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Myths, stereotypes and pedophiles

By Nina Funnell - posted Tuesday, 22 September 2009

In 1996 convicted 65-year-old Chicago pedophile, Robert Ellison, asked a judge for the immediate return of his child sex videos claiming that he would surely molest more children if he could not relieve his urges through pornography. The judge opted to achieve a similar result by sending the delusional Ellison to jail.

For judges and lay individuals alike, incarceration is often considered the only suitable strategy for dealing with convicted pedophiles. So when a sex offender has served their time and is released back into society, knowing how to respond can be challenging for both authorities and community members living alongside the offender.

Right now, convicted pedophile Dennis Ferguson may be the most despised man in Australia. Repeatedly run out of town amid hysteria and witch hunts, it is clear that average Australians are not prepared to tolerate Ferguson living in their neighbourhoods.


But while contempt for Ferguson is understandable, the recent actions of vigilante groups do little to assist in understanding or curbing wider rates of childhood sexual assault.

It is estimated that in Australia at least one in four girls and one in seven boys will experience some form of sexual abuse. The onset of abuse typically occurs at a mean age of 10 years, with most starting before age 12.

While Ferguson fits the stereotype of the creepy, menacing offender, very few perpetrators appear anything but regular Joe-Blows. For decades now, the figure of the lecherous pedophile has haunted the cultural imagination. We are all familiar with the cliché of the lone, trench-coat clad stranger lurking behind bushes, or roaming around children’s parks armed with candy and other childhood treats. This stereotype has underpinned and legitimised the development of many stranger-danger campaigns aimed at children.

But the reality is that in 75 per cent of cases the abuser is known to the child as a family member, a family friend, or a community member who has a high level of access to the child. Through grooming processes perpetrators are able to establish trust and gradually erode the boundaries of the child. The typical abuser is usually male, mean age 32 years.

Sadly, victims of pedophilia have typically been schooled in the exact same myths and stereotypes about sexual abuse as the rest of us. As such, they often have difficulty recognising their experience of abuse as a crime as it may not fit with the clichéd media stereotype.

In recent years the stereotype has evolved and the trench-coat villain is now imagined sitting behind a computer, eyes glued to the screen, trawling through forums for vulnerable kids.


There is no doubt that children are susceptible to unwanted sexual advances made by older strangers online, and that these contacts are sickening and criminal. However, there is also evidence to suggest that many of the unwanted and threatening sexual advances that are made online towards young people are actually being made by peers or by people known to the child.

I recently conducted an informal workshop with young teens and I was alarmed to learn that the majority had experienced unwanted or sexually threatening advances made by other young people known to them, while online. Adults and parents often dismiss these contacts as being far less harmful and coercive compared to advances made by elderly strangers.

However, there is no reason to assume that it is easier for young people to negotiate and deflect the unwanted advances made by peers compared to those made by strangers. It’s also problematic to assume that those advances are not experienced as intimidating and coercive, simply because they are being made by peers in a similar age range.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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