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in question somehow found its way into my database last month and at first I paid it no attention, as it is merely an unpublished Masters thesis by a postgrad at a university I had never heard of.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!