Besides embarking on a purge of Nazis this month as part of a broader ramped-up censorship spree, Twitter has also been quietly suspending pedophiles from its platform. This action, apparently taken in response to an inflammatory front page feature in British tabloid, The Sun, will probably cause you not the slightest bit of concern, and may indeed make you be rather glad.
But would you be surprised if I were to tell you that Twitter’s censorship of the speech of pedophiles is more likely to increase than to reduce child sexual abuse? Even if you hate pedophiles, as most people do—and we’ll get to that later—there are good reasons why they ought to have a free speech platform on Twitter. If you have the fortitude to read through to the end of this post, you can learn why. Consider yourself trigger-warned if you continue.
Pedophiles and child abusers
Since you’re still with me, let’s get the most important point out of the way first. The pedophiles whose accounts were suspended were not child abusers. If that strikes you as unlikely, or even impossible, you probably think that pedophilia and child abuse are synonymous. They’re not. Psychologists believe that pedophilia is an unchosen sexual attraction to prepubescent children, that tends to emerge during adolescence and remain stable over time. In other words, there isn’t any “cure” for it, which makes it similar to any other sexual orientation, the important difference being that it’s both illegal and immoral to act upon.
If all pedophiles abused children, or all child sexual abusers were also pedophiles—which most people assume is the case—then the distinction between pedophiles and child abusers wouldn’t matter. But surprisingly, that’s not so. Across multiple studies, it has been shown that only about a third of those who commit child sexual offences are pedophiles. Most are situational rapists, whose primary sexual attraction is to adults.
Conversely, many (perhaps the great majority of) pedophiles never offend against children, because— like the rest of us — they are not inclined to commit or support rape, which they realize is wrong. There is no known link between pedophilia and psychopathy; apart from their sexual attraction, pedophiles seem to be just as likely to be empathetic, truthful, and law-abiding as anyone else. As such, it’s hard to say that a pedophile’s sexual feeling for children is wrong in itself, if they never act on that regrettable attraction.
Because of the stigma surrounding pedophilia which prevents them from “coming out” for fear of death threats, it’s difficult for researchers to know how many non-offending pedophiles are out there, living with and managing their attractions through masturbation, fiction, and fantasy. But recently, with the encouragement of understanding professionals, some of them have started to come out in self-help groups such as Virtuous Pedophiles, and on social media sites such as Medium, Tumblr, and Twitter (all of these links are safe for work).
It’s these non-offending pedophiles that the Sun called out in its article, and whose accounts Twitter restricted or suspended. About a dozen accounts of non-offending pedophiles were temporarily suspended until they verified their telephone numbers (an intimidating request for those who are routinely threatened with doxxing and physical harm), while at least two of them, Ender Wiggin and Šimon Falko, had their accounts permanently suspended.
What is the value of pedophile speech?
Twitter’s child exploitation policy prohibits content promoting child sexual exploitation. Some Twitter accounts are rightly removed for infringing this policy (though these are often not even real pedophiles, but just homophobic trolls). However Wiggin and Falko have never promoted child exploitation, rather they have consistently and strongly opposed it.
Ender Wiggin, in particular (for his safety, he obviously uses a pseudonym) is a former moderator and administrator of the Virtuous Pedophiles forum, who has been prolific in his attempts to educate his peers and the general public about how pedophiles can safely manage their attraction in a way that keeps innocent children from harm. The legitimacy and value of Virtuous Pedophiles has been recognized by experts such as Dr James Cantor, probably the world’s leading sexologist specializing in paraphilias such as pedophilia.
Granted, it’s not always comfortable for people to interact with an admitted pedophile online, particularly if they may have been a victim of child sexual abuse. But Twitter provides tools for blocking or muting unwanted interactions.
More fundamentally, it’s an issue of free speech. As uncomfortable a fact as it may be to stomach, pedophiles have rights just like the rest of us. To stereotype a group of people as being subhuman and undeserving of the right of free expression is simple knee-jerk prejudice.
While private platforms such as Twitter are not bound to allow any particular speech on their platforms, Twitter once described itself as the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party” (a position from which it has since backpedalled). Regardless, as an important global communications platform, the decisions that Twitter makes about content moderation have real consequences offline.
By excluding non-offending pedophiles from its platform and thereby eliminating an important channel of peer support and community education for those afflicted with this unfortunate and unwanted sexual orientation, Twitter may be doing more harm to children than good.