These are strange times. Everyone over the age of about 12 is currently being investigated as a potential paedophile. Especially if they’ve ever worked at the BBC. Yet even the word paedophile itself is taboo. I’m not saying it’s up there with the N word or Y word or that paedophile comedians should liberate the word by using it in their stand-up routines; but it’s one of those explosive combinations of letters that make people uncomfortable. Like mental health. Or disability. Or kumquat.
I recently dropped off the sausage at nursery (wearing my rather comfy parka jacket) and there was a new girl on the door. I was told that I’d have to wait outside because she didn’t recognise me. Responding in my cheery manner that I understood because I was, after all, “wearing my paedophile coat” I didn’t get quite the response I’d hoped for. She looked at me in the same way that dogs look at cats (distrust, hatred and feral rage all balled up in one) and replied, with no trace of humour: “Paedophiles are no laughing matter.” Most normal people would have probably left it there. Or humbly apologised, realising that perhaps, rightly, a nursery isn’t the place to joke about paedophiles. Unfortunately, I’m not a normal person. Conformity and regulation are my nemesis. And my response (“Well, they’re funnier than clowns”) resulted in her closing the door in my face while she went to get one of the more senior staff to confirm my identity. Or maybe call the police.
I thought about my behaviour afterwards to try and decide whether or not I was in the wrong. It was a very brief internal monologue. The problem is, all the while words like paedophile are verboten then it’s so much easier for the perpetrators to hide behind not only the shame of the victims, but the shame of us to even acknowledge the issue. And our fear of uttering the word. Or of hearing it. One wonders if that’s how the recent ‘cover-ups’ (I should probably use the term alleged to keep the lawyers at bay) within large media organisations took place. If you suspect someone of being a paedophile or of sexual abuse (and you’re not the victim) and even uttering those terms fills you with dread, then maybe you just keep quiet. As do all the other people who saw the same clues and remained silent. The media tells us that it was out of fear for the power these people held. I’m not so sure.
I was recently hired to write a screenplay which revolves around a female character who suffers sexual abuse during her childhood. During my research, I learned things that made my head throb with conflicted thoughts and emotions. One helpful therapist who deals in pre-adolescent abuse noted that once they’ve passed that milky-smelling phase, young children (and we’re talking toddlers upwards) give off the same sexually-charged aromas as a fully grown, sexually active adult. The same aromas that, assuming we are nothing more than highly evolved chimps, latch onto our basest animal instincts and trigger arousal, in pretty much the same way that the smell of chocolate makes us want to devour brownies. Which, according to the aforementioned therapist, can be very confusing for some people (largely men, although sometimes women) on a deeply primitive level. I actually think I shuddered (literally) after she imparted that repellent fact. I can’t comprehend it for a moment. Even standing back dispassionately and utlising the cold, scientific part of my brain, or analysing it like a writer accustomed to delving into the deepest and darkest realms of the human psyche, the father in me still stands there shaking his head. Partly unbelieving. Partly sad and disappointed that the world might possibly work this way.
But. And here’s the thing. I’ve held onto that piece of information, presented to me by the therapist, like it was a grenade with the pin out. I held it in my hand. For weeks. Too afraid to let go, lest it blow up in my face. It was just a piece of scientific information (albeit subjective). But it made me feel ashamed. Because I felt that it was something other people likely didn’t know. I was desperate to talk to someone about it, but I didn’t even discuss it with my wife. It’s such a horrible concept, however accurate, that to release it into the open would make me feel tainted by it. That to even utter such a thing made me somehow a bad person. But by opening it up here, it feels less of a burden, less something to be ashamed of. And something that I can actually discuss. Intelligently. Dispassionately. And maybe that’s why we should be more open to debate such topics, regardless of how unpleasant they might be. Because to do otherwise is the path to tragedy.
I know I try to throw a little bit of humour into what I do, but even I don’t feel comfortable following that with one of my usually trite punchlines. This has been an act of catharsis, of sorts, so I’ll leave it to a wordsmith with far more ability than yours truly to close. I give you, the one and only Tim Minchin: