Allyn Walker is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University in the Department of Sociology and criminal justice. Their research focuses on institutional harms, especially those created by our criminal processing, immigration, detention and mental health care systems.
We spoke to Allyn about their book A Long Dark Shadow: Minor Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity. The book is a study of non-offending minor-attracted persons, a group that hasn’t been discussed a lot either in the academy or in popular culture. You can see video of the conversation here. Audio is available here.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Even the title of your book is pretty controversial. Because the subtitle is “Minor-Attracted People And Their Pursuit of Dignity. And many people are concerned that the designation of Minor-Attracted People or MAPs suggests that it’s okay to be attracted to children. Or they’re worried that the term suggests that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, which they worry is a slander on LGBT people. So could you talk about why you use that term in the title and throughout the book?
Absolutely. I use the term Minor-Attracted Person or MAP in the title and throughout the book for multiple reasons. First of all, because I think it’s important to use terminology for groups that members of that group want others to use for them. MAP advocacy groups like B4UAct have advocated for use of the term, and they’ve advocated for it primarily because it’s less stigmatizing than other terms like pedophile. A lot of people when they hear the term pedophile, they automatically assume that it means a sex offender. And that isn’t true. And it leads to a lot of misconceptions about attractions toward minors.
I’ve definitely heard the idea that you brought up though that the use of the term minor attracted person suggests that it’s okay to be attracted to children. But using a term that communicates who someone is attracted to doesn’t indicate anything about the morality of that attraction. From my perspective, there is no morality or immorality attached to attraction to anyone because no one can control who they’re attracted to at all. In other words, it’s not who we’re attracted to that’s either okay or not, okay. It’s our behaviors and responding to that attraction that are either okay or not okay.
I want to be extremely clear that child sexual abuse is never ever okay.
And I want to be extremely clear that child sexual abuse is never ever okay. But having an attraction to minors as long as it isn’t acted on, doesn’t mean that the person who has those attractions is doing something wrong. I think we have a tendency to want to categorize people with these attractions as evil or morally corrupt. But when we’re talking about non-offending MAPS, these are people who have an attraction that they didn’t ask for. And one that frequently they would do anything to change. But they find that they’re unable to change those attractions. And most importantly, the people in my study did not act on them.
Something else you brought up was the idea that using the term MAP could suggest that attractions to minors are a type of sexual orientation. Whether or not attractions to minors are a type of sexual orientation is not the question that can be answered with my particular research. My research touched upon the labels that MAPs use to describe themselves though, and a lot of them have been really conscious about their choice of language, because they don’t want to slander lesbian, gay and bisexual people. So they’ll use language to kind of distance themselves from LGB folks, which I talk about more in my book.
There’s a lot that could be said about whether attractions to minors are in themselves a sexual orientation. And there’s research that I cite in my book about that. But to me, that misses a larger and more important difference, which again, is about attraction versus behavior. If we did consider MAPs to have their own distinct type of sexual orientation, there would still be a huge difference between MAPs and lesbian, gay bisexual people. And that difference is that MAPs have a sexual attraction that would result in a lot of harm if they acted on it. Whereas for LGB, folks, there’s no harm in having consensual relationships with one another.
So that’s where the distinction lies. Again, it’s really in that difference between attraction and behavior. And non-offending MAPs, by definition, do not abuse children. So their behaviors are moral, but they’re still being subjected to this same idea that they’re bad people and they’ve often internalized that for themselves. So that’s why I’ve used this subtitle Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity. Because a lot of the people I interviewed for the book, I’ve encountered people who have told them that they’re bad people or monsters just because of their attractions. Or they feel that same way about themselves. And it’s often a process for them to just stop feeling internally like they’re monsters.
Some of the people in my study have been going through this process for years, decades even. And some of them had just started it. Maybe even just weeks before we spoke. And seeing my participants be so affected by the stigma against them was really hard, because they were trying their best to be good people. So it was important for me to use language that was as non-stigmatizing for them as possible.
The term pedophile is often used to mean people who are attracted to minors. But it’s also often used to mean people who abuse children. Could you talk about what the difference is and why it’s important?
When I give talks and mention that “pedophile” doesn’t mean someone who has committed a sexual offense, and is instead referring to attraction, I still see phones come out because people will be Googling to see if I’m correct in my language choice or not.
But yes, there’s a big difference between MAPs and child sexual abusers. “Pedophilia” is a clinical term that indicates a sexual attraction to people who have not gone through puberty. MAP refers to someone who has preferential attractions to minors, and that can include children who have gone through puberty or not. And child sexual abusers are people who have committed a sexual offense against a child. Many of these people are indeed MAPs. But first of all, there are many people who commit sexual offenses against a minor who are not attracted to children in general. We know that abusers commonly commit sexual offenses for reasons related to power control and access, not because of attraction. So many child sexual abusers are not MAPs.
And then just as importantly, many MAPs never commit a sexual offense against a minor. And that difference is important because when we don’t understand that distinction, we make incorrect assumptions about the likelihood of offending amongst MAPs. This leads to people believing that just because someone is attracted to minors, they’re likely to commit an offense. And we start to criminalize a population just because of their attractions. Not only is this a problem in terms of criminalization, but it also serves to heighten stigma against MAPs in general, which is a huge problem.
Does it make it harder to identify child sexual abuse?
Yeah, absolutely. If we have this idea that child sexual abusers look a certain way, we’re going to be missing the majority of offenses that are committed because we’re so focused on this one idea.
In the book, you say that you your initial work was with victims of sexual violence. What led you to this project? And how do you reconcile that with trying to be empathetic to victims of sexual violence?
Yeah, so I had worked with victims of sexual abuse as a counselor, which is one of my very first jobs as a social worker. It was both heartbreaking and infuriating to hear about people’s experiences with sexual victimization in that capacity. And all I really wanted to do was protect them from the pain that they were experiencing, which I couldn’t do. And when I was trying to help them access help through the criminal legal system, it was frustrating that the system wasn’t helping the victims.
So I started further noticing the ways in which the criminal processing system really contributes to harm when I ended up facilitating a support group with women who are incarcerated and who’d been victims of sexual violence. At that point I started having my eyes opened to institutional harms that were caused by the criminal processing system as a whole, to those who are criminalized, and to those who are victimized alike. As I started learning more about the system, I learned more and more about alternatives to the way we currently deal with people who commit offenses.
And a big part of that is in offense prevention. I actually worked for many years for an organization that developed alternatives to incarceration, through violence, intervention, restorative justice, initiatives, alternative court programs, and so on. But I never heard about any initiatives that attempted to prevent sexual offending against minors.
While engaging in this work, I never even understood that people with attractions to minors and people who commit offenses against them are entirely distinct groups. And I remember learning about that from a news article while I was browsing online, and it totally shifted my understandings about sexual offending. I became really interested in researching MAPs from the perspective of preventing sexual offending against children. I began attending workshops led by B4UAct, the advocacy group I was discussing earlier, as I developed my research about MAPs.
My research study ended up including interviews with 42 minor-attracted people. And in those interviews, I asked participants about their experiences with coming to terms with their identity, and coping with the stigma that they faced, as well as about how they’ve strategized not to commit offenses. My purpose in asking about their strategies for non-offending are probably obvious, as I’m interested in offense prevention. And I figured MAPs personal strategies would have relevance to other MAPs who might be struggling with some kind of temptation to act on their attractions.
Initially, I saw those questions as something that would just give context to how they strategize not to offend. So pretty much as background information. But as I attended workshops, and met MAPs in person, and through interviews, I heard about these experiences and how scared MAPs often were when they realized that they had this attraction. They’re pretty universally maligned. Although I’m not a MAP, myself, I am queer, and so I too, have been through experiences and realized that I have attractions many people wouldn’t understand, and that some people find to be immoral. And those experiences have really shaped who I’ve become. And so I sort of empathize with those experiences, and I wanted to learn more.
A lot of people argue that attraction to minors should be very strongly stigmatized in order to prevent people from acting on them and abusing children. But you’re arguing for less stigma. Could you talk about why? What’s wrong with using stigma to sort of prevent sexual violence in this way? And why would you rather see stigma reduced?
I think we believe societally, that stigma against MAPs serves to protect children because we don’t fully understand the differences between MAPs and sex offenders. Again, we have this confusion between the attraction and a criminal behavior.
Stigma against MAPs is a problem, in part because it makes MAPs think that they’re monsters. That’s really problematic in terms of MAP well being. It’s really hard to cope when you think you’re a terrible person, because you have attractions that you can’t change.
When MAPs get the impression that they’re destined to commit an offense against a child, they might not realize that it’s a choice that they have, and that there’s help out there
But it’s also hugely problematic because when MAPs get the impression that they’re destined to commit an offense against a child, they might not realize that it’s a choice that they have, and that there’s help out there if they feel some kind of temptation to commit an offense.
Not only is this a problem because it affects how maps understand themselves, but in the event that a MAP does decide to reach out for help, their stigma has huge consequences for the kind of help that’s available to them. For instance, if a MAP sought out one on one therapy with a counselor, they might not know whether the counselor fully understands the difference between someone who has an attraction to minors and someone who has committed an offense against a child because of that stigma. Counselors are just like anyone else they might know that they might not.
If they end up in therapy with a counselor who mistakenly believes all MAPs have committed an offense or will do so at some point, their therapist might end up making a report against them that they shouldn’t be making. Unfortunately, some MAPs have had that exact type of experience, which discourages others from help seeking, even when they might really need that help as a non-offending strategy. So the stigma that we have against MAPs throughout society can not only affect well-being, but it can actually lead to harm against children.
I think many people are uneasy with the idea that you should really empathize with MAPs. People are concerned that that you’re no longer centering victims of sexual abuse themselves. Is that something you’re concerned about?
Yeah, it’s not at all uncommon to have these questions. Some of the feedback I’ve gotten about my book, and my work in general is that empathizing with MAPs somehow “encourages” them. But the reason that MAPs deal with depression in isolation is due to the stigma that I’ve been talking about. And that stigma itself can lead to harm for MAPs and children alike.
Sometimes I hear from people who think that MAPs need to work on getting rid of their attractions altogether. And on one hand, just because someone has attractions to children, doesn’t mean that they will never experience attraction to adults as well, or even that their attractions to children will persist for their entire lives. Sexuality can be fluid, and there are many MAPs who have a range of attractions to both children and adults. And sometimes those attractions can fluctuate just like any other attractions.
On the other hand, we also know that such methods as conversion therapy are not at all effective. And yet, that tends to be what people think of when they believe that MAPs should be trying to get rid of their attractions, and that they should go to some kind of therapeutic intervention where they can be converted. But that’s not really an option.
What is an option is getting those MAPs who want it into some kind of affirming therapy where their provider understands that their attractions don’t make them a threat, and who can help them navigate strategies for non-offending, if it turns out that they need those.
That kind of work does focus on preventing child sexual abuse. And that kind of help is not available as widely as it should be. So we need to focus on making it more widely available.
In answer to your question about focusing on potential victims of child sexual abuse. Absolutely, we should be focusing on that. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim to have prevention strategies that focus on MAPs who are at risk of offending as well.
Too often, our child abuse prevention strategies focus on teaching children about stranger danger. This is ineffective because most children who experience abuse are abused by someone that they know. We also have child abuse prevention strategies that focus on teaching children to say “no” to adults. This is good for children to learn about. But places the burden of prevention on the child rather than on individuals who might be at risk of offending. By lowering stigma against attraction to minors, we can more effectively focus on getting help to people who are at risk of committing an offense.
When you speak to MAPs who have not offended, what do they say has led them not to offend?
I had a lot of assumptions about this as I went into my research. I was getting my PhD in criminal justice at the time, and I had the belief that the MAPs in my study weren’t offending because they were afraid of being put in prison.
But what I found out from talking to MAPs was that the reason they weren’t offending is because they would never want to harm a child. Many of them talked to me about experiencing love for children and understanding inherently that if they committed an offense against a child, it would be deeply hurtful. For most of my participants, that was enough to keep them from ever even considering acting out on their attractions.
I ended up feeling pretty embarrassed that I hadn’t understood that from the start. Because at this point, it just seems so obvious. My participants generally felt that hurting a child would be the worst thing they could possibly do. And they wanted to be good people.
What strategies do MAPs have for not committing offenses?
A big one was reaching out to a therapist. Another one is that they can reach out to family or friends. Especially if they’re going to be in the presence of a child, they might have someone that they they know will be around who can just be present. And that way, they know that they’re not going to act out.
Another huge one is just limiting their interaction with minors overall. So they’ll not be in spaces with minors, especially one-on-one. But they might just not be in spaces with minors in general. If they know that there are going to be kids there, they won’t go. Some of them took this to a really big extreme where they wouldn’t go into public as much as they otherwise might have. But others just, if there was a gathering that they thought there would probably be a lot of children at or children in general, they would just excuse themselves from that event, knowing that that wasn’t a good space for them to be in.
Others were seeking out support from other MAPs. So especially connecting to groups like B4UAct and Virtuous, Pedophiles, these are support groups that can allow MAPs to contact one another and talk about if they’re experiencing any coping issues in general, but also if they’re feeling like they’re going to offend there. There are folks who, can reach out and can help them with reasons that they shouldn’t offend, with their own strategies for non-offending, with therapists who they have had good luck with in the past, and a number of other resources. So support there was really beneficial for them.
And something that should be talked about as well that I haven’t mentioned yet is that many of the people I talked to really didn’t have any strategies, because they just knew that they weren’t a risk. So some of some of my participants did talk about this kind of temptation that they had or urges. But the majority said that, that they never experienced urges to commit a sexual offense. It wasn’t like this daily struggle that they were trying to keep away from children. It was just like, in the back of their mind, they knew they had this attraction and they also knew they weren’t going to act on it.
Even some of the folks who never felt they needed one, though, still had these ideas about, “Well, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to go hang around with a lot of children, given my attractions. So they weren’t necessarily framing their strategies in terms of how do I not commit an offense, but they might frame them in terms of like, what is the most appropriate thing for me to do, considering that I do have these attractions, and they would kind of draw that line as well.
Have you experienced a lot of pushback to your book in the academy or from the public?
I’ve had a little bit of pushback here and there. It’s a risky topic to research in terms of what the public thinks about MAPs, and even terms of what other people in my field think.
Usually, in terms of other researchers, they’ll just say that the topic of my research is something that they don’t want to think about, or they won’t understand it at all, even if we’re like in conversation about it.
So I remember a professor of mine asking about my research. And when I said I was studying people who are attracted to children who don’t commit offenses, he said, “Oh, okay, so sex offenders.” And I clarify, no, they have attractions to minors, but they haven’t committed an act of sexual abuse. And he said, “Right sex offenders.” He just could not comprehend the population that I was talking about.
I had another professor who, when I brought up my research interests, she just said “Yuck,” and moved along.
I’ve also received some feedback from the general public saying that my book encourages MAPs, or that it will lead to further offending. But generally, that feedback seems like it’s coming from people who haven’t read my book and are instead just reacting to what they think the book is about, without taking the time to read it first.
And then some of the negative reactions I’ve heard also attack me based on my gender identity, my identity, my identity as a trans person. So those reactions have been hurtful just because it always sucks to read hate against trans people.
But generally, people seem pretty receptive to my book, I’ve heard some really great feedback from people who study criminology and think the subject of this book is important toward preventing sexual abuse against children. I’ve also had a lot of conversations with people who go into social work and are just like me before I had understood the difference between MAPs and sex offenders. So they’ve just started understanding this and they want to learn more. And I always feel really grateful to those who find this to be an uncomfortable subject, and who are still willing to learn more about it.
If you or someone you know struggles with attractions to minors, you can find support and resources here.