What is there to say about Ian Watkins of Lostprophets? Not much, it seems. Observers seem unable to find the words to describe or condemn the heinous crimes he has admitted to committing. Yes, there has been page after page of descriptions of the sexual offences he carried out against very young children, often with eye-watering, wordy detail. But when it comes to expressing moral disgust with his crimes, people’s words seem to dry up.
‘[It] is easy to be lost for words’, says a writer for the Guardian. ‘There are quite simply no words’, said the Huffington Post, introducing an article that revealed the shocking password Watkins used on his computer. A writer for the Sun said she had struggled to ‘describe my reaction to Ian Watkins’ confession’, before eventually settling on a wordless feeling of ‘utter disbelief’. A writer for a music magazine trailed off halfway through a sentence about Watkins’ crimes with the words, ‘oh god, there are no words’. Similar sentiments are rife on news discussion threads: ‘I have no words…’
There are two possible explanations for the wordless head-shaking that has greeted revelations of what the one-time emo singer did. The claim of being ‘lost for words’ could, of course, simply be an individual’s way of expressing his incomprehension, his deep shock, over Watkins’ crimes. But there could be another reason, too: the struggle to find the right words with which to describe or chastise Watkins’ offences might reveal the extent to which we have exhausted through overuse the moral vocabulary around paedophilia; the extent to which we have flogged to death the demonology surrounding crimes of child abuse, robbing us off the ability to pass meaningful judgement on a confessed predatory paedophile. Society has become so crazily convinced that paedophiles lurk everywhere that it no longer knows what to say when faced with a real, bona fide paedophile.
Watkins has confessed to the crimes of attempted child rape and other child-sex offences at a time when British society is unhealthily obsessed with the spectre of The Paedophile. From the tabloid press to the broadsheets, from populist right-wing groups to academic feminist movements, numerous wings of the opinion-forming set and political class have promoted the idea that paedos lurk everywhere, on the streets, in homes, just waiting to snatch someone else’s child or abuse their own. In the unhinged words of Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s deputy children’s commissioner, ‘There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited’. ‘Thousands of girls as young as 11 are being raped by gangs’, the press told us in response to Ms Berelowitz’s claims.
Some have a snooty tendency to look at the paedophile panic as a tabloid phenomenon, kickstarted by the News of the World (RIP) and other red-top rabble-rousers. In fact, many of the often overblown stats concerning the prevalence of child abuse come from respectable Gender Studies and Abuse Studies departments in British universities. Feminist authors were among the first to spread panic about gangs of men raping, killing and in some instances eating children in the late 1970s and 80s. In response to Operation Yewtree – the post-Jimmy Savile investigation of various Seventies celebs’ alleged sexual crimes and misdemeanours – broadsheet commentators wrote about the ‘devils’ and ‘blood-curdling child catchers’ in our midst. There was dark talk of ‘paedophile rings’ at the heart of the BBC and even in Westminster. Labour MP Tom Watson stood up in parliament and declared, without anything so pesky as evidence, that there was a ‘widespread paedophile ring’ inside the British political elite.