Media reports into the recent child abuse scandal that is threatening the BBC’s reputation as a credible news broadcaster make several assertions that those involved are ‘paedophiles’. However, this definition may or may not be valid if we consider the scientific and psychiatric definitions of ‘paedophilia’.
According to DSM-IV, paedophilia is defined as a
primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children in people over the age of 16 years. If the person is under the age of 16, then the object(s) of sexual attraction, to be classified as paedophilia, must be more than 5 years younger than the person with peadophilia
This then turns into paedophilic disorder when these desires begin to cause harm to the person themselves, or others – be that physical harm or psychological harm leading to impaired functioning of the ‘paedophile’. DSM-V, due for release in early 2013, makes some recommendations to change the clinical criteria for paedophilia, and strives to encompass another group – those who are attracted to older-age (i.e. post-pubescent) children.
Contrast this scientific definition to the one that is used in popular culture. If you read through the recent newspaper reports on the now scandalous cases of Jimmy Savile, the Bryn Estyn Children’s Home in Wales, and the debacle surrounding the potential involvement of former Conservative politicians in child sexual abuse, you could be excused for thinking that paedophilia was an all-encompassing term used to describe a whole manner of child abuse perpetrators.
As we have discovered through an analysis of the scientific basis for labelling somebody a paedophile, the act of committing a sexual offence against a child is neither a necessary, nor a sufficient criterion. Paedophilia is not a crime, per se, but acting on it is.
If we accept the scientific definition of paedophilia and consider it within the context of sexuality, it is possible to suggest that many paedophiles never actually commit sexual offences. After all, a heterosexual man does not walk the streets and attempt to have sex with every adult woman he sees (despite the ramblings that you may find on the websites of hardcore feminist pressure groups).
It is clear that there is a marked disparity between the actual definition of paedophilia with the way in which it is represented in the popular media. Take, for example, the recent television advert for the bread company, Kingsmill. The piece features a schoolgirl, played by an 18-year-old actress, wearing what can only be described as a provocative school uniform (see picture, above). It should be noted that the way in which the uniform was worn in the advert would not be an uncommon sight among older-age schoolgirls in schools up and down the country, not to mention among hen parties in towns and cities every weekend.
In this today’s Sun on Sunday, a piece written by Sara Payne, a pro-victims activist and mother of murdered schoolgirl Sarah Payne, commented how the advert “plays straight to the hearts of many paedophiles’ vile fantasies”. I don’t want to condemn Sara Payne at all, as she has had a particularly tough time what with the circumstances of her coming into the public eye, but I feel that she, along with Shy Keenan (co-author of today’s piece) need to exercise some caution when making such bold claims. The key piece of information in the definition of paedophilia is the one that qualifies the target of sexual attraction – prepubescent children. DSM-IV goes further and tries to define ‘prepubescent’, suggesting that these children will typically be aged 13 years or younger. With this in mind, I doubt many people would see the image of the girl from the Kingsmill advert and still classify it as paedophilic in nature. Of course, once DSM-V comes into existence towards the beginning of 2013, this could be the case, as the paedophilia subtype ‘hebephilia’ comes into play, but I, along with others, have commented on the validity of this category.
Countless times do we see the words “paedophile” or “paedo” spread across the pages of tabloid newspapers when reporting on sexual offences whereby children have been victimised – regardless of the background on the offender, or the age of the young victim. For example, one offence may be committed by a married man against his 14 year-old daughter, whilst another may be committed by a single man against an 8-year-old girl. Both would be described as acts of monstrous paedophilia, but in reality, only the second one is.
The impact of such misrepresentative reporting is reinforcement of the lay definition of paedophilia, which suggests any sexual offence involving somebody under the age of consent is paedophilia, and the labelling of hundreds of offenders each year. This labelling has a devastating impact on the opportunities for those convicted of any sexual crime involving children in terms of community reintegration upon their release from prison. Naturally, parents will be concerned whenever a convicted child sex offender moves into their neighbourhood. I propose that this is because of the lack of information provided to the public at large about this type of offender. The fact that 80% of child sex attacks take place within the family home, or by somebody known to the child, could be better presented in the public realm by altering some of the laws around victim and offender anonymity, allowing for a more accurate picture of child sex offending to be portrayed. This would then relieve pressure on Governments to introduce and enforce notification procedures, such as the popular ‘Sarah’s Law’, which have very little evidence of success.
This post is not written to glorify or condone sexual offending against children in any way. Of course, it would be ideal if nobody had sexual urges towards children, but we need to be careful in how we conceptualise and manage these people in the community. Whilst many paedophiles may go on to commit sexual offences, some will not. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that some people who commit child sex offences are paedophiles, the vast majority do not fit that description. Once we understand these facts, and they are widely, openly, and fairly discussed within the popular media, we can begin to move forward with a pragmatic approach to child sex offending, and a sensible, proportional public response to match.