There are some newspaper reports which lead you to believe that journalists (and editors) have either taken leave of their senses or suspended disbelief for the sake of a gripping pull-out quote. Get this: 'Today in Britain there are probably 1.1 million paedophiles at large.'
Opinion: Spot the paedophile
It appeared - unchallenged, taken as fact - in a recent Guardian article headlined 'The epidemic in our midst that went unnoticed' (2 June 1998) - part of a four-part special on paedophilia, 'the most secret crime'.
This is the kind of statistic that takes my breath away because it is such obvious bunkum. Think about it for a minute. There are only just over 57 million people in Britain of whom 30 million are women. Of the men, 5.5 million are under 15 years of age. At the risk of causing upset to those who like to remind us that women and children can be sex abusers too, I am going to eliminate them as potential paedophiles. So we're left with 21.5 million likely suspects. If you are prepared to believe that there are 1.1 million paedophiles among them you will presumably accept that one man in 20 is a sexual deviant who preys on children.
Who are these men? Unfashionable as it may be to say so, I do not believe I know any paedophiles. I know they don't come complete with a lounge-lizard leer and a dirty old raincoat, and I know that paedophilia is 'easy to commit, easy to get away with' (the Guardian article takes every opportunity to remind me of this); even so, I believe I'm sufficiently astute to suss out the sexual predictions of my male friends. Furthermore, I refuse to accept that so many men have a depraved interest in undeveloped bodies with even less developed minds.
Does the author of this piece really expect us to believe that he considers one in 20 of his male acquaintances to be a paedophile, conniving to find a way to molest the young and vulnerable? I don't think so.
The 1.1 million paedophiles that journalist Nick Davies warns us of are truly faceless figments of his imagination. The fact that they are conjured from statistical analysis does not make them any less fictional. The narrative of the article itself reveals the shakiness of its foundations.
Davies admits that nobody knows the exact numbers, but he says 'to construct a picture is to watch an arithmetical explosion'. We are invited to 'start with a hard fact' (which is an important if unconscious indication of how few other hard facts inform the calculation). The hard fact is that 'at the last count there were 2100 child sex abusers behind the bars of British jails'. Now we are asked to think of all those who have previously been convicted but who have been released back into the community - about 108,000 according to the home office. Then we have to think about all the child victims who are 'conned, confused and never report their abuse'. We are told that specialist police believe that official figures for convictions account for no more than 10 per cent of the paedophile population, which draws us to the gob-smacking conclusion that 'today in Britain there are probably 1.1 million paedophiles at large'. Other studies apparently suggest that the figure is 'very much higher'.
This is apparently consistent with 'prevalence studies' which also rely on statistical wizardry. Samples are taken of the population, it is established how many are 'victims of abuse' and then this figure is projected on to the population as a whole. Prevalence studies suggest that in Britain 20 per cent of women and eight per cent of men have been victims of sexual abuse. 'In the current population of UK children', the Guardian warns us, 'that would cover 1.5 million girls and 520,000 boys'.
Scary stuff. But the major problem with prevalence studies, which is widely recognised by sociologists, is that they reflect the definition of the issue under scrutiny. A prevalence study of 'child sex abuse' hinges on what you regard as 'sex abuse'. Commonly it involves questions such as the following: did anybody ever try or succeed in touching your breasts or genitals against your wishes before you turned 14? Did anybody ever feel you, grab you or kiss you in a way you felt was threatening? Were you ever a victim of attempted petting? With questions like this it is difficult to work out why the prevalence rate is not 100 per cent.
According to Neil Gilbert, a professor in social welfare at the University of California, some studies even correct for the fact that people do not consciously recall traumatic events before the age of five. One US study claims 'the corrected incidence rates [of sexual abuse] are at least 60 per cent for girls and 45 per cent for boys'. Accept this if you must, but also accept Gilbert's appraisal: that this would mean a sexually abused child in almost every family in the US (or two abused children in every other family). Not very likely is it?
I'm sure the authors of the Guardian's paedophile exposés are concerned and well intentioned. They may argue that I am in denial, and that it is people like me who allow the abuse to continue because we close our eyes to it. In response I would argue that my eyes are wide open - and particularly open to claims and allegations which beggar belief, but in so doing cause needless panic and suspicion.
Reproduced from LM issue 112, July/August 1998