“With knives and branding irons, ancient Greeks would slice and burn criminals and traitors to denote their immorality or lack of fitness for regular society. Such a mark was called a “stigma”, and an individual bearing a stigma was to be discredited, scorned, and avoided.”
(Neuberg, Smith & Asher – from ‘Why People Stigmatize: Toward a Biocultural Framework’)
Stigma is arguably the concept that best describes the condition of paedophiles in contemporary WEIRD society. It is the background noise to our lives. Stigma affects both Radical paedophiles and VirPeds alike. It casts its shadow whether you are ‘out’ or whether you are ‘in’; whether you’re a life-long celibate or whether you’ve shared intimacy with a child; whether you’ve serving time for an ‘offence’ or whether you’ve never so much as looked at the kids’ section in your mum’s clothing catalogue.
If other people are the mirror by which we know ourselves, Stigma is what we see when we look into their eyes. Eventually it can become what we see when we picture ourselves in our imagination.
Stigma can take on disguises and surprise us, popping up in unexpected places. In one of my early posts (On Being Creepy) I touch on how I’d long assumed I’d escaped stigma, only to realise quite recently that my 30 years-worth of work as an artist has essentially explored stigma. Ever since, I have noticed more and more ways that stigma has left its traces on my life and shaped me.
This essay considers stigma from a theoretical perspective. At the same time I intend to give some general indications as to how the stigma associated with paedophilia fits into this framework.
What is Stigma?
A stigma is ‘blemish’ of the body, of the character, or of the identity which, in the eyes of others, reduces its bearer from a whole, normal person to someone tainted, discounted, dehumanised, feared and avoided.
In personal interactions a stigma acts as a screen interposed between the stigma-perceiver and the stigma-bearer and which prevents the perceiver from seeing those things that constitute the stigma-bearer’s true identity. Stigma dominates the perceiver’s view.
Some examples of stigmatised identities are: adolescents, blacks, the disabled, the disfigured, drug users, ex-convicts, homosexuals, the illiterate, the mentally ill, the obese, old people, people with cancer, racists, welfare recipients, women & zoophiles (note that some conditions are universally stigmatised, such as mental illness, others, such as obesity, are not).
We have all experience of being both stigma-bearers and being stigmatisers. For example: we have all been children, and children often do both.
Children are stigma-bearers in that they are considered and treated as incomplete humans.
Children also stigmatise their peers for the least of reasons – a funny name, wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes, having the ‘wrong’ friend, showing signs of poverty… As children we have all experienced being hollowed out and dehumanised for some infraction of some arbitrary rule imposed by one’s peers.
Stigma can vary in intensity. It can be life-changingly intense – leading to genocide and suicide, or it may merely result in someone being ignored or overlooked. Indeed stigma might be ever-present in social situations, but usually at such low levels that we don’t notice it and have no trouble in managing it, either as stigma-bearer or perceiver.
Stigma is also context-sensitive: an average-looking person may feel perfectly unstigmatised when socialising with his equally plain friends. But when he goes to a night-club where everyone else is beautiful, he will experience stigma. And not only during interactions. When not interacting he may feel his plainness being notice and may interpret a lack of interaction as a sign that he is being labelled by the beautiful people as not worth engaging with i.e. stigmatised.
Dimensions of stigma
Erving Goffman, in his classic book ‘Stigma: Notes on the management of Spoiled Identity‘ organises stigma into three categories:
- abominations of the body
- blemishes of individual character
- tribal identities
Abominations of the body include disease, disfigurement and disability.
Blemishes of individual character are moral failings, such as dishonesty, unemployment and addiction.
Tribal identities include stigmatised out-groups, races, nations and religions.
Stigmas can belong to more than one category: the stigma associated with paedophilia is principally a ‘blemish of individual character’. However the stigma has elements of tribal identity (paedophile rings, elite paedophiles, celebrity paedophiles, islamic child exploitation gangs). And if we consider how the media depicts paedophiles, systematically choosing those representations that conform to the so-called ‘paedo look’, it also has elements of ‘abominations of the body’.
Another dimension Goffman identifies is that of ‘the Discredited’ and ‘the Discreditable’. This refers to the visibility and concealability of a stigma and intersects with the above categorisation.
Someone with a facial deformity has their stigma on permanent display and knows that all who see him are aware and affected by his stigma. In any interaction where he is visible he is ‘discredited’. Paedophiles, on the other hand, are ‘discreditable’: our stigma is not on display or readily detectable. Those with discreditable stigmas can manage their social interactions in such a way that their stigmas remain concealed; they can appear normal; they can ‘pass’.
Edward E. Jones et al (1984) propose another categorisation which intersects with Goffman’s:
- course of the mark
Concealability corresponds to Goffman’s Discredited/Discreditable.
Course of the mark refers to whether the stigmatising blemish becomes more or less salient over time (e.g. multiple sclerosis vs congenital blindness).
Paedophilia is a stigma which has a ‘course’, specifically an onset. Two factors determine the onset of the stigma:
- the desirer must have reached an age (generally puberty) at which society is willing to consider the bearer as having sexual preferences.
- the desirer’s age must have pulled away from the age of the desired by a significant margin.
This means that people with younger chronophilias (nepiophilia and paedophilia) can, in theory, become subject to stigma as soon as they enter puberty.
Disruptiveness refers to the degree to which the stigmatised characteristic interferes with the flow of interpersonal interactions (e.g. stuttering vs homosexuality). Paedophilia is not, in itself, disruptive.
Aesthetics relates to the perceived unattractiveness of the stigma. This applies as much to ‘blemishes of character’ (e.g. the gut-reaction against paedophilia) and to ‘tribal identity’ as it does to ‘abominations of the body’.
Origin: there are two categories of origin:
– ‘existential stigmas’ derive from a condition which the bearer either did not cause or over which he has little control (e.g. congenital deformity, epilepsy, injuries sustained in a natural disaster);
– ‘achieved stigmas’ are earned through conduct, or because the bearer contributed heavily to attaining that stigma (e.g. child molester, tattoos, smoking-related diseases).
The question of origin is probably the most important factor in determining the public’s attitude towards a stigma. It tells us how responsible the bearer is for their stigma. Bearers who seem to have chosen their stigma provoke hostility, whereas those whose stigmas have been imposed on them provoke sympathy or pity.
This explains the public strategy of the Virtuous Pedophiles, and their enthusiasm for Dr James Cantor – who claims that paedophilia is a congenital (and therefore ‘existential’) condition rather than an ‘achieved’ one. Accordingly, Virpeds systematically take the position that they are paedophiles against their own wills, and often express the wish that they could be rid of the condition.
It’s a strategy that appears to work: members of the public who are persuaded of their sincerity generally become more tolerant of paedophiles than those who aren’t. However, this tolerance only applies to non-offending paedophiles. A paedophile who offends becomes a ‘child molester’ and activates a whole new dimension of responsibility, that effaces any tolerance gained from the stigma’s ‘existential’ status.
Peril refers to the perceived danger to others of the stigmatising condition (e.g. a contagious disease vs being overweight). Paedophilia is, of course, considered as being intensely perilous.
When there is a consensus that a stigma is merited, stigmatisation can be deliberate, willed, and supported by society and its institutions (as happens with paedophilia).
People can also be unaware that they are stigmatising, as is often the case in interactions with people for whom we feel compassion, such as old people or children.
Individuals and societies can sometimes be in conflict with our stigmatising responses. We can be aware that we have stigmatising responses, but fight them – this has happened, on both individual and institutional levels (positive discrimination) with respect to homosexuality, racial minorities, the disabled and women.
The following table (from “Social Norms and the Expression and Suppression of Prejudice: The Struggle for Internalization” by Crandall et al) presents a list of stigmatised groups ranked according to how acceptable it is to express prejudice towards them. As we go from ‘Child abusers’ (the most acceptable targets for prejudice) to ‘blind people’ (the least) we observe a general shift from ‘socially approved hatred and disgust’ to ‘socially approved compassion or pity’.
the functions of stigma I
Stigma is necessary. It is a response to peril which ensures that the group is sensitive to, and has a coördinated response to, threats to its effective functioning and survival.
This response can take the form of repression, punishment, banishment, avoidance, treatment, discrimination, liquidation…
The stigma-bearer can respond through concealment, self-abasement, treatment, isolation, exile or suicide; or he may endeavour to repudiate and oppose the stigmatisation of his ‘condition’.
Reciprocity, Trust and the Promotion of Common Values are basic principles of group living. All societies stigmatise those who violate or undermine these principals e.g thieves violate the principle of reciprocity; cheats violate trust; subversives and deviants undermine the promotion of common values.
Paedophiles violate all three of these principles: ‘Reciprocity’ – because they violate parents’ ownership of their children, and steal their ‘innocence’; ‘Trust’ – because in western societies child-adult relationships must be conducted secretly and against the will of the parents and society; the ‘Promotion of Common Values’ – because paedophilia challenges the belief (fundamental to societies based on the nuclear family) that children are asexual (see here for an in-depth explanation of this).
To the above three principles we can add: threats from outside groups (which fuels tribal stigma), threats to physical health of the group, unpredictability (because social life requires adherence to rules and scripts), threats to reproductive fitness (including bearers of congenital diseases, rapists, homosexuals, paedophiles) and incompetence.
Stigma can also be generated by vested interests or the need to justify the status quo. Such stigma often involves institutional discrimination and segregation. An example of this is the way white America developed stigmatising racial ideologies that justified the seizure of lands from native tribes and the enslavement of negroes.
The distinction between Vested Interests and Promotion of Common Values is not always clear, but is one that is particularly relevant to the stigma associated with paedophilia: the stigma arises because paedophilia is a threat to common values, but it is amplified by vested interests such as the Child Sex Abuse industry.
Stigmatisation can happen on three levels: prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination (which correspond to feelings, beliefs and behaviour).
Stereotypes are by definition inaccurate. They are either entirely false, partially false, or exaggerations. An accurate stereotype is simply a ‘description’. To say ‘paedophiles generally see children as sexual beings‘ is not a stereotype but an accurate description; to conflate ‘the paedophile’ with the ‘sex-offender’ is a stereotype since the correlation between the two is far weaker than the stereotype suggests.
It is not always clear whether something is a ‘stereotype’ or a ‘description’. For example: the idea that paedophiles have a lower than average IQ has not been resolved. But what we can be sure of is that the general public has not derived this ‘knowledge’ from experience, or from rigorous and objective observation.
They have extrapolated this characteristic from an existing stereotype, such as that of the ‘paedo look’ – a ‘look’ which, like that of the ‘mad scientist’, has no empirical validity, but so well embodies society’s fears that people draw inferences from it, inferences perpetuated by photo-editors who have an interest in pandering to the public’s stereotypes.
the functions of stigma II
Stigmas that elicit stereotypes can act as buffers against anxiety through enhancing real and perceived control. The stereotypes associated with such stigmas enable the perceiver to make inferences about the character and future behaviour of the stigma-bearer(s).
The stereotypes associated with paedophilia allow the perceiver to ‘spot’ paedophiles and make predictions concerning their behaviour. Given that stereotypes are, by definition, inaccurate this often means that stereotype-based responses are inappropriate or disproportional. At their most extreme they fuel moral panics and witch-hunts. This over-reaction, though unjust and troubling, is probably valuable to group survival: Nature generally opts for ‘overkill’ when there is little cost or risk for doing so (our instinctive disgust for faeces is disproportionate to the actual health risks it poses. This overkill is possible because there are few, if any, benefits to contact with faeces and no real cost to having an over-aversion to it).
Some stigmas can have a therapeutic function: comparing oneself to someone less fortunate can foster a sense of well-being and self-esteem. And stigmas that activate socially approved prejudice, if perceived as widely shared (again, the stigma around paedophilia is an example) also create a reassuring sense of social solidarity: ‘I may be a wrong-un but at least I hate nonces’.
Self-fulfilling prophecies happen when the targets of an initially erroneous stereotype end up behaving in a manner that confirms the stereotype. This specious confirmation of the stereotype then serves as proof that the originally erroneous stereotype is in fact correct.
Both the placebo and nocebo effects are examples of self-fulfilling prophecies. Another example is the effect of teacher expectation on pupils’ success or failure rates.
I suspect that self-fulfilling prophecy plays a major part in paedophiles’ lives. We shape our identity from the range of identities society makes available to us. If there exists no counter-identity to the available stereotype that most closely matches your self-perception (i.e. paedophile), then there is great pressure to adopt that stereotype (or aspects of it) as your identity. If you find yourself attracted to little boys and the only narrative you know for that attraction is that of ‘the Predator’ – then there is a significant likelihood that your self-perception will drift in that direction.
Think of someone living in biblical times suffering from the condition we today know as ‘epilepsy’. The only explanation for their symptoms is the highly stigmatising one of ‘demonic possession’. No narrative of neurological disorders existed in that society. So neither stigma-bearer, nor their society, could adopt the far less stigmatising narrative of a congenital, non-contagious neurological condition. The sufferer has no option but to believe themselves to be demonically possessed.
Stigma is contagious. Those who associate with stigmatised persons can themselves become proxy bearers of that stigma. This is known as ‘courtesy stigma’ and explains why, for example, in many cultures, people hide any mental illness amongst their family members.
Courtesy stigma increases the social isolation of stigmatised people, making those who don’t join in the stigmatisation pay a price. The price can be a heavy: during witch-panics those who defended witches, or denied their existence, often ended accused of being witches themselves. Or it can be low-level: those who care for the disabled or mentally ill generally being accorded a low-status.
The stigma associated with paedophilia is so strong that anyone who knowingly remains friends with a paedophile, or who casts doubt on the dominant narrative, is assumed to be a paedophile himself.
Another example of courtesy stigma is the witch-hunt of BBC employees, especially disc-jockeys, after the ‘revelations’ concerning Jimmy Savile, and the suspicion cast on politicians after the Westminster Paedophile Ring furore.
Even professionals are wary of working with paedophiles. Dr James Cantor in his 2016 paper “Non-Offending Pedophiles” (the first paper in his 14 years of research into paedophilia to actually use the word ‘stigma’) writes:
“Clinicians who do offer treatment to this population may face prejudice and discrimination for simply providing services to non-offending pedophiles.”
Those of us who have been outed, who have had dealings with the law or the mob, will be only too aware of the virulence and intensity of the stigma that comes from being ‘discredited’ in face-to-face interactions.
But given how easy (and necessary) it is for us to conceal our stigma I suspect that most paedophiles’ experience of stigma comes not from stigma-laden interactions with people who know they are a paedophile, but is picked up from the ‘system’ – culture, the media, from people who don’t know you are a paedophile, one’s upbringing and education, knowledge of the law &c
Despite the system being saturated with negative stereotypes of paedophiles and paedophilia, the literature, preoccupied with interactive stigma, hardly addresses this source of stigma. Granted, systemic stigma is less spectacular than interactive stigma, being a slow, steady erosion rather than a dramatic crisis.
Systemic stigma is hearing people you love and respect, and who love and respect you too, unknowingly misrepresent, reject and slander you, wish you ill, or even dead; it is knowing that the law, your community, your society, if they knew, would hate you above even terrorists and rapists.
Systemic stigma is picking up the newspaper and seeing people like yourself being prosecuted, persecuted, misrepresented and slandered; it is the sense of injustice and unfairness when child murderers and paedophiles are conflated; systemic stigma humiliates us: so often we have to kiss the rod and remain silent when those about us speak untruths.
Systemic stigma is our de facto segregation from those we love; it is children being taught to fear strangers and ‘paedos’, to reject an intimacy, affection and friendship that they may also need and crave.
It is knowing that those whom you consider friends, if they learnt of your stigma, would no longer see ‘you’, but see instead your stigma.
To be continued…