Like a lot of people, I felt sick when I saw convicted paedophile Dennis Ferguson plastered on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald last week. Not because of his frail, almost-naked body — or even because of the children who were just visible in the background — but because it seemed so unnecessary and exploitative. The guy was at the beach. Why was it in a newspaper at all, let alone front page news?
It turns out the exploitation went both ways. The photo was submitted by Ferguson’s chief supporter, prisoners’ rights activist Brett Collins, in attempt to show him in a different light; as Collins put it to Sydney radio station 2UE, as "a human being who’s fragile and entitled to support the same as the rest of us".
As a PR move, it showed little understanding of either how the modern media works or how child sex offenders tend to be received by it. Yet on another level, it made a mysterious sort of sense. Dennis Ferguson wants to tell his story, to have some say in the media coverage that follows him wherever he goes.
And why wouldn’t he? Personal stories are powerful things. They have the potential to change the way the public thinks about an issue and — importantly, from Ferguson’s perspective — to humanise and make sympathetic the person doing the telling. When they are broadcasted far enough and with sufficient frequency, they become part of the fabric through which others make sense of their own experiences.
But not all stories — or storytellers — are embraced with the same enthusiasm, and paedophilia is one subject that remains strictly outside the bounds of politically correct discussion. As UK sociologist Ken Plummer has written, "Very rarely [do we hear]the tale of a paedophile, a rapist or even a serial murderer from their point of view. When these stories are told, they are trapped in the language of authority which pathologises, demonises, trivialises or sensationalises."
And not without reason. It’s natural to feel fear and repulsion at the thought of someone whose sexual practices necessarily involve the exploitation and abuse of some of the most vulnerable members of our society — members most of us feel compelled to protect. And while Ferguson has his own history of victimisation and abuse, the details of his crimes are horrifying — showing an incredible capacity for cruelty and a complete lack of empathy for his victims.
But part of it is also that the act of listening to someone like Ferguson, of expressing disapproval at the way he’s been treated since his release, of suggesting — like Collins — that he deserves to be treated like a human being, is so often read as an expression of support for his crimes. Anything less than run the man out of town, and you run the risk of implicating yourself.
But perhaps it’s time we did listen. We constantly debate the sexualisation of children, and yet we are unable to speak like adults about the people who lay implicit at the root of these fears. If we’re serious about protecting our kids, surely we’d do better to take the time to understand someone like Ferguson, than to enter into another round of pointless discussion about raunchy Miley Cyrus performances, bralettes and shag bands. Hopefully tonight’s Four Corners will do just that.
Speaking about paedophilia in only the most outraged, dehumanising of terms also has another downside: it makes it easier to ignore the fact that most child abuse happens at the hands of someone the child knows, and keeps such abuse hidden from view. It also makes it more difficult to deal with the dissonant reality that many paedophiles are people who are otherwise liked and respected by their families and communities.
But that’s just the thing — people don’t come in clear cut categories of good and evil. And pretending they do makes it harder to both spot the dangers in our midst, and to recognise the humanity in those we deem dangerous.
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