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Opinion A Virginia college professor set off a firestorm about pedophilia

Anti-pedophilia graffiti is seen on the campus of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., on Nov. 24 in the aftermath of a professor's interview on research into pedophilia. (Ben Finley/AP)
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Elizabeth Letourneau is director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Luke Malone is an award-winning journalist who reports on child sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

It reads like something out of the Netflix show “The Chair.” An assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University gave an interview where they spoke about their research on pedophilia and distinguished between people with an attraction to children and people who offend sexually against children.

A brief clip from the interview, devoid of context, began metastasizing its way through social media, where it eventually exploded. Suddenly, the professor was being accused of defending child sexual abuse. The New York Post, the Daily Mail and Fox News took the bait. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) retweeted it. Tucker Carlson discussed it on his show. On-campus protests erupted, death threats began, and the professor required an armed guard to move about campus. A petition to remove the academic from their position received thousands of signatures, and the university placed them on leave, citing safety concerns. A week later, the professor stepped down.

The thing is, the professor wasn’t wrong. Allyn Walker, who uses they/them pronouns, gave the interview to talk about their book, “A Long Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity.” The book argues that lowering stigma around people with a sexual attraction to children reduces self-isolation, improves mental health and increases help-seeking behavior. All of which is true and may be critical to decreasing the likelihood of future offending.

In the interview, Walker explained that they use the term “minor-attracted person” instead of “pedophile” because people incorrectly assume that all pedophiles have abused a child or will soon. Again, Walker is right: Many people attracted to children have not and will not harm a child. Walker drew further ire for suggesting that people with a sexual attraction to children aren’t inherently bad, as long as they haven’t acted on it. That, like everyone else, these individuals can’t help who they are attracted to. Walker immediately followed this by saying they wanted to be “extremely clear that child sexual abuse is never ever okay.” But this last sound bite didn’t make it into the bad-faith cut of the interview making the rounds online.

One of us has spent more than 30 years researching child sexual abuse prevention and policy; the other has extensive experience reporting on people with a sexual attraction to children and those harmed by sexual abuse. We’d like to make one thing clear: Walker’s research falls squarely in the field of child sexual abuse prevention, a field that recognizes the importance of identifying at-risk populations and figuring out how to assist them in leading healthy, non-offending lives.

It’s a relatively new approach. We’ve long considered child sexual abuse to be a tragic yet inevitable part of life, something that can only be addressed via after-the-fact criminal justice strategies. It’s important to hold people who offend criminally responsible and provide resources to survivors, but these efforts are too little, too late, coming after abuse has taken place and a child has been harmed.

Walker’s work is part of greater shift to reframe child sexual abuse as a preventable public health problem, instead of a tragic inevitability. We address virtually every other type of childhood violence as preventable. If a parent beats a child, we recognize that the responsibility lies with the adult and target prevention strategies accordingly while also holding offenders accountable. Instead of applying the same approach to child sexual abuse — identifying at-risk adults and finding ways to intervene — we see the problem as too difficult and icky. We mistakenly believe that people at risk of offending are monsters who are unwilling or unable to benefit from prevention strategies.

Working to help those with an innate attraction to children, one of several at-risk groups, is essential to a comprehensive approach to preventing and addressing child sexual abuse. Not every person with an attraction to kids requires help. Many of the people we’ve met through our research are horrified at the thought of acting on their attractions. They are committed to child safety but may benefit from assistance navigating the immense guilt and shame that come with sexual feelings they did not choose. Others pose a genuine risk to children and need additional strategies that keep them from sexually abusing a child.

The prevention field is beginning to respond. Last year, the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University launched the Help Wanted Prevention Intervention, an online course aimed at people who have concerns about their sexual feelings for younger children. Since going live, Help Wanted has been accessed more than 214,000 times. That’s a lot of people looking for more information for themselves or someone they know who needs help dealing with an attraction to children. These are the people Walker was speaking about in the interview that cost them their job.

If we really want to prevent child sexual abuse, we need to begin by supporting researchers who engage in this difficult but important work. We should also encourage those most at risk of harming a child to come forward. Assisting people who have an unwanted attraction to children helps them, it helps kids — it helps everyone.