Paedomania vs Slut-shaming: There can be only one!

Paedomania is the moral panic over paedophiles. Moral panics were first indentified by Cohen (1971). They are a disproportionate societal reaction to a threat, usually to do with sex. Previous moral panics have included the 17th century witch-hunts, American reactions to 9/11 and the satanic ritual sexual abuse panic of the late ’80s and early ’90s. This panic continues today albeit with the satanic ritual aspect, with tabloid frenzy over paedophiles and ‘stranger danger’ when in reality paedophilia is rare and most victims are molested by their own parents, relatives, teachers and babysitters.

Slut-shaming is the more familiar concept of bullying and harassing women for their sex lives while allowing men to do the same thing. Slut-shaming is connected to victim-blaming and sexual bullying.

The recent stories of Megan Stammers and Amanda Todd have led me to conclude that both of these phenpmena cancel each other out. In the case of Megan Stammers, the divide was a clear split between those who saw Jeremy Forrest as a paedophile and Megan as a victim with no agency, and those who saw Jeremy as a dupe and Megan as a slut who would eventually enter the sexwork industry. (These comments were posted on a ParentDish article I can no longer find the link to. Of course, these comments exhibit whorephobia as well as slutshaming.) Megan was slutshamed and bullied so much on Twitter, just 2 days after returning home and posting a thank-you message on Twitter to everyone who had tried to help find her, that she had to delete her Twitter account. Possibly years of tweets that she’s never going to get back because some adults thought it would be fun to slut-shame a 15 year old upon her return from being abducted abroad by her teacher. They called her irresponsible for skipping school and making her parents worry – as if 15 year olds never skip school and are always responsible – or that given their age they should even be expected to be responsible when adults aren’t always responsible…particularly those adults shaming Megan on Twitter. Preventing a teen from returning to normal life as quickly and smoothly as possible is pretty irresponsible in anyone’s book.

Both of these extremes are of course untrue, though I’m leaning more towards the former – not because I believe that an almost-sixteen-year-old could have no agency, but because Jeremy was a teacher and he knew what he was doing was wrong. Schoolgirl crushes are natural; the onus is always on the teacher not to respond to any advances. And let’s face it, it’s unlikely a pupil would make overtly sexual advances to teaching staff, nor have the money to elope abroad; it is very clear who was the driving force here. Because of the hierarchical nature of teacher-pupil interactions, even pupils over 16 may not be as equal in such relationships as they would be in relationships with other older adults who are not their teachers. Jeremy was very clearly wrong and he knew that what he was doing was wrong. When you’re in love – as Jeremy was – it’s hard not to act on it, but we all have to obey the law, not just Jeremy.

When there is paedomania, which leads people to believe that being attracted to anyone under an arbitrary legal age is paedophilia (actually paedophilia is attraction to prepubescent children, which is why it is so serious/dangerous) there can be no slutshaming. If Jeremy is a paedophile, then Megan is the helpless victim devoid of agency and stripped of her own love story. Yet if she is a “slut”, it’s all her fault (because men cannot be blamed for their sexual behaviour) and she should not be sympathised. Some commenters even blamed her for “messing with a married man” – never mind that Jeremy was the one who was having an affair while Megan was single. (And never mind that he was an adult and her teacher, who had been previously investigated for being too close to Megan months before when she was much further from 16). Similarly, 15 year old Canadian Amanda Todd was slut-shamed and bullied by girls because they saw her as a “slut” solely responsible for having sex and sending a topless photo. Yet the label of ‘paedophile’ once applied negates any thought of slut-shaming and instead makes her into a victim (which, of course, she was. And so, ultimately, was Megan Stammers, though she may not think so.)

The decline of paedomania is usually perceived as a good thing, but I wonder if it will come at the expense of an increase in slut-shaming. If there is less stigma attached to fancying anyone below the age of 16, will girls like Megan who are targeted by teachers – whether for lust (in most cases) or love (in her case)- be slutshamed? If Amanda’s classmates had thought of her main bully as a paedophile they might not have bullied her and driven her to suicide.

Paedomania and slut-shaming are also used slightly differently: paedomania is used by the media in cases like Megan’s and Amanda’s, whereas slutshaming is used by the public. Media slutshaming usually targets young female parents or lone female parents; the Megans of the world have their stories buried under paedomania, creating a real virgin/whore dichotomy of media discourse: if you’re over 16 and make the headlines for your sex life, you’re a benefit-scrounging whore. If you’re under 16, you’re a virgin victim of a paedophile. Of course Megan and Amanda were victims, but they may not necessarily agree with such a designation, especially as Megan went willingly to France (it was abduction only because taking a child without their parents’ knowledge is abduction. If they’d waited until she was 16 it wouldn’t be abduction). But the nuances of her lived experience are lost in tabloid demonization of Jeremy which paint her rather unfavourably as a foolish, helpless victim.

I’m not suggesting that we as a society prop up paedomania to avert slut-shaming; that is ridiculous, and slut-shaming is already being challenged by the SlutWalks and also in many other unlikely places: from Pop culture news site Jezebel to the blogosphere to lone mother NGOs like Gingerbread, down to individuals on social media, we are all doing our bit – or we all could do our bit – to stop slut-shaming. It is just that, in this quirky little while before anti-slut-shaming is taught more in sex education and talks on bullying in schools, paedomania inadvertently subverts it, just as slut-shaming tragically and unreasonably stigmatises victims of real paedophiles.

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2 thoughts on “Paedomania vs Slut-shaming: There can be only one!

  1. thepoliticalvagina November 19, 2012 at 9:06 pm Reply

    Interesting and thought provoking post.

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