Written by Dotty Winters

In The News

Ditch the pitchforks

It’s time to rethink our paedophile prevention policy: given that April Jones’s parents, Paul and Coral, are able to make this plea, we should probably listen, says Dotty Winters.

Angry mob of Simpsons characters with flaming torches

Call off the angry mob: understanding paedophiles may be a better way to prevent future tragedies.

I need to start this piece by making clear that I think paedophilia is very bad. I am definitely in the ‘down with that sort of thing’ camp. I feel the need to tell you this because I am about to add my voice to the unpopular view that we need to lessen the stigma which is attached to the word ‘paedophile’.

I can already hear the people who disagree with me interrupting with: “As a parent…”; “If you had children you would feel differently” and so on. I am not of the view that being a parent makes someone more qualified to comment on matters of general societal concern (in much the same way as I don’t think that narrowboaters should be the people who decide where all the canals go). I do think that some people have more authority to comment on things as a result of their direct experiences and that is why I was pleased and affected to read the views of Coral and Paul Jones, parents of April Jones who was murdered in 2012.

April’s killer, Mark Bridger, viewed explicit images of children being sexually abused hours before he abducted April. In their recently published book, April: A Mother And Father’s Heart-Breaking Story Of The Daughter They Loved And Lost, the Joneses have called for more support to be offered to paedophiles. If these parents, through their unimaginable grief, can make this plea, then I think we should listen.

Pitchforks silhouetted against flamesThe discourse about paedophiles in this country too often allows no space for complexity. The word itself has become a non-negotiable conversation-ender. Channel 4 recently showed The Paedophile Hunter, a prime-time documentary following Stinson Hunter, a self-proclaimed “vigilante paedophile hunter”, as he posed as an underage girl in order to arrange meetings with the men he encountered. With high-profile cases of the sexual exploitation of children in the news on a near-weekly basis, it’s hard not to grab a pitchfork and join an angry mob. However, as with almost anything you might protest against with a pitchfork, the reality may be more complex than it seems.

The World Health Organisation defines paedophilia as a mental illness, and as with most illnesses the majority of experts agree that there is a spectrum of reactions and behaviours which are part of this condition. This means that not everyone who is within this spectrum will engage in any criminal behaviour. In fact, people who experience these feelings may never act on them or view images of child abuse; the unpalatable truth about these people is that they are not hurting anyone.

In a world where the accusation of paedophilia (regardless of the weight of proof) can have life-changing consequences, we have done little to encourage people who are concerned that they may be part of this spectrum disorder to seek help. We’ve also potentially defined all sufferers of a specific mental illness as criminal, regardless of their involvement in criminal activities. In effect we are attempting to police thoughts. If those last two sentences don’t worry you, please read more widely.

“If we truly want to focus on protecting children we need to do more to help people who self-identify as being at risk of acting on these feelings.”

As a society we have a long history of reacting to things before we’ve taken time to understand them properly (eclipses, women, epilepsy). It is important that we separate out our repulsion from our aim. A tendency towards anger, disgust and dehumanising is understandable, but it is not helpful. We run the risk of shutting down our thinking, refusing to discuss difficult topics, and ignoring experts; interestingly these behaviours are the ones which the Jay report into the Rotherham Sexual Exploitation scandal highlighted as being problematic in ensuring the safety of children.

Cover of April by Paul and Coral JonesI am not arguing that any activity which harms children should be ignored or supported. In fact, I want to argue, as April’s parents have, that if we truly want to focus on protecting children we need to do more to help people who self-identify as being at risk of acting on these feelings. That requires us to engage in radically different discourse about this, informed by evidence from experts, with a firm focus on prevention rather than punishment. We need a conversation which takes some of the hysteria, horror and scandal out of the discussion. Needing this conversation isn’t a defence of the unspeakable; it’s a recognition that our current approach isn’t working. Time to put the pitchforks down.

April: A Mother And Father’s Heart-Breaking Story Of The Daughter They Loved And Lost by Paul and Coral Jones is published by Simon & Schuster.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.