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Stocker, Mike --- "Paedophile panic" [2001] AltLawJl 49; (2001) 26(3) Alternative Law Journal 133

Paedophile panic

Mike Stocker[*]

How is it that male homosexuality has become interchangeable, in the popular imagination, with sexual abuse of children?

The next problem of course is, how do you tell the difference between a gay male couple and two paedophiles with clean records?

Letter to the Editor of The Daily Telegraph,

4 August 2000

It might be argued that the letter writer’s remark is slanderous or hateful. What makes it interesting, however, is that it is not arbitrary. The writer is not likely to concern himself with distinguishing a gay male couple and a pair of flashers, or a pair of car thieves. How is it that male homosexuality has become interchangeable, in the popular imagination, with sexual abuse of children? I argue in this article that anxiety about predatory gay male paedophiles stems from several sources, including cultural preoccupations about threats to children, fears of sexual deviance, and the dynamics of cultural interest in emerging social problems. However, these fears pose significant problems to effectively addressing the reality of heterosexual child abuse perpetrated by men who are known to their victims.

This article does not argue that child sexual abuse, even child sexual abuse by gay men, is not a legitimate cause for concern. Rather, it will explore the reasons why gay men are scapegoated for crimes that are committed primarily by heterosexual men known to their victims.

What is a paedophile?

Paedophilia is often discussed as though it were self-defining, a natural category of sexual behaviour. However, as the letter writer from the Daily Telegraph suggests, the boundaries of this category are quite plastic. The psychiatric definition of paedophilia includes both sexual activity with a prepubescent child, and erotic attraction to prepubescent children unaccompanied by any sexual activity.[1] This definition is not without its own ambiguities: what is it about pubescence that distinguishes paedophilia from the ‘normal’ range of erotic attachments? Pubescence itself can occur in a wide age-range: is sex with a pre-pubescent 18 year old paedophilia? Moreover, the question of what precisely constitutes child sexual abuse is often left unexamined. Is a mother who walks naked in front of her children committing sexual abuse? A man who dresses his four-year-old daughter in lipstick and evening clothes? Although a more thoughtful discussion of these ambiguities is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that there is no simple definition of paedophilia.

What is the popular conception of paedophiliac threat?

In popular and political rhetoric about paedophilia, there can be no doubt about the identity of the most dangerous offenders against children: gay men. The Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Force was established in 1994 to inquire into police investigation of alleged paedophile activity. Although the Commission claimed that its interest was in all forms of paedophilia, its focus on gay men was apparent: ‘[t]o a man, each of the paedophiles interviewed by the Commission or the media so far has claimed to be a gay with an interest in young men but not a paedophile, despite evidence that each has had sex with boys barely into their teenage years and younger’.[2]

Similarly, in 1993 the Queensland police service formed a special Child Exploitation Unit to investigate allegations of paedophilia. The subjects of these investigations were overwhelmingly gay men. Among the allegations that the police investigated was the claim that a gay rights lobbying group was in fact a secret organisation of paedophiles which auctioned off ‘street kids’ to the highest bidder.

What does the “real” phenomenon of child sexual abuse look like?

These popular conceptions of gay paedophiliac threat bear little resemblance to the all too real phenomenon of child sexual abuse. Studies involving random population samples from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom suggest that heterosexual male abuse of girls comprises the vast majority of child sexual abuse, and that intrafamily offenders are more likely to abuse repeatedly than extrafamilial offenders.[3] Moreover, these studies suggest that offenders do not choose their victims on account of their relationship with the child; that is, ‘[t]he fact of a married man abusing his son or daughter or the same man abusing his children’s friends or his neighbour’s children or a single man abusing children who are unknown to him may have more to do with access and opportunity than with anything inherent in the roles of father, neighbour, stranger, or acquaintance.’[4] These studies suggest that, at a minimum, claims regarding the dangers posed by gay strangers to young boys be viewed with considerable skepticism.

Rhetoric about the gay paedophiliac threat: why does it happen?

Before turning to an explanation for this gulf between empirical data on child sexual abuse and the popular conception of paedophilia, it is important to understand the dynamics of rhetoric about social problems such as paedophilia. Joel Best argues that broad social and cultural anxieties are often expressed symbolically through arguments that new problems are deserving of public attention and concern. However, Best argues, these newly-identified social ills are not equally compelling and evocative to the mass public. Attempts to draw attention to specific social concerns, whether environmental degradation or drunk driving, must compete for the attention of contemporary audiences.[5] Sensational accounts of gay paedophilia may simply resonate more with audiences than stories of heterosexual abuse. However, the reasons for this resonance are complex.

Why are gay men the focus of claims making about paedophilia?

The popular preoccupation with the male gay threat to children results from a confluence of modern preoccupations: the threatened child, dangers of sex crime, and the fertile body of cultural lore about sexually predatory men.

The child victim

The value of stories about threatened children as an attention- getting device plays a key role in the creation of the gay male paedophile threat. Best suggests that the image of the threatened child, vulnerable to menace by deviants, is a crucial icon in our symbolic cultural repertoire. This image has deep historical roots: threatened children imagery has been effectively deployed in debate over abortion rights, drink-driving, drug ‘epidemics’, sexually explicit rock lyrics, inadequate social services, and AIDS.[6]

Best argues that threats to children resonate well culturally for a variety of reasons. Anxiety generated by apocalyptic fears about economic, ecological, and medical crises are expressed in terms of concerns for children’s safety. Although adults may be unable to be wholly passive in the face of these looming large-scale disasters, they do have the ability to manage and protect their children from at least some immediate harm. This immediate harm takes the familiar form of deviants:

Children could be taught to detect and avoid deviants, and the existing social control apparatus, both punitive and therapeutic, could presumably cope with these threats. From this perspective, the future might still seem endangered, but only by threatening individuals, not by systemic forces requiring extraordinary responses.’[7]

John Pratt also argues that threats to children have played an increasing role in cultural anxieties, although for different reasons. Pratt suggests that the centrality of the family to political and economic organisation made the production and rearing of children essential to the state. Declining populations lead to a sense that children are a precious commodity. This newfound sense formed the underpinning for rampant concern about children’s vulnerability to dangerous crime, especially sexual crime.[8]

Notions about threats to children are also closely tied to ambivalent ideas about children’s sexuality. Children’s sexuality is simultaneously denied in sentimentalisation regarding childhood innocence and amplified by cultural ideas about children’s sexual precocity, particularly that of young girls. Children are idealised as sexual innocents, requiring protection from the taint of adult society. At the same time children must be carefully monitored for their own dangerous sexual potential through campaigns against masturbation and teenage sexual activity.

In this respect, notions of childhood sexuality revolve around the idea that children are fundamentally mutable sexually; that they have no ability themselves to distinguish between natural and unnatural sexual conduct. This anxiety that children might easily be persuaded into “unnatural” conduct plays an important role in the discourse and rhetoric about the dangers posed by gay school teachers and activists who might convince school children to convert to homosexuality.[9]

The (homo) sexual predator

Like the cultural preoccupations about child victims, fears of gay men represent the confluence of several different cultural traditions. These include a modern shift in focus from dangerous classes to deviant individuals, a growing perception that dangerous crime is sexual in nature, and special concerns about the deviance of gay men.

The growing sense of menace by gay male predators can be seen as linked to larger shifts in thinking about crime during the modern era. For much of the nineteenth century, dangerous classes were viewed as the main threat to social order. Thus it was groups of people, whether political agitators or agricultural workers, who were the target of popular fear. The threat represented by these organisations was not so much in the individual harm they might do as in the potential for anarchy and revolution affecting the entire social order.

However, as the 19th century wore on, dangerousness came to be seen in terms of a quality, an aspect of human nature. The new social danger was the individual deviant, who represented a threat to families and individuals. This fear of criminal deviants quickly assumed a specifically sexual form. In Governing the Dangerous Pratt argues that fears about sexual crimes represent a conception of dangerousness that emerged early in this century in response to changes in society and the state.

Some feminist theorists find much older roots for paedophilia fears. In No Go the Bogeyman Marina Warner suggests that story-telling about sexual deviance and deviant crimes against children has been a central part of Western social order since ancient times. Warner argues that tales about dangers to children are in fact a way of talking about deviance and social order. By talking about the dangers posed by mythical monsters and bogeymen who threaten children, we are actually reinforcing ideas about appropriate social behaviour in the home.

Policy implications

Cultural obsession with the dangers gay men pose to children has important consequences. A focus on paedophilia distracts us from our failures to look after children’s best interests in arenas such as health care and education. Moreover, a focus on male gays results in willful ignorance of the disproportionate role that heterosexual men play in child sexual abuse. By locating the danger to children as far from the family home as possible, claims made about gay paedophilia ignore the real threats faced by children behind closed doors.

[*] Mike Stocker is a criminal lawyer in California.©2001 Mike Stocker


[1] Kaplan, Harold I. and Sadock, Benjamin J., et al, Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry, Seventh Edition, Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1994, p.676.

[2] Buchanan, David, ‘Homosexual pedophilia and the NSW Police Royal Commission’, (1998) 8(2) AIDS/HIV Legal Link 7.

[3] Cossins, Anne, ‘A Reply to the NSW Royal Commission Inquiry into Paedophilia: Victim Report Studies and Child Sex Offender Profiles - A Bad Match?’, (1999) 32(1) The Australia and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 51, 56.

[4] Cossins, above, p.53.

[5] Best, Joel, Random Violence: How We Talk about New Crimes and New Victims, University of California Press, 1999, p.88.

[6] Best, Joel, Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims, University of Chicago Press, 1990 pp.6, 76.

[7] Best 1990, above, p.73.

[8] Pratt, John, Governing the Dangerous: dangerousness, law, and social change, The Federation Press, Leichardt (1997) p. 90.

[9] Henderson, Emma, ‘Of Signifiers and Sodomy: Privacy, Public Morality, and Sex in Decriminalization Debates’[1996] MelbULawRw 17; , (1996) 20 Melbourne University Law Review 1023.

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