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Is Twitter Wrongly Enforcing Its Own Rule on Child Protection?

Social media site bans support group despite no breach of the rules.

Around two years ago, social media giant Twitter amended its terms of service to make an explicit allowance for the discussion of sexual attractions towards children, provided that such discussion does not seek to increase the incidence of child sexual abuse, or encourage people to commit sexual offenses against children.

This change to the terms of service followed months of debate about the presence of individuals with a sexual attraction to children—or "minor-attracted persons" (MAPs)—openly stating their attraction patterns and ages of attraction on the platform. I was a signatory of a letter, initiated by the child protection organization Prostasia Foundation, alongside other experts on the prevention of child sexual abuse and sexual offending more generally, who called for such a change to Twitter rules, as the current best thinking in the field is that having a place online to connect to other MAPs reduces loneliness and social isolation, and therefore reduces the temptation to use the internet to act out on such sexual attractions.

Ravi Sharma (via Unsplash)
Twitter. Handle with care.
Source: Ravi Sharma (via Unsplash)

Recently, however, Twitter has started to enact some strange decisions in spite of the change to their terms of service.

In perhaps the most high-profile of these, over the weekend of September 19, 2020, the @MAPSupportClub account was suspended without any explanation from the platform. MAP Support Club is an online forum for people who are attracted to children to discuss the issues that they face in relation to their sexual attractions. These issues typically relate to mental health challenges associated with living with sexual attractions to children, with the account being run by the high-profile pseudonymous Timothy N. Fury—a prominent member of the online MAP community and campaigner for the destigmatization of minor attraction.

What Is Minor Attraction?

The phrase "minor-attracted person" (or "MAP") may be new to some readers. Historically, individuals with sexual attractions towards children have simply been referred to as "pedophiles." However, there is a growing awareness within the field of sexology that pedophilia represents a very specific sexual attraction pattern that does not capture the full spectrum of sexual attractions involving children. Below is a list of chronophilias put forward in a landmark article by Dr. Michael Seto in 2017 to capture this range of attraction targets:

  1. Nepiophilia (sexual attraction to babies and infants, typically up to 2 years old)
  2. Pedophilia (sexual attraction to prepubescent children, typically aged 3-10)
  3. Hebephilia (sexual attraction to pubescent children, typically aged 11-14)
  4. Ephebophilia (sexual attraction to postpubescent children, typically aged 15-17)
  5. Teleiophilia (sexual attraction to young adults, typically aged 18-40)
  6. Mesophilia (sexual attraction to middle-aged adults, typically aged, 40-60)
  7. Gerontophilia (sexual attraction to older adults, typically aged over 60)

There are controversies about the precise descriptions of chronophilias. Researchers have sought to address this by referring to stages of physical development as markers from moving from one chronophilia to another, but this is not always an adequate solution. For example, it may be difficult to determine an ephebophile from a teleiophile, given the earlier pubertal age of girls in comparison to boys. However, the chronophilic spectrum is designed to give clarity as well as nuance to an issue usually referred to colloquially as "pedophilia," particularly with the criminal connotations that this label has, in part thanks to misrepresentative media reporting of child sexual abuse.

Relatedly, being in any given chronophilic category does not indicate offending behavior. This much is obvious when considering teleiophilia, which is the "normal" category of attraction for most adults. However, labels such as "pedophilia" are commonly used as synonyms for "child abuse" in media reports, leading to a false conflation between child-directed chronophilias and child sexual abuse.

In reality, we do not know how many MAPs commit sexual offenses, as gaining access to large enough samples is difficult. What we do know, though, is that only around half of all individuals with convictions for sexual offenses against children meet the clinical criteria for being pedophilic. What's more, we know that there is a high number of men in the general population with low levels of sexual attraction to children (with a population prevalence estimate for pedophilia of up to 5%).

Twitter's Specific Terms of Service About MAPs

Historically, the rules regarding minor attraction on Twitter were fuzzy, at best. In early 2018 a group of experts (myself included) wrote to Twitter about their approach of suspending and deleting the accounts of several prominent MAPs who were working to promote greater wellbeing. This is an important point, as recent theorizing has placed wellbeing at the heart of new sexual abuse prevention efforts. We argued that this practice created a hostile online environment for MAPs, with the potential, therefore, for increased social isolation and, by extension, sexual offending risk.

In a March 2019 update to the terms of service, then, Twitter's child sexual exploitation rules were amended to forbid any active encouragement about specific sexual fantasies involving children, or the encouragement of offending against them. However, under a heading of 'What is not a violation of this policy?' read the following:

Discussions related to child sexual exploitation as a phenomenon or attraction towards minors are permitted, provided they don’t promote or glorify child sexual exploitation in any way. Artistic depictions of nude minors in a non-sexualized context or setting may be permitted in a limited number of scenarios e.g., works by internationally renowned artists that feature minors.

Under these rules, discussions about minor attraction in a general sense are permissible, allowing MAPs to communicate with each other in a bid to foster a sense of community support not typically provided by formal sexual abuse prevention schemes.

This makes the decision to suspend the @MAPSupportClub account so strange. The account is explicit in its aims—to support MAPs in their wellbeing and to facilitate a happy, non-offending life for those it helps. This account feels quintessentially in keeping with the revised terms of service. In fact, it is exactly the type of account that the terms were updated to protect from this kind of censure.

The Way Forward From Here?

It is unclear what will happen to the @MAPSupportClub Twitter account from this point forward. At the time of writing, the account is still suspended with no updates or explanations from Twitter as to why this action has been taken.

This is a blow for sexual abuse prevention efforts and for the mental health of MAPs across the world who use this medium as a source of community and support. Inadvertently, this kind of move could serve to increase sexual offense risk among some of these people, with social isolation reducing self-esteem, with this sometimes being associated with sexual offending. This is particularly the case of the current time with the likelihood of local and national lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic looking increasingly likely, forcing more people online in search of something to do or to improve their mood.

Some advocates are advising Twitter to restore the account and offer a clear explanation for its closure. After that, it's likely that MAPs will feel better supported on the platform to work collaboratively to improve their wellbeing, and in many cases, to reduce their offense risk. After all, as stated in Prostasia's opening letter to Twitter, such censure "risk[s] that some pedophiles will be unable to obtain the peer or professional support that they may need in order to avoid offending behavior."

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