essay: The Pedophile as a Folk Devil

Cory Walgren
Cory Walgren

by James Hunter

This article originally appeared at

A tragic suicide – Sixteen-year-old Cory Walgren committed suicide on January 11, 2017. According to Michael Tarm, Associated Press legal affairs writer, his suicide occurred “three hours after a dean and an in-school police officer at Naperville High School, told the honor-roll student he might face a child pornography charge.” He was being questioned about some consensual sexual activity he and his girlfriend had engaged in, and a video he had made of it. (Los Angeles Times coverage at

We are told that anyone under 18 is a child, and that children can’t consent to having sex. But when I use the term “consensual” I don’t mean that he understood all of the possible consequences of engaging in sex with his girlfriend. Nobody of any age could have consensual sex with anybody if that were the standard. The human condition is that none of us can know the full consequences of anything we do. I just mean “mutually desired.” Using this more common understanding of the term, obviously children can consent or not consent to sexual activities just as they can consent or not consent to eating liver. But what about that other problematic word: child? Our society has had a lot of difficulty determining whether teenagers are adults or children. After a somewhat confused discussion of the issue, we seem to have arrived at the following consensus:

  • Teenagers are adults when it comes to liabilities.

  • They are children when it comes to rights.

With regard to what he and his girl-friend did, Cory did not have adult rights. But he did have adult liabilities. He could be placed on the registry along with those who were 18 or over.

Why did Cory kill himself? And what can we do to prevent such tragic deaths in the future?

Cory committed a crime for which he faced the possibility of being punished by consequences that he believed were worse than death. At 16 years of age Cory was faced with the possibility of joining the ranks of the most hated social pariah in our society – and facing a lifetime of never being accepted as a normal citizen with the respect and rights that ought to be a part of citizenship. It was not irrational to think that this might be a fate worse than death.

Most liberal-minded people would probably feel that making a video of his sexual activities with his girl friend was poor judgment, but it was hardly a heinous crime. Few would think that a death penalty would be an appropriate consequence for either his sexual activities or his making a video of them.

Were society’s responses to Cory’s death relevant?

Two responses to Cory’s suicide were mentioned in the article. First, the local school board agreed to pay the Walgren family $125,000. That borders on the obscene. What does money have to with it? How is the $125,000 going to make it better?

Second, the Illinois state legislature passed a law. The article explains the new law this way: “As of August, a parent, guardian, family lawyer or designated advocate must be present before police can begin questioning students at school who are younger than 18 and suspected of crimes, unless they pose an imminent threat.” Republican Stephanie Kiforuit explains the rational for this new legal requirement. “We need to recognize that the brains of young people are not fully developed and they need to be dealt with differently. … What happened to Cory should never happen again.”

Despite our current confidence that something or other in the brain (such as “immaturity”) will explain everything, it was not the immaturity of Cory’s brain that caused his death. He was seeing his reality clearly enough. And had his parents been there to comfort him, his reality would have been no more clear. Cory was being faced with a fate that many do find worse then death – the possibility of being on the sex offender registry for life.

It is important to be clear on these points:

Lack of $125,000 wasn’t what killed him.

Nor did the presumed immaturity of his brain have anything to do with it. In fact, this effort to reduce our understanding of human reality to vague brain-talk only obscures the issues. Cory was a human being. Not a brain.

What caused Cory’s death

There are, of course, many causes for any event. But the primary cause of Cory’s death was the moral panic that our society has become locked into about the sexuality of children and teenagers and their vulnerability to “pedophiles.” It is this moral panic that has been cranking out absurd and draconian laws about what is to be done to people who violate various rules about who may or may not be engaged in mutually desired sexual activities. The irony in this particular case is that there is no evidence that Cory was a member of the group that our ill-conceived plethora of sex-abuse laws are trying to ferret out and destroy. He, like most people, may have had a variety of sexual attractions. But the activities that got him into trouble were with a peer of the opposite sex. With bad laws there tends to be a lot of collateral damage.

What exactly is a moral panic?

A moral panic is a societal reaction to a situation in which a very large group of people, or even a whole society, gets caught up in a panic about a perceived extreme danger to individuals in the society, and/or to society itself. In reality there may be a degree of real danger, or not. What qualifies a societal reaction as a moral panic is the very large discrepancy between perceived and the actual degree of danger.

The source of the danger is an individual or a group of individuals who are seen as engaging in immoral and dangerous activities, and perhaps influencing other to do the same. The perpetrator of the evil, in sociological theory, has been labeled a “folk devil.” He is a larger-than-life character who becomes endowed with a quasi-mythical quality. He is a less-than-human monster.

A moral panic is initiated by “moral entrepreneurs” who kick off the fight against this evil with a call to arms. The mass media plays a central role in educating the general public to the nature of the presumed evil with a harangue of alarmist articles and stories that present a simplistic and grossly inflated view of the danger.

anti-masturbation hysteria
Swiss doctor Samuel Auguste Tissot had published his theory on the devastating effects of self-stimulation in 1758. Masturbation, he claimed, was more dreadful than smallpox because it robbed the body of sperm – a carrier of vital energies. By the Victorian period, such opinions had entered the medical mainstream. Anti-masturbation devices were developed, such as these jagged metal rings fitted to the base of the penis with a screw or clip catch. credit: Science Museum London, UK

Consider the panic about boys masturbating as an example. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a panic about the extreme danger of boys masturbating swept through the English-speaking world. Masturbation was referred to as “self-abuse.” Self abuse could cause a wide variety of evils, up to and including insanity. It had to be prevented at all costs. Boys were expelled from boarding schools for engaging in the practice. All manner of techniques were used to put an end to self abuse, such as forcing boys to sleep with their hands above the covers, or even tying the hands of a boy to the bed in such a way that he could not reach his penis. Today we regard such reactions as rather bizarre, and perhaps a little humorous. But at the time, the warnings against masturbation were taken quite seriously, so much so that people who spoke out against society’s over-reaction to “self-abuse” risked their reputations and careers. As can be imagined, the techniques to prevent it caused a great deal of suffering.

According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, “examples of moral panic include the belief in widespread abduction of children by predatory pedophiles, belief in ritual abuse of women and children by Satanic cults, concerns over the effects of music lyrics, the war on drugs and other health issues.” In the 1980s the English-speaking world, and especially the United States, witnessed the emergence of one of the most bizarre moral panics in history – the Satanic ritual abuse panic. It was believed that Satanists in large numbers were dedicating themselves to the ritual torture of and murder of children. They kept a supply of children available for the sacrifices through women who were called “breeders” who gave birth the children explicitly for this purpose.

Claims were made that Satanists had infiltrated the daycare business, which led to number of scandals – all based on information that was entirely false. The most publicized, but by no means the only such scandal, centered around the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, from 1983 to 1990, in what was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in US history (see Wikipedia). People were imprisoned for activities that never happened. Lives were ruined – not by Satanists, but by the Satanic panic itself. A moral panic is not a harmless process.

The primary evidence justifying the Satanic panic was gleaned from a combination of “recovered memories” in psycho-therapeutic sessions, and badgering young children until they told the stories demanded of them in police and social worker interviews. Among professionals in the mental health field, recovered memories have now been debunked. Well informed clinicians and courts of law no longer believe that the quasi-hypnotic procedures of recovering repressed memories yield reliable historical information.

Not only did these Satanic events not happen, but the informational gathering techniques used to discover them – the recovering of repressed memories, and the use of inappropriate child interviewing techniques – were debunked. But this debunking did not receive the same press coverage as did the original sensational and lurid accounts of Satanic rituals. This lack of publicizing the debunking of invalid information gathering techniques is one of the reasons that the panic continues. Some people still believe that accounts based on recovered memories are accurate. Gradually the Satanic panic morphed into the pedophile panic. And now most Americans believe that hundreds of thousands of psychopathic sex perverts, generally referred to simply as “pedophiles” pose an extreme and extensive danger to our children.

Who are these pedophiles?

People who are identified as “pedophiles” are the most hated and persecuted group of people in our society. They constitute the third biggest group of incarcerated people in our grossly overpopulated prisons. More than any other group in our society, they are subjected to hate-speech, at which nobody blinks an eye. We trash the constitution in order to lock them up for life in fake mental hospitals. Yet there is surprisingly little interest in who they actually are or what they really do. It is almost impossible to tell, for example, what actually happened in the latest story about a new sex-offender being discovered and arrested. The language is vague and stereotyped. Words lose their everyday meaning. “Rape,” for example, may refer to a mutually desired but illegal act.

First of all, how many pedophiles are there? In an article titled Every Fifth Boy and Man Is Pedophilic or Hebephilic, Filip Schuster asserts that “22% of adult males exhibit an attraction to children under thirteen years of age that is equal to or greater than what they feel toward adults.” This conclusion is based on seven studies that use a plethysmograph (an instrument that measures the circumference of the penis) in their research on how men respond to sexual stimuli of various kinds. The studies use the academic definitions of male sexual orientations: a hebephile is a man whose primary orientation is to boys or girls in the age range of nine to thirteen and a pedophile is a person who experiences a strong attraction to children under nine. But in this article I am concerned with the pedophile as a popular folk devil. In the public’s mind and in the mainstream media the term pedophile is generally used to designate people who are attracted to prepubescent children – which in general would be people who are under 13. What Schuster’s article makes clear is that approximately 22% of all men fit into this category.

It is very hard to persuade people that this is the true state of affairs. Most people have an initial reaction of “It can’t be so!” Therefore it is important to emphasize that the data here is based on a number of studies using physiological measures of sexual arousal that don’t lie. Also it is worth noting that studies that rely on self-reports rather then plethysmographic techniques (physiological measures of the penis circumference) yield similar results. See for example,

A Wikipedia article tells us that the population of the US is about 329 million people. About half of these, or 164.5 million people are males. The Wikipedia article tells us that about 40 million of these males are children, which leaves about 124.5 million adult males. If 22% of these men are pedophiles – defined as sexually aroused as much or more by people under thirteen than by adults – this yields about 27 million pedophiles. Clearly the vast majority of these men are not taking children out into the woods where they rape and kill them. We have no reason to think that they even wish to do such things. In fact, the vast majority of these 27 million men are very ordinary people, who have no more in common with each other than any other group of 27 million men do, and who pose no threat whatsoever to children. The same situation obtains here that we find with men who are attracted primarily to adult men or women. Only a tiny fraction of them rape or kill anybody. If we read a newspaper article about a man who has raped a woman most of us to not say, “See. That’s how men who are attracted to adults are.” Yet that is precisely what we do when we read about a man who has actually harmed a child. We conclude that all “pedophiles” – which would have to mean all 27 million men who are strongly attracted to children – are would-be rapists and serial killers.

The 22% figure cited in Schuster’s article, although almost certainly accurate as stated, is misleading in one way, as is the whole practice of categorizing people as pedophiles, hebephiles, ephebophiles, and teleiophiles on the basis of the age of the people they can respond to sexually. Real people do not fit into these neat categories. Most men probably feel some degree of attraction to more than one age-category and to both sexes. Attraction to children will almost certainly fall out on a bell shaped curve, just as most other human attributes do. It’s not an all or nothing sort of thing. Some will feel an attraction to children that is much stronger than their attraction to adults and some will experience a less strong attraction, but certainly more than 22% will will feel at least some attraction to children.

The scientific evidence is overwhelming. The pedophile monster – who is perhaps the most feared person in our society – is a quasi-mythical figure. He is the product of a massive moral panic. The vast majority of men – whether they feel some degree of attraction to children or not – are not monsters who will do terrible harm to others – and especially to children – whenever the opportunity presents itself.

For various reasons related to the complexity of interpreting research finding, it is impossible to know the exact prevalence and intensity of male attraction to children, but any reasonable interpretation of existing research shows that some degree of sexual interest in children is characteristic of most if not all. At an academic conference in 2013, Philip Tromovitch, a well respected scholar in the field, presented posters that summarize lot of the relevant data in a brief and accessible manner:

It is my speculation that, in reality, some degree of mutual sexual attraction between children and adults is a universal aspect of human nature, and that the moral panic is precisely about that fact.

Real damage is being done to individuals and to society as a whole because of this moral panic. The time for a fact-based discussion of the topic is long overdue.

The need to end this moral panic

Would Cory’s sexual behavior with his girlfriend have been harmful to either of them had no videos been taken? Would it have been harmful had he been 22 and she 16? What if the girlfriend was a boyfriend? Or suppose a 32-year-old man took a shower with an 11-year-old boy, and they both enjoyed it? If a boy enjoys cuddling with, and being caressed by, a man, is he being harmed? Is that what we mean by “rape”? Our society appears to be committed to not engaging in a discussion about what kinds of mutually desired sexual and quasi-sexual activities are actually harmful, and why, and how harmful, and what should be done about it. We need an honest and realistic discussion – a fact-based discussion – not just screaming about how the pedophiles are at the gate.

Why is it so difficult to have a reasoned discussion about this issue?

Let me give a brief example of the kind of situation that would need to be thought about:

Kohut bioHeinz Kohut, the founder of “Self Psychology” and one of the most important psychological theorists of the 20th Century reported that “I had this private tutor, who was a very important person in my life. He would take me to museums and swimming and concerts and we had endless intellectual conversations and played complicated intellectual games and played chess together.” They also did sexual things together, which they both enjoyed, but Kohut felt the sex was more or less incidental. The important thing for him was the relationship. He said “I was an only child. So it was in some way psychologically life-saving for me. I was very fond of this fellow.” Heinz was about 10 or 11 at the time. He describes his years with his tutor as being perhaps the happiest ones in his life. (quoted from Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, by Charles Strozier [New York, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001] pp. 95 – 96)

Is this what we are in a panic about? What would have been the consequences for Kohut and his friend had they been discovered and had his friend been sentenced to 30 or 40 years in prison after being publicly vilified, and then condemned to be on the registry – our modern pillory – for life after being released?

The moral panic that began as the Satanic panic and which continues in full force as the pedophile panic is clearly the cause of the sex-offender registry, and all of the draconian laws and procedures to which Cory feared he would be subjected. It was those laws and procedures that led to his suicide.

Imagine for a moment that you are a 16- or 17-year-old boy, and you suddenly come to the realization that you are one of those 22% of males who will always find people under 13 as attractive or more attractive than adults. You are one of those men who people say are pieces of shit who should be killed, or hung up by their balls etc. etc. etc. You can hide this fact about yourself, and never be able to acknowledge who you really are in any of your relationships. Or you can come out of the closet and face a societal reaction many times more severe than any gay person faces. Given this dilemma, would the possibility of suicide not cross your mind? How many suicides that happen for unknown reasons have this causality? There is no way to know. But certainly some of them do.

So long as that the issue of the moral panic is not addressed, suicides will continue to happen again … and again … and again, despite comforting affirmations to the contrary. Minor tinkering with the draconian legal apparatus that is in place will not help.

One thought on “essay: The Pedophile as a Folk Devil”

  1. Utterly superb. A well-written, robustly-reasoned and academically substantiated article. Above all, an important one.

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