Pedophiles have used websites like Twitter to argue they’re not evil, forcing social media platforms to decide how they’re going to treat them.
When Ender Wiggin was banned from Twitter last December, it wasn’t because he was a far-right troll or Nazi sympathizer. In fact, Wiggin had an army of pizzagaters harassing him all hours of the day, insisting he kill himself right up until the moment his account was disabled on December 14.
That’s because Ender—aka @enderphile—is the pseudonym of a “non-offending” or “anti-contact” pedophile: someone who is attracted to children, but claims to be against adult-child sex and child pornography. Inside that community, he’s known as the unofficial leader, and claims he’s been using social media to reduce the stigma associated with pedophilia, showing other pedophiles they can live lives without offending.
Except in the case of accusations flying around a certain failed Alabama senator, pedophiles are a natural boogeyman for the far-right, and a social media war between the two groups has been going on a long time. It’s created an insular online community of two extreme viewpoints that desperately try to get the other permanently banned.
“Twitter has permitted these pedophiles to exist and operate on their platform, advocating for the normalization of pedophilia,” says Grant J. Kidney, a self-described nationalist and pizzagate conspiracist “running for congress in 2020 on a pro-MAGA platform.” He campaigned for months to get Ender removed since, he says, pedophilia isn’t something to be championed—it’s an illness.
“These people, they’re not left, they’re not right. They’re sick people.”
Despite the ban, Ender was able to make a new account after weeks of being automatically removed—something he announced to the world in a January 31 thread, writing “It’s me, The Real Ender™, and I’m back on Twitter,” before launching into an attack on his main enemies, and closing with the fact that he’s “ready to take some names and kick some asses.” His bravado was short lived though, as his account was suspended again Wednesday. Ender and others who support him believe that these back and forth bans are because Twitter hasn’t decided on how to deal with pedophiles, and instead simply remove them when enough users send in reports, something that’s never in short supply.
To a mostly unsympathetic audience, Ender and his supporters claim what they’re doing actually makes the world safer for children, and some experts have agreed with him. Described as a leading researcher on pedophilia, Dr. James Cantor’s decades-long investigation on the subject is credited as shifting the perception of pedophilia from a disorder triggered by childhood trauma or abuse, to a biological predisposition like a sexual orientation, and he believes that Ender’s activism is vital.
“Without somebody like Ender providing that kind of image, the only kinds of images that these other pedophiles see are the ones who commit offenses,” Cantor told VICE. “That doesn’t help anybody. If anything, it’s making it worse.”
The fight between non-offending pedophiles and those who think it’s disgusting they’re allowed on social media at all has already played out in small skirmishes on sites like Reddit, Tumblr, and YouTube. By far though, the primary battleground has been Twitter, a site expressly designed to allow just about anyone to say just about anything to just about anyone else, and that’s forcing the site to make some tough choices on whether they should protect the free speech of a bunch of people that maybe no one wants to hear.
There’s at least one group that has come to the pedophiles’ defence, and one of the main voices in that group has been Dr. Cantor. He, along with “clinical and forensic psychologists, sexologists, sociologists, child protection workers, journalists, writers, and digital rights advocates,” published a joint letter in response to Ender and other non-offending pedophiles’ removal.
In their letter, Cantor and his group argue that banning Ender was a “knee-jerk response to uninformed public pressure,” and that removing pedophiles from social media will have the opposite result of what they intend. “Rather than reducing the incidence of child sexual abuse,” Cantor’s group wrote, “it increases the risk that some pedophiles will be unable to obtain the peer or professional support that they may need in order to avoid offending behavior.”
Though few agree with him now, this is a message Ender hopes will catch on. In his tweets, blogs, and interviews, he’s tried to argue that pedophiles aren’t inherently monsters, and that we need to destigmatize pedophilia to help both pedophiles, as well as the children who might be at risk. While most child sexual abusers aren’t pedophiles, Ender argues that many of the pedophiles who do abuse can be helped before they act. Dr. Cantor, along with the letter’s other signatories, also believe preventative therapy is the best way to protect children.
“The day before a pedophile gives in to his sexual interests in children, he was a pedophile struggling with his sexual interests in children,” Cantor explained, “and that is the day we failed him.”
Other organizations have started to tackle the problem of child sex abuse in a similar way. The Lucy Faithfull Foundation, a UK child protection charity “dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse” by working with sexual offenders, has set up a weekly program where volunteers join a pedophile chatboard to offer professional support. As well, Project Dunkelfeld—a German “Prevention Network”—offers anonymous counseling to pedophiles that feel they’re in risk of offending, though is only accessible to residents of Germany.
It’s this kind of strategy that Cantor and Ender think will be the most successful, but they still don’t think it’s enough.
“Even though I can tell the science, and I can guide people to make a rational decision, I cannot tell the story of what it’s like to live with pedophilia,” he told VICE. In Dr. Cantor’s view, the only way to mitigate child abuse from pedophiles is to try to understand them, give them a place to speak about their attractions before they’re overwhelmed by them, and destigmatize the condition. “Ender provided one of the very few and very important ways to understand what is actually going on with pedophiles in order to keep the non-offending pedophiles, non-offending,” he said.
And Ender believes the best way to do that, is through social media.
“The current misconception is that every pedophile is a child molester, and if they’re not, it’s just a matter of time,” Ender told VICE. “It’s important to show the world that that’s not the case.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with them. Signy Arnason, associate executive director of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and Cybertip, is one of those people. Her organization was built specifically to fight online child exploitation, and she argues you don’t help kids by letting pedophiles onto their sites. Sure it’s important to manage pedophilia and show people struggling with their attractions that they don’t have to offend, but Twitter, Arnason said, isn’t the place for it.
“At the end of the day you’re not curing this,” Arnason told VICE. “You’re really just risk-managing these things, but I wouldn’t risk-manage it on social platforms where children are all over the place. That’s just not the way to do it.”
Even the fact that Ender and other pedophiles aren’t really breaking any laws doesn’t make it OK with Arnason. Like Kidney, Arnason argued that these platforms could, and should, get rid of self-admitted pedophiles. To Arnason, it goes beyond whether it’s legal or not, it’s about common sense.
That policy forbids content “distributing or promoting child sexual exploitation,” which is general enough to give ammunition to both camps. While online exploitation can be thought of as illegal images or videos depicting children, “grooming”—where predators build emotional connections to children for the purpose of sexual abuse—also falls under the definition. Many accounts in the non-offending Twitter community use cartoon characters—sometimes cartoon children—as their profile pictures, which their detractors view as an attempt to lure kids.
Still, other clinicians and researchers have repeatedly come to the defense of non-offending pedophiles. One, Dr. Sarah Goode—a sociologist and CEO of StopSO, the Specialist Treatment Organisation for the Prevention of Sexual Offending—even tweeted after Ender’s removal: “If your aim is to prevent child sexual abuse, then encourage paedophiles to stay law-abiding; don’t persecute non-offending paedophiles.”
Goode and Cantor are some of Ender’s strongest non-pedophile supporters, but that isn’t saying much given most of the world hates him. To prevent threats from turning into attacks, Ender limits most of his online interaction to anonymous blog readers and his far-right opponents, but the event that caused him to be removed from Twitter in the first place changed all that. This is the event that prompted Cantor’s letter, and the one forcing Twitter to make some tough decisions on what to do about pedophiles on their site.
On December 12, British tabloid The Sun published a piece exposing Twitter for “letting pedophiles openly promote their perversions—because it says discussing the sick fantasies is not illegal.” The story named several accounts describing themselves as non-offending, and brought them to MPs, who unsurprisingly said that “Twitter must suspend the accounts.”
Two days after The Sun article, many of those same non-offending pedophiles logged on to Twitter to find their accounts had been suspended for “suspicious behaviour,” a technique used to remove bots, instead of someone who’s broken a rule. The only way you can unlock an account suspended for suspicious behaviour, though, is to give up your phone number.
Ender was one of the few who chose to give a phone number in order to regain access but, immediately after he did, he was notified his account was permanently restricted. Then, nearly a month after the suspension, Ender got a notice from the Greater Manchester Police, informing him that his IP address will be forwarded to them due to a tweet he allegedly made, and because his account has “numerous messages of a disturbing nature around [his] sexual beliefs and minors.”
Despite his full cooperation with authorities, Ender’s account was still suspended, which caught Dr. Cantor’s attention. While understanding this is a tough situation for Twitter and other sites to deal with, Dr. Cantor claims that all the actions against Ender are backwards. According to him, pushing pedophiles off Twitter and other social media sites just buries the problem, “pushing it to where we can’t watch what’s going on.”
It’s an issue that every platform is tackling differently. Tumblr does effectively nothing to its non-offending community as long as what they post remains within the bounds of legality, though there is still infighting. Battles within Tumblr haven’t broken outside of the communities involved, but there are various “anti-MAP” (Minor Attracted Person) accounts that debate non-offending pedophiles in similar ways to Twitter. “Reblog this If you hate MAPs but you’re pro recovery for ‘MAP’ minors,” reads one post from an anti-MAP account, “and hope they get the help they need and separate themselves from these pedophiles who have convinced them they have no choice.”
At the same time, Reddit did shut down a non-contact pedophile forum, /r/pedofriends, after users broke the terms of service by using “highly troubling usernames,” trying to suggest sex between adults and children isn’t truly damaging, and talking about their real-life relationships with children. At the same time, it continues to host numerous AMAs from pedophiles, where posts receive mostly positive responses. Some have hundreds of comments and upvotes, and while there are definitely those who can’t believe Reddit allows pedophiles to freely talk about their sexual attraction to children, it hasn’t been enough to force Reddit to make a stand.
Arnason admits it can be useful to teach pedophiles they don’t have to hurt children, but says there are better places than social media to do that. “If you are really committed to trying to demonstrate there are people with a sexual interest in children that don’t offend against those kids,” Arnason told VICE, “there are other ways in which the community can be communicating with one another that doesn’t provide exposure and access to children.”
As an alternative, some experts point to the site VirPed, a forum made for non-offending pedophiles to get support from one another. Arnason also mentions Stop It Now!, an organization founded by a survivor of childhood sexual abuse that aims to prevent the victimization of children by, in part, reaching out and offering resources to pedophiles.
Ender, a past moderator of VirPed, doesn’t believe those sites are as effective as social media. He claims that while insular sites are important, they don’t serve to destigmatize pedophilia as a condition, while social media does.
“As much as we want to do it on VirPed,” he said, “nobody else is going to hear it.”
For now though, those efforts seemingly won’t happen on Twitter. Ender claims that any attempt to make another account—under any name—was initially blocked following his ban, but thought they had reconsidered their stance after he was able to log back on. Following his most recent ban, he’s less optimistic.
Until Twitter directly addresses how they’re going to deal with users like Ender, non-offending pedophiles exist in the same state. It’s a kind of limbo, where they’re able to speak about their attractions to children publicly, but without knowing for how long. It’s also the case for pedophiles on all other social media platforms, where the debate on whether they should be allowed to talk about their attractions is still going strong, though largely unnoticed.