Sanitizing Academics and Damaged Lives


On the 25th September 2018, I was privileged to speak at the launch in Derby of The Little Orange Book (Eaton and Paterson-Young, 2018). Among a range of key questions, this important book – informed by the early lived experiences of its first author – addresses: the impact of sexual abuse on children’s self-image and trust in self and others; the coping mechanisms used by children to cope with sexual abuse; and how children and their abusers are perceived by society.

I focused my talk on the ways in which child sexual abuse and exploitation has been sanitized by prominent academics – including internationally high profile intellectuals – over the last four decades, contrasting this with what is known about the impact of such abuse on the psychological development on those abused and exploited. I began by clarifying what I meant by ‘sanitizing’, which refers to making a practice that is obscene, abhorrent and vile less offensive by eliminating, camouflaging or denying the things about it that are unwholesome, objectionable or incriminating.

The content of my talk is placed below, between the two sets of asterisks.


Academics who sympathize with paedophilia constitute its intellectual public relations arm. Their role is to make child-adult sex presentable, more acceptable to the public, fit for polite society, sugar-coated, glossed with a scholarly veneer, sanitized. Snapshots of sanitizing academic activity from the last 40 years show how this seeps into and contaminates public policy, education and practice in insidious ways. This is done via the workings of power, privilege, perverse cronyism, and, as Pilgrim (2018) argues, as a result of widespread moral stupor and denial.

It’s astonishing that this happens in the face of the psychological and development features of complex post-trauma which are often a consequence of child sexual abuse. By pathologizing adult survivors, often with the ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ (BPD) tag, mainstream psychiatric business-as-usual plays out its role in suppressing the truth about the consequences of paedophilia among adult survivors.

Pilgrim (2018) reminds us that care and mutuality are core ethical features of all sexual practices. As someone who was for many years associated with cognitive therapy, I’m interested in ‘cognitive, or thought distortions’, which are used by people in rationalising their behaviour in self-serving ways. We know from Pilgrim and many other writers, researchers and practitioners about the rationalisations of perpetrators of child sexual abuse and exploitation. They include: Children are not victims but willing participants; They want it; They enjoy it; It’s about friendship; It’s about love; It helps children develop and mature.

According to Pilgrim (2018), the ‘heyday’ period of academic versions of such rationalisations was the 1970s. 1977 was the year of an unsuccessful lobby by French intellectuals to defend intergenerational sex. Included among these were the otherwise well-respected philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jaques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. These figures were at the forefront of the use of academic authority to lobby governments to liberalise and decriminalise adult-child sexual contact.

In 1978, Foucault took part in a France-Culture broadcast with two other gay theorists, Hocquengham and Danet, to discuss the legal aspects of sex between adults and children. They wanted a repeal of the law preventing this because they took the view that in a liberal (they really meant libertarian) society, sexual preferences generally should not be the business of the law.

Foucault, Hocquengham and Danet made the following assertions: that children can, and have the capacity to, consent to such relations without being coerced into doing so; that abuse and post-abuse trauma isn’t real;  that the law is part of an oppressive and repressive heteronormative social control discourse which unfairly targets sexual minorities; that children don’t constitute a vulnerable population; that children can and are capable of making the first move in seducing adults (they introduced here the category of ‘the seducing child’); that the laws against sexual relations between children and adults actually function to protect children from their own desires, making them an oppressed and repressed group; that – in the language of the sociologist Stanley Cohen – international public horror about sexual relations between adults and children is a form of moral panic which feeds into constructing the ‘paedophile’ as a folk devil, in turn provoking public vigilantism; that sex between adults and children is actually a trivial matter when compared  with ‘real crimes’ such as the murder of old ladies; that many members of the judiciary and other authority figures and groups don’t actually believe paedophilia to be a crime; and that consent should be a private contractual matter between the adult and the child.

Fast forward to 1981. The Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) has been active for seven years. This was a pro-paedophile activist group, founded in the UK in 1974 and officially disbanded in 1984. The group, an international organisation of people who traded in obscene material, campaigned for the abolition of the age of consent. Dr Brian Taylor, the research director and member of  PIE, and sociology lecturer at the University of Sussex produced the controversial book Perspectives on Paedophilia, which had the aim of enlightening social workers and youth workers about the benefits of paedophilia. Taylor, who identified as gay, advocated ‘guilt-free pederasty’ (sexual relations between two males, one of whom is a minor). He argued that people generally are hostile to paedophilia only because they don’t understand it, and If they did wouldn’t be so against it. So it was simply a matter of clearing up prejudice and ignorance.

At the same time, Ken Plummer,  currently emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Essex, eminent qualitative researcher of sexuality, chapter contributor to Perspectives on Paedophilia, and  a member of the  PIE, argued that applying sociology to the field of paedophilia would give it academic respectability, and help to relativise, humanise and normalise it.

Another contributor to the book, Peter Righton, was a child protection expert, social care worker, founding member and key academic figure in PIE, and a convicted child molester. Righton worked in children’s homes, was a lecturer in child protection and residential care, and taught at several British universities including the Open University and Birmingham. He was Director of Education at the National Institute of Social Work and also a consultant to the National Children’s Bureau.

Righton justified sexual relationships between adults and children in his academic work. In my electronic trawls on him, I found out a number of remarkable things. He was a regular contributor to Social Work Today – the in-house journal of the British Association of Social Workers(BASW) and the Residential Care Association (RCA). In it, he wrote things like (1977): ‘Provided there is no question of exploitation, sexual relationships freely entered into by residents – including adolescents – should not be a matter for automatic inquiry.’ In Perspectives on Paedophilia, he claimed that ‘Most child molesters, if paedophile at all, are so only incidentally.’ He added ‘Most of those I have called “dispositional” paedophiles when they engage in sexual activity with children, do not molest them… On the contrary, the child’s consent is usually of cardinal importance to them.’ Righton made a fallacious distinction between ‘caring and harmless paedophiles’ and ‘sexual molesters’.

His Wikipedia entry is interesting. In this, I read that he was apparently convicted in 1992 of importing child pornography magazines and photographs after Customs and Excise intercepted material being sent to him from the Netherlands. A police raid on his home uncovered other magazines and letters to and from other paedophiles containing details of abuse. He was prosecuted for possession of an extensive archive of indecent images of children and was the focus of BBC expose in 1994  about his activities as part of an elite paedophile ring. The BBC’s Inside Story documentary reported that at one point he was allowed to leave employment in a boarding school under a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ after being found to have abused boys.

He had confessed past abuse to child protection colleagues, but they did not act on this out of loyalty to him. A former student of his wrote that his position of power, authority and charisma allowed him and other paedophiles to avoid detection and to lead some to turn a blind eye to suspicions. A reader in child protection at London Metropolitan University, involved in the investigation into his abuses in Islington, said that Righton was allowed to live on the Thornham Magna estate of Lord Henniker in Suffolk, where children from Islington continued to be taken, apparently, until his death in 2007. The Chief Constable of Suffolk warned against Righton being allowed to live on the estate but was ignored.

‘Paedophilia is natural and normal for males’, ‘normal males are aroused by children’: these were claims made in academic and sexual rights activist presentations at the Classifying Sex: Debating DSM-5conference, held at the University of Cambridge in 2013[1]. What specifically was at stake in this strand of the conference was whether a sexual preference for pubescent children (11-14yr olds) was normal or pathological. If hebephilia (distinct from paedophilia – interest in pre-pubescent children)  was included in the 5th edition of the DSM, those trying to normalize it were worried that the diagnosis would dog legally detained sex offenders after they had completed their prison sentences[2].

The people at this conference included Professor Ken Plummer, mentioned earlier and who in the book Perspectives on Paedophilia echoed Foucault and his colleagues in stating that ‘The isolation, secrecy, guilt and anguish of many paedophiles are not intrinsic to the phenomenon but are derived from the extreme social repression placed on minorities’. Plummer was also of the view that the experiences between paedophiles and children are often loving and tender.

In the year before the Cambridge conference, 2012, on his personal blog, Plummer published a chapter he’d written for a 1991 book, Male Intergenerational Intimacy. Again repeating the line of Foucault and his colleagues, Plummer wrote that ‘As homosexuality has become slightly less open to sustained moral panic, the new pariah of ‘child molester’ has become the latest folk devil.’

Also at the Cambridge conference was Professor Philip Tromovitch, an American academic working at Doshiba University, Japan, who was a few years before honoured for his contributions to sexual science by the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality. His presentation was on the ‘prevalence of paedophilia’. He made the claim that  ‘the majority of men are probably paedophiles and hebephiles’ and ‘paedophilic interest is normal and natural in human males.’

Another figure at this conference, enjoying mutual conviviality and drinks with the academics there, was Tom O’Carroll, multiple child sex offender, a long-time campaigner for the legalisation of sex with children, and former head of PIE. O’Carroll was once convicted for distributing 50,000 images of child abuse of children, mainly (but not exclusively) boys and some as young as six, filmed and photographed being raped and tortured. It’s deeply troubling (at least for me) to think about the strangeness of this event and its social, intellectual and cultural significance. At a prestigious international conference hosted by an elite university, child abusers, their academic apologists, and American Psychiatric Association members all rub shoulders with each other.

Fast forward to this year. I was one of the signatories of a formal complaint about the behaviour of Professor James C Coyne, who never tires of pointing out to the world that he is one of its most cited scientists and one of 200 most influential psychologists of the second half of the 20th century. In this complaint, we took issue with what he said in his 2017 blog, titled Stop using the Adverse Childhood Experiences Checklist to make claims about trauma causing physical and mental health problems. We wrote ‘Purporting to be a critique of an impact assessment tool for traumatic events such as abuse, domestic violence and emotional neglect, the blog made the astonishing claim that behaviours fitting the definition of sexual abuse can be a ‘positive, liberating experience.’ Coyne’s actual words were ‘There is so much ambiguity in endorsements of … sexual abuse. Maybe it was a positive, liberating experience.’ He gave a hypothetical example to back this possibility up: ‘What if the “perpetrator” is the 20-year-old boyfriend or girlfriend of a 14-year-old?…Arguably, the event…could actually be quite positive.’

Let’s now turn to what’s known about the psychological developmental impact on those who have been the victims of childhood sexual abuse. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery (2015) is for me the seminal, go-to text. She writes definitively, ‘psychological trauma is an affliction of the powerless’ (p33) ‘…repeated trauma in childhood forms and deforms the personality… symptoms simultaneously conceal and reveal their origins; they speak in disguised language of secrets too terrible for words’ (p96).

Herman argues that in the case of sexual abuse taking place in the family, home or locale, children face a formidable developmental task. They must find ways to form primary attachments to caretakers and others who are either dangerous or negligent, and also find ways to develop some sort of sense of trust and safety in those who are fundamentally untrustworthy and unsafe. Herman writes (p101): ‘(the child) must develop a sense of self in relation to others who are helpless, uncaring or cruel. She must develop a capacity for bodily self-regulation in an environment in which her body is at the disposal of others’ needs, as well as a capacity for self-soothing in an environment without solace. She must develop the capacity for initiative in an environment which demands that she bring her will into complete conformity with that of the abuser. And ultimately, she must develop a capacity for intimacy out of an environment where all intimate relations are corrupt, and an identity out of an environment which defines her as a whore and a slave.’

In the face of abandonment to power without mercy, children must find ways to preserve hope and meaning, because the alternative is unbearable. Children must preserve their faith in the adults around them, so need to construct explanations that absolve those adults of blame and responsibility. So they have to develop a range of psychological defences. This includes constructing a wall around the abuse experiences to keep them from entering conscious awareness and memory. This involves minimising, rationalising and excusing the events, or re-packaging abuse as not really abuse. Children can also employ denial, thought suppression or an array of dissociative reactions. These include trance states, the altering of time place or person, hallucinations and possession states, which can feel alien and involuntary in the context of the development of fragmented personalities. In Herman’s words, children develop ‘dissociative virtuosity’ (p102).

In living with the reality of the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, children must find meaning that justifies it. They often conclude that their own innate badness is the cause. This helps them preserve some sense of hope and power. If I am bad then grownups are good; if I am bad I can try to be good; if I’ve brought this on myself then I have the power to change it, and one day I may win the protection and care I desperately crave.

Their sense of inner badness is confirmed by adult denigration and scapegoating. The language of the child develops into, in Herman’s words, ‘…a language of abomination’ (p105). A profound sense of inner badness can become the core around which the abused child’s identity is formed. Persisting into adult life, this can result in an automatic habit of minimising their achievements in the world, as a result of seeing their performing sense as inauthentic and false. ‘The appreciation of them voiced by others simply confirms her conviction that no one can truly know her and that, if her secret and true self were recognized, she would be shunned and reviled.’

Chronic abuse results in an emotional spectrum, from unease, through anxiety and low mood, to extremes of panic, rage and despair. A great many survivors of sexual abuse in childhood develop chronic anxiety and depression persisting into adulthood. Being caught in extreme fear states results in a loss of sense of being present. Self-soothing doesn’t work here but what does in the short term is self-mutilation, such as self-cutting. Repetitive self-injuring develops most commonly in those whose abuse began early in childhood. ‘Mutilation continues until it produces a powerful feeling of calm and relief; physical pain is much preferable to the emotional pain that it replaces.’(p109).

Other attempts at the regulation of internal emotional states that can develop are purging and vomiting, compulsive sexual behaviour, compulsive risk-taking and exposure to danger, and drug and alcohol abuse. These mark attempts to get rid of chronic self-dissatisfaction and to stimulate, always brief and short-lived, states of wellbeing and comfort which can’t be obtained in less destructive ways[3].

‘…the personality formed in an environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life.’ (p110). A pattern emerges of intimate relationships driven by a desperate need for protection and care but dogged by the fear of abandonment or exploitation. This can result in idealization of people in adult relationships where protection and care are hoped for, or sought. But because chosen people fail to live up to expectations,  they can quickly become denigrated. Commonplace interpersonal difficulties – the stuff of life – can provoke intense anxiety, depression or rage, because ‘minor slights evoke past experiences of callous neglect, and minor hurts evoke past experiences of deliberate cruelty.’ (p111).

At worst, ‘Almost inevitably, the survivor has great difficulty protecting herself in intimate relationships. Her desperate longing for nurturance and care makes it difficult to establish safe and appropriate boundaries with others. Her tendency to denigrate herself and idealize those she becomes attached to further clouds her judgement. Her empathic compliance with the wishes of others – automatic, often unconscious habits of obedience – also makes her vulnerable to anyone in a position of power and authority. Her dissociative defensive style makes it difficult for her to form conscious and accurate assessments of danger. And her wish to relive the dangerous situation to make it come out right may lead her into re-enactments of the abuse… For all of these reasons, the adult survivor is at great risk of repeated victimization in adult life.’ (p111).

In bringing my talk to a close, I’ll now turn to my own writing (Sorly et al, In press). Adult survivors can accumulate a range of psychiatric diagnoses along the way before, and if, their underlying problem of complex post-trauma is recognised and validated. ‘Personality Disorder’ is usually the default pseudo-diagnosis – in particular, ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’, ‘BPD’ for short.

The links between child sexual abuse and exploitation and the imposition of this label were the topic of a twitter debate I was part of in 2017. Understandably passionate and angry people, mostly women, labelled thus engaged with mental health professionals and academics, and de-medicalisation allies from both sides of the fence.

The crucial issue emerging for me was the fact that people with the BPD diagnosis are consistently re-traumatised as a result of their mostly negative experiences in psychiatric wards and outpatient clinics. Women wrote that their descriptions of early and more recent experiences of sexual exploitation and abuse are often ignored, trivialized or disbelieved. This reflects their ‘othered’ status at the hands of mental health workers, where their integrity and honesty is always called into question.

What also became clear was how the damaging impact of the BPD diagnosis on people’s opportunities wrecks lives and families over generations. The cruelty to people exposed in this twitter strand made my blood boil and caused me several nights of bad sleep. I saved some of the multivoiced dialogue in a folder in my twitter account, and reworked this in Sorly et al (in press)  as Battling with Words:

Battling with Words

They write and talk about you as though they were algorithms with legs.
Your ‘crazy’ words against their ‘professional’ ones.
They close ranks to form an impenetrable wall.

Their denial is the inability to hear your suffering,
And if you’re not being stigmatized you’re damn lucky.
But remember psychiatrists are only ever over-qualified pharmacists

How can I prove I was abused?
He masturbated on me while I was asleep on a mixed gender ward,
But I never reported it.

I wouldn’t have been believed,
And feared repercussions from the guy who did it.
And I was sectioned and couldn’t escape.
BPD is a made up construct,
Used to control, oppress, marginalize and silence.
Scapegoated women are not a ‘condition’.

Medicalising obscures rather than elucidates,
Makes the purpose of psychiatry clear:
A gift to abusers.

Thank you.



Eaton J and Paterson-Young C. 2018. The Little Orange Book: Learning about abuse from the voice of the child. Staffordshire: Victim Focus.

Foucault M, Hocquenghem G, Danet J. Sexual Morality and the Law. In: Kritzman LD (ed). 1988. Michel Foucault. Interviews and other writings 1977-1984. New York and London: Routledge.

Herman J. 2015.Trauma and recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. (With a new epilogue by the author). New York: Basic Books.

Pilgrim D. 2018. Child Sexual Abuse: Moral Panic or State of Denial. London and New York: Routledge.

Sadfort T et al. 1991. Male Intergenerational Intimacy: Historical, Socio-Psychological, and Legal Perspectives. Routledge.

Sorly R, Karlsson B, Grant A. In press. My Mother’s Skull is Burning: A story of stories. QI (Qualitative Inquiry).

Taylor B (Ed). 1981. Perspectives on Paedophilia. London: Batsford.

[1] [accessed 15 July 2018]

[2] The APA representatives unsuccessfully tried to have hebephilia listed as a disorder in the DSM5,  because the current definition of paedophilia missed out too many people, as pubescence was starting earlier and earlier in successive generations.

[3] So, in summary, the three main forms of adaptation to childhood sexual abuse are: dissociative defences; identity fragmentation; and pathological emotional regulation.

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Alec Grant is an Independent Scholar, having retired from the University of Brighton, where he was employed as Reader in Narrative Mental Health. His main research and scholarly interests are in narrative inquiry in mental health and related issues, and in the demedicalization of human misery.