A Long, Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity
Stigma is a negative attribute associated with a group which can lead to labeling, stereotyping, ostracizing, and physical and/or emotional harm toward the affected persons. Arguably the most stigmatized group in many societies is Minor Attracted Persons (MAPs), or individuals who are attracted to those under the age of 18 years old, including children. In A Long, Dark Shadow, Allyn Walker broaches this controversial topic to provide readers with a better understanding of this group, including misconceptions, identity formation, disclosure, coping strategies, resilience to sexual offending, experiences with help-seeking, and the need for the public to shift their attitudes toward MAPs if we hope to protect children.
In the Preface, Walker admits their own biases against MAPs early on in their career, even as a social worker advocating for criminal justice reform and improved prison conditions. However, recognizing the importance of secondary prevention (preventing an offense by MAPs before it occurs), Walker details their journey toward learning about MAPs, and specifically those who are dedicated to living offense-free lives. Walker explains, “prevention does not come from stigma, police, or prisons, but from support and understanding” (p. xiii).
Walker’s discussion of their own biases toward MAPs relinquishes the reader of any shame they may feel for being uninformed of the topic. Walker acknowledges that these feelings of disdain for MAPs are understandable, after all, “for decades, our mental images of [MAPs]—or, as we have called them, ‘pedophiles’—has been of individuals lurking in the shadows of back alleyways, playgrounds, and internet chat rooms, waiting to prey on children” (p. 3). Walker acknowledges that these feelings are valid, especially in the face of the ‘moral panic’ created in part by the media. By empathizing with the reader, Walker opens us up to the idea of a different narrative, and with that, discusses three prevailing misconceptions about MAPs and how these misconceptions can harm children rather than protect them.
First, Walker explores how people use the term ‘pedophile’ and ‘child molester’ interchangeably, implying that, by nature, those attracted to children are involved in criminal activity. In actuality, the term ‘pedophile’ describes the attraction, not the behavior. Relatedly, the second misconception is that all MAPs are pedophiles. As Walker discusses, the term ‘pedophile’ refers to a specific age range of attraction, to children who have not yet begun puberty. The attraction to children who are going through puberty is called ‘hebephilia,’ and the attraction to teens/adolescents is described as ‘ephebophilia.’ Walker emphasises the importance of using correct terms to better understand MAPs’ experiences.
Perhaps most importantly, Walker discusses the misconception that stigmatizing MAPs protects children from abuse. While some believe shaming MAPs sends a message that opposes child sexual abuse, Walker explains how this belief is problematic. First, shaming someone for having an attraction to children will not extinguish the attraction; research shows that sexual attraction to children displays similar characteristics to a sexual orientation, including stability over time (Seto, 2012). Second, Walker posits that shaming MAPs may further harm children by leaving MAPs so socially isolated that their well-being and coping strategies are negatively impacted, leaving them with no recourse should they find themselves at risk of committing an offense. With this, Walker lays the framework for the remainder of the book, the purpose of which is not only to learn more about the MAP resilience to sexual offending, but, from a humanistic standpoint, to understand the experiences of MAPs with the goal of improving their wellbeing.
In chapter one (“Am I a Monster?”), Walker explores how MAPs form their identities after recognizing their attraction. An important point is that very few participants expressed having only a sexual attraction to children—most MAPs, like those attracted to adults, also felt a romantic and emotional attraction to children. Further, over half of Walker’s participants indicated that they were non-exclusively attracted to minors, meaning that they were able to form an emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction toward adults. These two points highlight how, like those with ‘typical’ attractions, MAPs’ sexualities are complex and multifaceted.
In describing the identity formation process of MAPs, Walker compares MAPs’ experiences with a model proposed by Troiden (1988), which charts the identity formation process in gay and lesbian individuals. These stages are sensitization (an early perception of being different from others which is not immediately connected to sexuality); identity confusion (a feeling that one’s sexual feelings or behaviors are different from their peers); identity assumption (the stage at which the individual begins to identify with their sexuality); and commitment (the point at which individuals become comfortable identifying with their sexuality). While Walker admits that this last stage is more difficult for MAPs, some participants were indeed more comfortable with their sexuality and less inclined to hide this aspect of their life from family and friends.
Chapter two (“Leading a Double Life”) describes the difficulty MAPs face when making the decision to disclose their attraction to others, or ‘come out.’ To many, being a MAP meant keeping part of their life a secret and being careful not to reveal this information to others. As participants pointed out, this hypervigilance around their attraction was exhausting and all encompassing. Participants avoided coming out to avoid judgement, protect their safety, and avoid causing pain to loved ones. Despite these risks, some participants did come out to people in their lives. While some indeed faced rejection—even being reported to law enforcement—most felt supported and accepted by their friends and family.
Chapter three (“Enduring a Rainstorm”) details the various ways by which MAPs cope with the stigma-related stressors associated with their attraction. Walker explains that while MAPs’ sexuality is not readily apparent to the public, MAPs still experience stigma and its negative impacts to their wellbeing, including fear of rejection, internalized stigma (negative attitudes about oneself), loneliness and grief. In response to stigma-related stressors, participants described ‘disengagement’ and ‘engagement’ coping strategies. Disengagement strategies tended to be maladaptive or self-preserving, such as denial and wishful thinking, secrecy and selective disclosure of their attraction, substance use, and withdrawal from society. In contrast, engagement strategies were more adaptive, and included community involvement, seeking out information, seeking support from family and friends, activism, dating adults, religious involvement, and self-acceptance. Walker points out that while adaptive coping mechanisms are more effective in mitigating the negative effects of stigma-related stress, for some, they may be more unattainable than disengagement strategies. As an example, while some MAPs may wish to come out to their family and friends, the risk of rejection may be too great, resulting in hypervigilance, and perhaps engaging in a less adaptive coping strategy to compensate.
In chapter four (“It’s a Very Strong Boundary for Me”), Walker broaches a more difficult question: how do MAPs remain resilient to sexual offending? For most participants, the answer to this question was easy: they didn’t want to harm children. Indeed, nearly 75% of Walker’s participants felt that an adult engaging in sexual contact with a child would be harmful. This directly challenges the belief that MAPs only forgo offending to avoid facing criminal sanctions. Fear of punishment was, however, a secondary concern for participants. Interestingly, a third reason cited by MAPs was to avoid being “that guy,” essentially drawing a line between themselves and those who have committed sexual offenses (p. 113).
Walker moves on to describe specific strategies that MAPs employ to avoid offending. Ironically, the most prevalent strategy was no strategy at all; nearly 75% of participants felt that they posed no more risk to children than adult-attracted people pose to other adults. Those who did use strategies mentioned the following: limiting interactions with children (and, conversely, interacting with children), and getting support from other MAPs, such as through online forums, as well as from family. More controversially, a minority of participants admitted to using child sexual exploitation material (CSEM, more commonly referred to as child pornography). Walker treads carefully on this topic, both by disavowing the use of CSEM featuring actual children, and by acknowledging that there is a lack of conclusive research that suggests the use of CSEM is effective or ineffective at decreasing risk to commit a contact offense. Walker explains that out of the 12 participants who indicated the use of CSEM, half stated that they had used material that did not involve real children, such as drawings or computer-generated images. Although certainly an uncomfortable idea for the public, Walker suggests that the use of material featuring fictional children may be one of the only options for exclusive MAPs to safely engage in their sexuality. This suggestion that Walker makes, however, is complicated by laws that criminalize the use of material depicting even fictional children. For example, while the use of drawings and literature are legal in the United States, the same is not true for Canada (Criminal Code, 1985). Overall, one of the most important points made is that strategies are not one-size-fits-all; each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, and while some may be fine with no strategy at all, others may require multiple to feel secure in their ability to remain offense-free.
Chapter five (“Their Intention Wasn’t to Help Me”) explores what happens when MAPs seek mental health treatment for the challenges they face, both in terms of general mental health and help navigating their sexual attraction. While obtaining mental health care can be a difficult process for anyone (financially, geographically, and structurally), Walker highlights the barriers that MAPs specifically face. Participants discussed the lack of education professionals have about MAPs (and sexuality more broadly), the risk of being reported to law enforcement despite not having committed a crime, and mental health professionals attempting to change their client’s sexuality (i.e., conversion therapy), despite there being no evidence for the efficacy of such treatment. These challenges notwithstanding, some MAPs were still motivated to seek help from mental health professionals. The most common reason for wanting mental health services was to address general mental health issues; an alarming 60% of participants reported experiencing depression while nearly 40% experienced anxiety, both of which are higher than the national average. Other reasons for wanting mental health services were a desire for help with managing attractions and altering attraction (though by the time of the interviews, few participants believed that this was a realistic goal). Concerningly, some participants who felt they would benefit from mental health care avoided seeking it out, mostly due to a lack of trust. This lack of trust is not unwarranted; while some participants had good experiences with mental health professionals, others described situations in which they were assumed to have committed a sexual offense. Others discussed how their treatment goals were ignored and how therapists’ own agendas were imposed instead, such as trying to alter the MAP’s sexual attraction or focusing on potential risk of criminal offense.
In the final chapter (“You Are Not a Monster”), Walker discusses the current ineffective strategies employed by our society to prevent child sexual abuse, including stigmatizing MAPs. Walker points out that stigma results in barriers to help seeking for MAPs, potentially increasing risk for some to commit child sexual abuse. In moving beyond the stigma, Walker explains that we would be able to develop more effective abuse prevention strategies and allow for a focus on well-being in MAPs who have not committed an offense or are committed to desisting. Walker acknowledges that to many, caring about MAP wellbeing is counterintuitive. However, by continuing to stigmatize the attraction—rather than the behavior—we are making it exceedingly difficult for MAPs who struggle with their attraction to find help.
Walker clarifies that they do not believe that all MAPs are at risk to commit an offense. Rather, they believe those who are at risk should be able to access non-judgemental mental health treatment and social support. To do this, Walker opines that we need a complete societal shift. To this end, Walker makes several recommendations, including increasing education for mental health providers, especially around duty to warn laws and even general sexuality, as well as positive representation of MAPs in the media and literature. In closing, Walker shares with the reader what most of their participants would tell someone who is just recognizing that they are a MAP: “You are not a monster” (p. 170).
Overall, Walker’s book provides a nuanced look at the experiences of non-offending MAPs. The information is delivered in a careful and accessible manner, and it is clear that much thought and care went into developing each theme to ensure that all points of view were represented. A notable aspect of this book is that Walker opens each chapter with an anecdote from participants. Not only does this help frame the discussion in each chapter, it also serves to humanize people who are so often dismissed as monsters.
While Walker’s messages are carefully worded, this does not prevent them from addressing controversial topics, including pro-contact viewpoints and some participants’ use of sexual material containing fictional children. Walker also addresses common misconceptions about MAPs that are prevalent in society, backing up their arguments with evidence from prominent researchers in this area. In sum, it is clear from Walker’s work that they are dedicated to dismantling societal attitudes that negatively impact MAP wellbeing and that may subsequently put children at further risk of abuse.
Regardless, I do have critiques to offer. To begin with, though I understand Walker’s desire to remain neutral in describing participant experiences, at times I was left wanting a more critical discussion of participants’ responses. For instance, though 75% of participants felt they presented no risk to offend, many participants later went on to describe experiencing and/or engaging in certain criminogenic factors which have been associated with increased risk to commit a sexual offense. Besides being attracted to children (which is a risk factor itself), some participants described having offense-supportive attitudes (i.e., believing that some children are capable of consenting to sexual activities), emotional congruence with children, substance use issues, and a lack of emotionally intimate relationships with adults (Mann et al., 2010). While Walker may not have wanted to press participants about this during the interviews, discussing this information would have provided a more balanced take on participants’ responses.
It is also important to keep in mind that while Walker did interview a relatively large number of MAPs, most were recruited from the same site, Virtuous Pedophiles. To participate in the Virtuous Pedophiles community, users must abide by a list of rules which include not discussing topics that promote pro-contact discourse and living an offense-free life, including avoiding the use of CSEM. Virtuous Pedophiles also features many discussions about mental health in MAPs. As a result, most participants in Walker’s book were anti-contact individuals who, for the most part, were well-adjusted, had some support from family and/or friends, and were amenable to the idea of mental health treatment and participating in research. From my own experiences, forums like Virtuous Pedophiles may not be the norm. Indeed, out of all the forums I am personally aware of (approximately 10), only two, including Virtuous Pedophiles, have made explicit their anti-contact views. Other forums feature more individuals who debate age of consent laws, pro-contact views, and are more mistrustful of mental health practitioners, researchers, and the public more generally. Though the outcome of qualitative research is not intended to be generalizable, if the goal is child protection and MAP well-being, researchers must also engage with those who hold less ‘socially acceptable’ viewpoints. In all fairness to Walker, this research was conducted at a time when there was no information about MAP experiences, let alone the knowledge of different forums and their cultures.
Despite these critiques, Walker’s book is thoughtfully written, and they give a voice to those who are rarely able to speak about their experiences. It is an excellent starting point for those looking to learn more about this topic.
Criminal Code. 1985. R.S.C., 1985, c.46, s.163.1 (c). https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-46/section-163.1.html?wbdisable=true
Mann, Ruth E., Hanson, R. Karl, & Thornton, David. 2010. “Assessing Risk for Sexual Recidivism: Some Proposals on the Nature of Psychologically Meaningful Risk Factors.” Sexual Abuse. 22(2): 191–217.
Seto, Michael C. 2012. “Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?” Archives of Sexual Behavior. 41(1): 231–36.
Troiden, Richard R. 1988. “Homosexual Identity Development.” Journal of Adolescent Health Care. 9(2): 105–13.
Kailey Roche is a second year PhD student at Carleton University and an incoming Clinical Psychology PhD student at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her research interests include promoting well-being for child-attracted persons, minimizing risk for child sexual offences, treatment of men who commit sexual offences, and community reintegration.