notions of the Paedophile ring, satanic abuse and ritual abuse signal this very strongly. What they have in common is that they present a picture of organized evil, of unfathomable depths.
Such imagery of an incarnate devil is readily compatible with fundamentalist Christian theology. In the USA, religious fundamentalism underlies much of the debate over moral issues and it is clearly compatible with beliefs of the devil's involvement in sexual abuse. Since the 1970s, in Britain for example, there has been a decline in the mainstream religious groups, the Church of England and Roman Catholicism especially, while fundamentalism has gained strength (Jenkins, 1992). In other words, there has been a movement towards religious beliefs conducive to acceptance of incarnate devilry.
The image of paedophilia stems from relatively small coteries of specialists in sexual abuse and other "moral entrepreneurs" who take it on themselves to "expose" paedophiles for "what they are". Moral entrepreneurs may present an image of paedophiles as networked, perhaps at the international scale, as in the case of child pornography (Tate, 1990), permeating through society into the establishment.
For example, in the 1980s, one British Member of Parliament, Geoffrey Dickens, exposed a knighted ex-diplomat as a paedophile activist, alleged that such people were working at Buckingham Palace, accused a doctor and a vicar under parliamentary protection from slander and contended that there were child brothels in London. So ingrained was the notion of paedophilia in high places that a damaging smear campaign against a British government minister was effectively perpetrated by intelligence services (Jenkins, 1992).
The conspiratorial view of the paedophile is reinforced by notions of paedophile rings. Thus, rare cases of sexual attack by groups of men on children become construed as part of "an organized criminal threat" (Jenkins, 1992) -- this despite no such accusations being made in cases in which adult women are raped by groups of men.
While this can be seen as the product of a conspiratorial view of society, it ensures that the extent of paedophilia is unfathomable and that rare examples of paedophile networking can be construed as merely the tip of the iceberg, hidden by the conspiracy. The "bogus social worker" scare of 1990 is perhaps typical of the high profile given to cases that seemed to indicate a possible epidemic of linked attempts to abduct children for sexual purposes in the guise of a visit by social workers. Myth is difficult to separate from reality: parents were known to attribute such motives to innocent visitors to the door (Howitt, 1992).
The murky depths of satanism has been another rich vein in the imagery of sexual abuse, actively promoted by individuals, charities, social services agencies and others (Howitt, 1992; Jenkins, 1992). While the belief may be widely held, equally strongly felt is the rejection of satanism as a social fact:
"Studies of the satanism panic in the United States have repeatedly emphasized how occult charges arose from flaws in the investigative techniques employed both by prosecutors and therapists who are employed to interrogate the children
(Eberle and Eberle, 1986; Hicks, 1991; Jenkins and Maier-Katkin, 1988; Richardson and Bacon, 1991).
It is disputed whether small children lie about outrageous sexual abuse, and most authorities suggest that they cannot have the knowledge needed to invent the stories they present. In contrast, skeptics charge that these stories only emerge after lengthy periods, perhaps months, of active interrogation involving the use of leading questions. In order to understand the outcome of such an inquiry, it is necessary to appreciate both the nature of the investigation and the beliefs of the interrogators."
(Jenkins, 1992, p. 182)
There has been a certain wildness in aspects of professionals' response to child abuse which has woven a web of mystery around matters that need cool reflection rather than high drama. In particular, outlandish claims about the nature of offenders has its backlash in the public's response to the treatment of offenders in the community.
Hostility to treatment facilities may be encouraged by the responses of the professionals themselves to abuse. By portraying offenders as devious, lying, manipulative, persistent, addicted, violent and organized recidivists, it is not surprising that they are viewed accordingly by the public.
The recent rapid oscillation of ideology surrounding sex offending against children contrasts markedly with anything that had previously occurred in the long history of adult-child sexual contacts. The image of the paedophile is infinitely malleable and will remain so while we are told what they are rather than finding out about them:
"To express empathy and understanding for sexual abusers often provokes strong irrational and angry responses amongst the public and professionals alike. This response originates from a confusion in which people feel that understanding abusers and showing empathy means making apologies for them and blaming the child.
The distinction between interactional and structural elements of responsibility, participation and guilt in child sexual abuse allows us to show empathy and to try to understand why fathers and stepfathers and others become sexual abusers. In the process we may learn about traumatic life events in the abuser's own history, including possible severe physical and sexual abuse in their own childhood. Showing empathy and understanding towards sexual abusers does not take away one iota from their full responsibility for the abuse they have committed."
(Furniss, 1991, p. 14)
This is probably idle rhetoric. If the traumatizers were themselves traumatized in childhood, what does it mean to suggest that they are fully responsible for their abusing? If we do not hold children responsible for their own abuse, then how can we hold the victim, when he grows adult, responsible for what he then does? Would we hold the girl victim responsible for her resultant adult psychosis and the harm that it might do her child?
Underlying the rhetoric of responsibility are
the practicalities of the tough treatment of offenders, not the luxury of
empathy. Would any of us, faced with these traumas in our own childhoods, have
been able to exercise this responsibility in another way? In truth, there are
huge gaps in our
knowledge of offenders, which will not be filled effectively by the mottoes that too often pass for understanding in this field. Sadness rather than outrage might be the appropriate professional response to the stories of such men.
In the life stories of abusers are to be found somewhat surreal childhood. worlds of abuse and sexuality far removed from notions of an age of innocence. But these are their normal worlds, not something created by their innate evil or wickedness. In these cases, not all cognitive distortions are easily seen as self-serving since they might equally be accounted for as deviations from "normal" life experiences -- the product of curious childhoods.
Assessing the past is difficult, even with
complete cooperation from the offender, and one
cannot expect crystal bright memories from childhood, especially about things preferred forgotten. In this sense, there may be limitations to our potential to understand paedophilia fully since our glimpses into the origins of paedophile desires and fantasies are subject to the failings of memory.
Knowledge about paedophilia is also layered with incompletely acknowledged ideologies. Just how can disbelief be suspended long enough to absorb what the paedophile has to tell about himself? Whatever means we use to understand paedophilia carries baggage of its own. Even simple pieces of the jigsaw are missing, such as the prevalence of paedophilia. That we can know so little is only partly to do with the sensitivity of the issue -- after all, research has been carried out on all sorts of matters sexual and criminal.
The distancing of "decent" society from the sex offender is matched by distancing in research. That so much of the research base comes from the managers of offenders, particularly therapists in state institutions, has its own influence on the nature of the knowledge obtained. Thus, we find that research is more likely to concern itself with the intimacies of the offender's penis than the intricacies of his mind.
But this is a paradoxical intimacy in that it is largely carried out by the man himself and communicated through electrical cable to a technician in another room. Where the knowledge is obtained in a more directly face-to-face setting, it is almost exclusively in the context of a treatment regime that normally needs to "deliver the goods" of non-recidivism.
So instead of a client-orientated ethos, psychotherapy is turned on its head when applied to sex offenders.
They are expected to toe the line as a precondition of treatment.
Their confession to abuse might be an early requirement;
they may be led to see themselves according to the therapist's view of them;
they may be taught to control themselves rather than understand themselves;
they may be required to offer themselves for research as a pre-condition of therapy;
they may be humiliated by fellow offenders
and, in general, treated in ways that would cause outrage if they were applied to their victims.
And while this might be the best thing for them
and society, too often we have virtually no
evidence that this is the case.
The creation of the paedophile as a "folk devil", the embodiment of evil, is probably as complete as ever could be. What shifts that could happen in society to change this are difficult to imagine and impossible to predict. The rapid change in our understanding of the paedophile is characteristic of the modern period but largely tied to the ascendency of wider ideologies than to psychological or social scientific developments.
One can see shifts to the political right in the emphasis on personal responsibility in the treatment of paedophilia, and the power of fundamentalism in the satanist connection.
Further shifts could take us in many directions. Why not towards compulsory medicine and surgery? Why not towards the lowering of the age of consent, which would decriminalize aspects of paedophilia but at what expense for the children? Why not back to blaming the victim? Even the latter is not so ridiculous as might at first appear in the light of recent suggestions that negligent victims of other crimes might be fined, for example. In eighteenth century Britain buggery seems to have been treated more severely by the courts than rape (Trumbach, 1987); nowadays the situation seems reversed.
The major question has to be whether it is possible to eliminate adult-child contacts. If we had a certain knowledge of what leads to paedophilia then we might be on firm ground. Unfortunately, there has been a fairly long-standing consensus that offending against children has multiple determinants, none of which is held to be essential. The consequence of this view is that it implies that the supply of criminogenic antecedents is varied and to a degree unpredictable.
If, on the other hand, we could accept that there are cycles of sexual abuse, in which abused children themselves become abusers, it would be a different matter. Cycles of abuse can be broken. The main means of achieving this are initiatives to protect children from abuse by education, training and environmental considerations, and effective therapeutic work with individuals damaged by abuse, wether victim or victimizer.
If we need to look wider than this direct cycle, the difficulties are immense. What, for example, is the social intervention necessary to ensure that
problems relating to adults do not become diverted to relationships with children? What is a mentally healthy society?
Will adults stop having sexual interests in children?
It is paradoxical to think that they are expected not to be aroused by the young but sexually mature. The age of sexual consent is tied to the age of permissible marriage for reasons that do not altogether unite the sexual and social functions of marriage. This disparity between sexual maturity and the age of consent leaves a grey ink-blot into which anything can be read.
Although not tied to marriageability at this point in time, the age of homosexual consent poses similar problems. As biological maturity occurs at younger ages, the age of social sexual maturity has increased. There is inevitably room for considerable disagreement as to what the age of consent should be.
In this lies the potential for new ideological battles. Sexual activity prior to the age of sexual maturity might be the next ideological battleground. What could sexually immature people consent to? The activities they initiate themselves? These are troubling questions.
Historical and social relativism do not make the dilemmas less troubling. Twelve-year-old girls marrying may be history's norm, but modern Western societies regard late teenage marriage with trepidation and as a problem. Other age/gender/sexuality bondings which, although legal, were frowned upon, have also become less restricted. So, for example, women with a much younger sexual partner are now likely to be regarded with a gung-ho spirit rather than as "cradle-snatchers".
Our knowledge of paedophilia has been created largely during a wafer-thin slice of history , which is subject to rapid changes in the ways in which such behaviour is understood within wider society. Much as it is comforting to distance oneself from such people, this does little to enhance understanding. While it may be preferable to understand the victim rather than the victimizer, there are no victims without victimizers.