Friday, September 3, 2021

Under attack on Twitter: How gruesome tweets can highlight the importance of our language

By Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.

I have an ambivalent attitude toward Twitter. I find it primarily a platform for individuals who have an opinion on really anything and feel it necessary for everyone to know about it, as well as for individuals who find even just about every thought that passes through their brain cells of such value that it must be shared with the world. And then you have those with both opinions and thoughts. At the same time, I can also lose myself in Twitter. I like to scroll through it just to have a chuckle with or to willingly get all stressed out by all those stories, opinions, and thoughts of others. But usually, it all just goes too fast for me – I’m getting older after all – and therefore I try to limit my Twitter use by mainly reading or posting work-related things. What I am also sometimes guilty of is shameless self-promotion by, for example, announcing my upcoming presentations on Twitter, hoping that someone might be interested, whilst ignoring the sobering number of likes and retweets of the past. But last Friday it finally happened. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I have never seen such a high number flashing red on my Twitter-icon. A few seconds later, I regretted that my narcissistically driven curiosity had urged me to open the Twitter app.

My tweet on our IATSO session on help-seeking behaviour in minor-attracted persons was indeed a hit, but not in the way I hoped for. My tweet was under attack, I myself was under attack. I want to spare you the worst ones, but this tweet kind of sums it all up. A Machinegun for Every Child[1] tweeted: “I’m perfectly willing to accept that pedophiles have no control over what they are attracted to and thus need help. But referring to pedos as ‘minor-attracted persons’ is a good way to ensure pedophilia is normalized and anyone using the phrase should be regarded as a threat.” [2] Many wanted to kill all “pedos”, some wanted to kill me. A few even found the missing link between me, “pedos” and the Taliban. It didn’t stop for days; it was pouring shocking reactions and retweets until I finally found that ‘block’ button.

At first, I reacted indignantly and almost smugly. What do these people know? How short-sided are they? But when the initial emotions subsided, I took a moment to reflect on this. What does this all mean? Most of the tweets strongly questioned the term “Minor-Attracted Person (MAP)” and wanted me to call these people “pedophiles” or other variations of this spelling. Some even wanted to “help” me out with spelling. “The word you’re looking for is “pedophile”. I’m glad to be of help”, one tweeted. So, it made me wonder, why are so many struggling with the term MAP? Why does it evoke so much resistance even when it refers to a similar concept? Shouldn’t it be applauded that we have succeeded in finding 1 term for this heterogeneous group of people with sexual interests in minors? The tweeters, some of them also refer to their own victimhood, made it clear: The term MAP doesn’t feel negative enough, it doesn’t feel accusatory enough, “Minor-attracted persons” is a far too fancy word for “these people” … I wasn’t really shocked by the assessment that pedophilia was equated with child sexual abuse. But the great need in so many to use “pedophilia” for people with sexual interests did take me back, emphasizing the importance of the language we use.

In recent years, we – both researchers and professionals in the field – have paid a great deal of attention to the language we use for our patients and clients. First-person language for example, has become more and more ingrained in our speaking and writing about persons who have committed sexual offenses as well as for those who exhibit sexual interests in minors. We changed our language to diminish the negative effects of our language on those who have committed horrific crimes, to ensure they feel acknowledged as a human being. Maybe our use of first-person language is also a way for us to cope with all the horrific stories we are confronted with; it enables us to see the human being beyond their deviant interests, beyond their crimes. But the public is clearly struggling with our language. Maybe their language should also be considered to cope with sexual offenses and their fear for possible future offences by people exhibiting such interests. Changing terminology, changing perspectives clearly takes time. It took decades to change our language within psychiatry: we have moved from “this is an autistic man” to “this a man with autistic characteristics”. And even in that context, many continue to use labeling terms.

This experience also emphasizes how difficult it must be to seek help when you are indeed struggling with your sexual interests and/or with your behaviours. Coming out could mean losing everything and everyone; for some it could even mean a death sentence, as was graphically illustrated in several tweets. When trying to promote preventive measures for people who have committed (sexual) violence in Belgium, there is always someone in the audience (often professionals and students) who states: “Yes, but sexual predators do not feel the need to seek help.” Or “Pedophiles enjoy it and do not want to be helped.” The coordinator of a Belgian anonymous helpline for the prevention of violence that targets victims, bystanders and those committing violent acts, recently told me he was very surprised that they barely receive phone calls from the latter group. But is it really that surprising that their request for help remains so under the radar, if we, including professionals, media, and policymakers, use terms like “perpetrator”, “offender”, “predator”, “pedo”...?

Change takes time. Will we ever succeed in finding terminology that will appease all? Probably not. But we should keep on explaining to our colleagues, to media, and policymakers how crucial our language is, if we want to reach people exhibiting such interests and/or behaviours. In any case, these confronting encounters on social media should not stop us from moving the field onward. It will not stop me. I’m looking forward to posting my tweet on our ATSA-session on help-seeking behavior, especially now I know that there is a block button.



[1] I’m not making this up.

[2] Writing errors were deliberately not corrected. 

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