For many, paedophiles have become the modern equivalent of the
bogeyman. They are linked with three terrible crimes: the sexual
abuse of children and the threat of lifelong damage and hurt;
murder and the literal destruction of childhood; and through trying
to conceal their crimes by disappearing children’s bodies, the
prospect for loved ones of unending torment.
My consciousness of paedophilia began with childhood nightmares
from watching TV cops and robbers chasing a serial childkiller. It
still makes me shudder. We know now to question its crude and
frightening stereotype of shadowy man in mac. Now the media drum up
the much more frightening possibility of the mundane destroyer in
I hate the term paedophile. It means “love of boys”. As so often
where ancient Greek and Latin words are imported, it just confuses
the issue. There is little love here and not only boys, but instead
the most selfish denial of the rights of others – sometimes even
the right to self-respect and life.
But the confusion that paedophilia sows should not lead us to
respond angrily or stupidly to it. It is far too serious a problem.
It is time to reject the current crude binary of savage punishment
or “treatment”. The first reduces us to the lowest level of crime.
The second may extend the psycho-therapeutic empire, but it is
unlikely to achieve much else.
There are two big issues here. First, paedophilia is increasingly
being medicalised. It is interpreted in individualistic terms as a
“psychiatric disorder” needing “treatment”. It is being reframed as
a diagnostic category. No need then to look more closely at men –
the main offenders – and explore broader social issues relating to
power, perceptions of masculinity and the subordination and
commercial sexualisation of children.
At the first national conference of health and social care service
users in the late 1990s, hundreds of service users cheered when the
social services minister said it would be “over my dead body” that
child sexual offences would be redefined as a “mental
Mental health service users face enough stigma without having
sexual offences piggy-backing on them. But the process
I can only understand paedophilia as a form of sexuality – but an
inherently oppressive one, rooted in ruthless inequality. Certainly
some paedophiles, too, seem to present it as a form of sexuality,
and this may offer a helpful route forward.
Second, and linked to this, paedophilia is one crime where
individualising the response is likely to make especially little
sense. Whatever its social history, there is no doubt that
paedophilia now is not just an individual activity. This is not
only a matter of highly publicised gangs abducting children for
sexual gratification. Paedophilia has its own collectivities, both
virtual and actual. It has its own sites, both electronic and in
the penal system. It has its own websites, newsletters and
associated big bucks child porn industry. It is an international
activity. The generalised image of the paedophile as pathetic
“loner” is difficult to sustain, given that some paedophiles at
least are closely networked with others. While, for example, there
was official reluctance to accept that large-scale sexual abuse of
children in council care in Wales and elsewhere from the 1970s was
systematic, it is difficult to hold on to any assumption that it
was isolated and unorganised.
The reality is that paedophilia has its own culture (or cultures).
A key problem this poses, which still has to be addressed
effectively, is how to respond appropriately to the problem of
paedophilia when a central location for its cultural and collective
advancement has been the prisons to which people are sent for
There are unlikely to be any quick fixes for paedophilia, either
through community violence, bureaucratic listings or the extension
But there is one source of knowledge that should be tapped to
develop intelligent policy and practice – the knowledge of
paedophiles themselves. There needs to be much more discussion with
them, not as talking therapy, but to find out more about their
thinking, philosophies, strategies, tactics and values. In this way
we may make more progress in developing safer and more effective
policies to safeguard everyone’s human rights, including theirs,
but most importantly those of children.
Peter Beresford is professor of social policy, Brunel
University, actively involved in the psychiatric system survivor