It came to me as I walked by the river: a thrilling idea, my thoughts excitedly scattered in every direction, sneaking a lightning peek at what it might look like (it would be a short story, possibly a novel). A hundred metres later I had rejected the idea for being too controversial. It would attract hate mail, death threats, a marriage proposal from a Russian bot. It deeply saddened me that my mind so readily succumbed to self-censorship. I once fearlessly plumbed the depths of the mind, glimpsing the worst eventuality of each (initially innocuous) urge, exploring the spore-like horror that can pullulate in (the right) stressful, intoxicated or lawless circumstances. That, I thought, was true freedom. I explored the profoundly disturbing and deceptive labyrinth we call human psychology feeling safe in the knowledge that I would never want to hurt or abuse a fellow human being. Besides, it was for the purportedly noble cause of literature; I quixotically believed that the novel was a safe haven for ideas, a sacred place where people could get to grips with the worst of humanity, neutralizing and demystifying it in the process. Now I live in inhibitory fear of spooks, keyboard warriors and trolls; I dread being engulfed in one of those flash fires of hysteria, the pixelated embers of which smoulder forever in the annals of cyberspace.
The idea that I had (and discarded like a hot potato) was about pea-dough-fill-ee-ya. I felt like a coward (pussy in the parlance of an American journalist I knew named Tim: he threatened to oxymoronically beat me up because I criticised the US Peace Corps) for giving up so easily on a valid idea. Nervously, excitedly (literarily), I typed the word into a search engine: Google, usually so eager to finish my phrasing for me, was strangely reticent: Pedo…..nothing (I used the American spelling for obvious reasons). Worried about what the spooks might think, I tried to go about it as respectably as possible: I searched for “psychopathology of paedophilia”. After my fingertips had demurely tiptoed around the subject for some time, I found some interesting articles in respectable American publications. I learned that Salon had cravenly “unpublished” an autobiographical article by a paedophile in the wake of a scandal involving a well-known right-wing figure who had advocated relationships between older men and adolescent boys (in the spirit of the ancient Greek practice of pederasty).
I read an archived version of the disappeared article and found it illuminating and deeply moving. Entitled “I’m a pedophile, but not a monster”, the author (who courageously outed himself) explains that his paedophilia is a “curse of the first order” and the “final insult the universe would deal” him (he was born without a right hand, ostracized at school, struggled with bladder control). He has never touched a child or used child pornography because the thought of doing so is abhorrent to him (a so-called “virtuous paedophile”); yet the unsettling fact remains that he is sexually attracted to children (in his case, girls under 13). To my mind, child molesters are tussle-haired older men with pasty white skin (as though they spend so much time staring at their computer screens in the dark that the glow rubs off on them) and a sunken but defiant gaze, eyes fixed but glazed (hinting at a severely solipsistic mind). According to the man who wrote the article, most of the paedophiles who frequent the website run by the organisation Virtuous Pedophiles are in their mid-twenties. That surprised me. The man lives in poverty, his income as a freelance designer supplemented by food stamps and parental support (many people in his small town know of his sexual orientation). Touchingly, he has made friends, fellow paedophiles, whom he says he would trust with his children. He believes that paedophiles who are forced into suppressing their urges and hiding behind a mask of normalcy are the most likely to act on their impulses.
Paedophilia, according to experts, is an innate sexual orientation that is possibly caused by cross-wiring in the brain. It is a shockingly understudied and poorly understood condition. The few studies that have been carried out revealed some strange but possibly significant correlations: many paedophiles are left-handed and are born with a physical deformity. But there is no standard mould from which they are cast, nor magic panacea with which to cure them. Paedophiles appear to be as diverse and complex as heterosexuals and homosexuals. A psychologist working with abuse victims told The Daily Beast: “Truthfully, I don’t think the psychiatric profession has much of a clue about pedophiles. Most studies are based on…the 5 percent who get caught—a very unrepresentative group.”
Paedophiles are the most reviled people on earth. They are disgusting and evil, a scourge on society (outraged citizens posse up to hunt them down). The paranoia is so feverish that a father (a widower) who checked into a hotel with his 13-year-old daughter was reported to the police by a suspicious member of staff. Will Self, the author and journalist, was enjoying a hike with his 11-year-old son when a “concerned” security guard called the police on him (“…no Englishman enjoying a ramble with his son should face examination by police at the roadside on suspicion of being a sexual predator.”). A newsreader was questioned by police on the basis of a photograph of her 7-year-old daughter taking a bath (the worker developing the roll of film alerted the police). These examples – just the tip of the non-paedophile iceberg – betray a paranoia and hysteria that is wholly disproportionate to the threat.
Iranian-born Bijan Ebrahimi was a disabled, unemployed 44-year-old man living in a council maisonette in Bristol. According to his sister, he lived for his garden and tabby cat. He was regularly taunted by local youths, probably due to his general foreignness. When some boys entered his garden to smash his hanging flowerpots, “Ben” (as his only friend called him) took photos of them as evidence he could pass on to the police. A defensive click of a camera was the basis of his paedophilia. The boys (probably half-jokingly) labelled him a “paedo”. The rumour spread from mouth to mouth, house to house. Lee James, a neighbour and father of three young girls, came to confront Ben (who filmed the incident). The police were called: they decided Ben was in breach of the peace (a crowd of about 20 people chanted “paedo” as the police led him away). After finding “nothing of concern” on his computer and other electronic devices, and after being treated with nothing less than contempt by the officers involved, he was released. Three days later he was dead. He called the police 12 times to tell them that he felt unsafe. It was too late: the P-word was out. It was spreading on Facebook, rapidly gathering community spirit. In the early hours of July 14, a warm Summer night, Lee James beat Ebrahimi unconscious, dragged his body along the street, which another man doused in white spirit and set alight. A crowd stood around watching. (May those who cheered or verbally encouraged the attackers never know a good night’s sleep again.)
The P-word is terrifyingly flammable tinder. A rumour is enough to set a man ablaze, to destroy an innocent life. It is not hard to understand why child abusers are reviled: to use a child for sexual gratification is wrong in every way. But the murderous fury that paedophiles inspire in so many people is also wrong; paedophiles (literally, lovers of children) need preventative treatment – not mob justice. As with so much else in life, it is a (self-defeating) vicious cycle. Paedophiles, seeing story after story of their “branded” kind getting beaten to death and publicly disgraced, stay hidden. Many probably resort to child pornography to avoid acting out their desires in person. That fuels the demand for child pornography, which results in more children being abused. Vigilantism, to use the fancy word for it, most likely leads to an increase in child abuse. It also fuels the paranoia that means a father can’t ramble with his son or a proud mother can’t take a photo of her daughter enjoying a bath without being viewed suspiciously.
How did it come to this? Children are children: they have little willies and fannies that will one day grow up to be penises and vaginas. You might rue the fact that they will lose their (culturally exaggerated) innocence; you might be coldly curious about the dramatic physiological transformation they will go through. “Stranger danger” existed when I was a kid (my brother once furiously scolded me for accepting sweets from a strange man while I waited outside a shop for him: a classic move according to the literature but maybe he was just a nice man); we were cursorily warned about it at school, briefly told of the danger by our parents. It was a remote possibility, far from the hysteria and paranoia that prevails today.
Paedophiles, by definition, are attracted to prepubescent children. Vast numbers of women shave their pubis, reverting in appearance to a prepubescent state. The average waist size for a fashion model is an unhealthily thin 24 inches (in relation to their height), standard in the omnipresent advertising campaigns of major fashion outlets. I suspect that the blind rage provoked by paedophilia (and the paranoia that it potentially lurks everywhere) is partly a defensive reaction to the emotional mayhem of post-porn sexuality (I once saw a 12-year-old girl wearing a T-shirt saying FUTURE PORN STAR). Could it be that some men (I stress some – not all) are fearful that they might just feel an attraction to younger females; not children, of course, but girls, you know, because even women are girls these days (until they senesce into cougars or MILFs). Our culture sexualises young girls in ways that border on the paedophiliac. They are interchangeable code, hyper-sexualised effigies of femininity representing pleasure in all its guises. Their age? Generically, hairlessly young (though technically legal). There is no longer a safe rite of passage from childhood to womanhood, a clear trajectory from innocence to experience. The visceral disgust felt by many towards paedophiliacs is perhaps a way of venting this confusion: paedophilia is a clear-cut moral transgression (as opposed to the routine degradation of young women in pornography).
About 4% of Americans are thought to have paedophiliac urges. That amounts to 12,756,000 people (94% of whom will be male). Paedophilia, I conclude, is both innate and culturally acquired. Nature simply would not sanction such numbers. I could not find any research on whether the consumption of pornography can lead to child abuse but it is reasonable to assume that it does in a minority of cases. Not all child molesters are paedophiles; many, I suspect, are driven to it out of a violent and desperate desire to exert (reassert) their lost sense of dominance. There is a standing army of sedentary men who feel emasculated by the modern world with its informational complexity, distal power structures, demeaning (and low-paid) work, flaunting of status symbols and sexual hierarchies. Paedophilia is the ultimate sexual taboo (an incitement in itself). The internet facilitates it as an abstract experience; it is not really real because it is far away, perhaps even staged. An extremely insightful study found that paedophiles often revert to the age of the victim in their minds. Lolita, which would probably never have found a publisher in the morally squeamish modern world, knew this: Humbert Humbert was trying to return to the magical age of 12 through his romantic, tragic and doomed love for the 12-year-old Lolita. Paedophiles, it seems, are tragically deluded romantics or frustrated sadists.
G encountered two paedophiles growing up in her small town. She was out playing late at night when a man approached her and offered to buy her a kebab if she showed him her pussy; she was five. Three years later she was swimming in the river when she saw a man squatting, trousers down, masturbating over her eight-year-old self. J told me about a man who took out his penis on a trolleybus and flaunted it to her. Her sister saw a man take out his penis on a trolleybus and put it on a girl’s shoulder. No one did anything. Perhaps because they didn’t see. Perhaps because it was just too strange and disturbing. G and J are two people. I dare say their stories would multiply exponentially if more people came forward with other stories. I do not want to fuel the hysteria surrounding paedophilia. I merely want to say that a lot of what passes for paedophilia is a perversion of thwarted sexual desire, a dreadful consequence of sexual impoverishment. Sexual desire is the most powerful force on the planet; it has to go somewhere. In Lithuania, one of 195 countries in the world, it erupts in trolleybus flashing and the offer of a kebab for a glimpse of pussy. God knows how it plays out elsewhere. Because we barely understand paedophiles. They are terrified; of us, of themselves, of being caught, of getting burned alive. One thing I feel sure of: no one wants to be a paedophile.
One of America’s leading experts on paedophiles, Dr. Fred Berlin, said: “They’re tortured souls fighting like heck not to do this. We do virtually nothing in terms of reaching out to these folks. We drive it underground.”
We put children at risk as long as we hysterically demonize and mechanically criminalize paedophilia. I imagine there are sizable paedophile “rings” in most of the 195 nations of the world (especially the more developed ones). I imagine there are a lot of not-necessarily-bad men out there drawn, helplessly and horrifyingly, to images of too-young girls. Because the images exist. Because sexual desire notionally drives the world forward. Because we live in a fairy-tale world of marriage, monogamy and men not wanting young girls. Because so many men are privately miserable and emasculated. Because the internet is a bright, private world where anything can happen. Because sex is everywhere selling everything. Because the world is profoundly uninnocent. Because we want to be innocent again. Because there is a witch hunt against paedophiles. Because there were innocent women who were branded evil and burned as witches. Because the author of one of the most loved works of children’s literature, Alice in Wonderland, was, in the words of Will Self, a “heavily repressed paedophile”. Because the word paedophile is disconcertingly pleasant to pronounce. Because it is a good thing to love children. Because we are brain-splinteringly confused about how pornography has infiltrated every aspect of our lives (including those who don’t use it). Because we close our eyes and hope for the best. Because the pea is an innocent vegetable associated with childhood. Because the world has bifurcated into multiple realities. Because many children are in fact obnoxious and repellent. Because, because of the wonderful wizard of Oz.
I thank god that I am not a paedophile (luckily, I am mentally stuck at the age of about 30; in many ways the perfect age). But I greatly sympathise with those paedophiles who fight their desires, who never physically harm a child despite their overpowering wish to have sexual contact with them, and whom we demonize for having unnatural desires when we all know there is nothing unnatural under the sun. To my mind they are (like witches and communists before them) the sacrificial scapegoat of our dangerously contradictory times.