Who’s got a dirty mind?

Pete Townshend says that he accessed child pornography to be a 'vigilante' against paedophilia. That's pretty sick, too.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Pete Townshend, The Who guitarist arrested for accessing child pornography on the internet, claims that he is not a paedophile.

On the contrary, he says, ‘I have…been shocked, angry and vocal (especially on my website) about the explosion of advertised paedophilic images on the internet’; and he acts
‘as a vigilante to help support organisations like the Internet Watch Foundation, the NSPCC and Scotland Yard to build up a powerful, well-informed voice to speak loudly about the millions being made by US banks and credit card companies for the pornography industry’ (1).

Oh yes, and he believes he was ‘sexually abused between the age of five and six-and-a-half’ – although he ‘cannot remember clearly what happened’ (2).

Let’s take Townshend at his word, and assume that he accessed child porn ‘purely to see what was there’ (3), to aid his research and campaigning work. Even so, the resultant scandal raises an interesting question. How clear is the moral line between those interested in child pornography for perverted paedophilic purposes, and those interested in it because of their self-appointed role as anti-paedophile crusaders?

After all, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams points out, ‘most of us have no idea what child porn looks like, nor will we – unless we have a professional interest – ever meet anyone who admits to knowing’. The only people who do know, she says, ‘are the police – the same police, remember, who can be found storming art galleries because they contain pictures of children on beaches without any pants on’ (4). (And the same police, we might add, who have found some of their number embroiled in the current scandal, presumably on the basis of an alleged interest that was not purely professional.)

Although the police are not the only ones to have a familiarity with online child porn. Paedophiles do, and so do campaigners against child porn. That’s assuming that we can presume these campaigners to have seen the thing that makes them so angry – that they are not campaigning for ever-greater penalties for accessing or creating something that is only presumed to be out there.

Even if anti-paedophile campaigners haven’t actually seen the images that they find so abhorrent, they have certainly invested a great deal of emotional energy into imagining them, and the purposes for which people use them. Either way, I find it pretty disturbing.

Paedophiles get off on looking at child porn. That’s sick. Anti-paedophile campaigners – by whom I don’t mean people who think child abuse is wrong, but I mean organisations whose entire existence depends on mobilising revulsion at child abuse – are obsessed with thinking about how attractive child porn, and child abuse, is to other people. The assumption is that child abuse is a far bigger problem than we ever imagined – that, in fact, child abuse is all around us, and most people are only one temptation away from committing acts of unspeakable depravity.

You can see this in the pat response to the Townshend case delivered by John Carr, an internet consultant for NCH Action for Children: ‘We’ve got to stop thinking about paedophiles or people who use child pornography as the dirty old man in the raincoat.’ (5) Implication? That the most normal-looking man or woman could be a secret kiddie-porn surfer, that the appeal of child pornography is much wider than people imagine.

You can see it in the NSPCC’s ‘awareness-raising’ ad campaigns, depicting cartoon children being thrown down the stairs – as though the TV-watching masses needed to be told that this is a bad thing to do.

Or in the charity’s arguments that everything from playground bullying to parental shouting amounts to a form of child abuse; in statements such as ‘One of the chief aims of the FULL STOP Campaign is to change attitudes towards children – to inspire a society in which children are loved, respected and valued’ (6), as though our society currently hates and abuses its young; in claims that ‘the murder of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor in Peckham, London, was a tragic example of the violence and victimisation which many children and young people face’ (7) – when the shocking thing about this case was that it was an aberration.

This obsession with the most degraded aspects of human behaviour runs right through policy-making, where the government spends hours of official energy, and millions of pounds of public money, on imagining all the terrible things that normal parents, teachers, people might do to children, and scrutinising every area of life for potential signs of abuse.

This isn’t paedophilia. But it’s sick nonetheless. What is moral about fantasising about other people’s perversions? What is good about viewing the world through the prism of paedophilia? How does it help children, to presume that they’re all at risk?

Pete Townshend claims that he is not a paedophile, but an anti-paedophilia vigilante. To confess to being either would be admitting to a dirty mind.

Read on:

Talking ’bout my degeneration, Mick Hume, The Times, 13 January 2003

(1) In his own words, Pete Townshend, Observer, 12 January 2003

(2) In his own words, Pete Townshend, Observer, 12 January 2003

(3) In his own words, Pete Townshend, Observer, 12 January 2003

(4) Panic on the screens, Zoe Williams, Guardian, 14 January 2003

(5) Operation Ore: Can the UK cope?, BBC News, 13 January 2003

(6) The Child in Society section of the NSPCC website

(7) What is Child Abuse? section of the NSPCC website

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Topics Politics


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