Stigma and the pedophile, surely it’s more than just opinion and morality!

The last post on this site looked at how a person accused of assaulting his daughter had decided to not appear before a New Zealand court. The focus of that post was how New Zealand courts perform, and how they are viewed when dealing with such allegations. This post looks at a very different issue – social stigma for those socially ‘positioned’ as child abusers.

While working on a post-graduate diploma in Arts at Victoria University, I had an informal conversation with one of the teaching staff. She commented on my use of the term pedophile, “These days articles don’t refer to pedophiles, they talk of child abusers.”

In this post the lecturer’s comment is taken at face value. At the same time it needs to be acknowledged there are different discourses: sociological, criminological, psychological, media studies, and so on. The discussion here is intended to show how a care about how one speaks and a look at how others use words can be helpful. What is offered in this post offers a possible structure and process that language can demonstrate. Academic discourses can be subdivided into subcategories and even subcultures. One such subcategory and subculture is referred to as “victimological sociology”. If the woman’s comments are located inside that subculture, then what she refers to may well reflect what has been happening over the past twenty years.

For example, the way some authors use the term child abuser rather than pedophile shows how stigma can shift in terms of what it purports to offer. Stigma often begins by constructing a profile of an individual or group on the basis of opinions, and moral judgements. Eventually what is offered up seeks a more solid, more ‘factual’ quality. This process or set of moves is offered up inside the comments of the university lecturer. The term pedophile as it is used today has a history and it is one of profound social stigma – the individual so labelled is socially positioned in a strongly negative way. The individual, indeed the entire group, is discounted – they do not belong to the normals. That this is constructed with strong opinions and moral views is not unknown to a reader. However the introduction of the term child abuser evokes the extensive social, political, and academic discourses about abuse, child safety, and harm done to children, linked to a further discourse – rape and the feminist claim to be our current expert on trauma.

The move to the term child abuser from that of pedophile is a significant shift. A character of the child abuse discourse is its claim to be based in research and scientific enquiry. By calling the pedophile the child abuser what happens is the moral and opinion aspects drop below the radar, strengthening the notion that this profile is based inside what science has to tell us.

In this way, ideology and morality morph and lay claim to a place inside scientific discourse. This situation can be managed: it is the task of a critical thinker, and a good scientist, to keep ideology and morality in a position where such confusion does not take place.

To hold a moral view is perfectly valid. It is important however those moral views do not end up hiding inside scientific discourse as if they are not there, and this is equally important when looking at ideology. Both are part of how ideas and social practices are shaped. But they can seek to be invisible and thus go unexamined and unacknowledged. (For readers interested in the subject of ideology and how it functions, a text to explore is Louis Althusser’s book, For Marx.)

Some see religion as less central, that secular thought is normative, and in some ways that shift has happened. In the same way some see ideology as less a part of who we are – that in a better educated and more aware phase of social history we are less easily captured by political groups, less willing to just follow the leader. The political rhetoric of Hitler’s 1930/40s Germany and McCarthy’s 1950s America seem crude and unconvincing. I argue it would be foolish to become too confident that morality and ideology are dead – far from it. At the same time, I wouldn’t argue for either morality or ideology to be ‘taken out’ or ‘dumped’.

Nor is it the focus of this post to enter into long discussions about what is morality, what is ideology, and what is science. These terms are not interchangeable, not simply the same thing presented to us in different clothing.

Socially and culturally we have come to view science as a template for truth. Western culture has changed the way ideas and claims about what is true and what is false are managed. (An interesting text on this topic is Fearless Speech, based on lectures Michel Foucault offered at the University of California at Berkeley in the Fall Term of 1983 – its focus is not so much a discussion of the problem of truth, but with the problems that face the truth-teller, or of truth-telling as an activity.)

In the media and in public debate views are often offered up to us as scientific. That is significant because it is seen as a marker. To see an idea or argument as scientific says something about its validity. The position science has gained inside Western culture has a history, and one should keep a critical eye on the process by which science sustains this status. I want that feature to be noted, and I am interested in developing this point in a later post.

In my view it is a mistake – and dangerous – in academic writing to refer to the pedophile as the sex abuser. It is a lazy way of writing about those whose sexual orientation would be better termed minor-attracted persons. This problem of lazy thought does not go away if one then says, oh I am only talking about those adults who have had sexual contacts with the young. There is a temptation to form two separate groups: first, the person who has no sexual contact with youths; second, those who have. This division, while seductive, is unhelpful.

Individuals in this second group find themselves subject to the full force of the law and all the social stigma that can be evoked and applied. Currently we seem to suffer from far too much interest in punishment and far too little interest in understand just what it is we are drawn into when we discuss pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children.

When we allow morality and ideology to hide inside science we allow a highly emotive and morally driven set of views to appear to make things more clear; when in reality the lives of many adults and children are misrepresented and adversely affected. I am, as the reader will no doubt recognise, speaking of another topic on which to post. In recent times Western cultures and societies have been more willing to seek a moral perspective on what is happening, just as science has grown in its role as definer of how to speak the truth. Morality is in no real danger of ‘disappearing’.

It is important to notice how morality and ideology hide inside science. Seeing this strengthens a critical approach when it comes to the difficult and often loaded situation where what is being talked about is not only a person who is minor-attracted (pedophile) but a person who has also given expression to that sexuality and sexual orientation.

In a discussion of a person who is minor-attracted one wants to discuss sexuality and profile issues, their social position and how they can own who they are. To label them child abusers will not take us forward in terms of political, social, and academic discussion. As is so often the case, the court room may well allow us to answer the question, has a person broken the law. It may not however lead us to a very deep view, or allow for a very satisfying understand of who this person is. We need to ask what kind of life they can lead inside a society and culture that they and everybody else can see as ethical, responsible, and fulfilling.

In 2007 Umberto Eco published his book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. I recall an interview on the radio where Eco said he had nothing against progress, what worried him most about modernity was that he saw people “marching lockstep into the future.”

Since the close of the Second World War we have seen authors speak of a concern about the return of fascism. In the book Nineteen Eighty-Four we see this message offered up by George Orwell. In that text the issue was largely fascism from above – a bonding/nationalism that is characterised by violent political leadership; what seems to be a new threat at our time is what I would call fascism from below – a bonding/species-ism (seriously misguided notion of what forms the basis of our fears). This is a kind of ‘arm-linking’ exercise that movements like the child sex abuse industry deploy that has the feel of producing that ‘lockstep march into the future’ that Eco talked about as so dangerous. I join Orwell and Eco in saying think, question, take a risk!

■ Althusser, L. (2005). For Marx (B. Brewster, Trans.). London and New York: Verso.
■ Eco, U. (2007). Turning back the clock: hot wars and media populism. Orlando: Harcourt.
■ Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press.
■ Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.
■ Koubaridis, A. (2013, 1 Febuary). Court slip up led to escape, The New Zealand Herald.
■ Orwell, G. (1950, July 31). Signet Classics Paperback. Vol. No. 6: 1984/Nineteen Eighty-Four [Afterwood by Erich Fromm] (p. 336). New York, N.Y.: Signet Book.


5 thoughts on “Stigma and the pedophile, surely it’s more than just opinion and morality!

  1. “In the book Nineteen Eighty-Four we see this message offered up by George Orwell. In that text the issue was largely fascism from above – a bonding/nationalism that is characterised by violent political leadership; what seems to be a new threat at our time is what I would call fascism from below…”

    Yes, an interesting distinction. I think you’re right.


  2. I think “pedophile” is much more dangerous for minor-attracted person than “child abuser”. The pedophile is pedophile from birth, remains pedophile for the whole live, so the only way to make him less dangerous is to kill him or to imprison him for life, independent of his behaviour. The “child-abuser” can, instead, argue: What he is doing does not really harming the child, other forms of child abuse (phyiscal and verbal abuse) are as dangerous as unwanted sex and much more dangerous than wanted sex. Even if not successful with this argument, he remains a human being able to control himself and able to decide that he will no longer harm anybody else.


    • A view of pedophilia as a sexual orientation offers a stable profile. To argue the term pedophile equates as dangerous is flawed. When actions are taken against gay men and lesbians, because they are gay, public views of these acts is to see them as unethical and unjust, and rightly so. When society argues the rape of women should be opposed this does not mean the problem rests with the sexual orientation of the rapist. So it is for sexual assault of a youth or child.

      I argue sexual orientation is a stable and positive element inside the profile of the individual. Sexologists have found efforts to manipulate sexual orientation has not been successful long term. This was true for homosexuals and has proved equally valid when looking at the pedophile/minor attracted person. Positive ideas of the self, combined with ethical reflections on what sexuality involves, is a common human project – that which needs to be unpacked for every person – including those whose identity is positioned as the minor attracted person.


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