TW: This article contains mentions of paedophilia and quotes containing suggestive descriptions of children.
Note: The quotes from Delphine Lecompte are translations from their original Dutch. Sourfces can be found at the end of this article.
A quick word on definitions
It is important that before I begin this post, I mark the daifference between the paedophile/MAP (Minor Attracted Person) and the child sex abuser – as often these terms are used interchangeably. One does not have to have abused a child in order to be a MAP, and the same is true in reverse. In fact, a lot of child sex abusers aren’t actually classed as paedophiles. It’s been found, for example, that most adolescent sex offenders are responsive to treatment and recovery programmes, and rarely go on to become adult offenders. It’s also been found that “not everyone who sexually abuses children is a paedophile” – these perpetrators actually prefer adult relationships and their abuse is situational. Of course, this doesn’t make the act any less harmful or traumatic to the victim, but it is still problematic to conflate MAPs and sex abusers, because otherwise, we’ll never get to the crux of why situational offenders (who would otherwise not engage in fantasies about children) abuse children in times of high stress or in response to emotional trauma. And if we don’t fully understand this, then we cannot prevent future abuse from happening.
Who is Delphine Lecompte?
Delphine Lecompte is a Flemish poet who writes predominantly in her native Dutch. She has received praise for her work in her home country of Belgium and in The Netherlands, having received in 2010 the C. Buddingh’prijs (an annual literary award for best debut poetry collection written in Dutch) for her collection, De dieren in mij (The Animals Inside Me).
Since then, she has received a fair amount of recognition. So much so that, in December 2020, Musea Brugge (Museums of Bruges) appointed her as their first museum poem. Over the course of 2021, she has been working with Musea Brugge, drawing inspiration from their exhibits to provide poetic inspiration.
The events of the past month
Following a series of articles that Lecompte has published in Humo magazine during the month of August 2021, there has been public outcry against the poet and calls for her to be dismissed from Musea Brugge.
The reason for the outcry is because Lecompte has written a series of open letters in which she professes that “paedophilia resides in each of us” and that paedophilia should therefore be explored more in art.
I’ll let that sink in…
Lecompte’s main argument in her letters is twofold, and I will address them in order.
Argument #1: ‘Paedophiles are not monsters’
Firstly, in her open letters, Lecompte argues that the paedophile should not be “portrayed as a monster”, because they did not choose to be attracted to children. In this, she actually makes a lot of good points and I believe there is a lot of truth in her words. She warns that simply demonising the MAP will only cause them to double down on their desires and seek out harmful child pornography. She argues that “most paedophiles spend a lifetime fighting their sexual feelings towards children” and that they are portrayed by the media as a modern day bogeyman, not for helpful reasons, but so that the “good bourgeois” has a figure to hate, hunt down, and feel satisfaction from when they hear about their deaths. And this only makes paedophiles reluctant to seek help managing their desires.
All this, I am 100% on board with. Having watched documentaries such as Louis Theroux’s 2009 “A Place for Paedophiles” (in which Theroux interviews convicted paedophiles at Coalinga Mental Hospital in California), I do believe there are those who seek treatment in dealing with their desires, and that the best way to combat the sexual abuse of children is to improve our understanding of paedophilia and provide ways for MAPs to cope with their desires in a way that will not hurt anyone.
… However, Lecompte quickly negates her original argument (that paedophiles fight their desires) by littering her essays with as many suggestive descriptions of children (and other marginalised groups) as physically possible. Instead of a mature, balanced argument that could have really added to the conversation on paedophilia, what she writes is a horny mess of confused messages. Here are some quotes:
[E]veryone has the right to fantasize about violent sex with animals, children and dwarfs, truffle pickers, demented organ grinders, albino Aboriginals and imbecile ornithologists. Thank God we don’t live in glass houses, and the horribly sadistic scenarios we indulge in during sleepless nights or lazy, lethargic summer afternoons are nobody’s business, and won’t hurt anyone.
I find this particular paragraph truly bizarre. She equates sexual fantasies about children and animals (who can’t provide consent) with ornithologists (i.e. bird specialists… so, adults who could provide consent). It is also alarming that she only mentions vulnerable/marginalised groups of people to fantasise about having “violent” sex with (well – except for the ornithologists). This comes across as classist and ableist – her mention of little people and albinos is at once both fetishising and dehumanising, since they are compared with animals, and if she has grouped “children and dwarfs” together purposefully then she is also guilty of infantilisation.
I will add that porn is already rife with the exploitation of vulnerable people, and so encouraging readers to actively engage in violent sexual fantasies about marginalised communities, without any mention in her letters of ethical and informed consent, is very worrying.
She also seems to believe that engaging in fantasies about children is never harmful. Whereas research by Stop It Now! (a charity with the aim of preventing the sexual abuse of children in the UK and Ireland) argues that if an individual has already abused someone in the past, then “sexual fantasy influences and perpetuates [this cycle of abuse] and [when] accompanied by masturbation this process can ‘feed’ the fantasy and strengthen arousal making it more likely that the cycle will be repeated.” So I think it’s very harmful and ignorant of Lecompte to push an argument like this.
Perhaps more worrying however is this next quote:
[L]ook into your soul and try to deny it. Youthfulness is beautiful, young skin is dazzlingly beautiful. The unsuspecting, unsullied scornful glance of an 8-year-old altar boy, a 6-year-old saddler’s son or a 5-year-old Romanian flower seller is delightful, the pinnacle of beauty and heavenly splendor. And it is not disgraceful or outrageous to fantasize in your living room and in your very private mind about explicit encounters and acrobatic situations with the aforementioned subjects.
When I first came to this paragraph, I had to read it several times to make sure I was really understanding it properly. But no, Lecompte’s intent does seem here to be to goad the reader into having fantasies about children themselves… particularly children in vulnerable situations. Worrying that her first example is an altar boy when there is so much discourse on child sex abuse within churches. Her second and third examples, a saddler’s son and a Romanian flower seller, are romanticised images of working children – again, marginalised groups. This is an ethereal, fairy tale list of children that does not mention the real world situations they would really be in (altar boys are surrounded by adults who have power over them; flower sellers have to walk up to strangers on busy streets in the hope that they will buy their wares).
These romanticisations are harmful and once again negate the original point she was trying to make. She argues that MAPs are not monsters and that “most paedophiles spend a lifetime fighting their sexual feelings”, but this falls on deaf ears when she indulges in a list of romanticised children, who she doesn’t seem to treat as real people, but rather “ideals”.
Bottom line: When talking about a topic as serious as paedophilia, it should be grounded in reality, and be removed from depictions such as these. It also does not help that she truly seems to believe that everyone has these feelings and engages in these types of fantasies. No wonder she seems to have upset the entire city of Bruges!
Argument #2: ‘Paedophilia should be explored more in art’
Here’s where things really start to crumble.
Lecompte’s second argument is that, because “paedophilia resides in each of us”, this topic should not be taboo in art. And again, to a certain extent, I agree with her. I don’t agree that paedophilia resides in each of us, but I do recognise that the society we live in is paedophilic in some regards, and therefore, there is want to explore this topic, in an educational way.
From my perspective, art that investigates where paedophilic desires comes from and why they are so rampant in our modern society sounds very interesting. For example, I would welcome art that tries to unpick these topics:
- Women have to be hairless to be seen as desirable.
- School uniforms are a very popular roleplay outfit.
- “Teen” has remained one of the most searched for categories in porn for years.
- Cartoons and their remakes are constantly depicting their female characters as being more and more sexualised (think TV show Riverdale getting 16-year-old Betty Cooper to perform an adult strip tease or this particular instalment of The Powerpuff Girls).
- There is a growing trend of women infantilising themselves in TikTok videos (by dressing like little girls, lip syncing over videos of toddlers, and imitating children’s facial expressions). For those who don’t know, this type of content is extremely popular. In fact, the most liked video on TikTok is of Bella Poarch performing this exact phenomena.
My point is – this stuff is everywhere! And if there was more art and literature that delved into and examined these sorts of topics, and that tried to explain them or pulled them apart, maybe we would gain new perspectives about the why’s and the how’s. And then maybe Riverdale would stop oversexualising their teenage characters!
… But this kind of nuanced art doesn’t seem to be the kind Lecompte wants. Instead, she delights in her descriptions of innocent children, which come off raunchy and excessive. And alongside this, in her letters she upholds the art of Balthus, a Polish-French artist who painted many many portraits of semi-naked young girls, and whose 2014 photography exhibition was cancelled because it was deemed to be paedophilic in nature and that there was too much of a power imbalance between photographer and model. The exhibition in question was a series of photos of a young girl, Anna, through ages eight to sixteen, often in a state of undress. He would also paint the daughters of his servants – which again calls into question the issues of consent and power imbalance.
Backlash against Balthus has been so strong in recent years that there have even been petitions asking for context to be added to exhibitions that show his work, in the form of leaflets or plaques, so that visitors are aware of the controversy surrounding his work and are not left to admire his paintings unaware.
Basically, there isn’t a lot of nuance in Balthus’ work – it is merely there so that his models can be ogled at. And this is the kind of artist Lecompte has firmly decided should gain more praise.
Backlash and consequences
Needless to say, her words have caused a great deal of backlash.
The Bruges branch of Vlaams Belang (a right-wing Flemish political party) called for the collaboration between Musea Brugge and the poet to be terminated with immediate effect. Other public figures have spoken out too, such as the State Secretary for Asylum and Migration, Sammy Mahdi, who commented that her first letter was “Rancid, extremely rancid” (source).
However, although the Bruges city council released a statement about Lecompte’s statements, they have decided not to take further steps:
We expressly do not support Delphine Lecompte’s statements about paedophilia, and we therefore clearly want to distance ourselves from this. At the same time, as a city council, we stand for the right to free opinion and artistic freedom. We will therefore not take any further steps in this matter.(source)
And so, the collaboration with Musea Brugge will continue, and no action will be taken.
And Lecompte has not stayed silent in the face of this backlash. One of her response essays is addressed to Sven van der Meulen, a member of Vlaams Belang who talked openly about her dismissal. In the letter, she applauds herself for being “brave” for speaking the “truth”. She then victimises herself, expressing her shock that there was backlash against her in the first place (“I’ve never been reviled and spat out by so many people before”) and then tries to guilt-trip the reader when they are justifiably upset with her (“I am essentially a soft, vulnerable and fearful person, I am not really a […] provocateur at all”). Finally, she signs off with a more-than-creepy poem by Menno Wigman which is about his own niece. The poem contains these lines:
always grabbed for laces, naughty
naughty niece, blonde your braids and candy
your mouth, that dinghy, that summer and that lake
where I invented the riddle of your mouth
Something is driving us up. Something is chasing us back and forth.
Oh that I’ll ever be promised a night bar
where you will comfort my homesickness with stories
I really hope that that “Something is driving us up” line is just badly translated, and that the original text does not really contain a boner reference… “naughty / naughty niece” is bad enough.
So once again – if this is the kind of unnuanced, suggestive poetry that Lecompte wants to see more of – then I think the people of Bruges are more than justified to push back against her. Perhaps Musea Brugge should reconsider their stance and make way for a poet with less inflammatory remarks.
The crux of the issue
The Bruges city council and Musea’s Brugge’s lack of real response is not good enough because although they are not defending her, they are not holding her accountable either, which means they are effectively allowing her to continue releasing these kinds of letters.
Which – as stated before – is frustrating because she does make some good points. These topics should be debated and better understood. Research, for example, is still going into age-play (does it perpetuate paedophilia or does it help MAPs take control of their desires in a way that is safer for everyone? The jury is still out).
Had she not filled her essays with suggestive imagery, bizarre continued comments about albinos (yeah, that one I quoted earlier wasn’t the only mention of albinism), and had she not praised people like Balthus and known sex-offender Roman Polanski, I think her original argument – that the non-abusive paedophile should be treated rather than hunted in order to make the world a safer place for children – wouldn’t have been swallowed up and forgotten.
Because the true danger about Lecompte’s letters is that they have caused such outrage. Inadvertently, because she has (understandably) angered and upset her readers, she has contributed to the demonisation of the paedophile (here again I stress the difference between the paedophile and sex abuser), and so many people who read her words will not look past the suggestive imagery to find her few good points.
And when you demonise an entire group of people, an entire phenomenon, without even glancing at the society perpetuating these same themes, you halt any discussion or research going into it. You fix nothing. You do not help people reckon with their paedosexuality, and you do not help victims of abuse.
Of course there is a place for these topics to be explored in art, but they must be done carefully, with respect to victims and with nuance. It should not simply be held up on some kind of “brave” pedestal and we shouldn’t be glorifying horny poems written about our nieces. Had Lecompte taken a critical stance, examining why we live in a paedophilic society and how we got here, then I would be cheering her on…
But it seems she just wants to write about Romanian flower sellers.
On a final note – when you read the accounts of victims and survivors, it makes it even harder to read Lecompte’s essays. I am thinking of people like Mikey Walsh and Tressa Middleton, authors who in their respective memoirs have detailed their assaults at the hands of adults when they were children, and the effects those events had on them then as well as their continued effects on them now. Those books are: “Gypsy Boy” and “Gypsy Boy on the Run” by Mikey Walsh; and “Tressa – The 12-Year-Old Mum: My True Story”, co-written by Tressa Middleton and Katy Weitz.
They’re heartfelt reads – truly devastating in some places – but give a good idea as to the seriousness of these issues, and why there should be more efforts to treat and understand MAPs. The more we know about them, and the more we understand why these themes are everywhere in our society, the more we can ensure less people end up victims of abuse.
Humo (3 August 2021). “‘Het lijkt me wijzer om te aanvaarden dat pedofilie in elk van ons huist’” (‘I think it would be wiser to accept that pedophilia resides in each of us’). Available at: https://www.humo.be/meningen/het-lijkt-me-wijzer-om-te-aanvaarden-dat-pedofilie-in-elk-van-ons-huist~b6c4973c/
Humo (12 August 2021). “Delphine Lecompte reageert: ‘Verschrikkelijk dom om alle pedofielen te demoniseren’” (Delphine Lecompte reacts: ‘Terribly stupid to demonize all pedophiles’). Available at: https://www.humo.be/meningen/delphine-lecompte-reageert-verschrikkelijk-dom-om-alle-pedofielen-te-demoniseren~b2e0101f/
Humo (13 August 2021). “Delphine Lecompte antwoordt: ‘Ik heb mezelf en anderen beloofd om het steeds op te nemen voor de paria’s van onze maatschappij’” (Delphine Lecompte replies: ‘I have promised myself and others to always stand up for the pariahs of our society’). Available at: https://www.humo.be/meningen/delphine-lecompte-antwoordt-ik-heb-mezelf-en-anderen-beloofd-om-het-steeds-op-te-nemen-voor-de-paria-s-van-onze-maatschappij~b7c5181a/