The Professor and the Pedophiles
Allyn Walker's writings on "minor-attracted people" are troubling—but so is the assault on academic freedom.
Allyn Walker, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Virginia, has agreed to step down from the faculty after being previously placed on administrative leave due to an outcry over accusations of promoting pedophilia.
Walker, whose book A Long, Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity was published in June, believes adult sexual attraction to children should be destigmatized and viewed as another sexual orientation, not inherently immoral unless the “minor-attracted person” (a stigma-free alternative to “pedophile” proposed by Walker and some others) is an actual child molester. Reports on Walker’s book and opinions, which surfaced last month, stoked outrage both among ODU students—some of whom demanded the professor’s removal—and within right-wing media. Threats followed. The administrative leave, according to the school, was as much for Walker’s safety as for general safety on campus. The university’s statement also mentioned that “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.”
For defenders of academic freedom, this has to be disturbing—especially the idea that you can lose your university post because “controversy” over your research is seen as bad for the school. As Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education told Inside Higher Ed:
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.
Steinbaugh also stressed that “ODU is effectuating a classic heckler’s veto.” This is correct.
But beyond the question of academic freedom, there is also the question of whether Walker’s ideas about pedophilia should be mainstreamed.
Walker’s supporters see the professor as an advocate for child abuse prevention (through better understanding of sexual attraction to minors) misrepresented as a defender of child abuse. And some of Walker’s critics do seem to make the mistaken assumption that Walker is defending child molesters. For instance, statements on the controversy from ODU president Brian O. Hemphill stressed that “child sexual abuse is morally wrong” and that “the phrase ‘minor-attracted people’ … should not be utilized as a euphemism for behavior that is illegal, morally unacceptable, and profoundly damaging.” But Walker has repeatedly stressed wanting to destigmatize the attraction rather than the behavior, in large part to make it easier for people to seek help (which stigma and shame can often discourage). Walker’s own statement said that “child sexual abuse is morally wrong and inexcusable” and cited the professor’s “past experience and advocacy as a social worker counseling victims.” In an interview this month (a brief clip from which started all the uproar), Walker also clarified that