Challenging societal negativity towards paedophiles
It’s becoming increasingly common nowadays to pick up a newspaper and read a headline about a ‘monstrous paedophile’ who has committed the latest chilling sexual offense against a child. It’s also difficult to avoid being confronted by justice campaigns or politicians using these examples of evidence to promote ever more punitive responses to the issue of sexual offending. Inherent in this struggle is the conflating of two distinct (though related) groups: child molesters (who commit sexual offences against children) and paedophiles (who have a sexual attraction towards children but who may or may not act on these interests). In confusing these two groups, media outlets (1) do a disservice to those non-offending paedophiles who actively live each day with the intention to not act on their sexual interests, and (2) perhaps unknowingly undermine academic and practical efforts to prevent the sexual abuse of children.
[H]ow do we indirectly break this conflation ‘paedophilia’ with ‘child sexual abuse’ in a way that is likely to lead to changes in attitudes at a societal level?
We know from a range of different research streams in social and moral psychology that people tend not to change their minds when confronted with academic findings and research evidence (though many researchers still attempt to change public opinion while suffering from this rationalist delusion). With this in mind, we’re faced with a problem: how do we indirectly break this conflation ‘paedophilia’ with ‘child sexual abuse’ in a way that is likely to lead to changes in attitudes at a societal level? This was the topic of a recent research study that we published with Prof. Todd Hogue in the academic journal Sexual Abuse.
Over the past few years, we have seen several first-person narrative-based depictions of paedophiles being produced in documentary form. From The Paedophile Next Door in the UK, to I, Pedophile in Canada, these films present self-identifying paedophiles discussing their sexual interests, in their own words, stressing the effects of the stigma they face while refraining from acting on their desires. Although these films have provoked a lot of social commentary, their effects in terms of broader social attitudes towards paedophiles have not been examined.
In the study that we conducted, we aimed to fill this gap in knowledge using an experiment involving 100 undergraduate psychology students. For one group of participants, we showed a five minute clip from The Paedophile Next Door, where ‘Eddie’ (not his real name) discussed the challenges of discovering his sexual interests in children, and subsequently living with them. A separate group of participants saw a five minute clip of Dr. James Cantor discussing his research into the brain-based differences between people who are sexually attracted to children and those who are sexually interested in adults. Before and after viewing the clips, all participants completed a battery of questionnaires, the most relevant of which was Roland Imhoff’s Stigma and Punitive Attitudes towards Paedophiles scale, which examines attributions of intent, dangerousness, and sexual deviance to those who correspond to the ‘paedophile’ label, as well as behavioural responses to these individuals in terms of potential punishments. We used this scale as it examines responses to the paedophile label in quite an explicit way (example item: “Paedophilia is something that you choose for yourself”). Also, after watching the clips, we administered a computer-based task to see how easily participants could associate positive and negative words with the word ‘paedophile’ at a more automatic level. We did this using a mousetracking task, where participants were asked to associate positive and negative words with the categories ‘paedophile’ and ‘not a paedophile’.
What we found was particularly encouraging. First off, we witnessed improvements in attitudes towards paedophiles in both groups (as measured using the Imhoff scale). Second, and more importantly, these improvements were far greater in the group of participants who viewed the first-person clip presented by ‘Eddie’. Third, and perhaps even more importantly, those who saw Eddie talking about his experiences also found it much more difficult to reactively associate negative words to the ‘paedophile’ label compared to positive words (there was no difference on this measure among those who saw Dr. Cantor’s clip). This particular finding is important because we were able to demonstrate that improvements in attitudes towards the ‘paedophile’ label following the ‘first-person narrative’ of a paedophile were not simply a result of desirable responding on the part of participants (the computer task requires you to respond as fast as you can, making conscious responding – including faking – very difficult).
[M]edia-driven stereotypes about the ‘paedophile’ label start to break down when information about paedophilia is presented through the words of somebody actually living (offence-free) with this sexual orientation.
We didn’t fully examine the psychological mechanisms underpinning these attitude changes. However, one hypothesis is that the media-driven stereotypes about the ‘paedophile’ label start to break down when information about paedophilia is presented through the words of somebody actually living (offence-free) with this sexual orientation. There is also evidence from social psychological research that intergroup contact humanizes perceived outgroups, meaning that you are better able to see them as people, rather than just a ‘mythical other’. Of course, these are topics for future research to consider.
[M]ake more use of first-person narrative-based approaches within the wider mainstream media in order to facilitate the promotion of effective prevention schemes.
We closed our paper with what we consider an important suggestion; namely, to make more use of first-person narrative-based approaches within the wider mainstream media in order to facilitate the promotion of effective prevention schemes. The public are being made more and more aware that people with paedophilic sexual interests are living among them with a desire (and motivated interest) to not offend. Thus, by employing strategies that help break down stereotypes (e.g., narrative humanization), we might be able to increase people’s support for community-based preventative treatment schemes, such as Stop It Now! in the UK and Germany’s Dunkelfeld Project. In short, while there are still unanswered questions, dismantling stereotypes through narrative depictions of people with a sexual attraction to children has great potential for reducing societal stigmatization of this group, while simultaneously helping the development of schemes that prevent the sexual abuse of children.
Craig Harper is a Lecturer in Human Psychology at Nottingham Trent University (UK). His research focuses on the psychology mechanisms involved in political decision making, specifically in relation to controversial and emotive social issues.
Harper, C. A., & Bartels, R. M. (2017, March 26). Challenging societal negativity towards paedophiles [Weblog post]. Retrieved from https://nextgenforensic.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/Challenging-societal-negativity-towards-paedophiles/
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