Allyn Walker, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University, was placed on leave this week after backlash regarding their research and ideas on what they refer to as minor-attracted people, or MAPs. Walker discussed in a recent interview their preference for the term “minor-attracted people” over “pedophile” and why the stigma around the issue is a barrier to treatment, which was interpreted by some (particularly on the right) as “normalizing” pedophilia.
Walker’s research is premised on differentiating between those people who find themselves attracted to minors and those who act on it—and the former are being conflated with the latter even in this current controversy. “It’s frustrating to be misunderstood,” Walker said in a phone interview Thursday. “I do think that people believe that I’m saying something that I’m certainly not.”
Walker’s work in this arena has long been known to the university, and it provided the basis of a book they published earlier this year, A Long, Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity, which was based on a study Walker conducted of 42 subjects who expressed attraction to underage people but who said they had not abused any. Walker’s work repeatedly distinguishes between those with unwanted attraction to minors and sex offenders, and Walker unequivocally condemns child abuse. In fact, “the whole goal of this research is to protect children,” Walker said.
In their book and elsewhere, Walker deliberately avoids the term “pedophiles” for a few stated reasons: One is that “pedophile” technically refers to people who have attractions to prepubescent children, and Walker’s purview is “inclusive of individuals attracted to all age ranges of minors”; another is that the online group B4U-ACT has stated its preference for the term “MAP” over “pedophile.” The term “pedophile,” in Walker’s estimation, has come to be synonymous with “abuser,” thereby threatening to convolute the very aim of their work. Walker writes:
The word “pedophile” conjures several distinct images in the contemporary imagination. Perhaps a faceless man behind a computer, or a stranger lurking in a dimly lit corner. We imagine that they all are predators of small children, prowling in playgrounds or online, waiting to strike. This assumption causes us to decry pedophiles as dangerous, as monsters, as sex offenders and child molesters. This assumption kept [a cited MAP named Cameron] from disclosing his attractions to others. This assumption, I argue throughout the book, propagates the danger to children that we all fear.
“Pedophile,” then, distracts from the point. There are people populating the online forums B4U-ACT and VirPed (Virtuous Pedophiles) from which Walker procured their sample who claim to be managing and/or struggling with an attraction that if acted upon could cause devastating, perhaps irreparable harm to a young person. Citing research, Walker’s book states that “not all pedophiles commit sexual offenses,” and “many to most of those who do commit sexual offenses against children are not pedophiles.” Their focus is distinct and nuanced.
But attempting to reroute distraction has caused its own distraction. After the child-protection organization Prostasia Foundation published an interview with Walker earlier this month in which they outlined ideas presented in their book, a backlash erupted with accusations that Walker’s aim was to “normalize” pedophilia. Somewhat surreally, this led to Walker’s academic rhetoric (and administrative leave) being covered on local Norfolk, Virginia, news. Meanwhile, a graphic on Tuesday’s episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight read “THE LEFT’S DEPRAVED NEW LOW.”
Walker said the backlash began when the website 4W (“Fourth Wave. For Women. Feminist news on issues that matter,” reads its tagline) aggregated a clip from their interview with Prostasia. The post’s headline, “‘Non-Binary’ University Instructor Calls To ‘Destigmatize’ Pedophilia,” referred to Walker’s non-binary transgender identity in scare quotes and the text did not reflect their preferred pronouns. From there, Walker said, the post “circulated in right wing conspiracy forums” and “was inflamed by partisan trolls on social media.” Thereafter, Walker started receiving online harassment, including death threats and emails that were anti-LGBTQ and antisemitic in nature.
“I have been attacked in numerous ways,” they said. “To me, it’s part of this larger, partisan attack on academic freedom. And it’s unfortunate because it’s going to have a really chilling effect on anyone studying any controversial subjects, but especially this subject, which is really important. The whole goal of this research is to protect children. And so now a lot of people who do this research of trying to protect children, trying to develop new strategies around this, they’re getting scared: ‘Well, should I be doing this research?’ That’s not good for anyone.” (During our conversation, Walker, who is currently on paid leave and off campus, wanted to make it clear that “these are my personal views and perspectives, and they do not represent those at the university.”)
One of the focal points of the outrage is Walker’s notion that stigma is a barrier to treatment for people who are attracted to minors. “Yeah, who would want to stigmatize pedophiles!?” Carlson smarted sarcastically during his segment on Walker. In their book, Walker acknowledges the common wisdom that such stigma is a good thing: “The question that may naturally arise is, ‘Why should we want minor-attracted people to feel less stigma?’” Walker explained precisely why they feel this way to Jezebel. “Under the current system, people are afraid to reach out for help because they’re afraid of the reaction that they might encounter,” they said. “And so if they are at risk of offending, the whole situation makes things way more dangerous for everyone. My research shows that when they are able to contact a therapist for help or someone else, then they are less likely to act on their feelings.”
In other words, if naming this attraction is enough to set off alarms and perhaps invite condemnation (or an even stronger reaction), people are less likely to admit it, and if they’re not admitting it, they’re not getting help. This is how stigma operates. But the popular conception is that abuse necessarily follows attraction, and so the stigma itself is considered protection. Meanwhile, abuse persists: While pundits on Fox News wring their hands over Walker’s rhetoric “normalizing” pedophilia, every nine minutes child protective services finds evidence for or substantiates claims of child sexual abuse, according to RAINN. Clearly our current model isn’t working.
“I do this work because I want the world to be a safer place,” said Walker, who in a previous job counseled several children who were abused. “I want to increase the number of tools available to protect our kids from abuse. And I have encountered many subjects in my research who suffer from unwanted attractions and never want to harm a child. However, they’re afraid to seek help because they’re scared of the social reaction. And ultimately getting these people access to help before they can hurt someone keeps more children safe.”
On Tuesday, Old Dominion released a statement that Walker was being put on leave, an action “motivated by our obligation to maintain a safe and conducive learning environment for our students, faculty, and staff.” Walker said that this was their understanding of the reason, as well, and not a result of the institution caving to outside pressure. “I was hired at the time when I when I was doing this research,” said Walker. “My job talk, the talk that I gave to the department, was about this research, and I already had a contract for this book by the time I walked in the door that they knew about.”
In a message to campus quoted by the Washington Post, ODU president Brian O. Hemphill said Tuesday, “Many individuals have shared with me the view that the phrase ‘minor-attracted people’ is inappropriate and should not be utilized as a euphemism for behavior that is illegal, morally unacceptable, and profoundly damaging. It is important to call pedophilia what it is.”
Of course, Walker’s focus is not on illegal behavior but the feelings that may precipitate it. They told Jezebel that they received an “outpouring” of support in the wake of this controversy—a backlash to the backlash, if you will. They said they hope to be back in the classroom soon, and from what they understand, other department faculty members have taken over teaching their classes for now. Walker said they stand by their work and research, regardless of the outrage.
“I think my expertise is valuable to ODU and really complements its very robust criminal justice program,” said Walker. “My research positions ODU to be at the forefront of developing effective ways to prevent child sexual abuse. Again, my book does not advocate for the normalization of sexual activity between adults and minors, and neither do I under any circumstances, ever. So yeah, I’m hopeful that that will be understood.”