A short bright elucidation
A review of ‘A Long Dark Shadow: Minor Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity’ by Allyn Walker
When it was Allyn Walker’s turn to tell their classmates the topic of their doctoral research, namely minor-attracted individuals who have not committed an offence, their supervisor met it with an instant ‘Yuck! Next!’.
It takes guts to push against such discouragement, and to complete and publish anyway knowing one’s contribution may be met with ‘yuck’, or a pause full of inhibited quiet, or an onslaught of cancellation. [update 20 Nov: it was the latter!]
Walker has researched, written and published this book against those odds. I am glad they did, because it tackles a barely-represented subject, decisively breaks with precedents and sets a high bar for those that will follow.
Literature about minor attraction has evolved out of the field of criminology (even this book about non-offenders is classified that way by its publisher). Criminological interest in MAPs is mainly limited to how we can be stopped from harming others.
This and the wider social context have created a handful of unstated rules that are followed by most books or articles about pedophilia and related subjects:
Devote a significant chunk of your introduction to condemning child abuse
Foreground the topic of child abuse. So-called NOMAPs may or may not exist, but if they do they are an irrelevant distraction.
If you must include pedophile or MAP voices, they must be balanced by the voices of victims of child sexual abuse.
Your tone must be sober and clinical, and you must put the word ‘dark’ in the title.
This book bucks all but the last. ‘Dark’ appears in the title because it comes from a direct quote from a non-offending MAP describing the effect of pedophilia on his life.
This book does introduce itself as being mindful of sexual abuse prevention. Mostly, though, it treats non-offending MAP experience as worth discussing in its own right and not purely as a subset of the child abuse topic, which in practice barely intersects it. Indeed, the book implicitly asks, why juxtapose the two things at all, as if giving consideration to one affects the importance we assign to the other?
A brighter explanation
From their forty-two interviews, Walker is able to elucidate a sort of arc of MAP experience, which structures the book. The chapters give us:
realisation of one’s attractions and identity formation (what I know of as “coming in”);
secrecy, concealment and coming out;
effects on mental health;
moral decisions in relation to children;
help-seeking (with good or bad outcomes) and, additionally,
recommendations for how things might change in the future.
These are topped by an introduction that lays out the key issues and efficiently scotches several key myths about minor attracted people.
What particularly impresses me in A Long, Dark Shadow is how many of these experiences are accurately organised and represented throughout based on just forty two single-instance interviews.
Journalistic writing on this topic tends to paraphrase or simplify the MAP experience. In the quest to flip the mirror and show heroes instead of villains, or victims instead of monsters, awkward facts are put aside, complex situations combed out. Meanwhile, academic work can be so technically detailed that it’s hard to follow at all as truth about human beings.
Walker’s book, aimed at clinicians but written in language suitable for a general audience, creates a clear story, with nuance: MAPs grow up to discover they have an unchosen attraction. They reject the idea of taking sexual advantage of a child. They hear public excoriation of abusers who are all labelled, indiscriminately, with the word ‘pedophile’. They are confused, then scared about what they are. They are afraid to discuss their predicament with others, even those closest. If they do, they face prejudice. They join in with the pervasive silence. They lose hope. They despair of acceptance. They consider ending their lives.
Beyond this self-discovery are further dilemmas and knots: the tangled webs that can emerge from being out to certain people close to us but not to others close to them; the complex zones of fantasy and ‘looking’, even for those who never harm a child.
Walker also devotes a lot of space to the help that MAPs seek, and the many barriers we face, including fear of inappropriate reporting to the authorities, fear of inappropriate/quack methods being tried on us and, perhaps most tragically of all, when we reach out for help, only to find ourselves abandoned by therapists who decide after all that they cannot work with such people.
One small thing I was really pleased to see acknowledged was what several participants refer to as ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’ or being developmentally ‘stuck’. Walker stops short of labelling or pathologising this self-perception (there are names for it!), but they do quote several subjects explaining their idea of themselves as never having grown up.
Many subjects, many patterns
Forty-two is a large cast of characters. At points it is hard to follow who is who. However, certain names recur and enable the reader to get a sense of personality, of argot and attitude.
Collectively they represent pretty well the demographics and diversity among MAPs in anglophone anti-contact communities like VirPed, i.e. they are mostly cismen alongside a handful of ciswomen; they have a reasonably even spread of ages from 20s to 60s; nearly all have an interest in pre-pubescent and early pubescent minors.
Just two are trans, which may represent an undersampling, especially of transwomen. None are exclusively nepiophilic, which perhaps I would have expected.
The footnotes reveal that Walker was alert to a clear preponderance of white people in their sample, as well as a lack of gender diversity. These observations do open legitimate lines of enquiry, to which I expect the answers to be partly found in the science of pedophilia and partly in the established cultures of online pedophile communities.
A queer perspective
Walker’s queerness influences their approach, through their perspective on the labels MAPs use for themselves, and their puzzlement over the use of terms with conservative associations (such as ‘homosexual’, which tends to be uncontroversial within MAP communities).
There is some careful treading around the risk of associating the MAP cause with the LGBTQ+ one, even while Walker traces the obvious and pronounced parallels between MAPs’ experience of dealing with their identity and queer people’s.
Many people think that admitting MAPs face unfair prejudice is tantamount to suggesting we should re-run the gay liberation process for pedophiles. But history never has to repeat itself verbatim. Walker’s use of Richard Troiden’s model of identity formation among lesbians and gays is an appropriate choice that does not imply more than the similarities it highlights.
Emotion under the surface
After the main body of the book we have the appendix, in which there is a lot of transparency, and some honesty about the author’s admitted unease at certain content that came up while interviewing MAPs. They openly admit to moments of disturbance or anger at what they are told, and frankly discuss some of the mental health effects of talking to a stigmatised and sometimes ornery population. This is probably the section most likely to provoke rejection by some MAPs who would prefer to believe in dispassionate objective researchers who are immune to any social prejudice, or who, like good therapists, always offer unconditional positive regard — or who even fall in with the MAP ideological perspectives that instead disturbed Walker.
While I look forward in future books to confessions of anger not being necessary, I understand why they are here and respect the intellectual honesty of including them. Certainly, the main text communicates no such anger.
How do we talk from here?
My biggest fear is that it may be very difficult to spark off the conversation this book seeks to generate among a general audience. Those who come into this territory know they risk professional consequences and silencing. Some people’s need to maintain that silence pushes MAPs and their allies off of social media platforms entirely so that discussion of books like this cannot even start.
I remember similar silences in the past on sexual subjects that gradually filled with talk. I remember similar darknesses that were eventually illuminated with knowledge. That this book is only one of the first lights in a dark field makes it shine the brighter. I have hope it will become a powerful beacon for others.
Bly Rede is the Strategy Coordinator of Virtuous Pedophiles, a website for minor attracted people who are committed to never offending against children. He was once on Twitter.
There are also resources at ASAP International.
Edited by Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins
Image from unsplash.com