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Pete Townsend has been arrested for subscribing to a child pornography website. He says he’s not a paedophile. I believe him.

What a mixed up, murky issue he has got himself into. For a start it’s never clear what exactly is paedophilia. Does it include all sexual abuse of children? What about family incest, does that qualify? And what is sexual abuse more generally? Is it exclusively perpetrated by males and if not is it then less serious? Should all sex below a certain age be considered non-consensual? These are only some of the questions difficult to answer.

Unfortunately much of what passes for wisdom on the matter is presided over by the tabloid press. It elects to uphold the consensus morality. Complexity is not within its remit. It prefers, in a hysterical drive to protect children and family values, to identify scapegoats. It prefers to project bile on to a small minority of sad men with unfortunate impulses. All the better if they are Catholic priests.

If sexual abuse in general is the real issue, and I believe it should be, then what goes on in the darker recesses of family life is just as contemptible as the lonesome sod in a raincoat. But these days family life is considered sacrosanct. Being a parent in itself lays claim to some kind of moral superiority. Instead of addressing the matter with equanimity and intelligence we create a class of perverted individuals based on a depraved stereotype and hold those who fit the category wholly responsible for the misconduct when in fact they probably represent a relatively small part of the problem.

It is illegal to engage with child pornography. It is also deemed immoral. But when engagement amounts to looking, how immoral is that? It may stoke demand but looking isn’t doing. Looking is just a step away from thinking. Can it be illegal to think certain thoughts? Obviously not. How about drawing or painting such images. Should that be illegal too? Although most have no desire for any kind of exposure to child pornography there are no doubt many who do. This may be a deviant impulse but not necessarily immoral as the motives for doing so are complex. Creative artists have throughout history needed to go places in their thoughts that most would find repellant. That does not make them deserving of moral condemnation in itself and certainly not subject to retribution. There is something almost medieval in the push to expose individuals in this way.

Children need to be protected by society from abuse wherever its source. Society itself needs to be protected from moral imbeciles looking for an outlet for their hatred. The predicament of those in need of care is not assisted by an idiot mentality which can’t distinguish between a paedophile and a paediatrician! This is as dangerous in other ways to the fabric of society as sexual abuse is to the individuals whose lives have been blighted by it. Chris Morris in his brilliant comedy sketches has done well to satirise these absurdities.

If ever an issue was in need of some insight this is one. It’s a serious and complex matter which throws up as many questions as it answers. Townsend is caught up in it and to that extent is a victim. Of course he should have known better but he and the many others witch-hunted are being picked off because they can be. They are an easy target. Their crime is identifiable and provable while the real perpetrators remain largely unidentified, many of them hidden behind the vale of domesticity.

There’s a hysteria around all this currently that verges on prurience. There’s a pressing need to protect children from sexual abuse. These are two different things.

written 2003 following Pete Townsend's arrest