You can’t blame people, especially parents, for being obsessed with paedophile fears. Endless institutional scandals mean there’s a powerful sense of ever-present danger. Add in the dark menace of the internet, seen as practically pulsating with uncontained paedophilia, and the fear ramps up still further. Nowhere is safe. The bogeymen are here, they’re hiding in the mobile devices that our kids take to bed with them every night. It’s no wonder that we’re in a state of outright paranoia.
Paedophiles have come to represent every evil in the world in the public imagination. But the problem with panicking about a pervert on every corner – or every chat-room – means that childhood has become distorted, and often defined, by these fears. Paedophile panic has perverted our understanding of normal adult/child relationships, fouling with suspicion even the most innocent and enriching interactions.
This is not to dismiss the reality of the threat. Of course it’s revolting to learn that paedophiles have been gloating over 731 photographs of local schoolgirls on a porn site. Sadly we live in a world where such loathsome people exist, and have easier access than ever to the kind of images through which they get their sorry kicks. But letting dread and revulsion of such activity pollute our everyday lives and the lives of our youngsters is a real failure of perspective and in the long-run does kids – and adults – a great disservice. Bringing children up with a pragmatic idea of stranger-danger is a beneficial thing, but rearing them to fear all solitary adult males as potential abusers is deeply damaging. It’s a desecration of their innocence, and it teaches them that the world is full of people trying to harm you.
It’s pretty tough on the men, too. Matthew Richards, a bird enthusiast, recently visited Puxton Park in Somerset with his three grandchildren to see a falconry display, then returned a few days later on his own to have another look at the amazing birds of prey. Puxton Park wouldn’t let him in. Why? Well, the theme park has a long-standing ban on admitting single adults as a matter of child protection. Puxton Park’s managing director Alistair Mead claimed the centre was “forced to implement stringent child protection policies” because of “the society in which we live in”. Mr Mead added that “we would rather be over-zealous when unaccompanied adults visit us armed with cameras than put children at any potential risk”.
I don’t know what it’s like to be automatically suspected as a predatory paedophile purely on the grounds that you happen to be male and on your own, and may or may not be “armed” – interesting word – with a camera. But I expect it feels rotten, demeaning, grotesquely unfair, a terrible slur.
We’ve got our ideas about what constitutes risk out of all sensible proportion. By this warped logic, single men shouldn’t be let into nightclubs in case they rape somebody. Better to be over-zealous than stand the chance of a sex crime, right? But the “potential risk” is potentially infinite. Where does it end? Mass surveillance? Enforced precautionary castration for all unattached males? I’m being facetious, but when catastrophic thinking takes over, especially if it happens at public authority level, there are no rational restraints on what extraordinary measures may be applied.
It’s really sad that we’ve got to such a state of gibbering paranoia. The old-fashioned idea that children can turn to other responsible adults in the absence of their parents has been badly compromised. “If you want to know the time, ask a policeman”: that was the saying. Not any more. Going up to a solitary man and engaging him in conversation? Are you mad?
Even sadder is the fact that children can’t rely on the assistance of adult strangers if they find themselves in trouble. In a social experiment, two very young girls stood for an hour in a shopping centre, looking lost. Out of the 600 people who walked by, only one, a grandmother, stopped to check that the children were OK, and she admitted she was “very hesitant” about doing so.
This is what happens when you pathologise relationships between the generations. It makes children vulnerable, fearful and isolated, and it deprives adults of their caring responsibilities towards all youngsters. Social breakdown beckons.
Is that a risk we really want to take?