The public is reviled by the predatory antics of Jimmy Savile that have recently come to light, no doubt rightly. Clearly, he had sexually exploited young fans over many years, while authorities turned a blind eye.
Since then, allegations have been levelled at several celebrities, past and present, and atonement is in the air for the decades of sexual abuse they are suspected of. Many more victims will no doubt emerge to recall episodes in the past.
But we need to keep a sense of proportion here. There is a danger of becoming hysterical about paedophilia and seeing it everywhere, like witches at Salem, or “Commies” in Hollywood during McCarthyism. Paedophiles do exist, but there are very few of them and not all are child molesters. It is possible to be attracted to children as a sexual orientation without acting upon those desires.
In my studies of the Paedophile Information Exchange in the 1980s, many members admitted sexual feelings for children which they had been able to contain or turn to social good. Some gravitated toward occupations such as schoolteacher or social worker, where they could enjoy the company of children without plotting abuse. This fitted with personality profiles indicating that they were gentle, rational and not disposed to harm anybody.
If not all paedophiles molest children, much child abuse (perhaps 80 per cent) is perpetrated by non-paedophiles, often family or friends. The UK legal age of consent of 16 is arbitrary. Many men admit attraction to underage girls, even if they would not consider taking advantage.
Others might be more lax (John Peel famously said that he “never checked the IDs” of the backstage fans who queued up to meet him after radio shows). But such men would not be called paedophiles unless they were exclusively attracted to children. Nor would we regard a female schoolteacher who has an affair with one of her teenage pupils a paedophile, however immoral her behaviour – “sexual abuse” is often referred to, whereas the term “paedophile” is rarely employed.
Perhaps we should stop looking for “peds under the bed” as scapegoats and focus on clarifying the criteria regarding unacceptable exploitation of those in vulnerable positions - whether due to age or any other circumstance.
This piece was edited on 23 October to remove a reference to victims wanting to "cash in" on episodes of sexual abuse in the past