There is a growing consensus that paedophilia should probably be classified as a distinct sexual orientation, like heterosexuality or homosexuality.
Two eminent researchers testified to that effect to a Canadian parliamentary commission last year, and the Harvard Mental Health Letter of July 2010 stated that paedophilia “is a sexual orientation” and therefore “unlikely to change”.
If the complexity and divergence of professional opinion may have helped create today’s panic around paedophilia, a media obsession with the subject has done more.
A sustained hate campaign by a notorious British tabloid to “name and shame” paedophiles brought mobs on to the streets to demonstrate against the presence of shadowy monsters in their midst.
As a result, paranoia about the danger from solitary, predatory deviants far outweighs the infinitely more real menace of abuse within the home or extended circle.
The vast majority of sexual violence is committed by people known to the victim. Only very rarely is the danger from the “stranger in the white van”.
The reclassification of paedophilia as a sexual orientation can be seen as part of ‘the sexual liberation discourse’ which has existed since the 1970s. There are a lot of people who say we were wrong to outlaw homosexuality. Perhaps we’re wrong about paedophilia.
Social perceptions change. Child brides were once the norm; in the late 16th century the age of consent in England was 10.
More recently, campaigning organisations of the 70s and 80s such as the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) and Paedophile Action for Liberation were active members of the NCCL when it made its parliamentary submission questioning the lasting damage caused by consensual paedophilic relations.
Society’s outrage at paedophile relationships is essentially emotional, irrational, and not justified by science.
It’s the quality of the relationship that matters. If there’s no bullying, no coercion, no abuse of power, if the child enters into the relationship voluntarily then the evidence shows there need be no harm.
Broader, societal change is needed. Adult sexual attraction to children is part of the continuum of human sexuality; it’s not something we can eliminate.
If we can talk about this rationally – acknowledge that yes, men do get sexually attracted to children, but no, they don’t have to act on it – we can maybe avoid the hysteria.
We won’t label paedophiles monsters; it won’t be taboo to see and name what is happening in front of us.
We can help keep children safe by allowing paedophiles to be ordinary members of society, with moral standards like everyone else and by “respecting and valuing those paedophiles who choose self-restraint.
Only then will men tempted to abuse children be able to be honest about their feelings, and perhaps find people around them who could support them and challenge their behaviour before children get harmed.