Towards the aetiology of paedophobia


Heretic TOC began an exploration of deep waters recently in Whither the punitive state?, which delved into some fundamental questions about the kind of society we are and how we might live better. A lively debate ensued. One contributor, Lensman, outlined a green vision of the future. As I requested, he now takes this further in the first of two guest blogs. He begins with an analysis of our present situation, especially the economic context of paedophobia*; his second piece will set us upon a Deep Green course.    

Lensman tells me he is a “psychogeographer” and artist, whose work is informed by such issues as stigma, alienation and longing. He is an avid reader, music-lover, an intrepid explorer of the shabby edges of cities, friend to fungi and an all-round culture vulture. He writes the occasional short story, essay, and poem. Growing up in a political family taught him early on the value of discussion, debate and critical thinking. At the same time, a childhood spent living in, playing in and exploring wild places has nurtured a life-long interest in natural history, science and ecology.


My first inkling that not all societies were paedophobic came in my mid-teens when I read Humbert Humbert’s observation of how “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds”. Later, as a student, I read accounts of sex-positive societies in the writings of anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead and Claude Levi-Strauss, and the observations of explorers such as Captain Cook’s in Tahiti. More recently I have discovered the “Growing Up Sexually” corpus: a compendious thesaurus of the sex-lives of children in a wide variety of cultures.

From which it seems clear that whilst there have been many societies that have accepted child sexuality and child-adult sexual relationships, none of these have been capitalist.

Working out why should be a priority for the heretical community, since how can we propose a cure without some understanding of the disease? Indeed, so long as we don’t address the aetiology of paedophobia we’re tacitly conceding that the problem lies in us, not in those who fear us.

I will argue that   paedophobia is an unintended consequence of a range of economic factors that occur under what, for brevity’s sake, I’ll call “Capitalism” (but which might include Industrialism, Urbanism, Consumerism, and even Industrial Communism).

However, saying that capitalism causes paedophobia is a bit like saying puberty causes pregnancy: the grain of truth in the statement is overwhelmed by the many contingencies which separate the cause from the effect. The challenge is to fill in the gaps: what exactly connects an abstraction like “capitalism” to the attitude of someone who refuses to let his daughter walk to school because of Stranger Danger?

“Attitudes” may be understood as attempts by individuals to make sense of the “givens” of their world, their culture and their personal circumstances. Living in harmony with these “givens” generally makes for an easier, more successful life. Consequently “attitudes” will tend to converge according to a population’s circumstances, culture and interests.

The following are some of the “givens” of capitalism that tend towards paedophobic attitudes.

The Nuclear Family

The nuclear family solves capitalism’s need for a mobile and flexible work force. Under consumer capitalism a wage earner may have to change job and move house three, four or five times during his working life, taking his family with him. A cheaper and easier task if that family is small.

Nuclear families tend to implant themselves into a “place” but not into a “community”. Neighbours are often barely on nodding acquaintance with each other and may change so often that efforts to socialise may seem hardly worth the trouble. The child has to adapt and form its personality in relation to only one or two people. Consequently, parents become as emotionally dependent on their children as the children are on their parents, creating very intense, exclusive relationships and a strong sense of possessiveness in the parents. The child has only “one basket” in which to put all its “emotional eggs”. A considerable burden is placed on very few relationships, especially in single-parent families, which are becoming all the more common as the nuclear family is put under more stress.

Children can’t opt out of the parent-child relationship as they can with non-familial relationships.

There is greater asymmetry in the child-parent relationship than with non-familial adults. Many paedophiles who are also parents will have experienced the different quality of relationship one shares with a child-friend and with one’s own children – the former, at its best, feels “equal”, the latter not.

A society’s predominant family structure will deeply entrench and perpetuate its conception of childhood since the family is where we learn our most fundamental concepts of kinship, love, intimacy, privacy, authority, etc.

Where have the children gone?

Over the past three or four decades children have disappeared from public spaces. Allowing one’s child to roam unsupervised is now considered to be a sign of bad parenting, and children who enjoy this freedom are demonised as “feral”. The growth of suburban housing means that children’s outdoor play now takes place in private gardens, fenced-off from the wider community.

This is understandable when one considers the extent to which cars have appropriated public space making it dangerous and unpleasant. This has led to many children only ever venturing into public space in a car, their parents trading their child’s security against an increased danger to others (the “school-run” paradox).

There are also major changes in the nature of Play: the explosion of screen-based home entertainment, and a children’s leisure industry that is usually indoors and highly supervised.

The nuclear family’s tendency to miniaturise and sequester resources has impacted on communal resources such as village water pumps, traditionally, and more recently libraries, markets, laundrettes, cinemas, concerts, playing fields, public transport, etc.

As children (and adults) have disappeared from public spaces so has the fear of public spaces increased – adults are now as afraid of interacting with unknown children as children are of unknown adults.

Probably the most significant factor is the exclusion of children from the workplace. Pre-industrial families expected children to contribute their labour to the family finances, and it was often necessary for children as young as six to work in the same factories as their parents to make ends meet. Child-labour has more or less disappeared from the West.


Schools are a major factor in removing children from the community. School reflects wider society in that all its child-adult interactions are defined by the adult’s role, providing little opportunity for intense, free, emotional, engagement with the child, this now being the exclusive preserve of the nuclear family (it could be argued that teachers, when in loco parentis, are subject to the same incest taboo as applies to biological parents).

Capitalism’s demand for a highly educated workforce, based on rapid technological changes, the growing workplace requirement for interpersonal and communication skills and the reduced number of unskilled jobs (due to outsourcing to poorer countries), has led to a prolongation of education. The UK has seen a ten-fold increase in participation in higher education between 1950 and 2000.

Given that one of the criteria of “adulthood” is “entry into the world of work”, this contributes to a prolongation of the concept of childhood (could the current panic about “campus rape” and “enhanced consent” be a sign of the infantilisation of this age-group? That society feels, deep down, that the current age of consent is too low?)


With increasing affluence there’s been both a steady increase in the size of homes and a decrease in the size of the family. This has largely put an end to communal sleeping. Till recently children would share a bedroom, and sometimes a bed, into late childhood. All but the wealthiest families would sleep communally. This was one of the causes of the moral panic surrounding slum housing in 19th century Britain: reformers realised that such sleeping arrangements carried with them a high risk of “premature sexualisation”.

The Innocent Child archetype

The above factors create a situation where the only intense relationships children can have with adults are with their parents (and other adults to whom the incest taboo applies, such as grandparents, uncles, older siblings etc).

The de-sexualisation of children is essential if the incest taboo is not to disrupt the nuclear family. The intimacy of parenthood combined with the authority, control and exclusivity parents hold over pre-adolescent children means that if children were to be understood as sexual it would create too many desires, conflicts, jealousies, anxieties, etc. for the family to function. The pressure cooker that is already the nuclear family would explode.

As there are no outlets for children’s sexuality other than with parents or siblings it is better that such sexuality be discouraged and repressed. Likewise, teenagers’ sexuality only becomes tolerated once they have the social skills and independence to take that sexuality outside the orbit of the home.

There are, of course, a child’s peers. Inter-child sexuality has been grudgingly tolerated in capitalist societies during periods of enlightenment, though usually defused by labelling it as “play” or “curiosity” rather than “desire” or “pleasure”. However consumer capitalism seems to be withdrawing even that tolerance.

The question is whether a paradigm which conceives of the child as actively sexual can work in the closed, emotionally intense context of the nuclear family, especially a child who, for the first six or seven years of its life, is not quite old enough to have entirely internalised sexual shame. The Innocent Child archetype protects the family, not the child.

It may also be that parents subconsciously fear their child’s reciprocal and exclusive love may be diverted towards someone who, not restricted by the incest taboo, is able to offer a kind of love forbidden the parents. A fear maybe that finds its most potent embodiment in “the paedophile”.

The Consumer Child

It’s no coincidence that virulent paedophobia emerged in the UK in the late 70s and 80s – a period when, under Thatcherism, a paradigm shift occurred in the way capitalism understood itself:  the UK became a “property-owning democracy” and “citizens” were replaced by “consumers”. Manufacturing industries were symbolically defeated and emasculated, having already lost a great deal of their importance through increased outsourcing of work to poorer countries and importation of manufactured goods.

In the previous decade capitalism had seemed in crisis: the essential needs of the family (food, clothing, housing) were being met by a smaller and smaller proportion of the family’s income and the necessity of the “work and spend” paradigm was increasingly called into question – most notably by the counter-cultural movements of the 60s.  (Statistics for the USA show that in 1901 80% of an average family’s income was spent on food, housing and clothing; by 2003 only 49%.)

Capitalism’s dependence on growth meant that it had to employ some motivation other than “necessity” for keeping us working and spending.  Consumerism achieves this by getting us to work as much for the satisfaction of fabricated “wants” as “needs”.

Children are first of all consumers through the intermediary of their parents. But children will also become the consumers of tomorrow and so must be educated into the right mind-set. This process starts early – and is probably most visible in how, early in the 19th century, Christmas changed from being a festival of communal feasting to one centred round the buying and giving of gifts. Can anyone who has witnessed the frenzied avidity of children in the run-up to Christmas doubt its effectiveness as a teacher of consumer values?

Our culture, dense with marketing, advertising, product placement and countless other strategies, creates a paradigm in which activities connected with consumption are labelled as “cool”, whilst low-consumption, community or nature-based activities (twitching, train-spotting, reading, nature study, scouting, etc.) are labelled as “nerdy”, “sad” or “uncool”. A child learns that fulfilment comes from what one owns, not from one’s relationships with others and the world.

And the most potent marketing tool is, of course, sex. Commercial popular culture, like the tobacco industry, whilst paying lip-service to age-limits in the targeting of its products, knows that the game is won by those who “catch them early”.

It may seem odd for a paedophile to appear to be criticising the sexualisation of children. Well, I’d argue that consumer sexualisation is a distortion of child sexuality: targeting especially little girls and teaching them that they are attractive in proportion to how much they spend on, or have done to, themselves.

The Toddlers-in-Tiaras child is a telling archetype of this – a child who has adopted the most extreme sexual paraphernalia of womanhood. This archetype is in conflict with the more established Innocent Child archetype outlined in the previous section, the conflict mitigated by it being a sexuality of display and disguise, which demands spectators rather than participants.

(Compare this to another archetype: the Wild Child – Huckleberry Finn, Pippi Longstocking, the children in Sally Mann’s Immediate Family – whose identities come from their relationships to others and to nature, whose nails are more likely to be broken than manicured, whose clothes, if worn at all, are torn and dirty from falling out of trees and playing in the mud.)

This conflict between the Innocent Child archetype and the need to access new markets and educate new consumers seems inherent within consumer capitalism and creates a perception amongst parents that their children are being “sexualised” against their (the parents’) will by forces beyond their control (popular culture, television, internet, fashion and pornography). Such fears, rather than being directed against something as nebulous as an “economic system” (an economic system that most adults are otherwise happy with and culturally embedded in) are perhaps more easily projected onto paedophiles.


At the start of this essay I suggested that, for the heretical community, working out why paedophilia is so feared and reviled must be the first step towards finding a stratagem which might lead to an improvement in our situation, and that of children.

My hypothesis has been that a society’s acceptance of child sexuality is a function of (1) how well integrated its children are within a wide-ranging communal life; and (2) what proportion of adult-child emotional relationships involve adults covered by the incest taboo. Paedophobia is a result of societies where children are effectively isolated in relationships that thrive only if those children are considered as asexual.

A non-systematic perusal of the Growing up Sexually corpus seems to confirm the general drift of this hypothesis, whilst supplying enough counter-examples to undermine any hopes of it being a complete explanation. Undoubtedly, culture has a part to play: have contemporary Tahitians preserved anything of the sex-positive attitudes that Captain Cook witnessed? If not, were they lost because of the imposition of Western values or because of the economic and structural changes colonisation brought with it? Such questions arise at every turn.

But I hope the explanation I have outlined represents a start, or at least indicates the kind of questions we should be asking.

If all the above factors do amount to an explanation for paedophobic attitudes in the West, if paedophobia is deeply embedded in the most fundamental structures of our society, then the question becomes “what next?” Does a fundamental restructuring of society have to take place before things improve?

I suspect that the solution already exists amongst the political options available in the West, (though, understandably, the pro-child-sexuality aspect of it is one that has been suppressed in recent decades). That solution is, I believe, to be found in the Deep Green vision of society and economics.


* Lensman and I are both uneasy about this term. It implies that those who have a problem with paedophilia are not right in the head. This may actually be true to the extent that fear of paedophilia is indeed irrational; but, like comparable forms of pathologising (“homophobia”, “Islamophobia”), it runs the risk of dismissing people’s views without addressing their arguments; it may amount merely to name-calling against those who disagree with us. The word is used here and in Lensman’s article really just as a convenient shorthand for “hyper-hostile anti-paedophilia”, an attitude fostered by a set of social and economic conditions rather than an individual’s mental illness.




Tweedledumbs and Tweedledumbers


As I expected, Heretic TOC’s Lewis Carroll blog last time proved controversial. I have held back from responding in any detail to specific points of criticism in part because I felt I should avoid my own contribution becoming too much “the dominant discourse”, as it were. I am delighted to say this restraint has been richly rewarded with a number of interesting comments that have already appeared. There was also a blog-length one by “Sylvie” of such quality it cried out to be used as a guest blog, and it accordingly makes its debut below. This is Sylvie’s second guest piece, her first having been “We fight for more than Love or Pleasure”, last year.

This latest article is especially valuable as Sylvie is the author of two academic theses on Lewis Carroll and writes with obvious authority.


It seems that, as the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland continue, we are likely to find Lewis Carroll mentioned over and over again in newspapers, at literary events, and all over the Internet. I welcome this, as any discussion around this wonderfully complex personality never fails to thrill me. Unfortunately, it seems that we are not going to mark 2015 with white stones. Those who hope, as l very much do, to finally read an unbiased portrait of the author of the Alice books are doomed to be disappointed this year as well.

Were it not for the fact that I am well acquainted with the character of the man, I’d have good reasons to lose my sanity over the mostly absurd theories revolving around him. There are seemingly two opposite factions nowadays: the very indignant “Lewis Carroll-Absolutely-Not-A-Paedophile” one, and the apparently nonchalant “Dark-Side-Of-The-Repressed-Paedophile-Lewis Carroll”. Whereas these two battling factions claim to be distinct, truth is that they are very much alike in their lack of insight into the nature of paedophilia: they are Tweedledumbs and Tweedledumbers on the subject. Even more poignantly, they strive in controversy over a non-existing man: the real Lewis Carroll – whom they claim to appreciate but evidently fail to fully grasp – was neither dark nor sinister, nor was he repressed.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was not, in many respects, a repressed man. On the contrary, he had come to terms with himself, perhaps not without difficulty, as he had very likely been on his own on the challenging journey to self-discovery. He must have arrived at such realisation possibly after much soul-searching, as is usual when one has a rich and complex inner life. He was not “strange”. He had his quirks, true, but that’s because he was somehow naturally unconventional – in his mind first and foremost, and therefore in his outer demeanour, interests, and hobbies. I believe he was at peace with his conscience; that is why he would not welcome interference from people, whether parents (whenever he thought they were being unnecessarily cautious) or anyone who would raise an eyebrow.

When word of his “friendships” reached his sister Mary, she wrote a concerned letter to her brother. Charles’ reply (21 September, 1893), shuts the mouths, l believe, of those who accuse him of being “sinister”, and reveals instead the character of the man as well as his integrity:

“The only two tests l now apply to such a question as the having some particular girl-friend as a guest are, first, my own conscience, to settle whether I feel it to be entirely innocent and right, in the sight of God; secondly, the parents of my friend, to settle whether l have their full approval for what l do.”

He was so free from repression that he claimed the right to pursue whatever friendships he liked best: not only with children but, for instance, with adult unmarried women as well, which may not have appeared as terribly appropriate at the time. He would happily mingle with artists and actresses. He was always looking out for like-minded people.

He took decisions that were coherent with his lifestyle: he took up photography and experimented with it as long as it thrilled him. He gave it up, not because of wagging tongues but more likely because technological advancement had made photography a more complex and burdensome hobby, and he presumably no longer wished to commit that much, in his later years, to something he felt he had experimented enough with.

His decision not to proceed to the priesthood cannot be accounted for convincingly by his speech impediment, which he had managed to control to a certain extent through discipline and professional help; a better explanation is that his beliefs developed as his life progressed, taking him beyond his Anglican faith towards a more ecumenical attitude. You couldn’t hold him down; he refused to be restricted.

In a letter to his niece, Edith Dodgson (March 8, 1891), he wrote:

“A truth that is becoming more and more clear to me as life passes away –- that God’s purpose, in this wonderful complex life of ours, is mutual interaction, all round. Every life…bears upon, or ought to bear upon, the lives of others.”

He had had a religious, conservative upbringing, but despite being traditional in many respects, he was never narrow-minded, or regressive. Far from being repressed or frustrated, he had a disposition that we could positively define as all embracing. Whereas the dicta of the established Church would not easily condone such an intellectual stance, he positively included dissenters and sinners into the picture.

Likewise, as a result of the same independent spirit, he did not remain a bachelor because “it was part of his contract with Christ Church”, as it has been perhaps too naively stated. Had he considered marriage feasible for himself, it is safe to assume that, in the end, he would have married. It had been clear to him, from an early age that married life was simply not for him. Not because he was uncomfortable around adults, or he failed to be appreciative of the many benefits of marriage, but likely because he may have recognised married life as incompatible with his lifestyle, and perhaps, with himself as a man – what he was, what he could or could not give. He longed to maintain a life that was not strictly bound by domestic obligations; a life that enabled him to be free to pursue interests and hobbies, and take up things and dismiss them, and change opinion and route.

The very strong point in Tom’s blog is, in my opinion, the affirmation that Dodgson’s sophistication was not at all incompatible with paedophilia. That’s because it is rather convenient nowadays to convey the message that virtually anyone who has a paedophilic inclination, or has experienced paedophilic feelings towards a child, must necessarily be an emotionally retarded loner. To concede that paedophilia does not necessarily make one “retarded”, either emotionally or on any other level, would attribute a certain degree of “normality” to paedophilic inclinations. There is always a risk that the public may suspect that the game is not being fairly played, and that this suggested “degree of normality” clearly clashes against the modern crusade that sees all adult-child relationships as suspicious. The mere suggestion of normality would make the crusaders’ stances reek more and more of propaganda, and less of legitimacy. Far from being emotionally retarded, Lewis Carroll “had a passionate orchestra playing within his breast”, as Morton N. Cohen has perceptively remarked.

Lewis Carroll did what he enjoyed doing and he could see nothing wrong in anything he did, because there simply was nothing wrong or “strange” or “unhealthy” about him. It’s not a matter of “Victorian social sensitivities” as the apologists (scholars included) nowadays claim, rather it is a matter of what he was and what he was not: he was not dark, he was not sinister. He was not then, he is not now.

Is this what you call, living a repressed life?

Similarly deluded are those Carrollians engaged in a (puerile and rather boring, if you ask me) battle for the affirmation of an appreciation for the companionship of children, on the part of Lewis Carroll, that was absolutely free from any paedophilic implications. Whereas I could, on a good day, be willing to make an effort to try and understand the reasons of those “fans” who evidently sleep better at night if they know that their literary “hero” was as far from being a paedophile as anything could be, I most certainly am not as merciful with “experts”, who have spent decades researching the life of Lewis Carroll. If the former are naive, the latter are likely to be intellectually dishonest.

I am absolutely sure Tom was perfectly aware of the fact that Lewis Carroll was being humorous when, in an attempt to amuse a child, he reassured her that he indeed was “fond of children, except boys”. I bet any girl would rightly giggle at that!

But was it just humour?

To say that he would spend more time with girls because girls were what he would find at home while boys were in school, is deluded at best, outright dishonest at worst. Such an openly misleading remark would convince no one except perhaps a naive audience longing to be reassured that Lewis Carroll was not a “child molester”. Furthermore, by rejecting allegations of paedophilia, the speaker is implicitly conveying the message that all erotic fascination with children is unacceptable, and therefore resisting the idea that paedophilia could be a sexual orientation with a legitimate place in the complex universe of human sexuality.

For most of his life, Lewis Carroll was actively and relentlessly seeking the companionship of girls, writing letters to girls, pleading mothers to bring girls along, asking permission to take girls out, simply because that’s where he derived his emotional satisfaction. It’s not that he went to this or that home and had to be content with what he found there, namely girls. There was a component with girls – emotional, romantic, and possibly erotic, why not? – that was just not there with boys. The fact that Lewis Carroll was most certainly celibate is no evidence that he never experienced a paedophilic attraction. Rather it is evidence of his stern rules of behaviour, and what he believed to be moral rectitude.

To claim that Lewis Carroll’s pursuit of child friendships equalled that of your average Victorian gentleman is nonsense. While it is true that Victorian attitudes towards children in general, and child friendships in particular, were certainly very different from ours, it is also true that it would have been quite unusual, even in those times, for a Victorian gentleman to engage in a relentless, life-long pursuit of friendships with little girls.

To claim that Lewis Carroll could not have been a paedophile because he was able to appreciate the beauty of the adult female form, is sadly unconvincing. There is no indication that one who has paedophilic inclinations cannot, at the same time, be attracted to adults, let alone recognise and appreciate the beauty of the human form.

Finally, to claim that Lewis Carroll did not have an appreciation for the company of girls that largely surpassed that of any man or woman of his times because, in his later years, he seemed to enjoy the company of adults as well, or even more, is frankly risible. Far from persuading me that there was “absolutely nothing even remotely paedophilic” in the man’s proclivities, it is evidence of that “degree of normality” in paedophilia that has been suggested before. In other words, that there is nothing, in an individual who has paedophilic inclinations, that will prevent him or her from being intellectually sophisticated, emotionally stable, fully psychologically developed, and socially acceptable.

In conclusion, the real obstacle to an open and frank discussion about Lewis Carroll seems to me to depend upon a reluctance to admit that there might be nothing inherently harmful in paedophilia, and that there is nothing, in paedophilic inclinations, that may prevent an individual from positively contributing to the greater good. In other words, that paedophiles as well can be a force for good in society.

All his life, Charles L. Dodgson cared for and looked after people, including attending to those in need as well as relatives, and providing financial support well beyond his obligations. In his dealings with child-friends he would make sure that the child was more than happy with anything he proposed, otherwise he would step back. He was forward-thinking in many respects: he wrote numerous pamphlets, including one pleading for the construction of a Women’s University, as he believed women were equally entitled to a higher education.

Very likely he experienced obvious difficulties. Very likely he experienced frustration. Very likely he experienced disappointment. Very likely he experienced loneliness. Still he was a creative genius who would always make sure that all of his magical gifts were shared with others, friends and strangers alike. His whimsical, immortal genius has continued to amuse and inspire generation after generation of readers, up to this day. If that’s not a beneficial contribution to society, what is? If he is not an example to truly look up to, who is?

Author Will Self has recently expressed concern over the creator of Alice in Wonderland: “It’s a problem, isn’t it, when somebody writes a great book and they’re not a great person?”

According to the dominant cultural climate, anyone who experiences an attraction to children, must automatically be “not great people”. To even suggest otherwise invites reprimand and suspicion. To suggest that paedophilia may simply be a natural variant in the diversity of human sexuality, could rightly be described, theologically speaking, as a newfound “scandal of the Cross”: an idea that is so radical, that it can only be perceived as scandalous.

According to some, Lewis Carroll had such “dark side”. But let me challenge the status quo: why must this side be dark? Why can’t it be bright, instead? And why can’t you be just as great if you have it?

Lewis Carroll was anything but dark. He was not only a decent person – he was indeed what you would describe as “great”.

Then where do these allegations of a “dark side” originate from?

They very likely stem from the unwillingness to accept the idea that the same individual who experiences an attraction to children (whether this be romantic, emotional, psychological, erotic – or all of these combined) can, at the same time, be the one who will go to great lengths to ensure that a child’s wellbeing is a priority, and who naturally has a child’s best interest at heart.

Just as Lewis Carroll had.



In “An Idiot’s Guide to the Westminster Bubble” last month, Heretic TOC reported on a couple of events in parliament, one of which was a rally by Hacked Off, a group which aims to secure a more independent press complaints body than the toothless old Press Complaints Commission and the equally non-scary watchdog the press barons are presently trying to replace it with, an outfit laughably called the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).

In their efforts to smear Hacked Off, the Mail on Sunday, owned by one of the said barons, Lord Rothermere, has run a story highlighting the presence at the meeting of someone who would be, in their words, “an embarrassment” for the group. Who was that person? Well, it was someone who had been an activist in an organisation “formed in 1974 to campaign for sex with children to be legalised”. Yes, you’ve guessed it: they were talking about thoroughly embarrassing yours truly! See here for their mighty scoop, which mentions this blog albeit without doing the courtesy of giving the name or a link.

Which is to be master – that’s all


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Grumpy Mr Dumpty was right, unfortunately. Take the word “paedophilia”. All the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men couldn’t put it back together again in its earlier queen’s English usage as a relatively objective medical term for sexual attraction to children. Admittedly, the man who first used the term paedophilia erotica*, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, was blatantly moralistic in denouncing the “unmanly, knavish and often silly” expression of such feelings; but a century or so would pass before we learned which was to be the master meaning, and who would make it so, when tabloid interpretation brutally bound the word hand and foot to sadism and murder, ruthlessly gagging gentler understandings, choking them off.

So, when I heard Andrew Marr presenting BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week discussion on Lewis Carroll and the Story of Alice on Monday, I was not surprised to hear him say that Alice in Wonderland and its later companion volume Through the Looking-Glass (from whence comes the Humpty Dumpty passage above) are “meant to be playful and to make you laugh, which is one of the answers to the whole paedophilia worry: something so playful, so funny, is unlikely to be that sinister”.

Paedophilia in this construction is sinister. The logic then proceeds thus: playfulness is not sinister; Carroll is playful; therefore Carroll is not sinister – and cannot be a paedophile. I have cheated a bit: Marr said the sinister side was unlikely rather than impossible, but it is clear he wants to exonerate Carroll from the more defamatory connotations of the P word.

Quite right too.

Not that Marr or his guests were in denial over Carroll’s sexual attraction to little girls, in what turned out to be a rather good programme to mark the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland’s publication in 1865. Gillian Beer, who has edited Carroll’s nonsense poems and will be bringing out a volume on the Alice books later this year, spoke with exquisitely tactful precision. Speaking with Alice Liddell in mind, the real little girl who inspired the wonderland books, she said:

“I think that the figure of Alice in Alice in Wonderland is a part answer to any suggestion of damage to the children… she is so appreciated as a lively, imaginative curious, independent young girl and she is treated with such respect, as it were, by the book; yes, she is teased, yes, she is worsted, but she is absolutely…

Marr interrupts: “But she isn’t objectified?”

…no, never. It’s always told, indeed, from within her, so that it’s her sensibility we’re sharing, and it’s her sense of terror, sometimes that is informing everything we read there.”

Beer is in effect confirming points raised elsewhere in the programme: Carroll was in love with Alice and probably got into trouble with her mother for being overly affectionate towards the child; but this essentially paedophilic behaviour was not a source of damage.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, whose book The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland has just been published, was also a Marr guest. His book, one reviewer notes, draws attention to Carroll’s having written “A girl of about 12 is my ideal beauty of form.” Also, asked if children ever bored him, he replied: “They are three-fourths of my life.”

Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was an Oxford mathematics don. The picture that emerges from Douglas-Fairhurst’s book, according to a review in the Observer, is that he photographed Alice Liddell “obsessively” and was “evidently in love” with her. Alice was born in 1852. Already, from 1858 to 1862, “Dodgson’s peculiar intimacy with Miss Liddell had become the subject of intense Oxford gossip, with suggestions that the strange young Christ Church don had even proposed marriage and been rebuffed by the girl’s parents”.

The marriage proposal sounds like the Victorians’ idea of a joke; but the mere fact that there was intense gossip about the relationship refutes the modern deniers’ claim that Dodgson’s “sentimental” or “paternal” attachment to Alice was considered unremarkable in its day. Most Victorian gentlemen did not hang out with prepubescent girls; nor did they – as Dodgson did – remain lifelong bachelors. There were other girls, too, who at various times in his life occupied a special place in Mr Dodgson’s affections, to whom he wrote copious letters and whom he photographed extensively, sometimes in nude poses – photos which, as Marr’s programme noted, could not be used in Douglas-Fairhurst’s book for fear they might now fall foul of the law.

The letters, the photos and much else have long been the subject of biographic attention, perhaps most assiduously in the case of Morton N. Cohen’s 1995 book Lewis Carroll: A Biography. In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement in 2004 (“When love was young”, TLS, 10 September 2004) Cohen took issue with a “revisionist” voice, that of Karoline Leach, one of a growing band of writers who seek to rescue the author of Alice from the taint of paedophilia by contriving desperately improbable alternative narratives. Dodgson was no dodgy don, she insists: he was in love not with Alice but with her governess, a Miss Mary Prickett.

I will not waste time on this absurdity, except to say that Cohen’s demolition is strong.

His critique of Edward Wakeling, a far more substantial Dodgson scholar, is also devastating in my view. Wakeling, a Dodgson devotee for decades and a past Chairman of the Lewis Carroll Society, certainly knows his stuff and indeed has presented a lot of it on a website, including a database of the great man’s surviving letters and photos. I am assured by a Lewis Carroll Society insider who knows Wakeling personally that he is privately willing to admit Dodgson’s interest in girls had its erotic side. But it seems he feels duty-bound to protect the man’s reputation in public. As with Marr and his guests, that is a good thing if one wishes to insist upon him having been kind and considerate, rather than callously abusive; but, in Cohen’s opinion and mine, he goes much too far in trying to explain inconvenient facts away when these have a direct bearing on Dodgson’s sexual desires and even his behaviour.

In the same TLS article in which he took Leach apart, Cohen also tackled Wakeling. As the editor at that time of the latest and fullest version of Dodgson’s diaries, Wakeling had suggested that Dodgson’s interest in girls had been merely paternal. If so, why was there a falling out between the Liddell family and Dodgson in June 1863? Pages from his diary for this period, which might have explained the matter, were cut out and never recovered. Wakeling plays the rift down as unimportant, saying it lasted only “a few weeks”; but Cohen shows this “few weeks” lasted from 27 June to 19 December, almost half a year (25 weeks) when Dodgson was unable to see his beloved Alice, or her sisters.

Cohen also points out that in addition to this blatant minimisation, Wakeling ignored an important letter that Lorina, Alice’s older sister, sent to Alice in 1930 when they were both elderly. Lorina was reporting a meeting with an early Dodgson biographer, Florence Becker Lennon. Lorina wrote:

“I said his manner became too affectionate to you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it, and that offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again – as one had to find some reason for all intercourse ceasing…Mr D. used to take you on his knee…I did not say that.”

By this time Alice would have been 11. Girls typically did not reach menarche in those days until around 14 to 17 – much later than now. So in all probability she was still physically very much a child. On the other hand, the age of consent in those days was 12. Small wonder Mrs Liddell was vigilant, given that Alice, child or not, would soon be “legal”! Having said this, though, it may be that the rift was caused by Mrs Liddell finding out that Dodgson was becoming too close to Lorina as well, an intimacy we shall see hinted at below.

However that may be, Cohen’s revelations have done little to stem the public demand for an innocent Dodgson, along with our ever more strident insistence upon childhood innocence. And Wakeling has proved ever the man to supply that demand in a plausible, but to my mind deliberately misleading, manner. For the 150th anniversary, he has come up with a book called Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle, which looks at the writer through his social circle, which included royalty, musicians, publishers and artists. Yes, as he points out, Dodgson was a sophisticated character at ease in adult company; he was not an oddball loner, as some have suggested, who could relate only to children.

But so what? Wakeling implies that such sophistication was incompatible with paedophilia, which is simply false. It wouldn’t play too well as an excuse in a modern criminal court, would it?

“It is true, Your Honour, that images of children depicted in, ahem, somewhat carnal disport, were found on my client’s computer; but he also did a lot of excellent still life photography, fruit arranged in bowls, that sort of thing. Clearly, he is a cultured individual whose motives are artistic, not prurient…”

As for Wakeling’s elaborate charts of Dodgson’s letters and photographs, they appear designed to downplay the child theme by generating a bigger context: there were a vast number of letters to adults (albeit many to parents of his child friends) as well as to children; around 60% of his known photos of individuals were of children, but that still leaves a chunky 40% that were of adult subjects, and he did landscapes, etc., as well. What this ignores is the missing diary pages (whole volumes of his diaries are missing too), plus Dodgson’s letters to Alice Liddell, burnt by her mother, and a great many letters and photos destroyed or lost (only about 1,000 photos remain out of 3,000 he is known to have taken), probably by Dodgson’s heirs and possibly even by an early biographer: an obvious reason for disposing of such material would have been its embarrassing or even incriminating nature.

Wakeling’s technique seems to be to throw up a smoke screen of genuinely well researched scholarly detail in the hope that readers will be too impressed to notice its irrelevance. If Dodgson were on trial today over his “indecent” photos, Wakeling’s style of defence would cut no ice with the judge, as noted above; the jury wouldn’t buy it either.

But his actual jury is far more generous: his jurors are all the Alice fans out there, millions of them around the globe, many of them desperate to believe in Dodgson’s innocence and keen to read books in which it is asserted. I found myself among a hundred or more last week when Wakeling spoke to the Oxford Literary Festival about his new book, along with Vanessa Tait, grand daughter of Alice Liddell, no less, who was talking about her forthcoming Alice-themed novel The Looking-Glass House.

The event was held in the 15th century Divinity School beneath Oxford University’s ancient Bodleian Library, a magnificently ornate and august setting right in the very heart of Dodgson City, as it were. Not wanting to be run out of town by angry Carolingians (the noun being from Charles Dodgson, not from Lewis Carroll), I thought it best not to be too blunt when I asked a question from the floor. With an air of perhaps not entirely convincing innocence, I mildly pointed out that Dodgson had once written ”I’m fond of children (except boys)”. Would the speakers care to comment?

Up to that point I sensed a certain anxiety on the platform. Presenter Alastair Niven, a literary critic, invited questions afterwards from anyone who might “dare” to ask them. When I asked mine, Wakeling’s eyes positively sparkled with what may have been delight but I suspect it was relief, along the lines, “Oh, good, I can handle this one without things getting nasty”.

His answer was blandly reassuring: just Dodgson’s dry humour; friendly towards boys too; took about 100 photos of them; boys were usually at school when he went calling; girls in those days stayed at home, so he saw more of them. Ergo, Dodgson not dodgy. Simple!

But Vanessa Tait, who distinctly resembles her famous forebear Alice Liddell, was by no means as simplistic in her own response, and turned out to be distinctly at odds with Wakeling when someone asked what the pair of them thought of the BBC’s 150th anniversary documentary, aired in January and titled The Secret World of Lewis Carroll. Whereas Wakeling professed himself outraged by the programme, Tait seemed quite happy with it.

Presented by current affairs broadcaster Martha Kearney, the documentary was to a great extent a fan piece, actually. As a child, Kearney tells us, she took the role of Alice in a stage production of Alice Through the Looking-Glass in the village where she grew up. She loved the Alice books at that time and has been a Carroll devotee ever since.

Unlike Wakeling, though, she seemed keen to explore the truth about Dodgson’s desires. For her, this turned out to mean confronting a photo she said no respectable Victorian mother would have approved of. A nude photo of a little girl might have been acceptable in those days, but not one of a sexually maturing 14-year-old. Just such a photo, labelled “Lorina Liddell” on the back and attributed to “L. Carroll”, was discovered by the programme makers in a museum in far-off Marseilles. The overall conclusion, drawing on experts in photography and face identification, was that it was probably authentic.

Wakeling, who had long known about this photo, was having none of it. The experts’ opinions proved nothing, he insisted. His ire, though, was chiefly directed at the programme makers for failing to ask his own opinion, as though that would have settled the matter! However, when he had the opportunity in Oxford to do just that, he said nothing that I found even remotely persuasive. He did not even mention the inscription, much less refute its authenticity! His silence on this crucial evidence suggested to me he had nothing meaningful to say about the meaning of this photograph. All we learned was that he gets rather cross when anyone disputes his self-proclaimed magisterial authority!

A bit like Humpty Dumpty in fact: the photo means just what he chooses it to mean – neither more nor less. It’s all about which – or who – is to be the master.

*In the first version of this blog I wrongly said he introduced the term in 1886. That was when the first edition of his book Psychopathia Sexualis appeared. However, the term paedophilia erotica did not appear until the 12th edition, in 1912. I should have remembered my blog of 15 November last year in which this was mentioned. The term was included in the “Psychopathological Cases” section of Chapter Five, on sexual crimes. Oops, still not right! As Filip has kindly pointed out, in the comments below, there appears to have been at least a very brief mention of the term in the 10th edition, published in 1898.


The GlobalPost, an online news outfit based in Boston, Mass., but not owned by the Boston Globe newspaper group, ran two big articles last month arising from the “sex abuse crisis” in Britain. They were filed by Corinne Purtill, an American reporter who is GlobalPost’s correspondent based in London. The more general article of the two adopts an uncritical approach, in which the events in Britain are viewed as a real crisis over actual “abuse”, rather than a moral panic over alleged abuse.

The other article is based on a phone interview with me. My initial response was that it is as bad as the general piece, mainly because it quotes me out of context: what I said was backed up by references to research, such as the work of Rind, Clancy and others; but these supporting authorities are deleted, so I probably come across as an obsessive crank. However, a number of other people have said they thought this article was quite good.

You can see for yourself, and make up your own mind:

The child sex abuse scandals engulfing Britain“:


This man is a pedophile, and proud of it

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