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Professor Removed from Campus for Writing and Talking About People Who Have Sexual Attraction to Minors

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Inside Higher Ed (Colleen Flaherty) has the story:

Old Dominion University put a professor who studies pedophilia on administrative leave this week …. "Reactions to Dr. Walker's research and book have led to concerns for their safety and that of the campus," the university said in a statement announcing that Allyn Walker is on leave. "Furthermore, the controversy over Dr. Walker's research has disrupted the campus and community environment and is interfering with the institution's mission of teaching and learning."

Walker, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, was recently interviewed by the Prostasia Foundation about their book, A Long Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity. The foundation describes itself as a "child protection organization combining an evidence-based approach to child sexual abuse prevention with its commitment to human rights and sex positivity." Walker was asked a series of questions about their research on "non-offenders," or adults who are sexually attracted to minors but do not act on those attractions.

In the interview, Walker advocated calling those who are attracted to minors "MAPs," or "minor-attracted people," because that is a term that non-offender advocacy and support groups prefer over "pedophile" or other terms.

"A lot of people, when they hear the term 'pedophile,' they automatically assume that means a sex offender, and that isn't true, and that can lead to a lot of misconceptions about attractions toward minors," Walker told Prostasia.

Walker also recommended affirming therapies, as opposed to conversion therapies, for people who need help navigating their attractions, and made a clear moral distinction between those who are attracted to children and those who act on those impulses. The latter severely harms children, whereas the former does not, they said.

"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," Walker said in the interview. "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 is either OK or not OK, it's our behaviors in responding to that attraction that is either OK or not OK."

Ultimately, Walker said, help for those who need it "is not widely available, and it should be more widely available."

The interview, posted to YouTube last week, quickly proved controversial on campus and off. Several petitions call on Old Dominion to "release" or otherwise act against Walker, suggesting that they are a pedophilia apologist and that their comments make the campus less safe….

The university statement about Walker quotes President Brian O. Hemphill as saying, "I want to state in the strongest terms possible that child sexual abuse is morally wrong and has no place in our society. This is a challenging time for our university, but I am confident that we will come together and move forward as a Monarch family."

In a separate statement, Hemphill said, "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. As a father, I am troubled by this narrative and its potential consequences for my children and that of future generations."

Hemphill continued, "Ideally, we would be able to debate even the most challenging issues without disruption or threats of violence, but that is not the world we live in today. Our campus has recently become the target of threats and other unacceptable disruption."

Further addressing academic freedom, Hemphill said that "sensitive topics and the expression of new or controversial views lie at the heart of academic research. Old Dominion University remains committed to providing an environment in which our faculty can and will engage in rigorous research. At the same time, this freedom carries with it the obligation to speak and write with care and precision, particularly on a subject that has caused pain in so many lives."

He added, "I am confident that our Monarch family will rise to the occasion in our continuing campus dialogue, and I am equally confident that we share a common starting point for the discussion: rejection of any form of sexual abuse of children." …

Adam B. Steinbaugh, a program director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that FIRE is "concerned by the deteriorating situation at ODU."

"We should be concerned whenever protected expression—and Professor Walker's speech falls well within the protection of the First Amendment and academic freedom—is met with threats of violence, regardless of viewpoint. And we should be alarmed when universities take action against faculty members in response to alleged threats or protest targeting the speaker."

The appropriate response to credible threats of violence made in response to "unpopular, controversial or dissenting speech" is to "punish those who are attempting to silence a speaker through threats, not silence the speaker on the threateners' behalf," Steinbaugh said. "By doing the latter, ODU is effectuating a classic heckler's veto."

Steinbaugh called on ODU to immediately and "transparently explain why it has removed a professor from the classroom and why less drastic measures were not taken."

Another appropriate response to offensive speech is "more speech," not less, Steinbaugh said, adding that FIRE is also concerned by some student social media reports that messages written on campus in chalk calling for Walker to be fired have been removed.

Beyond academic freedom hawks, some academics who study sexuality have defended Walker's views as being well within the realm of the disciplines….

If you're interested, you should read the whole Inside Higher Ed piece. My view is the same as Steinbaugh's: Studying people who are attracted to minors is clearly protected by academic freedom principles, and is indeed important to figuring out ways to prevent them from acting on these impulses. It seems likely that there are many millions of people like that; whether we want to change their attraction (if that's even possible) or just to get them not to act on that attraction, we need to study them and to study what allows some of them to resist their impulses.

Many adults, after all, resist their sexual impulses; adults who might prefer having multiple sexual partners, or who fantasize about multiple sexual partners, nonetheless remain faithful to their spouses. Many adults who are deeply attracted to someone with whom they know they shouldn't be sexually involved resist such temptations. Many priests or monks or nuns who have normal sexual interests in others resist that attraction because they believe that abstinence from sex is part of their religious calling.

Perhaps this is possible for adults who are attracted to children (I certainly hope it is). Perhaps it's not. But only being open to seriously studying this, including in ways that morally condemn only people who act on their attraction and not those who merely feel the attraction, can help us figure that out.

Indeed, I think that has long been understood by many in the great religions of the world: Temptation is everywhere. The goal is to acquire and strengthen tools for resisting temptation. Acknowledging the existence of temptation can help us avoid giving into it; it doesn't by itself make giving into it more acceptable. And that's so even as to temptations that afflict only a small subset of people (as opposed to temptation generally, which is universal).

And while I understand why some bristle at euphemisms such as "minor-attracted persons," I think Prof. Walker's has at least a plausible point that "pedophile" is often used to refer to child molesters and not just to people who experience an unacted-upon attraction—and that a different term is useful to stress the attraction rather than the action.

I should note that even advocacy of legalizing such sex is likewise protected by academic freedom principles. But from what I have seen, Prof. Walker does not advocate this.