The emergence of the paedophile in the late twentieth century

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Within the last two decades, in most Western societies there has been nothing short of an explosion of social panic surrounding paedophilia and purported paedophilic networks. Just as the 'homosexual' was catapulted to centre stage at the turn of the nineteenth century, now it is the 'paedophile' that has emerged as a highly salient and potent figure almost a century later. This article explores the cultural and historical conditions structuring the emergence of the category of the 'paedophile' in Western discourse in the latter part of the twentieth century. It details how the formation of the modern 'paedophile' as a distinct 'type' or 'species' of person is inextricably linked to the rise of gay activism, feminism, the child emancipation and paedophile liberation movements, and to the rise of anti-child pornography and child sexual abuse movements of the 1970s and 1980s. [...]

Even the questions of child sexuality and adult-child sexual relations were to some extent up for grabs in the 1970s. A number of psychiatrists and sociologists spoke of the benefits of lifting social restrictions on expressions of child sexuality, and some even advocated intergenerational sex as a tonic for a child's healthy sexual development. However, at the vanguard of 'child sexual liberation' efforts was one vocal faction of the gay liberation movement, and it was here that we see the first signs or an emerging collective identity category of the 'paedophile'. Paedophile rights and support groups comprised of mainly gay male members sprung up in many Western countries in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with many of them employing the idiom of early gay liberation in calling for the abolition of the nuclear family, the sexual liberation of children and for the lowering if not complete elimination of age of consent laws. [...]

Freudian psychoanalytic orthodoxies had lost favour in the medical health professions and, in fact, were routinely being held responsible by feminists and child protection advocates for suppressing the reality of child sexual abuse in the decades leading up to the 1980s. Not only the boundaries between childhood and adulthood but also the relations of power structuring adult-child relations were being drastically refigured. Utilising anti-rape arguments about women as 'victims' of male power, child sexual abuse advocates highlighted children's powerlessness at the hands of adult male sexual abuses. Every influential child sexual abuse theorist rejected outright the possibility that children could exert power, and thus consent, in any sexual encounter with an adult. Instead, children could only be in positions of utter helplessness in the face of the inherent power imbalance between them and adults. [...]

In building on the work of [Michael] Kimmel, I suggest that the category of the 'paedophile' emerged alongside the 'wimp' in the USA, Britain and Australia as another, even more sinister, negative model of masculinity. Moreover, this was an identity category that functioned in large measure as a means of deflecting attention away from the fact that child sexual abuse had been exposed by feminism as a problem congruous with dominant and not marginal forms of male sexuality. In this way, the 'paedophile' might be seen, in part, as a convenient scapegoat for the restaging and projection of anxieties of manhood. Additionally, as I have argued elsewhere, the category of the 'paedophile' might also partially represent the displaced cultural expression of the very incestuous and paedophilic desires that are prohibited, as well as the displaced articulation of the erotics of childhood sexuality that were being quickly erased by the feminist child sexual abuse discourse. [...]

Homophobia played a pivotal role in this dynamic of competing masculinities and in the formation of the category of the 'paedophile'. Negative images of homosexuality and the rhetorical association of homosexuality and paedophilia were frequently deployed in public discourses, especially in the mainstream media. Such images were especially prone to rhetorical manipulation in a 1980s context where AIDS had been identified as the 'gay plague' and where the USA, Britain and Australia were witnessing escalating homophobic sentiment, discrimination and violence. [...]

In Australia, parliamentary and public debates, as well as media scare campaigns during this time, illustrate how a homophobic fear of homosexual equality was transformed into the homosexual=paedophile equation. Debates of homosexual de-criminalisation and anti-discrimination bills put before state parliaments in the 1980s frequently revolved around the effects homosexual equality would have on children. One of the standard arguments against de-criminalisation and anti-discrimination was that each implies an implicit if not explicit endorsement or promotion of homosexuality as an equal and valid lifestyle, and that this was damaging to society in general and children in particular, especially insofar as children could be manipulated and seduced into the homosexual lifestyle. [...]

Although Western Australia de-criminalised homosexual sex in 1990, the age of homosexual consent was set at twenty-one, and the Act included a preamble expressing Parliament's disapproval of relationships between persons of the same sex, of institutions encouraging same sex relationships and of the involvement of homosexuals in the care of children where homosexuality is portrayed in a positive light. The Western Australian legislation also contains a 'proselytising' clause, based on Britain's notorious 'Section 28', which attempts to ban public actions and teaching in primary and secondary schools that portray homosexuality in a positive light. [...]

On 5 November 1983, less than a year after the infamous raids and public furore surrounding NAMBLA in the USA, thirty police from the 'Delta Squad' raided a house in Melbourne and arrested seven men, one man at his place of work and a ninth man at his home in Sydney. All nine men were gay, and police alleged that they were all members of the Australian Paedophile Support Group. The men were charged with 'conspiracy to corrupt public morals'. This incident, and the media campaign to follow, irrevocably cemented the rhetorical conflation of paedophilia and homosexuality. Accused of being an international child pornography and child exploitation ring, the group issued a press release in an attempt not only to affirm their innocence but also to clarify the distinction between paedophilia and child abuse[.] [...]

The issue of paedophilia continued to plague the gay community to such an extent that by the end of the decade, and at the height of the child sexual abuse movement, fewer and fewer people seemed willing to debate let alone endorse a pro-paedophilia position. Discussions of paedophilia in the gay press therefore waned. It scarcely mattered that many gay and paedophile support groups earlier in the decade had been articulating clear distinctions between paedophilia, incest, homosexuality and child sexual abuse. Nor did it seem to matter that many gay and feminist groups had been exposing the fact that the majority of sexual abuses of children are of a heterosexual not homosexual nature, and are committed largely by fathers, male relatives and family friends. Finally, neither did it seem to matter that, strictly speaking, paedophilia referred to sex with prepubescent children and not adolescents, yet all of the high profile cases of supposed homosexual 'paedophilia' involved gay men and adolescents. [...]

Neil McConaghy, known in the late 1960s and 1970s as an expert in aversion therapy as a cure for homosexuality, summed up the general rule of thumb: 'men who have a history of offending against girl children could all be considered as regressed, and homosexual pedophiles and hebephiles are 'fixated'. So despite the fact that research indicated heterosexual men commit the vast majority of sexual offences against children, the 'fixated' offender was all too often associated with the pathological homosexual predator (or 'true' paedophile) and the 'regressed' offender rendered the more harmless, somewhat normative, heterosexual male suffering from stressful life circumstances such as unemployment or marriage breakdown. [...]

What I have endeavoured to show in this article is that the category of the paedophile emerged in the 1980s as a response to the sweeping challenges to forms of normative masculinity posed by feminism, gay liberation and gay rights and the child sexual abuse movement. The image of the predatory paedophile was homosexualised and enlisted in the process of constructing subordinated or negated masculinities. Such a dynamic of competing masculinities served to recuperate the once normative and hegemonic but now somewhat beleaguered masculinities. This was a defensive projection of a homophobic and hetero-normative discourse that served, on the one hand, to deflect attention away from the fact that child sexual abuse had been exposed as a problem inherent to dominant and not marginal forms of masculinity and male sexuality and, on the other, to halt the advancing campaigns for homosexual equality.

source: Article 'The Emergence of the Paedophile in the Late Twentieth Century' by Steven Angelides (University of Melbourne);; Australian Historical Studies, Volume 36, Issue 126; 2005