This is what a celebrity paedo really looks like

Ian Watkins’ horrific crimes remind us how rare celebrity paedophilia really is.

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.

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So it isn’t only sin-obsessed tabloids that fuel the moral panic about paedos – so do the more erudite sections of the political and campaigning classes. And their claims about child rape being rife, about paedos hiding everywhere, are often spectacularly flimsy, evidence wise. BBC Newsnight and others have recently claimed that ‘one in six’ children in Britain is sexually abused. That stat comes from an NSPCC study of young people’s experiences, which lumps together everything from actual unwanted sexual attention from an adult to ‘sexual things you experienced before you were 18, even things you wanted’ (my emphasis). So even post-16 consensual sexual activity can be put in the category of ‘child abuse’ if the NSPCC believes such activity is inappropriate. The idea that one in six young people in Britain is sexually abused is based on twisted stats and fact-manipulation.

The casual redefinition of child abuse to include everything from real child abuse to silly teenage fumblings has given rise to a deeply destructive and morally relativistic conflation of all sorts of crimes and experiences. So Britain’s Sex Offenders’ Register has on it all sorts of people, from the 17-year-old boy who foolishly had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend to Ian Watkins himself (he was forced to sign the register by the judge after he confessed his guilt). The investigations of Operation Yewtree have focused on everything from acts that, rightly or wrongly, were once seen as largely harmless – such as sitting too close to a teenage girl on a TV show or touching a female work colleagues’ breasts – to allegations of actual rapes. Such is modern society’s determination to depict child abuse as an ever-present danger, and the paedophile as a constant, shadowy force in our lives, that it self-consciously throws every kind of crime or act of foolishness into a pot labelled ‘CHILD ABUSE’ in order to sustain the myth that such abuse is rife and that we are all and always surrounded by ‘blood-curdling child catchers’. The Paedophile has become the devil against which a morally at-sea society attempts to define its values, nurturing a kneejerk, frequently hysterical climate in relation to children, adults, and the relationship between them.

And now, into this febrile, paedo-obsessed climate comes Ian Watkins; into this era in which we are obsessed with celebrity paedophile rings that are normally nothing of the sort comes an actual celebrity paedophile. And we are lost for words. We have exhausted terms like devil and evil and paedo by attaching them to anyone who once did something untoward with a young woman or girl 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, meaning we are somewhat stumped by Watkins. Modern British society is like the boy who cried wolf – now, faced with a real ‘wolf’, it has nothing to say.

Watkins is what the opinion-forming set imagines lurks everywhere: a confessed predatory paedophile who got a kick from carrying out unspeakable acts on very young children. But such individuals do not lurk everywhere; they are extremely, mercifully rare. Watkins is the exception in modern Britain, not the rule, and it can only be hoped that the gravity of his crimes will make the paedo-panic lobby think twice before it next tries to tell us that children in every town, village and hamlet are being sexually preyed on by beastly men and gangs.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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