Castrate this sick debate
Not another British paedophile panic? The unhealthy obsession with child sexual abuse should stop. Full stop.
Even Madeleine McCann’s desperate parents have, it seems, had enough for now of the month-long media circus surrounding the disappearance of their four-year-old daughter, and have said they will adopt a lower profile while they try to come to terms with their loss. No such loss of appetite is evident elsewhere in Britain, however, with stories of how alleged international paedophile rings might have spirited her away still making the news almost daily.
And if one child abduction story fades, we can be sure that another horror tale about paedophiles will be along soon, bringing with it the ghosts of previous cases. So it is that, as ‘our Maddie’ moves to the inside pages, she is replaced on the front pages of the UK press with headlines declaring ‘Paedos to be chemically castrated’ or the blunter ‘Fiends to get chop’.
If summer is coming, it seems it must be time for another unhealthy paedophile panic. Last June, home secretary John Reid announced New Labour’s latest ‘crackdown’ on child sex offenders, berating judges for their allegedly lenient treatment of those convicted of such offences and promising to introduce a British version of ‘Megan’s Law’, the American legislation which gives the public access to information about convicted sex offenders in their area. British campaigners for such a law call it ‘Sarah’s Law’ after the murdered eight-year-old Sarah Payne.
Now it is June again, and the government has announced its Child Sex Offenders Review. Having apparently given in to demands for Sarah’s Law a year ago out of political opportunism, Reid is now backing away from a fully-fledged version (for reasons which are no more admirable). But that is buried beneath new proposals for another ‘crackdown’ on child sex abuse, ranging from voluntary drug treatments supposed to curb the sex drive of offenders (hence the overblown ‘chemical castration’ and ‘get chop’ headlines), to laws allowing mothers to check if their new boyfriend has convictions for child abuse and families to do the same with new members.
New Labour has also pledged a new ‘paedophile awareness campaign’, as if it were possible to raise public ‘awareness’ of this issue any higher. The campaign will, in the words of one report, ‘hammer home the grim message that 90 per cent of child abuse is carried out by people the victims know’. In other words, the government wants us to be more ‘aware’ (or perhaps just beware) that ‘stranger danger’ is the least of our worries, and that any parent or loved one could be a pervert and a paedophile, too. Inevitably, the loudest criticism of the New Labour proposals has been that they do not go far enough.
There is indeed a ‘grim message’ behind all of this. But it is not about the minimal and largely unchanging threat that paedophiles pose to children in our society. (The fact that Sarah Payne, still the best known such case, was killed back in 2000 should remind us how rare these tragedies are.) It is more about the danger that the unhealthy and ever-more exaggerated obsession with child sexual abuse poses to a civilised society. The solution to that problem will not be provided by even more laws, campaigns, propaganda or treatment aimed at a relative handful of predatory paedophiles. We would be better off trying to address the deeper causes of our obsession with them, and why paedophile-hunting has become a popular national sport.
Plenty of practical arguments have been put forward, on spiked and elsewhere, against the demands and proposals for a new ‘crackdown’ (see Sarah’s Law can’t protect us from fear, by Mick Hume). For a start, there is no evidence that Sarah’s Law would make children any safer – indeed, the legal right to know if convicted sex offenders live locally would have done nothing to protect Sarah Payne herself, abducted and murdered by a paedophile many miles from her home. If we are to have a public register of sex offenders, why not of convicted murderers, wife-beaters, racists, drunk drivers, drug offenders or burglars? What about the principles of criminal justice that say offenders should be punished for what they have done, not what they might do or fantasise about doing in the future, and that those who serve their sentence have paid their debt to society? And leaving aside the contentious issue of whether ‘chemical castration’ works (and whether giving volunteer offenders a few mood-altering drugs deserves that dramatic description), when did free societies become comfortable with the notion of using medical treatments to ‘cure’ crime?
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As we argued on spiked since the Sarah’s Law controversy began seven years ago, these measures are all worse than useless when it comes to protecting us from the biggest danger to our children’s freedom: fear. Seen in this context, it is arguable that the government’s compromise on a sort-of-Sarah’s-Law will give us the worst of both worlds. It will reinforce the notion that we are besieged by a spectral army of predatory paedophiles and that Something Must Be Done. Yet at the same time, its insistence that most information must be kept secret, and the threat to prosecute single mothers who make public information they are given about a boyfriend’s record, can only further feed public fears and paranoia about invisible paedophiles. The Sex Offenders Register itself is perhaps the worst culprit here, a blunt instrument that is widely perceived as a secret list of 30,000-odd dangerous perverts, yet includes not just rapists and violent paedophiles but everybody from flashers and downloaders of illegal internet porn to teenagers who have under-age sex and women teachers who seduce young men.
As the paedophile panic has continued regardless of all these holes in the case for further crackdowns, however, it has become clear that there are wider issues that need to be addressed. It is not a matter of opposing this or that aspect of the campaign. There is a pressing need to question the very basis of this unhealthy obsession, and try to castrate the ‘paedo’ debate altogether.
What does it really say about the perverse mindset of our society that so many should now want to turn child sexual abuse into such an all-consuming political issue? It looks like a morbid symptom of a culture afflicted by an epidemic of paedophile-phobia – a condition that has been spread from the top echelons of the state downwards.
Of course, as Frank Furedi points out in his latest Really Bad Ideas column, these things are not genuine ‘phobias’ or mental illnesses (see Really Bad Ideas: Phobias, by Frank Furedi). What we might call paedophile-phobia is more a sign of a cultural and political sickness in a society that has lost its sense of purpose and direction and turned in on itself, always focusing on the darker side of human experience and fantasising about the basest behaviour being the norm. A culture that tends to interpret everything in terms of vulnerability and victimhood inevitably sees children as in need of ever-more protection.
The public obsession with paedophiles is also an expression of how deeply many of us now mistrust each other, and indeed ourselves, in a fragmented society of insecure individuals. The paedophile becomes not just the shadowy stranger out there, but the beast within the community, within the family, maybe even within you. This is the fear the government’s latest ‘awareness’ campaign about abuse at home can only feed. It is already having a destructive impact on not just adult-child but also adult-adult relationships, as men feel wary of volunteering to work with kids and children are ‘protected’ from unsupervised contact with grown-ups. Stranger danger? There seems little danger of many children even meeting a stranger today (see Who would be a boys’ football coach?, by Josie Appleton).
When it comes to spreading these fashionably poisonous prejudices about the human condition, leading voices on the ‘other’ side of the paedophile debate - such as those in the child protection industry opposed to a fully-fledged Sarah’s Law - are at least as bad as its proponents. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), for example, is a semi-state institution dedicated to publicising the alleged threat posed to children by their parents in its multimillion-pound ‘Child abuse must stop. Full stop.’ PR campaign. The NSPCC has welcomed the new emphasis on raising ‘awareness’ of familial abuse, and the proposal to limit access to information about paedophiles – because it fears that otherwise dangerous gangs of ‘vigilantes’ could drive the perpetrators ‘underground’.
Here the prevailing view of what people are like is lowered further still, to the point where the paedophiles too become the victims of human passions. These professionals fear ‘the mob’ (aka the public) even more than they do violent perverts. This is the flipside of misanthropy in the abuse debate: either we are all viewed as potential paedophiles, or as a mob-in-waiting of ignorant bigots eager for an excuse to daub ‘Paedo’ on a paediatrician’s door. No doubt some would like to be able to inject people in order to suppress those feelings, too. In any case, the consensus in high places is that one way or another we are not to be trusted and all need to be supervised by the experts, with the help of the police and the thought-police.
The permanent paedophile panic has come to symbolise much that is wrong with the mindset of our society: the degraded state of public and political debate, the self-loathing and mistrust that now shapes influential views of our humanity, and the contempt with which the authorities look down on the public – especially those suspicious parents.
Britain is in danger of becoming known as a nation of paedophile-phobics. Of course paedophile panics are not really a peculiar British characteristic - America has experienced many similar episodes, and the Italians are now caught up in a wild ‘Satanic abuse’ scare similar to those that took off over here a few years back. But perhaps Britain does lead the field in turning paedophilia into a sordid national and political obsession.
It is as if, amid all the troubled discussion of what ‘Britishness’ might mean today, some have decided to show the world that we can still get more hysterical about the abuse of children than heartless Johnny Foreigner. Don’t it make you proud?
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.