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The Professor and the Pedophiles
Allyn Walker's writings on "minor-attracted people" are troubling—but so is the assault on academic freedom.
Allyn Walker, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Virginia, has agreed to step down from the faculty after being previously placed on administrative leave due to an outcry over accusations of promoting pedophilia.
Walker, whose book A Long, Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity was published in June, believes adult sexual attraction to children should be destigmatized and viewed as another sexual orientation, not inherently immoral unless the “minor-attracted person” (a stigma-free alternative to “pedophile” proposed by Walker and some others) is an actual child molester. Reports on Walker’s book and opinions, which surfaced last month, stoked outrage both among ODU students—some of whom demanded the professor’s removal—and within right-wing media. Threats followed. The administrative leave, according to the school, was as much for Walker’s safety as for general safety on campus. The university’s statement also mentioned that “the controversy over Dr. Walker’s research has disrupted the campus and community environment and is interfering with the institution’s mission of teaching and learning.”
For defenders of academic freedom, this has to be disturbing—especially the idea that you can lose your university post because “controversy” over your research is seen as bad for the school. As Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education told Inside Higher Ed:
We should be concerned whenever protected expression—and Professor Walker’s speech falls well within the protection of the First Amendment and academic freedom—is met with threats of violence, regardless of viewpoint. And we should be alarmed when universities take action against faculty members in response to alleged threats or protest targeting the speaker.
Steinbaugh also stressed that “ODU is effectuating a classic heckler’s veto.” This is correct.
But beyond the question of academic freedom, there is also the question of whether Walker’s ideas about pedophilia should be mainstreamed.
Walker’s supporters see the professor as an advocate for child abuse prevention (through better understanding of sexual attraction to minors) misrepresented as a defender of child abuse. And some of Walker’s critics do seem to make the mistaken assumption that Walker is defending child molesters. For instance, statements on the controversy from ODU president Brian O. Hemphill stressed that “child sexual abuse is morally wrong” and that “the phrase ‘minor-attracted people’ … should not be utilized as a euphemism for behavior that is illegal, morally unacceptable, and profoundly damaging.” But Walker has repeatedly stressed wanting to destigmatize the attraction rather than the behavior, in large part to make it easier for people to seek help (which stigma and shame can often discourage). Walker’s own statementsaid that “child sexual abuse is morally wrong and inexcusable” and cited the professor’s “past experience and advocacy as a social worker counseling victims.” In an interview this month (a brief clip from which started all the uproar), Walker also clarified that
“having an attraction to minors as long as it isn’t acted on, doesn’t mean that the person who has those attractions is doing something wrong.” The focus of A Long, Dark Shadow, as the book’s description states, is on “non-offending MAPs,” whose experiences are said to “offer valuable insights into the prevention of child abuse.”
Is Walker, then, a misunderstood researcher and victim advocate smeared by the right as pro-pedophile? It’s not so simple.
The core concept of Walker’s advocacy is to reframe adult-child sexual attraction as a “sexual orientation” rather than a disorder, and “MAPs” as a segment of the “queer community.” In A Long Dark Shadow, Walker admits that such a classification could pose a danger to gays and lesbians by associating them with child predation, but goes on to say:
As a queer person myself, this question haunts me. And yet it is perhaps the fact that I am queer that gives me meaningful understanding of others who are treated with suspicion and stigma based on a sexual orientation that cannot be changed. I can’t begrudge other queer individuals who don’t want to be associated with a population assumed to be child molesters; however, it is also important to realize that unfounded and reductive historical claim of queer individuals’ supposedly predatory behaviors mirror today’s assumptions about MAPs.
But there is a major flaw in this logic. Gay or bisexual men and women can act on their sexual desires without engaging in “predatory behaviors.” So-called MAPs cannot. That’s a pretty essential difference.
Walker ends up startlingly judgmental toward LGBT people who don’t want to open their big tent to pedophiles or “MAPs”, branding them either ignorant or selfish:
It is a common belief in today’s society that minor-attracted individuals are all offenders, which is a flawed assumption that contributes to the stigma felt by MAPs. The tendency of queer communities to distance themselves from MAPs indicates either agreement with that erroneous belief or a willingness to prioritize the wellbeing of some queer people at the expense of others.
The goal here is not simply to promote compassion for non-offender “MAPs”; it is to legitimize “minor-attraction” as a sexual orientation. The book repeatedly uses the term “coming out” in reference to pedophiles disclosing their sexual attraction to children to family and friends. Walker also defends the use of the term “MAP” as a matter of respect, because “it’s important to use terminology for groups that members of that group want others to use for them.”
Walker seems to assume that the destigmatization of sexual attraction to minors as just another “queer” sexual orientation can be confined to non-offenders. I find that assumption dubious. Lifting the taboo opens the door for arguments that there are ways children can “consent,” and that, if sexual acts with adults causes “consenting” children psychological harm, it’s only because our society is so “sex-negative.” Such concerns are especially appropriate because Walker would designate “MAPs” a “marginalized group,” and there’s a strong assumption in culturally progressive circles that “marginalized groups” should be accorded deference.
Indeed, Walker’s own work arguably indulges at least some offenders by condoning the use of child pornography as an alternate outlet. One passage in particular, from Walker’s 2017 Ph.D. dissertation titled “Understanding Resilience Strategies Among Minor-Attracted Individuals,” raised eyebrows by referring to “a wide variety of engrossing and high-quality child pornography” as a possibly helpful solution.
Curiously, the incriminating phrase is not Walker’s; it comes from a 2008 American Psychologist article by Janis Wolak, David Finkelhor, Kimberly Mitchell, and Michele Ybarra on the myths and realities of sexual predation online. What’s also curious, however, is Walker’s use of this quote:
Wolak, Finkelhor, Mitchell, and Ybarra (2008, p. 120) have theorized that “among some groups of predisposed individuals, easy access to a variety of engrossing and high-quality child pornography could serve as a substitute for involvement with actual victims.”
But in the 2008 article, the authors don’t quite “theorize” this. Rather, they mention the common view that child pornography leads to more sex offenses, note that there is no strong evidence to back it up, and point out that “some contrary hypotheses also need to be entertained”—namely, that access to “high-quality” child porn could serve as an alternate outlet for some pedophiles. The wording is still unfortunate, to say the least, but Wolak and Finkelhor (who are prominent experts on child abuse) and their co-authors do not endorse this hypothesis nearly as strongly as Walker implies. This rather skewed interpretation suggests that Walker is using source material in the service of an agenda.
Michael Salter, a professor of criminology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, made some compelling points in a Twitter thread rebutting Walker’s argument:
Granted, polygraphs have sometimes produced false confessions, particularly among subjects in an anxious state, which would certainly apply to people just arrested for child pornography possession. (A “tactical polygraph” is one conducted during the earliest stage of the investigation.) But to assume that pedophiles are telling the truth about their history of offending or non-offending is strikingly naive, as Salter points out. Yet Walker’s study of “non-offending” pedophiles is based exactly on that assumption.
The radical feminist website Fourth Wave, which helped marshal the outrage against the professor, has also chargedthat B4UAct, a “MAP” advocacy and support group Walker has cited in a positive context, does not advocate the prevention of offending and actually pursues the covert mission of normalizing pedophilia, including child molesting. Fourth Wave is not exactly an objective source. But if its purported screenshots of forum messages by B4UAct’s late co-founder Michael Melsheimer are authentic, they raise the disturbing possibility that the organization is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is also worth nothing that, just as the screenshots show Melsheimer saying, the group’s website says nothing about the prevention of offending and does not contain any unequivocal statement that adult-child sexual contact is wrong and harmful.
The Walker scandal is hardly the first controversy over proposals to change attitudes toward pedophilia. In September 2015, Salon published a notorious article by Todd Nickerson, who wrote about his struggle as a pedophile with a firm commitment to not abusing children and argued that society’s insistence on seeing pedophiles as repulsive monsters (even if they never act on their desires) does far more harm than good. The reaction was, well, much as you’d imagine. Less than two years later, in January 2017, the article was taken down, along with Nickerson’s follow-up about being targeted by the “right-wing hate machine”—apparently in a retroactive purge of materials that were judged as below unspecified editorial standards. A number of reasonable people including Jesse Singal, then science writer for New YorkMagazine, argued that this was a bad move, likely to discourage exactly the kind of frank conversation about pedophilia that was most conducive to child abuse prevention.
And yet questions also came up about the honesty of Nickerson’s self-presentation. In the past, he had defended the view that adult sexual contact with prepubescent children would not be inherently harmful if society didn’t treat it as horrible. In the Salon piece, Nickerson acknowledged having once espoused “pro-contacter” views on a pedophile forum, simply because it was the only “pedophile community” available and he wanted to “belong.” Yet the statementsunearthed by critics suggest a more militant advocacy than he had let on (albeit some nine years before the Salonpieces). What’s more, a look at the archived forum seems to contradict Nickerson’s claims about merely trying to fit in. Most of the other posters disagreed with him. And Nickerson’s posts on his blog show him still espousing some of the same views in 2017 as in 2006—for instance, that some adults’ sexual preference for small children likely has an evolutionary purpose.
Nickerson, by the way, is a big proponent of the idea that pedophilia is a sexual orientation.
Obviously, Nickerson and Walker are not interchangeable. But the Nickerson episode does suggest that arguments for preventing child abuse by destigmatizing “inactive” pedophilia can be used to advance less benevolent goals.
One can certainly make the case, as Jennifer Bleyer did in Slate in 2012, that we need to offer better and more accessible mental health services for people with pedophile urges. But the treatments Bleyer discusses seem extremely different from what Walker proposes. For instance, Bleyer mentions the work of Fred Berlin, the founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University:
Berlin has had success treating pedophiles with therapies similar to those for drug addicts, with an emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s actions, identifying triggers, and resisting cravings, as well as developing empathy for potential victims and addressing cognitive distortions that may support unhealthy behavior. His patients have also had successful outcomes with testosterone-lowering medication, otherwise known as chemical castration.
“Pedophilia is a disorder, and it should be easier for people to get treatment for it without fearing ostracism and hate” is one thing. “Attraction to young children is a sexual orientation and should be handled through affirming and validating coping strategies” is something else altogether. And I’ll say it again: in an era when various once-stigmatized sexual identities are viewed with sympathy and deference in mainstream liberal culture, to confer such a status on pedophilia opens the way to a troubling slippery slope. Adult same-sex attraction and “minor attraction” do not belong in the same category.
Walker, who is transgender and identifies as non-binary, has blamed the backlash partly on anti-trans bigotry. It’s true that some critics, including Fourth Wave, stressed Walker’s non-binary identity—probably with the implication that the professor’s advocacy for “MAPs” was related to being “genderqueer.” But Walker, too, bears some blame for such a linkage, having explicitly suggested it both in the book and in the Prostasia interview. And in any case, as the example of Nickerson shows, cisgender men who advocate the destigmatization of pedophilia are hardly exempt from outrage.
However distasteful Walker’s views may be, the violation of academic freedom in this case is clear. Those views could and should have been vigorously debated and challenged. Instead, the ODU administration allowed a faculty member to be driven from the university by attacks and threats. This sets a very bad precedent across the political spectrum.
Ultimately, the Allyn Walker story is a test case for both progressives and conservatives. For conservatives, it’s a challenge to stand up for academic freedom and freedom of speech even when they rightly find the speech repugnant. (FIRE, sometimes wrongly stereotyped as a right-of-center group fighting left-wing “political correctness” on campus, deserves kudos for speaking out against ODU’s actions in this case and providing Walker with legal representation free of charge.) For progressives, it’s a challenge to draw the line and say that some historically stigmatized sexualities should not be normalized, that some groups are seen as deviant for a good reason. Affirm Walker’s right to advocate bad ideas, yes. Affirm “minor-attracted” as a sexual orientation, no. This is a story with two sides, and we should be able to see them both.