Fury over PhD for child-sex research

December 3, 2004

A row has erupted over Glasgow University's decision to award a doctorate for a thesis that describes "positive" experiences of sex between children and adults based on interviews with paedophiles and their victims.

Richard Yuill received his doctorate this week for research that he said "challenges the assumption" that all sexual relationships between adults and children under the age of 16 are inherently abusive.

Access to the thesis is being restricted by the university, but Dr Yuill told The Times Higher in his first media interview: "The conclusions are that in such relationships you've got the good, the bad and the ugly, and that's where I stand on that."

The study has angered academic experts in the field of child abuse and child-protection practitioners, who said it would "play into the hands" of abusers who often justify their activity by claiming that the victims are willing participants.

"Whatever (Dr Yuill's) intention, one thing we know about sexual offenders is that they seize on this kind of thing and use it to support their position," said Chris Harrison, a senior lecturer in social work at Warwick University.

Dr Yuill approached The Times Higher in a bid to clear his name after his research techniques were attacked. It emerged in 2001 that he had solicited interviews with paedophiles by describing himself as a "boy-lover" and had corresponded with convicted paedophiles, to whom he granted anonymity.

An investigation by Glasgow cleared him of allegations that he was misusing his position as a researcher. The university confirmed this week that the work had full ethical approval, and the police took no action after being alerted to his work.

Dr Yuill said this week that he used "boy-lover" in an email to help "build trust" and get interviews. The term did not describe his sexual identity, he said.

He admitted that some of his emails had been inappropriately "friendly", but he said the record showed that he had always identified himself as a researcher. It was appropriate to protect his sources' identity despite their illegal activity, he said, or important research would not be done.

He stressed that he "didn't challenge the assumption (of abuse) from the point of view that they were all great, these relationships, as they clearly are not." And he wanted to stress that the research includes "a lot of interviews with a lot of different groups", including victims of abuse who report only extremely negative experiences.

Dr Yuill said the work could challenge the law, which states that the emotional immaturity of children under 16 makes them incapable of giving informed consent to sex with adults. "The law may take that view. The only thing I'm reporting is that the research findings do not concur with that picture. A number of respondents... found positive experiences or at least what I'd call neutral."

Andrew Durham, author of the book Young Men Surviving Child Sexual Abuse , said Dr Yuill's thesis would "play into the hands" of abusers. Victims of abuse sometimes report positive experiences, he said, but this was often a result of manipulation by the abuser or a coping mechanism.

Liz Kelly, professor of sexualised violence at London Metropolitan University, said: "The thesis may be fine, but that is not the same question as whether its contents are strong enough to carry such big claims as that made with respect to the age of consent."

A spokeswoman for Glasgow said: "This thesis was subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as any other PhD research and was marked and examined by an external examiner. The research submitted was of a high academic standard, suitable for the award of the degree."

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