Willful ignorance — my experience discussing pedophilia with the media

“We have no problem” with misleading the audience … and that is a huge problem.

Craig Harper
Mar 16 · 5 min read
Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash

That topic again…

Pedophilia is an issue that courts controversy and a range of opinions. Most of the academic work that I have conducted has looked at how this topic (and sexual offending more broadly) is reported in the media, and the downstream effects of these reporting styles on social attitudes.

I’ve also written on Medium before about the stigmatization of people with pedophilic sexual interests — particularly on social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr, where accounts have been temporarily and permanently suspended. My most-read post on this subject is below, and ironically has been demonetized by Medium without an explanation as to why.

The motivation behind communicating about this is simple, and goes something like this:

  1. There are people with pedophilic sexual interests in society;
  2. Some (maybe most — we simply do not know) will never commit a sexual offense, and actively work to prevent sexual abuse;
  3. Inaccurate, misleading, and defamatory reporting causes increased stigmatization of this group;
  4. Stigmatization of these people increases dynamic risk of sexual offending.

This post tells the story of a single interaction, but it feels like it’s exemplary of the approach taken by many editors and journalists. It started with a post that appeared on my Facebook news feed around a week ago. This post was a recycled story by a local news organization wherein they followed a ‘pedophile hunter’ group on a sting in the local area. You can read it for yourself below.

For full disclosure, I have previously written columns for this publication. As a PhD student in 2015 I ran a study looking at the motivations of British voters in the run-up to the General Election that year. This publication were really supportive, and teamed up with us to publicize the survey and allowed us (my supervisor and I) to write regular pieces for their site.

Having built up a good relationship with the editor, I then wrote other columns for them on topics such as campus censorship and free speech and, of course, my work on public perceptions of pedophilia.

The crux of this column was to dispel the myth that ‘pedophilia’ and ‘child sexual abuse’ are synonyms for each other. This is clear from the literature. We know from the scientific evidence that anywhere between 1–5% of adult men have sexual interests that involve children, and that only around one-half of people convicted of child sexual abuse are actually pedophilic in terms of their primary sexual interests.

I had hoped that my column, if nothing else, would feed into a new reporting practice for this publication, one that values truth and accuracy, and reduces their reliance on the ‘pedophile’ label in the reporting where no evidence of this is present. How wrong I was.

This was the reason that I was so disappointed by this new presentation. Knowing people at the publication, I took to Twitter to let them know my thoughts.

I didn’t expect a response, but did hope to shed some light on this inaccuracy. With that in mind, I was surprised to receive a direct message from one of the senior reporters at the site the following morning. I’ve hidden some details to protect their identity.

Tweets confirming ‘no problem’ with misleading an audience about the nature of pedophilia (sender details anonymized)

While those of us engaged in this kind of work have long feared that willful ignorance is an issue, I had never before seen this confirmed by a senior reporter at a popular mainstream news outlet (at least at the local level) confirm that this is the case.

We don’t have a problem with our reporters using this terminology

Those words are outrageous. They are a frank, explicit admission that, when it comes to child sexual abuse, this particular outlet has a blatant and (most important) conscious disregard for accurate reporting — instead favoring the salacious, misleading, and sensationalist label of ‘pedophilia’.

Aside from the admission that they are happy to mislead it’s audience in this way, it also suggests that they are happy to contribute to a social environment that discourages those with these sexual interests from coming forward to seek help. This might feel like an over-stretch of my argument, but on the basis of my earlier column for this exact outlet, they are fully aware about the dangers of such reporting practices.

These implications are worth re-stating.

Media reporting of pedophilia contributes to the experience of stigma-related stress among people with such sexual interests. In reality, this means that people reporting a sexual interest in children have reporting how they feel more socially isolated, and having lower levels of self-esteem than non-pedophilic controls group of people who didn’t have these sexual interests.

While this may be a desirable outcome for many people who express negative views toward this group, it is important to note that isolation and low self-esteem can be risk factors for sexual offending against children.

What I hope to achieve in this post is to highlight that inaccurate and misleading conflations between pedophilia and child sexual abuse by media outlets is not (always) accidental, but a reflection of conscious willful ignorance.

I hope that shining a light on this practice will encourage others to question this type of reporting, call out editors and reporters who use these conflations to enhance their click-through rates, and start a more reasoned social debate about pedophilia.

Craig Harper is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology. His research examines responses to sexual crime, and political decision-making. You can find out more by following on Twitter and Medium.

Craig Harper

Written by

Social psychologist and researcher interested in controversial ideas and decision-making. Posts represent personal views. http://craigaharper.wordpress.com

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