The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 24th, 2008

Gary Glitter – mad, bad or just dangerous to know?

Gary Glitter is a most unlikely martyr. With his white goatee, hinting at shameless, perverted goatishness, he has been convicted of some revolting paedophile crimes, both here and abroad, including the sexual assault of two little girls in Vietnam.

The details the tabloids have luxuriated in are loathsome and even if the motives of the home secretary – in hastily proposing a populist “Glitter law” to restrict sex offenders’ travel – are not disinterested, there is nothing wrong with her suggestion. Child abusers should be restrained. Few people can doubt that Glitter should be put on the sex offenders’ register for the rest of his life and closely watched, or that other countries are entitled to keep him out.

All the same, Glitter is suffering media martyrdom far beyond his deserts; he is a latterday St Sebastian, lashed to the post of public contempt and pierced again and again with the furious arrows of misdirected indignation.

The force that drives this indignation is not just horror; it is confusion. Everyone agrees that Glitter and offenders like him are dangerous to know but no one is sure, any longer, whether he is bad or mad. Perhaps he deliberately and wickedly did what he did – and the shameless cunning of many paedophiles suggests that – or perhaps he could not control himself, or even understand why he should control himself.

Scientific evidence seems to be growing by the month to suggest that people are not equally responsible for what they do. Individual biology has a large part to play in destiny, as do environment and the complex symbiosis of the two. Some people’s brain structure and brain chemistry may make them less able to control their impulses, more inclined to aggression, less able to understand their own motives or less able to understand the feelings or even the objective reality of other people. This may be compounded by bad childhood experiences with damaged parents which themselves alter brain pathways.

If so, the foundation stone of western morality – the idea that we are all equally responsible for what we do and all equally culpable for our crimes – is being eroded by biology. This process of erosion has begun fairly recently and is gathering speed. It is profoundly alarming.

Glitter is just one conspicuous scapegoat for this increasing anxiety about crime and personal responsibility. He is being punished, above and beyond his offences, for our own loss of moral conviction in the face of serious crime. He is the victim of a communal panic – not just about paedophilia but also about crime and punishment generally.

Some people feel that no punishment is harsh enough for a child abuser. Others believe that the abusers were often themselves abused and deserve pity. Some people, such as Glitter himself, feel that when a man has done his time he has, in the meaningless phrase, served his debt to society. This attitude enrages others and some cry out for castration, chemical if not physical.

One common feeling is that if a man wants to do something so disgusting as rape a tiny child, or a baby, he is by definition mad or at least extremely abnormal mentally. But in this case of paedophilia, curiously madness doesn’t seem to be considered much of an excuse.

Experts don’t seem to agree either. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) lists paedophilia as a mental disorder and the US Supreme Court has upheld the idea of paedophilia as a mental abnormality.

However, there are those – both respectable experts and paedophile apologists – who argue that paedophilia should be removed from this list of mental disorders, just as homosexuality was removed in the 1970s. There is, apparently, some evidence that between 20%-25% of the supposedly normal male population feel sexually attracted to children, according at least to a discussion in the US Archives of Sexual Behaviour of 2002, and react to “paedophilic” stimuli.

This might suggest that there is nothing so very abnormal about paedophile desires, just as other fantasies of violence and revenge are common. It’s true, too, that other societies have tolerated sex between adults and prepubescent children, although I cannot think of any which has regarded sex with babies with equanimity.

There seems to be little or no agreement about what causes paedophilia. The old theory that child abuse itself was an important factor has fallen by the scientific wayside. The existence of a cycle of sexual abuse from generation to generation has not been established. Some studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain suggest that paedophilic men tend to have several differences in brain structure from other men and have one or more neurological characteristics at birth that could increase the likelihood of paedophilia.

However, for every one of these studies there is a crowd of experts to disagree with it. The only point upon which most experts seem to agree is that there is no treatment which can cure paedophilia. The disorder is chronic and lifelong.

Therapies designed to prevent convicted paedophiles from harming children again have little success, according to the expert literature I’ve seen. However, the justice department does not have readily available figures on recidivism among child sex offenders. I should have thought this interesting and important statistic would have been well worth knowing.

In the light of all this ignorance and uncertainty, the public hounding of the ghastly Glitter has been unforgivable. His chances of offending are probably high; he does need to be closely watched for the rest of his life and probably needs to be protected from a vengeful public. If that proves too expensive or too difficult – there are 30,000 sex offenders who need much more surveillance than they get – he will have to be locked up indefinitely.

Whether he can’t or won’t control his taste for children, others will have to control it for him. But it is wrong, given how little we understand about personal responsibility, to treat him harshly and to vilify him, just because we are anxious about that very lack of understanding.