At PhDinParenting: The Ethics of Writing about Sexual Abuse

No Gawker

Image by Kristin Craig Lai, edited by Dianna E. Anderson, used with permission.

Trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse, rape culture.

I have a post at Annie Urban’s PhD in Parenting Blog responding to the awful piece on pedophilia as a “sexual orientation” that Cord Jefferson recently wrote for Gawker (Since I don’t quote from it in this post, I won’t link it here. It’s linked over at Annie’s place.) The short version: Jefferson’s piece was an epic and inexcusable failure of journalistic ethics. An excerpt of my response:

Cord Jefferson says this is the first time he’s ever written about rape. Frankly, it shows.

All journalists have to start somewhere. But it should be obvious, especially given the sensitivity and complexity of an issue like sexual abuse, that a longform piece on pedophiles is not an appropriate story for someone who’s never written about rape before to pitch.

I can’t imagine what Delaurio and Carmichael were thinking when they accepted this pitch. Perhaps they trusted that his general abilities as a writer would carry over to this piece, but being good at wordslinging isn’t a substitute for being thoughtful and conscientious. Whatever their thinking, it was their responsibility to ensure Jefferson did the topic justice.

I never expected the pedophilia piece to be beloved by many people. When I touched on the topic last year, one of my coworkers told me directly that she wouldn’t be reading “that trash.” When I told my friends Amanda and Megan I was working on it, they both balked and warned me that I would probably have to live forever with the Google suggestion “cord jefferson pedophile.” …I knew the story would make some people loathe me, and others loathe me more. I knew other writers would fire off angry screeds about what I wrote. I knew people would unfollow me on Twitter and Tumblr. I knew there was a good chance I would hurt people’s feelings. If I’m being honest, I started to let all the fear around the whole thing goad me on—I wanted to be the kid who went into the haunted house while all my naysaying classmates stood and watched from the sidewalk. – Jefferson

I’m quite curious to know how Jefferson got it into his head that this was a story he in particular needed to tell. He pursued it with a tenacity that’s inexplicable given that he’s never covered sexual violence (though he had interviewed one of the scientists he profiled before). Why was he so convinced of his ability to write this piece?

Jefferson says his piece was about defending the “right [of pedophiles] to exist in a world that sees them as human beings deserving of life and support,” but there’s more than just deep seated concern for pedophiles’ rights in his comments. They suggest a personal investment in iconoclasm and taboo-breaking, a perception of himself as risking outrage (and horrors! being unfollowed on Twitter) to bravely tell inconvenient truths.

You can read the whole thing at PhD in Parenting. I’ll also be saying more soon about the shoddy science reporting in the piece, so stay tuned.

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