The Times

March 18 2001

The paedophile bogeyman and the paranoid parents

Melanie Phillips
The Sunday Times

If you are a man intending to fly with British Airways, beware. You won't merely have to put up with your knees being jammed somewhere near your ears thanks to the lack of space between economy class seats, or the frustrating wait because of the computer breakdown at check-in. You will be branded a potential paedophile.

A businessman on a BA flight who happened to be sitting next to two children was amazed to be asked to move because the airline didn't like men sitting next to unaccompanied minors. He hadn't spoken to them, nor had they made any complaint. It was simply its policy, said BA, to keep men away from children because of the danger of paedophiles.

Many of us, women and men, might be delighted to be moved as far as possible from a screaming infant. But for BA to regard all men as potential paedophiles is to take leave of its collective senses. The number of children sexually assaulted by strangers is infinitesimal. The danger of paedophile assault on a flight is about as likely as the plane being struck by a meteorite.

What a muddle we're in over children and sexuality. On the one hand, there's a collective hysteria about child sexual abuse and paedophilia. On the other, this has become a paedophile society, with sexualised child images used in advertising and the connivance of ostensibly responsible adults in underage child sex by dishing out contraception to 14-year-olds.

So it wasn't surprising that when photographs of naked children were displayed in the name of art, the reaction was distinctly mixed. Scotland Yard was dismayed when the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take the Saatchi gallery to court for displaying such pictures. Detectives said the failure to prosecute would be used by paedophiles to justify their use of child pornography.

The photographs, by the American artist Tierney Gearon, were of her own children. One showed them standing on a beach, naked apart from grotesque adult female masks. Another displayed her son relieving himself in the snow. Gearon said these were the kind of pictures any mother might take. But most mothers do not use their naked children to make a visual comment about the boundaries of adult and child. And if parents take intimate pictures of their children, they keep them private. They do not display them for the world to see and even to buy.

By themselves, though, these pictures seemed a marginal case for a criminal prosecution. But detectives were particularly worried by another photograph taken by a second American photographer, Nan Goldin. This was of a naked child on the floor, with her legs splayed and the camera lens pointing up her private parts, staring up at the crotch of an older child who was partially clothed. This was certainly not the kind of family snap to be shown to grandma. As if to make the point totally clear, this picture was part of a large display featuring masturbation, drug injection and other sexually explicit and degrading images.

Disturbing the otherwise solid liberal consensus that these pictures were art, the film censor Andreas Whittam Smith said such "sexually disturbing images involving children" were unacceptable. Can this be the same Whittam Smith who passed for release the video of Lolita, which, unlike the novel, portrayed the child as the sexual predator - a release that provoked the outraged resignation of Michele Elliott, director of the children's charity Kidscape, from Whittam Smith's board of film censors?

Such confusion and ambiguity are the hallmarks of our society's responses to children's sexuality. The adult world has lost not only a clear view of what children are and of their needs but also all confidence in how to deal with them. The point is amply made in Paranoid Parenting, a new book by the sociologist Frank Furedi. He points out that some children's organisations would have us believe that even those we know and love in our families or communities can be paedophiles. So every stranger is a danger, and contact with children becomes an enterprise fraught with suspicion.

Parents, he says, are constantly in the highest anxiety about the safety of their offspring. Nannies and care workers are spied on, letting the child play outside is an act of neglect, children are driven to school. Every week fresh warnings arise about potential dangers to children out of all proportion to their occurrence. New parents live in fear of cot deaths, for example, even though these take the lives of only 300 babies out of more than 500,000 born each year.

More fundamentally, Furedi argues that parents have lost faith in their ability to look after their children because a bewildering battery of self-appointed experts has told them they are bumbling amateurs, but are expected to be experts in literacy and counselling. The child protection industry has transformed parenting from a routine experience to a complex skill.

The conclusion is that parenting has to be handed over to enlightened professionals to put right. Yet whether it's taking the baby to bed with you, when to toilet train, or whether or not to smack, these "experts" all contradict each other. The best place for their best-selling books is at the bottom of the soiled nappy bucket.

Furedi is right to point out that the climate of panic-driven parental self-denigration is way over the top. But he too easily dismisses some uncomfortable, unhysterical realities. There are dangers for children that didn't exist decades back - from the volume of traffic, for example, or from louts looking for trouble in unsupervised parks.

Moreover, increasing numbers of children are being emotionally or physically neglected by parents who are too selfish or inadequate to look after them properly. Parents harm their children through the break-up of their marriages. Fear of paedophiles runs hand in hand with parents encouraging or condoning their children's precocious sexualisation, from inappropriate clothes and cosmetics or exposure to sex-obsessed television to a passive attitude to early sexual activity on the grounds that it's the children's own choice.

It's easier to invent a bogeyman than look to deficiencies nearer to home. This isn't because parenting has become professionalised, but because it's become important for children to be quasi-adults in order to allow parents to remain irresponsible children.

The government thinks it can remedy this deficit through state-enforced parenting education. So in addition to being professionalised, parenting is now being politicised. A national network of parenting classes prescribing approved skills will merely rob parents yet further of the confidence to trust their own judgment. Furedi rightly criticises politicised parenting. But he ignores the fact that governments have undermined marriage, the family framework that makes good parenting most likely.

Reversing that attack is essential to repair the public institution that enables parents to carry out the private business of family most effectively, and provides the best protection against the sexual abuse that so preoccupies our collective imagination.

Copyright 2001, Times Newspapers Ltd.