Earlier this month another provocative Channel 4 documentary generated significant audience response on Twitter and other social media outlets, as ‘The Paedophile Hunter’ Stinson Hunter and his associates impressed or shocked viewers with their undercover efforts. Setting up false profiles as girls aged 12-15 on adult internet sites, Hunter waited to be contacted by adults who then groomed and arranged to meet the ‘girls’ before filming their meetings and passing all the evidence onto police before posting edited footage on their website for public shaming of the predators.
There is much to discuss about the wisdom or morality of this kind of vigilante action, and the underlying lack of adequate official investigative work of a similar sort by Police or bodies such as CEOP who are woefully under-resourced. However, my more original argument about the show is this: I’m not convinced that any of the men featured were paedophiles. I’m not saying it is my business to know whether they are or not, but I think the programme and the media in general perpetuate some major misapprehensions and panics on this topic.
‘The paedophile hunter’ is a punchy title, and ‘paedo’ might generally fit on a billboard more easily than the alternatives, but the word ‘paedophile’ means someone who is sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children. There is a small quibble to say that people who are sexually attracted to older children and adolescents are strictly ‘hebephiles’ but the larger argument I want to make is that the question of whether or not sexual attraction is involved is largely irrelevant until someone is seeking treatment. The problem or crime is that the men were grooming and seeking to be sexually active with a child under the age of consent.
When the media say ‘paedophile’ they usually mean ‘someone who has sexually abused a child’ or is a sexual offender. Not all paedophiles have ever sexually harmed a child, and not everyone who has sexually harmed a child is sexually attracted to children. Sometimes adults or other children sexually abuse children for reasons linking to power, control, experimentation or loneliness. None of these reasons make the abuse any less serious or excusable – but my point is that there isn’t always sexual attraction involved.
Trying to use any sort of analogy for paedophiles or sexual abuse is perilous territory, but I’m going to try to explain what I mean. Some people are alcoholics. Some people drive while drunk. There is an overlap between these groups, but not everyone who is an alcoholic will also drive while drunk. Some may not drive at all. In a campaign to prevent drunk driving, the answer is not just to target alcoholic support groups. Any driver with access to alcohol is potentially a risk for drunk driving. It’s not a perfect analogy, but in the same way as some alcoholics never drive, some people who are sexually attracted to children never abuse children. In fact, just as some alcoholics may never touch drink, some paedophiles may never touch children.
In a society that polices what you do rather than what you think, being attracted to anyone is not the problem. The problem comes when anyone acts in a harmful way towards a child, and this includes the grooming which featured on the documentary. While some serial child abusers would admit to an attraction to children, others are primarily attracted to adults. Most of us would admit to having been attracted to someone and having done nothing about it. Perhaps we have considered doing something criminal, but resisted, through effort or circumstance.
The false stereotype that only stranger paedophiles abuse children is harmful because we may overlook others who are actually abusing a child. Most abuse occurs from someone who knows the child – either a family member or a friend. Some studies such as the NSPCC research by Cawson and colleagues suggested that young people are most likely to be sexually harmed by a peer, boyfriend or girlfriend. Increasingly this includes potential harm over the internet. When I worked with young people who had sexually harmed others, some of them were petrified that they would be labelled as paedophiles. There were different things they needed to learn about why the abuse they had committed was unacceptable and ways of avoiding abusive behaviour in the future, but most of them concluded that they weren’t sexually attracted to children.
If we are concerned about vulnerable children and young people, then we need to recognise the range of people who might possibly harm them, in a wide range of ways, not just sexual abuse. If we are concerned about vulnerable adults then we need to recognise how people are labelled and stereotyped for many kinds of traits or thoughts that do not equate to harm or criminal offence. There are support groups and accountability circles for people experiencing various impulses or addictions which could lead them to harm themselves or others. They, and the people who are seeking their services, deserve our respect.
I don’t have an easy solution for those who are actively harming children, or are under the false belief that sexual activity with a minor should be decriminalised. There is a role for the public in being more alert to potential harm from grooming and abuse but this needs to include awareness that the perpetrators of such harm may look more like the people down our road, like our friends or children’s friends, or even our own children. Addressing risks from more minor inappropriate behaviour online and showing that we are willing to talk about such issues without panic or hysteria might be a good place to start.
Senior Lecturer in Working with Children, Young People & Families and Criminology, Newman University
More about Sharon’s research into work with young people who have sexually harmed others is available on her academia.edu page.