The NSPCC is talking PANTS – as usual

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When Genesis superstar Phil Collins and England international soccer player Gary Lineker endorsed an anti-paedophilia campaign some years back on British TV, the script had them declaring “I’m talking Nonce Sense!” As Brits will know, “nonce” is slang for MAPs, and the campaign was called Nonce Sense.

Or it would have been except that the whole thing was a satirical spoof. The joke was on the stars and other worthies who took part, including politicians and a senior police officer. They thought they were talking Nonce Sense, but as viewers soon realised, they had been set up to talk nonsense. For instance, the script had Capital Radio DJ Neil “Doctor” Fox telling viewers that “paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me”, adding “Now that is scientific fact – there’s no real evidence for it – but it is scientific fact”. Labour MP Syd Rapson related that paedophiles were using “an area of internet the size of Ireland”. Rapper Richard Blackwood stated that internet paedophiles could make computer keyboards emit noxious fumes to subdue children. He was shown sniffing a keyboard and claiming he could smell the fumes, which made him feel “suggestible”. Blackwood also warned parents that exposure to the fumes would make their children “smell like hammers”.

A programme in the satirical series Brass Eye, the spoof brilliantly made the point that any old nonsense will do when it comes to attacking paedophilia. And now, as though in a deliberate attempt to make life imitate art, we find the following quote in the UK’s rabid tabloid the Daily Mail, in connection with an anti-child molestation campaign by the NSPCC. It is attributed to a mother identified only as Claire, from Swansea, with two young girls. She is supposed to have said:

“I am going to start talking PANTS to my girls, my goddaughter, nephew and all my friends with children…”

For the benefit of global friends who may be unfamiliar with what is perhaps another British expression, talking pants means uttering utter… nonsense! The Daily Mail does it all the time, and so does the NSPCC, honourably founded in 1889 to protect children from cruelty, but which campaigns these days to cruelly deny their social and sexual self-determination, wasting millions of pounds on misdirected advertising that could have been better spent on its original mission. After eight-year-old Victoria Climbié died following grotesque torture at the hands of her guardians a few years ago, the organisation was found to have been involved but done nothing to help what had been a preventable death, and then misled the official inquiry. They were heavily involved in promoting the moral panic over non-existent satanic abuse when that was fashionable.

The NSPCC’s latest wheeze is what they call their Underwear Rule otherwise known as Talking PANTS, “relaunched” this month after the initial “launch” last July, in what will quite possibly turn out to be an infinitely repeated loop of identical pushing-the-boat-out press releases, like something out of Groundhog Day. Well, why not? Like junkies seizing on a fix, the media can never, it seems, get enough of this stuff, especially perhaps when accompanied, as in this case, by a video with cute kids talking about their private parts and brightly illustrated with pictures of their pants.

As might be expected, the NSPCC is telling parents to tell their children “privates are private”, using an acronym based on “PANTS”, which is meant to stand for:

Privates are private
Always remember your body belongs to you
No means no
Talk about secrets that upset you
Speak up, someone can help you

The campaign is aimed at parents of five- to 11-year-olds. Marilyn Hawes, founder of the charity Enough Abuse, was quoted last year as saying she thought the campaign would not work on older primary school children, who would “probably laugh”. Quite! But this does not mean the campaign is funny or will be entirely ineffectual. NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless went on record as saying no one was trying to make children ashamed of their bodies, or stop hugs or other shows of affection. That, however, is very much likely to be the effect, as it fans the flames of our already paranoid culture. Here, in the same news coverage on the BBC, Netmums website co-founder Siobhan Freegard said: “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to find their child has been touched inappropriately – and no family wants to think it will ever happen to them.”

There we see it, right there in that awful cliché “every parent’s worst nightmare”, which used to have real meaning when applied to child abduction, rape and murder. Here the language has been inflated and devalued, with mere “touching” hyped as a fate equal to death, or worse.

Some of the PANTS points are unobjectionable in themselves: if a child has been really upset over anything, not just sexual matters, they should feel free to talk about it. Openness and accountability are good principles. Nobody should feel they have to suffer bullying parents or teachers in silence any more than they should put up with sexual molestation or harassment. But the giveaway as to the campaign’s unnecessary negativity towards the body is right at the heart of it, plumb in the middle: PANTS: No means no. Fine, but what about Yes means yes? Whatever else this campaign is about, it is not about self-determination for kids as regards a body which is hypocritically vaunted by the NSPCC as belonging to them.

STOP PRESS: Late-breaking news has reached me literally one minute before I was due to post this blog. Remember the Texas conference featured on Heretic TOC early last month (8 Dec) in a piece called Deep in the weird heart of Texas? As promised, video of all the sessions has now been posted on the university’s You Tube channel. See here:
http://www.youtube.com/user/utCES?feature=watch

FINALLY: This is Heretic TOC’s 100th blog! Hope y’all like it! Actually, I might just add a bit about the latest stats. Why not? One thing that particularly caught my attention is the global spread of interest in Heretic TOC. The blog has now received visits from around 140 countries on every continent except Antarctica. The most hits came from the United States, just ahead of the United Kingdom, followed by Germany, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Denmark, and New Zealand, making up the Top Ten. I was interested to see several European countries where English is not the first language ahead of Anglophone ones, especially Germany in third place. I’m not sure what this reflects most, the strength of English-language learning in Europe or the extent of heresy there! Either way, I find it impressive! It was fascinating, also, to note interest coming from places that seem utterly exotic to those of us in Anglophonia, including Albania, Andorra, Greenland, Kazakstan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Senegal and Yemen. Who knows, maybe you folks out there in these countries are taking an interest because Anglophonia seems exotic to you, and Heretic TOC perhaps the strangest website of the lot! Or you might be heretics fully engaged with a shared culture here. Do write in. It would be great to hear from less heard voices.

Skateboarding as metaphor for social shifts

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Heretic TOC welcomes Peter Herman as a guest blogger today.
Peter is an occasional contributor to the NAMBLA website,
and has been a member and supporter since shortly
after the organization’s founding. He has also been
one of the editors of the NAMBLA Bulletin.

In the late 1960s in the US, child abuse briefly captured everyone’s attention. It was not sexual abuse if that is what you were thinking. It was physical abuse of children. And, no, neither was it the seat of the pants spankings that were a generally accepted form of discipline at the time. It was the broken bones and other traumas for which children were regularly brought to emergency rooms. The covering stories were that the child had accidentally fallen down stairs, run into an obstacle or experienced some other catastrophe while playing. These fictions never added up, and trauma doctors at last became aware that most of these cases stemmed from parental battering. Soon, the headlines became fewer, and little more was heard about these horrific abuses of children. Until… , bear with me…

At about the same time, boys, mostly, were experimenting with skateboards. But the fad then disappeared for a time. As we all know, skateboards eventually came back and are now more popular than ever. The fading and re-emergence of this phenomenon had to do with an important change. The early skateboards were just that: repurposed metal skate wheels affixed to unresponsive boards. When new materials and responsive suspensions developed, skateboarding became an exhilarating sport. Where am I going with this.

Shock about child abuse also came back, and the headlines today never seem to stop. What happened? There now was a new twist — sex. As with skateboarding, a catalyst emerged to change the dynamics in society’s perceptions. Where skateboarding became popular due to technological innovations, child sexual abuse became a public fascination following two major social shifts — the growing empowerment of gays simultaneous with that of women. The Stonewall rebellion in the US and the Pill (itself a catalyst freeing women from the womb) were the pivotal ingredients. Gay advances prompted a backlash in the form of protecting children from the perceived recruitment menace. Women, who had felt the tyranny of male domination, were eager to protect their children from sometimes real but mostly imagined sexual predation (almost exclusively by men). This protectiveness extended to boys as well, to the point that even eleven-year-old boys are sometime seen following their mothers into public toilets. The male child molester bogeyman grew ever more sinister in the public imagination.

It is ironic that today’s liberated women have forgotten that for nearly 500 years many were also the victims of similarly heinous characterization. In the nearly 500 years of witch prosecutions in the West, it was overwhelmingly women who were tried, punished and, more often than not, executed. Women were seen as weak, less intelligent and more susceptible to sin and evil acts. Male lust was projected onto them portraying women as evil temptresses who would have no compunction consorting with the Devil. As with the emergence of the evil pedophile, here too a catalyst can be identified — the printing press. This invention that could spread enlightenment could also spread misinformation and fear.

Early on, witchcraft was seen as simply superstition and did not provoke the fear and loathing that came later. A printed manual, the Malleus Maleficarum published in 1487, could circulate easily and act as the catalyst that transformed a superstition into a great evil. Over five hundred years later not much has changed other than the speed with which misinformation spreads. Our modern day equivalent, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is a fanciful, thoroughly unscientific compilation of mental afflictions. Sadly, it is but one example of unscientific thought that permeates much of psychology today.

Skateboarding may seem a trivial way of illustrating major social shifts, and history is certainly much more complex than what a short essay can convey. Nevertheless the pivotal points (i.e. catalysts) identified in the above examples cannot be denied.

The pre-WEIRD world, according to Rind

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Dr Bruce Rind charts new territory in his latest published work. Or rather he newly charts some very old terrain, going deep into history and beyond, to the evolutionary origins of our sexuality. There are literally charts, six magnificent ones, each of which sets out a table of studies and a summary of their findings across a great swathe of fascinating erotica and exotica, with characteristic Rindian thoroughness.

Did you know, for instance, that “pederastic-like behaviour” is so pervasive among bighorn sheep that females will mimic young males in order to get sexual attention from the more mature males! Or that mature lyrebird males will follow an adolescent for hours, “serenading” him! Thought not! Such observations go way beyond “our” evolutionary origins, of course, if “we” refers specifically to humans rather than all animals.

So what is Rind up to? Is the good doctor such an eccentric, ivory tower academic that he has failed to notice humans are a somewhat different species to sheep and birds? Does he, with his obsessive systematising, falsely draw analogies between our sexuality and theirs? It would be an easy charge to level, of a kind often made in kneejerk fashion by those who are (albeit rightly) suspicious of genetic determinism. But would it stand up to scrutiny?

The work in question forms Chapter 1 of a new book called Censoring Sex Research: The Debate over Male Intergenerational Relations, which I mentioned late last year. In his introduction to the book, joint editor Thomas Hubbard tells us that in this new piece, which runs to 90 pages, “Dr Rind contextualizes his earlier analyses of psychological data through an aggressively interdisciplinary approach, showing that his earlier finding that male intergenerational relationships are usually not harmful is not as surprising or implausible as critics claim.” Actually, those earlier analyses covered man-girl contacts and other gender combinations as well. The fact that Rind sticks to “pederasty” (men with adolescent boys) in his new work is highly significant, in ways I’ll come to.

The chapter is called “Pederasty: An integration of empirical, historical, sociological, cross-cultural, cross-species, and evolutionary perspectives”. What he hopes to gain through this wide-ranging interdisciplinary approach is a way of judging scientifically whether a particular class of sexual behaviour is normal or abnormal, healthy or pathological. If the behaviour turns out to be extremely widespread and culturally accepted in other eras or cultures it becomes hard to argue that it is “abnormal” for humans, even if it is so regarded here and now. Also, a cross-species approach that demonstrates the prevalence of “pederastic-like behaviour” in other primates, or even across a wider range of animal life, would give strong grounds for believing that human pederasty had an evolved evolutionary function. To call it pathological in humans would then make little sense. Not that Rind feels we should accept the tyranny of normality, nor does he fall into the trap of the “naturalistic fallacy”: he is not suggesting that any behaviour to be found in nature is moral and good, only that behaviours should not be condemned as immoral and bad, or dysfunctional and harmful, on the basis of false information.

So, what does he find? Briefly, a lot. The six data sets summarised in his charts comprise studies of sexual relations between: (1) boys and women; (2) gay boys and men; (3) boys and men in history and across cultures; (4) immature male primates and mature ones; (5) immature male sub-primates and mature ones; (5) immature male birds and mature ones.

He starts with the easy stuff, so to speak, in order to make a relatively unassailable point straight away. Using formal academic studies, he demonstrates what would not so long ago have been considered so obvious as not to need demonstration: most adolescent boys are turned on by women. For most boys in their early teens having sex with a woman would not be seen as “abuse”. Far from seeing themselves as victims, they would be thrilled to the core by a dream come true. Same with gay boys and men: the evidence strongly suggests they like it, and why wouldn’t they? It’s when we get to “straight” boys and men that the picture becomes more counter-intuitive for those of us brought up in the developed, non-pederastic, world. Why would the boys be interested?

No, no, that’s a rhetorical question. Don’t all rush to answer! Many have done so already, notably Edward Brongersma in his enormous two-volume Loving Boys and Theo Sandfort with his structured interviews and psychometrics probing boys’ ongoing relationships with men. Quite recently Dave Riegel drew a lot of threads together in his paper “The role of androphilia in the psychosexual development of boys”, which notes that boys identify intensely with men as role models, often to the point of hero worship, and considers “the extent to which boys’ generalized inclinations to explore, experience, and enjoy their emerging masculinity in the company of older males” is also “manifested in their psychosexual developmental interests, desires, and activities”.

Rind draws on an immense range of anthropological and historical studies to demonstrate that it is the modern developed world that is unusual in not accepting pederasty: many other cultures have done so. Not for nothing is the acronym WEIRD (Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries) increasingly being used by social scientists to capture the exceptional nature of modernity. Even in our own times, he shows, it is possible for pederasty to be very positively experienced by boys. One case he cites is that of leading psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who described a pederastic relationship with his tutor from the age of 11 in glowing terms. At a time when his parents’ marriage was deteriorating, his tutor helped him through it and “it was in some ways psychologically life-saving for me”. The relationship with the tutor was both emotional and sexual. He welcomed it at the time, even though he was destined to be heterosexual as an adult.

So far, I think, Rind is on strong ground. Likewise his trawl through studies first of primates (bonobos, gorillas, gibbons, monkeys, etc.) and then of sub-primates (from whales to rodents) and even the birds (but not the bees!), shows a huge range of species in which “pederastic-like” behaviour can be found in abundance.

What is also clear, though, is that Rind has a much tougher job on his hands when he invokes evolutionary psychology to explain all this sexual activity between adult and adolescent males. And what is a good deal less clear is the implications of his ideas for modern society, bearing in mind that we are so WEIRD, and most of us would not wish to be otherwise.

Now there are many heretics who jump at the idea that pederasty is deeply rooted in nature and has performed a useful or even vital function for many species, including our own. But we should be careful what we wish for. We may discover that pederasty was indeed an adaptive trait at one time, giving better survival chances to social groups in which it played a part. We may also find, though, that it has outlived its usefulness. Whether that is true or not could turn upon what life was like tens and hundreds of thousands of years ago, in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) when we were gatherers and hunters. Rind bases his ideas on the view, which is not as uncontroversial as he seems to think, that not only was there a permanent struggle for survival – which is the firmly established bedrock of evolutionary theory – but also that this struggle was typically expressed not just in terms of being predators (hunters) and avoiding falling prey to other species, but also via battling for resources against our own kind: in other words, frequent warfare, possibly also including predation (cannibalism). Rind accordingly paints a picture of primitive bands, or tribes, in near-permanent conflict, such that it was utterly vital for boys to “man up” drastically as early as possible, leading to cultures characterised by fierce initiation rites – so ferocious in the case of some surviving hunter-gather cultures studied in the last century or two that they could and did prove fatal for weak or unlucky boys.

Rind proposes a “mentorship-bonding/enculturation-alliance hypothesis” arising from this scenario, in which there were four ways in which pederasty helped the male group replicate itself: (a) mentoring in skills and social demeanour (including “manning up”); (b) bonding, to which pederasty’s erotic character contributed; (c) enculturation into the practices and ideologies of the group; (d) cementing alliances with other group members that were essential for teamwork in hunting and warfare.

These days, as Rind observes, we do our “hunting” at the supermarket. Boys do not need to be all that tough. He also suggests that manhood in the rugged sense is an evolved capacity not an irresistible drive, noting that in isolated societies such old Tahiti, where warfare was not endemic, men were not tougher than women and there was a high degree of gender equality, as in our WEIRD world.

What Rind fails to acknowledge, though, is that the capacity for men being tough – which certainly exists and so must have evolved – may or may not have co-evolved with pederasty in the EEA. He provides absolutely zero evidence (such as might be obtained from gene sequencing and metrics of heritability) that pederasty is anything other than a cultural response to environmental conditions, just as the relatively gentle ways of Tahitian manhood developed culturally in response to living on a remote island where food was plentiful and they were not under constant danger of attack. No genetic change was required in order to induce this radically different pattern of behaviour. Biologist Eric Alcorn, in Chapter 5 of the book, provides a detailed and to my mind compelling critique of Rind’s evolutionary hypothesis, dismissing it as just the latest in a long and inglorious line of speculative “just so” stories thrown up by the not very disciplined discipline known as evolutionary psychology.

As Alcorn concedes, that does not mean Rind is wrong, only that there is no reason to believe he is right. I would add that he may be wrong for two scientific reasons. Frankly, I hope he is, for two ethical ones.

Firstly, so far as the science is concerned, his hypothesis relies on group selection, which has been enjoying a revival recently but is still controversial. The idea is resisted with near apoplectic fury by no less a figure than the distinguished biologist Richard Dawkins: it gets him even crosser than religion!

Secondly, Rind implicitly relies upon Napoleon, who has been all-conquering for decades but may be about to meet his Waterloo – Napoleon Chagnon, that is, the anthropologist whose work underpins the idea that our hunter-gatherer forebears were almost perpetually at war. His book Yanomamö: The Fierce People, published in 1968, became the all-time bestselling anthropological text. Critics of Chagnon and his successors, however, have shown that this celebrated ethnography of a spectacularly violent tribe of the Amazon-Orinoco watershed region was not based on a pristine society such as would have existed in the EEA at all: the tribe’s culture had already been significantly impacted by the outside world for well over a hundred years before Chagnon studied them. Also, there is a reason to believe the struggle between humans for resources would have been nothing like as intensive and violent in the EEA as it later became: during the greater part of mankind’s evolutionary history, our numbers were very small and the amount of territory available for gathering and hunting was literally boundless: instead of fighting neighbouring tribes over the right to hunt or gather in a particular area, there was always the possibility of moving to pastures new – well, not pastures but forests and savannahs in the first instance.

As for ethics, Rind’s investigations bring to mind two questions of social justice: gender equality is a very salient one; less obvious, but just as important, is the injustice that would inevitably arise as a result of privileging pederasty at the expense of other forms of adult-minor attraction, especially man-girl love and man-boy love when the child is prepubescent.

To be fair to Rind, he is not advocating pederasty in today’s world (except perhaps covertly, based on an unstated critique of modern values). Although he credibly insists it used to have a positive function, he concedes it is an evolutionary mismatch today. He likens the modern-day pederast to a naturally light-coloured moth:

“The modern-day pederast is like the moth with a light-coloring mechanism transported to an industrialized, sooted environment, in which the mechanism is functioning as designed but this functioning now imperils the moth” as it has lost its protective camouflage against predators. “Pederasty”, Rind continues later on the same page, “is currently gravely at odds with the social structure and cultural ideologies, especially since their modifications in the 1970s. Therefore, when it occurs now in particular cases, it is likely to be occurring far outside the context associated with its design, devoid of mentoring, bonding and group purpose. Its occurrence is prone to being tainted with opprobrium and a sense of exploitation and violence.”

As Alcorn astutely observed, the vivid metaphor of the moth subtly paints modern society as an agent not of progress but of sooty pollution. In some ways I think this is true, but not in the way Rind seems to imply. His elegiac remarks look to a romanticised past in which pederasty functioned well as a legitimate marriage of apprenticeship and male bonding. Fine, but it is a bit rich to join in with the usual badmouthing of modern pederastic experiences because of their supposed (often wrongly) association with violence when – as is implicit in Rind’s own account – pederasty arose almost entirely in a context of training for violence. The raison d’être of the man-boy bond was to turn soft mummy’s boys into utterly ruthless, hard-as-nails, warriors who wouldn’t hesitate to wipe out other tribes, including their children.

The societies for which Rind is apparently so nostalgic really have nothing to commend them. They thrived in a world of violent male dominance and hence extreme gender inequality, which was a recipe for every kind of horror. Ghastly as extremist modern feminism has become, with its cult of victimhood, we would not wish to return to the brutal kill-or-be-killed world in which Rind’s vision of pederasty thrived.

But was it really like that? Read “How to raise a child the hunter-gatherer way”, from Jared Diamond’s recent book The World Until Yesterday, and a totally different picture emerges, based on a more balanced appraisal of hunter-gatherer lifestyles than it is possible to take from Rind’s pages. Instead of the Hobbesian nightmare envisioned by Rind, in which pre-civilized life is seen as merely “nasty, brutish and short”, we learn of cultures that are genuinely worth imitating by the modern world in some important ways, including greater freedom for children (girls as well as boys) and their sexual expression from a very early age. These were societies with distinct gender roles, but not necessarily with great gender inequality or grossly unjust inequalities of any kind. It is only materially much richer societies – starting with agricultural ones – which allow individuals and classes to become hugely rich and powerful, unfair and oppressive.

By contrast, Rind’s dubious privileging of pederasty as a functionally evolved form of adult-adolescent sexuality is by his own admission redundant in terms of any applicability in modern society. Furthermore, his blinkered vision utterly ignores the situation not only of women but specifically of girls. Only men’s sexual relationships with adolescent boys appear to interest him. It is as though, for Rind, girls simply do not exist or are of no account. As a consequence, the pressing question of how children of both sexes can be brought up in a happier and more self-determining way amidst the endemic hysteria of modernity is not addressed. All that Rind leaves us with, in the end, are reasons to reject his special pleading on behalf of long-dead pederastic cultures. After giving us so much interesting information, that is a pity.

Cognitive ‘distortions’ and dissonance

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Welcome to 2014 at Heretic TOC! No looking back over the past year, this time, or crystal ball gazing into the future. There’s so much to talk about I’m just going to crack on, starting with GirlChat.

Every online minor-attraction forum is surely acutely aware their deliberations are followed with interest by law enforcement authorities and monitoring bodies such as the Internet Watch Foundation. But do they know that academic researchers have their spies too?

I can’t find any chat on GirlChat to suggest they know their forum was under particularly intense investigation in August 2012. If I’m wrong, blame Google Advanced Search, but in the meantime let’s start a bit of chat about it here, because the research in question is very revealing, not just about GirlChat but about the way “science” generates its “knowledge” of minor attraction.

The official Abstract of the research project in question somehow found its way into my database last month and at first I paid it no attention, as it is merely an unpublished Masters thesis by a postgrad at a university I had never heard of. No matter, the subject interested me, the title being “Content Analysis of Cognitive Distortions in Pedophiles’ Online Forum Posts”. The concept of “cognitive distortions” has long been applied to “sex offenders” of various kinds, but has been increasingly under challenge in recent years, so I was interested to know what this postgrad was making of it in her very recent thesis, posted online last July.

It turned out that the author, one Lyndsie Johnson, of Rowan University, New Jersey, had analysed all 1713 posts by, 84 different posters, on GirlChat in August 2012. She deployed a team of four assessors to rate the material for the appearance of five different “cognitive distortions” as described in an influential but rather dated paper in the literature (Child Molesters’ Implicit Theories, Keenan & Ward, 1999); in the event of disagreement her own view prevailed.

I was not surprised to find, in this very junior researcher’s introductory chapter, some serious omissions and misconceptions. Paedophilia, for instance, was nowhere defined. She just assumed, quite wrongly, that paedophilia is synonymous with sex offending against minors of any age. Clearly, she was blissfully ignorant of the fact that paedophilia, in the medical and scientific literature, refers to attraction to prepubescent children, whereas sex offending against minors can involve adolescents as old as 16 or 17 in many jurisdictions. Nor did she show any appreciation of the fact that sex offences against children are often committed by those who resort to sex with a child or adolescent merely as a substitute when an adult is not available, so they are not paedophiles. Also, she implicitly assumed that everyone posting at GirlChat is a paedophile and thereby a likely sex offender, albeit not yet necessarily a convicted one! And she trotted out all the clichés about the supposed inevitable harmfulness of child-adult sexual encounters, again based on the older literature, with no reference whatever to the work of Rind et al., who famously (but not famously enough, obviously) exposed this as nonsense.

So far, so depressingly awful. Where were this student’s supervisors when needed? The appalling thought occurs that they might have been just as weak as her, but I’ll let that pass and turn to why I am commending this seeming garbage to your attention. The answer lies to some extent in her findings, describing which will necessitate a brief consideration of the so-called cognitive distortions, or alleged “thinking errors” in question. These are of five types. The details are unimportant for present purposes, so I’ll just give a minimal summary in my own words:

Children as Sexual Objects – falsely seeing children’s affectionate behaviour as sexual
Entitlement – believing it is a child’s duty to please adults, including sexually
Dangerous World – children seen as dependably loving, in a world of hostile adults
Uncontrollability – blaming the child for being too desirable to resist
Nature of Harm – belief that sex with children is not necessarily harmful

Heretics here will have no difficulty, of course, in spotting a rather big flaw in all this. Whereas we might readily agree it would be a bit dodgy to feel kids are duty bound to give us our jollies, the same cannot be said for the belief that sex with children is not necessarily harmful: indeed, we can point to objective information from case studies in which, far from being harmful, benefits have been credibly claimed. We also know children are sexual beings, and their affectionate behaviour sometimes includes a flirtatious component, which may be merely provocative or may have downright seductive intent. In other words, some of the so-called cognitive distortions are not necessarily distortions of reality, or “thinking errors” at all. As noted above, the whole concept of cognitive distortion has come under challenge: the leading researchers now refer more cautiously to “offense-supportive attitudes” – views which are not objectively incorrect but are politically so.

Whatever we call the various heresies, though, we might expect that researchers scouring GirlChat for them would have no difficulty in spotting what they were looking for: the slightest deviation from orthodoxy could be labelled a “distortion” if Ms Johnson and her coding team were so minded.

But no, that is not what happened! Remarkably, very few “cognitive distortions” were found: only 2.45% of posts indicated cognitive distortions. The most strongly represented ones were Children as Sexual Objects (15 occurrences), Dangerous World (9) and Nature of Harm (5); Uncontrollability was seen only three times and Entitlement not at all. It is surely no great surprise, and should not worry us, that posters to a site focusing on attraction to minors would see children as sexual beings (they are) and that sexual contacts with them are not always harmful (they aren’t), nor that minor-attracted persons (MAPs) would see the world as hostile to them (it is, obviously). Nor should it worry us, indeed it is good news, that those engaging with MAP sites do not appear to be out of control, nor do they impose on kids a duty to do their bidding.

These findings, then, are of interest and so is what the researcher makes of them. In line with the approach taken in thousands of other studies, which she copies as faithfully as a diligent pupil doing a standard school chemistry experiment with the exact prescribed method, she gives illustrative examples of the supposed cognitive distortions where they occur in the GirlChat posts, reporting them with seemingly scientific objectivity. No opinion intrudes. Even in the concluding discussion section, where possible explanations of the findings are presented (albeit unconvincingly, with little insight) and suggestions made for further research, an air of strict detachment prevails. Remarkably, there is no querying of the cognitive distortion concept, nor any challenge to the validity of the five CD types.

At first I thought this was just zombie science: no brain, merely robotic procedure. And so it may be. But there were also tiny hints that there might be more going on than meets the eye. One clue is in the quotes from GirlChat, many of which are so eminently reasonable and sensible (to my heretical mind, at least!) that they cry out for a more engaged and imaginative response. So could there be something else holding this researcher back, other than her need to get full marks for objectivity? What about fear? We are in a Dangerous World for researchers, as well as MAPs, after all: any sign of going native and actually understanding the MAPs could be fatal at the start of a career.

What we get, in the absence of understanding, is a sort of dull, understated, puzzlement. It is conceded, for instance, that even these posters talk about more than just sex with children. It is briefly observed that “members also discuss topics that go beyond pedophilic interests (e.g., politics)”, an admission that comes dangerously close to admitting MAPs might be human! Then, with Entitlement not being demonstrated in any Girl Chat posts, a concession is made: “…it may suggest that pedophiles may not feel it is the ‘right’ of the adult partner to receive sexual pleasure from a child. Posters often describe feeling honored when a child ‘chooses’ them as a sexual partner and the love that exists between a pedophile and a child is a privilege, not a right.”

In the context of a 30-page report, these positive observations are only very slight. There is no blinding light on the road to Damascus here, no epiphany, no conversion. But neither is there any “cognitively distorted” attempt to twist the data in order to arrive at the “right” conclusion. As I say, what we have is puzzlement – which is quite right and proper when the facts fail to meet expectations. The task then becomes one of addressing that puzzlement thoughtfully. This particular tyro scientist doesn’t quite get there, but the data are good, and are “out there” for others to see: that is how science, even when it is done by not especially clever people, is able to make progress.

A final intriguing point is that “Inter-rater reliability was 92.7% at the start of analysis; however, as content analysis progressed, inter-rater reliability dropped.” In other words, the team assessing the cognitive distortions started off with a high degree of agreement as to what would constitute an example of cognitive distortion. However, this impressive level of agreement slumped to a lowly 14% during the course of the exercise! What this entirely new divergence of opinion suggests to me is that the assessors were actually beginning to use their brains in response to the data, querying what constitutes a cognitive distortion and perhaps whether the construct was valid at all.

Such dangerously heretical thoughts nowhere find overt expression in the paper, but the exercise must have sown confusion. While it demonstrated that MAPs were not shown to think in a cognitively distorted way, it also indicates that the researchers were suffering from another interesting mental condition, cognitive dissonance i.e. psychological conflict when presented with data at odds with one’s beliefs. Given the conservative nature of their starting point, this offers the hope that they may actually be moving forwards a little, as they struggle, perhaps painfully, to accommodate the new information and make a new beginning.

Come to think of it, this theme of starting afresh is perhaps not so remote from blogging about the New Year after all! Happy 2014 everyone!

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