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Why Do We Assume Paedophiles Look a Certain Way?

Dirty trench coat, oversized NHS glasses and lank, thinning hair. We spoke to some experts in an attempt to understand the stereotypes surrounding child sex abusers.

by Adam Forrest
04 February 2015, 11:05am

Jimmy Savile (Screen shot via)

Imagine it's Christmas and you're playing Pictionary. Now imagine someone – probably not your nan – has asked you to draw a paedophile.

What would you sketch? Presumably some combination of cliches that add up to your standard Dirty Old Man: a trench coat with some weird stains on it, oversized NHS specs, lank, thinning hair and an unsettling leer. A very unpleasant cocktail of Worzel Gummidge and Limmy's dark comic creation, "Beast".

But where has that mental image come from? Why, when we see a photo of a sex offender in the paper or on TV, do we turn to a friend and say, "Yep, he looks the type"?

Graffiti about the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church (Photo by Milliped via)

Operation Yewtree's horrendous revelations have begun to indicate the true scale of sexual abuse of children in the UK. Best estimates for the number of paedophiles in Britain today place it at a staggering 250,000, with some studies suggesting that 1 percent of all men could experience sexual feelings towards minors. I asked sociologist Dr Sarah Goode, author of Paedophiles in Society, if this could have anything to do with the way we assume child sex abusers look.

"I think we half-realise that sexual attraction to kids is potentially there in people who look just like us," said Dr Goode. "The problem is, that knowledge makes us so uncomfortable [that] we prefer to pretend it's 'those weird monsters over there'.

"We make them distant figures – the weird-looking guy at the end of the street. And it hasn't helped us understand risks or keep children safe. I think some of those sort of fairy tale representations of monstrous paedophiles – and all those Stranger Danger public information films – they were there to make adults feel better."

Before dismissing the stereotype entirely, I wondered about the technique of facial profiling. Is there anything useful to be learned about the quick, near-instant judgements we make about potentially threatening strangers? Anything that might help us understand real risks to children?

Humans have a long history of seeing criminal deviancy in a person's face. The pseudo-science of physiognomy dates back to Ancient Greece and was revived prior to the Enlightenment. Italian scholar Giambattista Della Porta believed a person's inner temperament actually had an effect on the way their face looked.

His book, De humana physiognomia (1586), features woodcuts of animals to help illustrate the personality characteristics written all over each human face, like the "bullish" aggression of the poor ugly sod in the image below.

A page from Giambattista Della Porta's 'De humana physiognomia' (Image via)

Although such ideas were laughed away in the 19th century, when people still believed the world was a massive table, a new kind of physiognomy is now emerging. Recent studies have suggested that the instinctive moral verdicts we make based on facial appearances might not be completely fallacious and moronic. When researchers at Cornell University in New York presented people with a series of expressionless photos of Caucasian men in their twenties, they found participants could distinguish convicted criminals from non-criminals with above-chance accuracy.

It seems what the observer is instinctively looking for is a high facial width-to-height ratio (WHR), an indicator of high levels of testosterone. So, according to the study, a heightened capacity for aggressiveness – and a predilection for breaking rules – might actually show up in the wideness of your face.

An image from Professor Cheryl McCormick's study

I asked Cheryl McCormick, a Canadian neuroscience professor who has also carried out studies showing WHR as a key biomarker for aggressiveness, about what these kinds of findings mean.

"We were a little worried about the comparison to the early physiognomists," she admitted. "But we found that the snap judgements were so consistent from person to person that there does seem to be a good correlation between the relative width of the face and how people form impressions of them.

"We're prone to stereotype and over-generalise about who might be aggressive, but it still begs the question, 'Where does the stereotype come from?' I try to be sceptical, but I don't think we would have found such consistency in results without some kernel of truth to our snap judgements.

"It's probably only important when confronted by a stranger, because in our evolutionary history you had to make a snap decision whether to fight or to flee... it would have been worth your while to err on the side of caution."

Still, even if we accept that WHR tells us something about a person's inclination to act recklessly on their desires, it doesn't tell us anything about paedophiles specifically. However, there is one scientist who's studied the brains of paedophiles, and his research has led him to believe that they really are hard-wired a little differently from the rest of us.

Roy Whiting, the sex offender who was imprisoned for the murder of schoolgirl Sarah Payne

Dr James Cantor is a clinical psychologist specialising in sexology. Using neuro-imaging techniques he found that male paedophiles have significantly less white matter, the connective tissue responsible for communication between different regions in the brain. Their attraction to children could be the result of "cross-wiring" between the sexual response system and the parental, nurturing part of the brain.

Oddly, he also found that paedophiles tend to be shorter than average in height, and are three times more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous.

"The left-handedness is not directly causal," Dr Cantor explained. "Because left-handedness is entirely a phenomenon of patterns causing one hemisphere of the brain to be dominant. The fact it shows up here is simply an echo and indication that some things are going differently [in paedophiles] before birth."

So it would be completely the wrong conclusion to draw any sinister link between paedophilia and left-handedness?

"Yes, that would be utter nonsense – the number of left-handers who will be [paedophiles] would be a tiny fraction of a percent," said Dr Cantor.

And so it's certainly not useful in any criminal profiling sense?

"No. It's several orders of magnitude away from telling us anything meaningful about a particular person, so there's nothing in any of this that could allow us to do any meaningful profiling."

Ian Watkins, sex offender and former Lostprophets frontman

Finally, I asked a child protection specialist, Jon Brown of the NSPCC, if he thought there were any common factors which could lead us to make useful generalisations. He mentioned "a history of no long-term consenting adult relationships" in sex offenders. Doesn't that suggest there might just be something to the stereotype of the lonely loser at the end of the street?

"Well, they may look like the lonely loser at the end of the street, but they may not," said Brown, head of the charity's sexual abuse programme. "They may have a series of short-term relationships, and that's how they gain access to children. How people look or dress is just no indication of propensity."

Despite stumbling upon some vaguely relevant actual science, I discovered there really isn't anything in this paedophile-spotting business. Dr Goode's point remains true: this terrible compulsion could be there in people who look just like us. And if we also accept the idea that there's little anyone can do about their desires – that people don't actively choose to be paedophiles – we might have to think a bit differently about dealing with the threat.

Dr Goode, Dr Cantor and Jon Brown all believe we should look toward the Prevention Project Dunkelfeld in Germany, a treatment centre aimed at people struggling with their sexual interests in children. By offering talk therapies and libido-reducing medication, the chances of acting on urges are subdued.

Sounds to me like progress. It's certainly a more mature approach than pretending paedophilia is the sole preserve of goggle-eyed freaks offering sweeties at the school gates. It's time to leave all that behind and move forward with something constructive.

@adamtomforrest

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