Men are being done a disservice by society’s paedophilia paranoia
Believing a sexual predator lurks behind every tree is neither healthy nor commendable
Proof positive, if any were needed, that the moral panic about paedophilia has reached absurd levels came last week, when the writer, Will Self, was questioned by police while he was out walking with his son.
The Booker-shortlisted author, who is 51, was rambling with his 11-year-old in Yorkshire when they had a brief encounter with a security guard, after they had sought permission to take a shortcut across lands owned by an agricultural college. Two hours later, father and son found themselves stopped by a squad car and a police van on a Yorkshire roadside, while Self was questioned.
The guard, it transpired, had phoned the police to report his concerns.
The school later claimed that the guard was worried only about the distance Self’s son would have to walk. But the author, writing about it in the Mail on Sunday, was unconvinced. “It was contradicted by what the policeman had told me – and I know who I’m more inclined to believe,” he wrote.
The desire to keep children safe from harm is healthy and commendable. But some time over the past decade, “harm” seems to have come primarily to mean the sexual predator we are convinced is lurking behind every tree – and that is neither healthy nor commendable.
Before the 1990s, the word “paedophilia” hardly ever appeared in the media, here or in Britain. But then came a string of child abuse cases in the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the case of serial killer Marc Dutroux in Belgium. Ever since, this society seems to have lurched along in more or less a permanent state of moral panic about paedophilia. This panic has undergone several different phases, each one sparked by events that were real, horrifying and at the centre of wall-to-wall media coverage for months: the murder of British schoolgirl Sarah Payne in 2000; the 2002 murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman; the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007; the murder of April Jones almost a year ago.
The current phase, which is preoccupied with the threat posed by older men preying on young teenagers, has its roots in the Jimmy Savile scandal.
The fact is that most middle-aged men pose no threat whatsoever to teenagers, children or anyone else – just as, in real terms, the risk to children of sexual assault, abduction or murder by a stranger is tiny.
But the remoteness of the threat is not what is at the forefront of our minds when we hurry to throw a towel around our naked children at the beach, when we ban parents from taking photos of their children in swimming pools or when we notice a man standing alone by a playground and feel uneasy. Instead, we think “Madeleine McCann”; we think “Jimmy Savile”; we think “what if?”
This phenomenon is what psychologists call the “availability heuristic” – the lazy and often inaccurate way we are inclined to make assumptions about how likely something is to happen, based on how easy it is to think of examples.
Unfortunately, men seem to be the collective victims of one such mass mental shortcut. The fact that only a tiny proportion of men represent any threat whatsoever to children shrinks in significance in our minds alongside the speed with which we can conjure up instances of child abusers who are male.
Yes, mistakes were made in the past about child protection, but in our desire not to repeat them, we are making other mistakes now – maybe even ones with more long-term repercussions. Our collective neurosis about paedophilia cannot be healthy for relationships within families, and it is depriving children of male role models, as young men become more reluctant to pursue careers in teaching or sports coaching.
Feminism, by which I mean the struggle for equality between the sexes, has accomplished much in the past few decades, but on this score it has been shamefully silent (and I say this as a proud feminist).
There can be no real equality as long as men are afraid to say they want to work with children for fear of being thought a “pervert”. Nor is there equality as long as fathers are reluctant to take their children swimming or even for a walk, in case someone looks at them and sees not a loving father, but a monster.