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Paedophilia: plague or panic?

A punitive socio-legal policy towards sex offenders against minors has been driven by public demand. The perception of an appallingly high incidence of serious abuse by incorrigible men has been encouraged by press sensationalism, but criminal statistics and recidivism studies fail to confirm either an escalation of sex crimes against minors or the inevitability of recidivism. Retrospective victim studies have given alarming indications of the prevalence of abuse, but they have often included trivial incidents and the experiences of sexually active adolescents that do not involve real paedophiles.

Clinical observation demonstrates the devastating effects of child sex abuse, but community surveys suggest that minor incidents have only minor effects, except when accompanied by other stresses. Statutory changes and prison statistics reveal the increasing punitiveness of criminal justice. Exaggerated perception of risk produces undue restrictions on children's freedom and on their interactions with teachers and other adults. Assumptions of incorrigibility impede the rehabilitation of offenders through vigilantism, stigmatization and barriers to employment. This amplifies deviance and does not protect children.


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