Professor Allyn Walker was recently placed on leave from Old Dominion University and will step down next year. In an interview promoting the book A Long, Dark Shadow, the professor said that sexual attraction to children, by itself, isn’t immoral and should not be stigmatized. People have no control over their sexual attractions, the argument went, and while child abuse is undeniably wrong, some people have these attractions without acting on them. These thoughts echoed material in the book itself, published by the University of California Press months earlier—not to mention Walker’s dissertation from 2017—but they went viral in a way that the book hadn’t and led to Walker’s firing.
One can make a case that Walker’s academic freedom was violated, and that Walker may be conducting important work in an area few people are willing even to think about—but Walker is also a fringe figure spouting dangerous nonsense. Academics should not lose their jobs for expressing controversial views, especially when their universities were aware of those views long before the mob got wind of them. And to prevent child abuse, we must study pedophiles, including those who manage not to act on their desires. Yet the future course that Walker proposes for society is crazy.
As Walker explains, “pedophilia” is a scientific term defined as sexual attraction to prepubescent children. By the term’s formal definition, a pedophile isn’t necessarily someone who actually abuses children (other terms apply to people attracted to older minors). In some sense, pedophilia is a sexual orientation, a programming of the brain that categorizes some types of people as sexually appealing and the rest not.
The book revolves around interviews Walker conducted of 42 people who are attracted to children but do not act on those urges. Walker found these subjects through online communities in which such people provide one another moral support: VirPed, for example, stands for “Virtuous Pedophiles.” The vast majority of Walker’s subjects reported being attracted to age ranges that included ten-year-olds, though most said that they were not exclusively attracted to minors and had at least some attraction to adults.
A Long, Dark Shadow explores the lives of these individuals, including whether they have told their families and friends, whether they have been to a mental-health professional, whether they’ve fallen into substance abuse or found healthy ways of coping, what they gain out of their involvement in online communities, and so on. That’s the book’s major contribution. Society has an immense interest in getting pedophiles not to act on their desires, and Walker has collected important data on a group of people who do this voluntarily, where previous research has generally focused on sex offenders.
Walker’s idea of how society might improve its treatment of pedophiles is far less salutary.
Here, a few things go almost without saying. First, we punish people criminally for what they do, not for what they think. So long as a pedophile doesn’t act on his desires, no grounds exist for imprisoning him. Second, under the First Amendment, these non-offending individuals have every right to speak with one another, and indeed online communities can provide substantial benefit if they help their members refrain from abusing children. Third, if a pedophile who doesn’t abuse children seeks therapy, our nation’s mental-health apparatus should do everything possible to help that individual.
The problem is that Walker would go much further than this. Walker would like to “remove the stigma of attraction to minors and place it solely on the behavior of sexual offending against children”—an extension of the much broader campaign against “stigma” for mental illness. This allegedly would decrease child abuse, because pedophiles would be more willing and able to “come out” and get the help and support they need.
To give a sense of what’s meant here—and, for the sake of argument, to set aside the slim chances of society going along—Walker refers to the book’s subjects as “minor-attracted people,” or MAPs, to avoid not only the semantic muddle but also the stigma associated with “pedophile” and similar terms. (One of Walker’s subjects calls MAP a “euphemism,” a more forthright way of putting it.) Walker also laments the treatment of pedophiles in the media and the resulting lack of positive role models, evoking the thought of pedophiles getting their Modern Family moment in prime time.
If you’re curious how much you should trust Walker’s guess as to how a radical social experiment like this might unfold, you will want to know that, as laid out in the book’s preface, Walker is also a police and prison abolitionist. The idea here is that society would “divest” from the justice system and “reinvest” the money so that “people receive the support they need from others before they commit a crime”—as though some social program could completely replace the deterrence, retribution, and incapacitation of the criminal-justice apparatus that every modern human society uses to deal with some share of its population. Walker’s book is, at least indirectly, an argument that pedophilia could be managed with the same gentle approach that criminal-justice abolitionists would apply to robbery and wife-beating and ax-murdering.
The distinction between attraction and behavior is, of course, key to any argument for destigmatizing pedophilia, and Walker tries to make that distinction as stark as possible. We can all understand the difference between temptation and sin, but Walker sometimes crosses the line into assertions that are obviously untrue, as when Walker contends that pedophiles and sex offenders are “entirely distinct groups.”
At the risk of stating the obvious, sexual desires are, in fact, an extremely strong influence on behavior. Even if some child molesters can’t be diagnosed with pedophilia, there can be little doubt that pedophiles are highly disproportionately represented among child sex abusers. Tacitly conceding the link, Walker devotes a whole chapter to the ways in which non-offending pedophiles “strategize” to avoid committing sexual offenses—such as by avoiding interactions with kids or making sure another adult is present when such interactions occur—and notes that remaining “resilient” against the temptation to offend was “fraught with struggle” for some subjects. People who have to strategize to avoid sexually abusing children should alarm us.
Such a hard distinction between non-acting pedophiles and actual sex offenders probably wouldn’t persuade the public, either. In judging someone’s behavior, we consider the desires, emotions, and motivations behind it. This is partly how we end up with different “degrees” of murder, or “aggravating” and “mitigating” factors in sentencing. Stigmatizing pedophiles’ desires, and not merely the behavior in and of itself, conveys a hard-line, zero-tolerance attitude toward child molestation—not only is this wrong and to be punished severely, but we can’t even fathom why you’d want to do it. Destigmatizing the desires would relax that attitude. Perhaps it is unfair that pedophiles face stigma even if they have no intention of acting on their desires and are not to blame for having the desires in the first place; yet this is a consequence we can live with if it even marginally reduces child sex abuse.
Of course, whether it does reduce child abuse is another question. In asking what would happen if we destigmatized pedophilia, we are almost purely in the land of fantasy and guesswork. But a good starting point for analysis is that when you destigmatize something, you get more of it, and Walker’s book fails to convince that this is a risk worth taking. The chance that normalizing pedophilic attractions would lead to more abusive behavior is far too great.
Some of Walker’s subjects already report a belief that consensual relationships between adults and children are possible or confess having used child pornography. And given how many of Walker’s subjects have a mix of attractions to children and adults, which allows them to have grown-up relationships despite their other desires, we should be extremely careful about accepting the other part of their sexuality as a legitimate identity in any way.
Events since the victory of gay marriage give us reason to worry as well. When society became more accepting of homosexual desires and behavior, often even celebrating gays’ legal triumphs, it didn’t merely allow a tiny, fixed percentage of the population to live openly. The share of Americans identifying as non-heterosexual drastically increased, driven by young women. As a father, I have no interest in re-running this experiment with pedophilia.
Put succinctly, A Long, Dark Shadow gives us a look at a population we should want to understand. It also gives us a look at the worldview of its author, which we should find terrifying.