April 8, 2022 - 11:49am

Do you remember that story about the paediatrician whose house was burnt down by a mob in Wales? Or perhaps it was Portsmouth. And perhaps she was pursued only by a baying mob, rather than a torch-wielding one. Nevertheless, ‘who can forget the targeting of an innocent children’s doctor in Portsmouth by a populace too ignorant and enraged to recognise the difference between paedophile and paediatrician?’ reported the Daily Mail in December 2001. Who indeed? 

The story isn’t actually true, and yet I’ve heard it several times, and in several different versions. It has developed into an urban legend because it scratches a certain itch for those who wish to warn against the dangers of paedophilia panic, or “paedogeddon!” as Brass Eye memorably described it. 

But the new Netflix documentary Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story, released this week, does not reveal a “paedogeddon!” style of paranoia in the British media. In fact, the journalists interviewed for the film shuffle uncomfortably in their seats when confronted with their own credulousness. There was Savile, sexually abusing as many as 1000 children on BBC premises, and even once live on camera, and then joking about it quite openly. Perhaps a bit more panic was merited? 

Back then, as now, paedophilia anxiety was a highly politicised thing. Currently, it is conservatives who express the greatest anxiety, but that has not always been true. 

In the United States, controversy over the Parental Rights in Education bill, recently approved by the Florida state government, has intensified the culture war focus on paedophilia. The bill prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through to third grade. Its critics have dubbed it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, but its supporters argue that it is designed to protect children from predatory adults, popularly described as “groomers.”

On conservative Twitter, anyone suggesting otherwise is liable to be called a “groomer”, a counterpart to the British word “nonce.” The word is wielded wildly and often unseriously, in a deliberately hyperbolic manner, which as Mary Harrington notes, is designed to mirror the profligate liberal use of the word “racist” to describe one’s political opponents. 

It is an effective insult because, at this precise historical moment, it is liberals who are most vulnerable to accusations of paedophilia apologism, and conservatives who have most to gain from pointing this out. This is due to the fact that it is liberal institutions that have been most recently beset by child sexual abuse scandals: not only Savile at the BBC, but also many other stars of the music, TV, and film industries — all industries with a strong liberal bias. 

But 20 years ago, the reverse was true. In the early 2000s, the most high profile child sexual abuse scandal concerned the Catholic Church, and then it was atheists and liberals who were making political hay from their enemy’s disgrace. 

Paedophilia anxiety is one of those issues that readily takes on a partisan flavour, depending on which side has most recently been tarnished by association with a high profile exposé. This is despite the fact that research increasingly suggests that a paedophilic orientation is innate, meaning that paedophiles are likely to be relatively evenly distributed throughout society and across the political spectrum. 

So although right now it is conservatives shouting “groomer!” and liberals shouting “paedogeddon!” the next big scandal could easily see a reversal. 

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.