A recent article in The Sun has once again raised concerns about the ways in which the newspaper discusses issues relating to sexual crime. The piece concerns non-offending paedophiles on Twitter, who openly self-identify as being sexually interested in children, and their alleged activities.
While the type of presentation in the article is objectively harmful to efforts designed to prevent child sexual abuse, it is unsurprising, given The Sun’s history of covering these issues. What is more concerning, though, is the “naming and shaming” of some of these individuals within the article itself.
The article includes subtle nods and winks towards the idea that self-identifying non-offending paedophiles are still offenders in some way. This is not necessarily the case, and these online communities can actually serve a positive function in reducing these individuals’ risk of committing sexual offences against children. Before getting into a critique of the article itself, it is worth defining paedophilia from a scientific perspective.
The following video provides an overview of some recent work in this area.
The story centres around one case of a self-identifying paedophile, who has allegedly volunteered to work with children over the Christmas period. The ethics of this case is something that can be debated from both sides of the argument.
For some, people with paedophilic sexual interests are at no greater risk of sexually abusing a child than a man with strong heterosexual tendencies is of committing a rape against a woman. In contrast, the inherent vulnerability (both physically and emotionally) of children makes this behaviour an unnecessary risk.
The correct answer to this debate is something that I don’t want to get into in this post. Instead, I want to discuss where the piece goes after raising this case. No less than 47 words into the article (demonstrating an in-depth analysis, I’m sure you’ll agree), the piece starts to talk about paedophiles on Twitter in a general sense, using the word “sick” at least three times in the space of just a couple of sentences.
The article (which reads more like the blog of an uneducated populist than a serious news article) then goes on the make a number of claims about paedophilia (and the individuals named in the article) that have little evidential basis. Here, I will try to unpack some of these in an effort to bring some empirical angle to this story.
Critique of The Sun’s Article
The article describes an “investigation” by The Sun, which has “discovered” hundreds of online paedophiles using Twitter.
Those of us who work in this area will be the first to tell people that the presence of people who self-identify as having paedophilic sexual interests online. These individuals typically are online specifically to raise awareness of paedophilia and its effects on those lives of those who have such interests. As such, the narcissistic claims of the authors of The Sun’s article seem somewhat overblown, to say the least.
It is correct to say that self-identifying paedophiles on Twitter are typically anonymous, and several use cartoons as their profile pictures. That said, there is a simple reason for this — anonymity provides protection.
As demonstrated by The Sun’s article itself, the stigmatisation of people with paedophilic sexual interests within wider society is incredibly high, and by ‘outing’ themselves, paedophiles could make themselves vulnerable to physical violence.
This is not a hysterical claim. In 2000, Dr. Yvette Cloete was accused of being a paedophile by a group of vigilante’s in South Wales, and her property was branded with slurs like “paedo”. The evidence against her? She was actually a paediatrician. More serious still, Bijan Ebrahimi was beaten, killed, and then set on fire in 2013 after being accused of being a paedophile after taking pictures around the estate in which he lived in Bristol.
With these cases in mind, one questions the wisdom of The Sun both naming specific accounts within their recent article. Not only do the authors provide the names of such accounts in the copy of the article, but they also provide screenshots of some of the Twitter profiles they have ‘discovered’. This has the potential to drive some online paedophiles underground (or have their accounts suspended by Twitter, which has happened since the publication of The Sun’s article), and increases their risk of offending by indirectly discouraging help-seeking behaviour.
On the topic of offence risk, The Sun’s article provides quotes from a number of politicians and interest groups advocating the banning of these accounts, and suggesting they pose a risk to children. Labour MP Yvette Cooper is quoted as saying “This is very disturbing. How does this fit with Twitter’s community standards? Twitter should not be allowing accounts that defend or normalise the sexualisation of children. They can’t just shrug their shoulders and pretend it’s none of their business.” Conservative Andrew Bridgen was more direct: “Twitter must suspend the accounts.”
The ‘normalisation’ argument is one that is often made in this debate, but it’s one that I’m not sure makes much sense. It also speaks to a conflation between ‘paedophilia’ (as a pattern of sexual interest) and ‘child abuse’ (as a criminal behaviour’).
Being classified as a paraphilia associated with distress, I’m not convinced that paedophilia (or its variant ‘paedophilic disorder’, as it is referred to in the DSM-5) will ever (or should ever) be viewed as ‘normal’. The conflation is again something that confounds any public debate around paedophilia, and leads to emotional — rather than rational — decision-making about this controversial, difficult, and nuanced topic.
Let’s not forget that data consistently shows that around 5% of adult men have sexual fantasies involving children, and up to 1 in 4 would continue a sexual chat with somebody online if they were told the other person was under the age of consent. In short — the prevalence of paedophilic interests is relatively high, but research suggests that not all of these individuals pose a direct sexual risk to children.
Relatedly, my final critique is related to the assertion that non-offending paedophiles suggesting that they are stigmatised is akin to the Paedophile Information exchange of the 1970s. Drawing this connection between the profiles cited in the article and PIE is dangerously misleading, at best incorrect, and possible even libellous.
PIE advocated for the legalisation of adult-child sexual relations, suggesting that this is both acceptable and wanted by some children. Non-offending and anti-contact paedophiles on Twitter, such as those named by The Sun’s article, are the antithesis of this. They speak out precisely because they promote the abstaining of paedophiles from committing sexual abuse. They do this by providing a voice to people with paedophilic sexual interests, and encouraging them to not offend. In fact, many of the accounts named in the article explicitly advocate for non-offending.
I haven’t reviewed full feeds, but at no point have I witnessed any of these non-offending accounts advocate the legalisation of adult-child sexual relations, nor have I seen them even discuss their sexual fantasies or interests in any real detail.
In short, these accounts are some of the most vocal anti-abuse voices on the internet, and to suggest otherwise is simply untrue. This type of reporting is nothing more than a sensationalist attempt to rouse the emotional reactions of The Sun’s readers in order to push a political agenda.
I want to close this post with a simple plea to journalists, readers, and social media users: Stop demonising non-offending paedophiles who use anonymous accounts online to express themselves and support each other to not offend. These individuals do more to prevent sexual offending (through self-control and peer support) than many experts can. By creating a toxic environment online (or worse, removing them from the ecosystem altogether), you do a disservice to their aims, and you put children at risk of offending by fostering a social environment that hinders prevention efforts.
Dr. Craig Harper is a social psychologist from the UK. You can follow him on Twitter and YouTube.