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Paedophilia Labelling and Moral Panics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 2170 words Published: 21st Apr 2017

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“Social groups create deviance by making rules whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by applying those rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders…The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label” (Becker, 1963: 8-14).

This essay will examine the process of ‘labelling’ a person as deviant; in this case the paedophile; the moral clampdown on the paedophile and the rise of public concern with the assistance of the mass media, resulting in ‘moral panic’ and the consequences that follow.

The Australian Concise Oxford dictionary (1992) defines deviance as meaning, “the act or state of diverging from usual or accepted standards, especially in social or sexual behaviour”. This definition doesn’t illuminate the diversity of deviations within mainstream society, nor the consequences involved when a person is labelled ‘deviant’. The simple act of labelling an outsider as ‘deviant’ implies that any person deviating from their cultural norms and values are “engaging in misconduct, that their actions are harmful to society, they are selfish, evil and must be stopped’ (Goode, Nachman: 29). Like beauty, labelling is in the eye of the beholder (Sagrin: 124), an act of deviance to one, may not be a deviant act to another (online Social Construction and labelling).

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Sociologists use the term “deviance” not in an evaluative sense but to refer to departure from conventional norms and values (Nathanson, Paulhus, Williams). Sociologists have many theories regarding deviance; however we will examine the ‘Labelling Theory’ which focuses on deviance as a socially constructed phenomenon rather than being conducted inherently (Giddens: 2009). The ‘Labelling theory’ is a sociological perspective that can be used to investigate deviant acts (Smith online); according to Giddens (2009:1123) it has become a dominant paradigm in explaining deviance.

The term ‘Labelling’ originated in Lemert’s writings during the 1950’s and subsequently developed through Becker, during the 1960’s (Smith, Blackwell). Becker states that deviance is created by society, whereby the cultures in which you are socialised establish the rules to be adhered to, consequently any deviations of those rules will illustrate disapproval (in Sagrin: 126) whereby the deviant may or may not be labelled. The theory has been adapted by many Sociologists, who have various definitions of the concept (Sagarin: 3). The theory suggests that actors become ‘deviant’ due to the acts they commit, what follows is a gradual shift, where all acts committed by the deviant person is labelled as suspicious (Sagrin:123). Lemert referred to the two propositions constituting the theory as primary and secondary deviation. Deviation opposed to deviance, as all people deviate occasionally from norms within society (Sagrin: 124). According to Lemert two things happen when an act of deviation occurs, the first is the ‘deviation’ label that is imposed by others, this suggests that they are not normal, they are evil and should not be part of the community (Sagrin:124). Secondary deviation frequently causes more harm than the primary act itself, once labelled, the actor becomes fearful and paranoid, characteristics develop from low self-esteem to self-hate (Sagrin: 124) “Labelling… shuns offenders and treats them as outcasts and may provoke a rebellious and criminal reaction from them” (Karp 1998: 283; Maxwell and Morris 1999). As Erikson suggests “a moment of deviation may become the measure of a person’s position in society” (in Rubington: 25).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘paedophile’ as “a person with paedophilia, that is, an abnormal sexual love of children”. According to Bill Glaser it is not a love of children but a lust for them (In James: 6). Paedophilia is an extremely complex issue, where characteristics are not easily defined; paedophiles do not fit into one sub-cultural group within society. They lack a set of symbols that divide them from the ‘norm’, they do not have a notable dress style, verbal or prominent body language to highlight that they are ‘deviant’ (in Rubington: 5). Paedophiles are from any ilk; they may be well educated or not; rich or poor; married or unmarried; employed or unemployed, they are found in every suburb; they are family members and neighbours, guardians and social workers, child care workers and teachers, coaches and football heroes, church leaders and politicians, judges and doctors, anybody (James 1996:1) (Paedophilia, policy and prevention PDF). Becker states that the only thing deviants have in common is, ‘they share the label and the experience of being labelled as outsiders (1963:11)

The mass media and other control agencies have status and power that is used to publicly label an offender, what is created sociologists call ‘moral panic’ (Giddens: 949). During the 1960’s sociologist Stanley Cohen introduced ‘Folk Devils’ and ‘Moral Panics’, depicting the mass media’s exaggerations regarding youth disturbances at a British seaside resort. ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’, currently a term widely adopted by sociologists interested in the relationship between the media and the public. The paedophile depicts the ‘Folk Devil’, the outsider, the deviant that deserves “targets of self-righteous anger, hostility and punishment” (Goode, Nachman: 31).

According to Critcher the paedophile is a classic ‘Folk Devil’. The moral panic surrounding the paedophile isn’t necessarily about what he is doing but the fears and anxieties that is represented (in Marsh, Melville, 2009: 61-65).

The mass media exposes ‘the paedophile’ as an external threat; this creates a ‘moral panic’ focusing attention on the dangers that paedophilic sex offenders pose outside the home, however statistics prove that it is often a trusting figure within the community that is the perpetrator (Cowburn, M. , Dominelli, L: 2-3). The paedophile priest is an example of a socially constructed ‘folk devil’, he is respected within the community, he has status and power which is used to gain trust. “It has long been theorized that strict religious teachings on sexuality are capable of causing abnormal behaviour… the Church’s teachings on sexuality… lead[s] to a development of sexual dysfunction amongst its priests” (Vexen 2009). According to Cohen if something triggers a threat and if conditions are right, a moral panic can suddenly appear and disappear just as quickly. Moral panics ensue when reaction to this development is amplified by agents of social control (Cohen 1980:9). Any panic caused by the paedophile priest is promptly concealed by the Church; the priest in concern is relocated, rehabilitated or placed on leave until the moral panic diminishes (Vexen 2009).

The ‘Moral panic’ relates to the overreaction of the mass media, police and local community authorities (Germov and Poole: 509) in hope that their agenda items acquire priority and implantation, and also to raise anxiety and risk levels in the public so criminal justice and political systems will be pressured to employ additional laws and order policies. In America for example, Megan’s law was passed three months after seven-year-old, Megan Kanta was sexually assaulted and murdered by a neighbouring paedophile (Hinds, 1997: ). The Moral panic surrounding Megan’s death, therefore implemented new notification laws. Names and addresses of sex offenders are placed on sex offender registries to notify families of any perpetrators that may live close by. Registers conversely raise problems of labelling, secondary deviance, scapegoating and moral panic (Lemert, 1967, Szasz, 1970, Cohen, 1987 in Ronken C., Lincoln R.). ??

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Recently in Hobart, The Collectors ABC, high profile television presenter, Andy Muirhead was charged during February this year with viewing child internet pornography, again in June for possession of material (Amanda Mead, June 12 2010 The Australian). Although the content is not known, Muirhead is labelled, as an outsider, a ‘Folk Devil’, a sex offender. Australia currently does not have a sex offender register and many people oppose the idea. Publicly labelling on a registry, in many cases can do more harm than good (Fitch 2006) The scope of sex offences that are on the register and labelled as ‘paedophile’ are extensive, for instance a girl in Georgia who had been placed on the register following conviction of sodomy is alongside the most evil of child sex offenders imaginable (Vexen). A paedophile that is on a registery is a labelled ‘paedophile’ for life. Following prison and reinstatement, life chances decrease through alienation (Vexen 2.2). Vigilante groups often take action forcing the offender out of the community. The following music track by The Christians depicts the feelings of an outsider once labelled as deviant; “You’re the man with no choice, yes it’s been decided you’ve done wrong. And there’s single voice that will stand up and say, ‘oh just what has he done?’For they all read the news, and it’s surely proof enough for them. And they flatly refuse to consider, oh, was he really to blame?”(“When the fingers point” music track by The Christians)

The Media is responsible for deliberately and unnecessarily amplifying public fears about crime, the current social construction of ‘the paedophile’ creates a media-orchestrated ‘moral panic’ where imagery by the media influence public awareness (Cowburn, M., Dominelli, L: 2).They constantly argue that sex offenders are different; they cannot be treated and will reoffend (James). The media instils images through News headings such as; ‘AFP crack Facebook paedophile porn ring, Police swoop on child sex offenders’ (online), ‘Man jailed after pleading guilty to possessing more than 50,000 images of child pornography’ (Herald Sun online) and ‘Hundreds of children exposed to sex offenders in Victoria’. These are some headings that would make it difficult for anyone reading the latest news not to have come to the wrong conclusion that every paedophile is a homicidal maniac (Ryan, 2003:2).

The media also emphasises the view of the sex offender as a threatening stranger from whom the innocent public must be protected (Kitzinger, 1999). ‘Stranger danger’, a prime example of misrepresentation by the media who would like us to believe that paedophilia is committed by complete strangers; randomly assaulting unknown children, victims as mentioned above are often children who already have an established social relationship with the perpetrator (James: 1). The Moral panic surrounding ‘stranger danger’ often results in parents undertaking risk management strategies such as acknowledging the sex offender registry and consuming necessary items to protect their children. Mobile telephones, surveillance cameras, internet safety options and monitoring all help ease any fear of moral panic instilled by the media. Danish parents have gone to extremes by enrolling their children in day care centres that have webcams. Children can be viewed throughout the working day via the internet with a secure password, parents can have peace of mind knowing that their children are safe (Jorgensen, V).


A person is deviating from social norms once labelled so. Therefore the act of paedophilia is not deviant until the actor is labelled as a paedophile. Once the label has been applied through the exaggeration imposed by the authorities and the mass media, the actor becomes isolated, fearful and alienated. The labelled paedophile experiences decreased life chances due to vigilantism that is provoked, often the paedophile lives in danger in prison and following reinstatement due to the pubic sex offender registry.

More moral panics will be generated and other, as yet nameless, folk devils will be created. This is not because such developments have an inexorable inner logic, but because our society as present structured will continue to generate problems for some of its members…and then condemn whatever solution these groups find [Cohen 1987:204]. A moral crusade is established by the media so that people are prepared to accept authoritarian and social controls such as new laws as solutions to the sex offender problems.


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