"Strangers in the mist: the family, global capitalism, and legislators on trial" by Richard Yuill and William A Percy

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“There’s a special evil in the abuse and exploitation of the most innocent and vulnerable. The victims of sex trade see little of life before they see the very worst of life – an underground of brutality and lonely fear.”

President George W. Bush before the UN General Assembly, September 2003.

Introduction (see Richard Yuill's bibliography on this website for full citations)

Risks and dangers to children are indeed omnipresent in our own contemporary society, as they have been in all others societies throughout history; yet media, legislators, clerics, and crusaders for children’s rights continue to hyperventilate the threat from sexual predators at home and “child sex tourists” abroad. This has entered into the public imagination as a “global war” on the pedophile, akin to the war against drugs and that against terrorists, similarly portrayed as demonic, pathological and anti-social menaces contra Western civilization. We argue that this emphasis is neither unconscious nor realistic but in fact demonstrates a systematic attempt to shift the focus (and priority) away from: firstly, the domestic, nuclear family as the major source of physical neglect and sexual abuse of children; and secondly, the inability and unwillingness of national and international governmental and non-governmental agencies to deal with child poverty and extreme regional and global inequalities. Instead they increase expenditures on the military, the police, the prisons, the bureaucrats, religious agendas etc. Our expensive bombs and other lethal exports kill and maim far more children per year than any sexual tourist.

A recent UNICEF report (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6359363.stm) highlighted the lowly position of both the UK and US in the overall well-being of children. Surveys continue to highlight the growing alienation of children and young people in these countries. It is therefore ironic, and perhaps not coincidental, that the two most aggressive countries in their pursuit and prosecution of the “war against the pedophile,” are the very ones who come up significantly short on the well being of children even within their own countries.

We critique the current construction of both the domestic pedophile and international “child sex tourist” as essentially the consequence of the failure of key structures in both developed Western and developing nations (family, church and state) to provide security and advance the well-being of children and youth. The conjuring up of this threat to childhood vulnerability is therefore an act of desperation; in Stanley’s Cohen’s oft-used concept in his classic text on “Mods and Rockers” and the manufacture of the “folk devil” par excellence, the ultimate scapegoat with no redeeming feature, the demon not to be allowed to exist (outside prison), and an ever-present, growing menace to children. In a recent 2007 lecture, George Soros also picked up on this theme in a stimulating lecture on the unfolding demonisation of the Jews in Nazi media.

“The domestic idyll”

What has increasingly become known as the “third wave” of feminism, from the 1970s on, drew substantially on critiques of domestic family life and its role in reinforcing the patriarchal subjugation of women. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s feminist sexual politics increasingly informed the proliferating theory and research on child sexual abuse (CSA). Emboldened by the growing evidence that suggested that the vast majority of CSA took place against females and inside the supposed sanctity of the family home (regularly quoted as around 80-90% in the UK and US), feminist scholars were able to draw a clear link between male supremacy, family structure and the sexual abuse of children.

Despite the significant evidence compiled throughout the 1990s and 2000s that showed that the vast bulk of CSA took place within the family structure (including close relatives and family friends) the media, politicians and popular campaigns began to resurrect the “stranger danger” sexual predator as the most feared of the “species” of sex offender against children (see Jenkins, 1998). Indeed, the category of child has expanded to include older adolescents, as well as acts of even touching on the arm or hair and kissing on the cheek. Especially in the US, advertisements proliferated on milk cartons with the pictures of missing children. Warnings began to circulate on how pedophiles could use either mobile phones or the Internet to ensnare an unsuspecting child or even a teenager. Playgrounds, sports centers, and even special events for children were increasingly seen as opportunities for strangers to molest, or take pictures of children, even if the “victim” was unaware, for their own sordid gratification. Attempts to apprehend “sexual predators” have now reached the absurd, whereby prime-time viewing in NBC America now involves an expectant audience preparing to mock an unsuspecting, entrapped man responding to a sexual liaison with a supposed minor. Such presentations resemble primal “freak-show” or the pillaring of “village idiots” at a medieval carnival, or even an inquisition.

Murders of children committed by strangers have also taken on a similarly theatrical character. For example, a huge media, legal, and popular frenzy developed after Megan Kanka’s murder in the US in 1994 at the hands of a known and violent sex offender. Similar reactions took place after Sarah Payne’s murder in the UK in 2000, and after the case in Belgium of Marc Dutroux, who tortured and murdered four girls in 1996 but is suspected of far more crimes, shocked Western Europe to its core.

Whereas all these crimes are undoubtedly horrific, they are thankfully extremely rare. Murders (including abductions) committed by strangers against children in the US have in fact fallen and remain extremely rare (see Furedi, 2001). Research on adult sex offenders against children shows that the vast majority of adults, with a significant or even limited, sexual interest in children generally seek non-violent, consensual and often intimate but non-contact relationships with children (see West, Woodhouse and Li, 1993; Rind, Bauserman and Tromovitch, 1998; Yuill, 2004). In short, the vast majority of sexual encounters and contacts between adults and children and/ or adolescents (especially same-sex male) are non violent. Current legal statutes and conventional mores may deem such relationships unlawful or potentially harmful but the fact remains that the adult’s motive is not to murder or harm the young person.

At this stage two points regarding sexual contacts between adults and children and / or adolescents can be reached: violent sexual attacks are relatively rare; and the vast majority of child abuse (including murders) takes place within the home. Despite this remaining the case, lawmakers in many Western societies have turned their attention to the threat from sex offenders to the community. Ironically they have also enthusiastically promoted the sanctity of the family, the very place where most abuse occurs. For example, pressure is heaped on parents to make sure that they know who their child is with, where they are, what they are doing at all times, especially on Internet Chat rooms. However, this shift obscures the fact that the family itself constitutes and remains the biggest risk and danger (physical, psychological and sexual) to children.

Impoverished families often sell their daughters, and occasionally their sons, into prostitution, or even prostitute them themselves – how would you like to meet my sister? They do this often to avoid starvation, or perhaps just to live more comfortably, or to indulge their own vices or habits. In addition, most evidence that has been studied until now indicates that the overwhelming majority of “victims” - be they children or adolescents - are females, and also that they’re usually seduced or abused by relatives, or some other males that they trust in the family.

In Boston, the Cardinal is now pushing a controversial program (Boson Globe, April 11, 2008) advising parents to entrust their children only to people whom they trust. The program warns girls or female teenagers to beware strangers in the movie theatres who touch or stroke their hair, whereas in truth it’s boys or male youths who are much more likely to become onto by strangers in such places as the movies. Would that those who made up this controversial program that the Cardinal has endorsed would benefit from more research on this subject – that’s what we need! Being in Boston as he is, the Cardinal should know very well that often the very people the family trust most that was priests often victimise sons of families known to them. So the family is not the unit that can best protect their own children since they and their closest friends are the very males who abuse their girls or teenage females.

Previous attempts (particularly prominent in feminist analyses through the mid-seventies to the late eighties) to focus on domestic CSA, clearly do not fit with Neo Conservative (in the US) and New Labour (in the UK) pro-family rhetoric. In relation to Government policies over sex offenders in the community, John Reid (the former UK Home Secretary) boasted in typically macho pose, in the House of Commons in 2007, that the UK had one of the toughest stances in this area in the world). The US and UK have recently witnessed a series of political campaigns to defend “family values” against supposed inroads from “the permissive society,” especially from gay and lesbian triumphs in gaining greater civil rights. The myth of “childhood sexual innocence” has also been grafted on to this ideological shift, acting as a bulwark against further dilutions of bourgeois domestic stability, with “New Right” polemicists contending that the family is the “natural,” as well as the best place to bring up children, and of the state’s need to reward families through tax incentives.

Instead of countering this, the political left (including many feminist and even some “cool gays” contributors) have effectively prostituted themselves to mainstream policy and political agendas (not least of all to entitle them to sit on important forums and to receive lucrative public and private grants). For such groups, identifying the failures of the family, church, state and U.N. in relation to the well-being of children would be politically inexpedient. Stating what empirical research shows on the prevalence of child physical neglect, sexual abuse, and murder may alienate public opinion and threaten funding for the myriad group of self-proclaimed champions of children’s rights and even so-called gay leaders. Better to maintain the fiction of the stranger in the mist (on and offline) as the omnipresent folk devil, and maintain a culpable deniability when the issue of domestic abuse and murder of children take place.

“Protecting” the world’s poor

Distinct similarities with the stranger danger panic emerge when the issue of “child sex tourism” is discussed. Throughout the last quarter of a century, international organizations such as UNICEF, Save the Children and Oxfam have drawn attention to the millions of needless deaths of children in developing countries from treatable diseases such as malaria, malnutrition, and a lack of clean water, adequate clothing and shelter. Over this period a wide range of demographic statistics show that efforts by (as well as priorities of) the leading industrialized countries, including some churches and governments of impoverished countries, to address child poverty have fallen far short of expectations, and indeed what could and should have been achieved.

Despite a pressing need for resources in tackling extensive social problems, a huge focus has been placed on the sexual exploitation of children by West and Japanese tourists in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Near and Far East. As with the “stranger danger” panic in the US and Europe, the “global sex tourist” has become a convenient scapegoat and held up as a defiler of innocence and the worst kind of sex offender against vulnerable children by using his greater economic resources to “groom” poor families with gifts and promises of a better life. Legislation on sex tourism has been passed in many Western countries, and a huge amount of resources ploughed into tackling it. From the Bush Administration this has included not only widening the definition and legal penalties against Americans convicted as sex tourists, but also the threat of a range of economic sanctions for developing countries who do not appear to be clamping down firmly. Indeed, an NBC special documentary shown on February 16, 2008 indicated that this was in fact the likely motivation for a recent clampdown by the Cambodian Government, leading to the arrest of two Americans. Consequently, territoriality of the law has yielded to personality of the law. For example, Swedes or Australians are now prosecuted for sexual offenses with a minor (under eighteen) in other countries such as Thailand or Sri Lanka.

Applying this wider, it is clear that the continuing targeting of Western “child sex tourists” diverts attention away from far more pressing problems of child malnutrition, disease, and even deaths from preventable diseases, hunger and a lack of clothes, shelter and sanitation, much less education in many developing countries. Such campaigns also distract scrutiny away from the failure of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies. This serves both developing countries who can throw the problem back at Western countries in the form of a “guilt trip” by accusing them of not doing enough to curb such trade, whilst governments like the US can claim to be acting tough without spending significant resources tackling more underlying and deep-seated socio-economic problems.


In this short essay we neither set out to sanitize nor condone the sexual exploitation of children, nor for that matter any sexual exploitation of teenagers or adults by either domestic strangers or international travelers taking advance of global disparities. Indeed, that would be an illogical extrapolation of its content, not to say a willful misconstruction of the essential arguments put forward. In contrast we set out to address the way the domestic pedophile and international “child sex tourist” have been simultaneously demonized and singled out in order to distract attention from the far greater problems of child abuse and neglect within families, and governmental inaction on child poverty and welfare.

Critics may well argue that this is irrelevant. We counter that these points provide insights for gay and lesbian critiques of the family, the church, heteronormativity and governmental organizations. Rather than seeing efforts to scapegoat sexual deviants as benign, they should be attacked by lesbian, gay and queer theorists. The utopian vision of a Queer child should neither be constrained within the nuclear family, or national borders nor blighted by poverty, but should be one that embodies an international, dynamic and empowered sense of self.

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