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I went swimming again today - the first time since the lessons… - John C. Kirk

Jun. 11th, 2003

11:12 pm

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I went swimming again today - the first time since the lessons finished, so I thought it was about time I put that training to good use, now that my exams are over. It went ok, although the slow lane was a bit congested (due to parents helping young children to sort of swim). Ah well, once I get better I can shift into the fast lane, which will help. (The medium lane is reserved for schools during the week.)

I had an interesting chat to someone in the changing room afterwards, which has caused me to reflect on a few things. I'd just come out of the shower, and I noticed a kid sitting in the corner. This seemed slightly odd, i.e. he was just sitting still rather than getting changed or anything, but it's none of my business, so I just dried off. To set the scene here, we were the only two people in the changing room at this point, using benches on different walls, so I had my back to him. A minute or so later, I heard another kid come in, and say something like: "Here, you take this - my dad said to give it to you. It might be a bit wet. Well, very wet actually!"

I figured that boy 1 had forgotten his swimming trunks, so boy 2 was lending his (having just come out of the pool). Actually, in retrospect that doesn't sound entirely plausible, but never mind. The point is, at this point I started to get alarm bells ringing in my mind. The thing is, I don't really have much of a nudity taboo nowadays - I used to be quite shy about it, but after 7 years of boarding school, with minimal privacy, I'm not fussed about other people seeing me naked while I get changed. Equally, I've seen enough other naked men that I can be 99% sure I'm not gay (given the lack of any reaction over the years). And, just to remove any doubt, I have no interest in underage children (of either gender). However, I am also aware that things can be misinterpreted, so I figured that it was in my best interests to make sure I kept looking at the wall in front of me while these two were talking/swapping items behind me.

Soon afterwards, boy 1 departed, and boy 2 started getting dressed. While he did so, he was talking to himself quietly. I was still facing the wall at this point, but some of the things he said made me smile. Actually, he kind of reminded me of myself at that age (about 10) - very exuberant. Anyway, he then spoke to me, and asked "How was your swim?" Now, there's a line between being reserved and being rude, so at this point I turned round and started chatting to him. He seemed like a nice enough lad, although I did have a bit of trouble keeping up with the conversation when it moved onto soccer. He said that he wanted to get out of the sports centre in time for the match - I asked whether he was playing, and he said "No, watching. On TV." When he asked me to guess who was playing, I had no idea, and he seemed rather insulted by the suggestion that he might support Manchester United! Anyway, he left shortly before I did, so we went our separate ways.

So, in one sense this was a productive afternoon - I did some exercise, and had a friendly chat. But my initial reservations were nagging at me on the way home. It bothers me that I felt so defensive, when I wasn't doing anything wrong, and that I'm second-guessing myself like this. For instance, there are some Maths pages on my website, which are roughly aimed at 12 year olds. So, suppose that the two boys had been talking about some homework they were stuck on, and said that their parents hadn't understood the subject either, so I'd said "Oh, here's a link to my website - take a look, and see if it helps". (And every page on my website includes my email address, which has resulted in quite a few "fan mail" letters from people I've helped.) I can see that going horribly wrong - boy is speaking to his dad later, and mentions this "Oh yes, a strange man I've never met before spoke to me while we were both mostly naked, and said he wanted me to visit him on the internet".

The underlying issue here is the general witchhunts I've seen in the media regarding paedophiles (particularly when the internet is involved). A few months ago, Matthew Kelly got in trouble over accusations of child abuse. He was eventually cleared, but mud tends to stick, and I think his reputation has suffered. (Personally, I think that people in his situation should be given anonymity until/unless convicted.) Anyway, one of the things that the tabloids mentioned was that he had Disney videos in his house in Sri Lanka. The implication was that since he's an adult, he didn't have them for his own benefit, so he must have kept them to lure in children, or something similar. Now, I have several Disney films here, but there's no sinister ulterior motive for this - I just have them because I like to watch them.

One of the frustrating aspects of this (counter-intuitively) is that nobody actually accused me of anything, so I can't blame anyone else - I'm putting myself on the defensive. It's possible that this is related to something that happened in Durham, when a former friend accused me of sexual harrassment. I won't go into the details here - suffice it to say that opinions vary. In any case, she never went to the authorities, it was just something that she said to me informally. But that may have left me a little gun-shy.

One thing I should clarify here is that if I was ever accused of this, I trust that the justice system would treat me fairly. I wrote a research paper on computer forensics back in January, and so I read up on the legislation regarding child porn on computers, and I think they know what they're doing. It's just the thought of trial by media that bothers me. The only advantage I'd have is that I'm not a celebrity, but I do recall a paediatrician (baby doctor) getting a lynch mob outside his house in Sussex last year, after one of the tabloids mistakenly identified him as a paedophile (part of the "name and shame" campaign).

Something vaguely related happened last month, when I went off to the cinema to see "X-Men 2". I was in the toilets afterwards, and I had to wait a bit for a cubicle to become available. There was a boy who went into one of the cubicles, then came out again, and asked me if I knew how to lock the door. They normally have a plastic thing on the wall that pivots round to hold the door closed, so I looked for that, but it wasn't there, so I assumed it had broken off. Anyway, the boy asked me to keep an eye out while he was in there, to stop anyone from walking in on him, and I agreed to do this. In fact, I went slightly further, and held the door closed for him (put my hand on the top of it), and waited until I felt him tug it from the other side before I let go. (When I went in afterwards, it turned out that the "lock" was on the door rather than the wall.) Now, I don't think there was anything incriminating there. The reason I mention this is that I've been thinking about the image I project (for want of a better word).

In the Star Trek novel "Imzadi" (by Peter David), there's a section where Riker remembers something his old academy instructor told the class. "I don't have to ask how you are, because I can see it in your faces. Do you really think that telling your face how to act, for hours every day, doesn't leave a mark?" (That's not an exact quote, but close.) So, it's a variant on the theme of "Don't make faces - if the wind changes, you'll be stuck like that". And I think there is some truth in that - I've seen some people who walk around with a permanent snarl - "don't mess with me, I'm a real bad-ass!" In my case, it's hard for me to judge my expression, since I know for a fact how trustworthy etc. I am. But it occurs to me that when con artists etc. have picked me out as a "soft target", the reason they do that is the same reason that children or old people feel safe around me - they're picking up on a (perceived) aspect of me from my appearance.

To digress again, I saw a fox last week. This was the night before my final exam, so I was up late - I went outside at 3am, and saw the fox sniffing around bins next door. I've seen foxes before, but this was the closest I've ever been to one - I'd say we were within 6 feet of each other. The main thing that struck me was that he was hairy. That's not quite the right word, but it's the best one I can think of. The point is, although I've always had a mental image of foxes as being cute and fluffy, when I looked at him, I was very aware that this was a wild animal, and about twice the size of my cat. So, a brief reality check there.

I think he was more startled than I was, as he turned tail and fled right away. That's a justifiable reaction (fear of humans), and while it's unnecessary in my case, I wouldn't want to change it. That's partly because I don't want a territorial dispute occurring between my cat and the fox (since I think my cat would lose), and partly because not all humans are as well-disposed towards foxes as I am, so it wouldn't be in the fox's best interests. So, the wrinkle here (coming back to my encounters with children) is that arguably I shouldn't be teaching them (by example) that talking to strangers is a good thing. Is it more ethical to keep them living in fear? There aren't any easy answers here.

Anyway, I wanted to get all this typed up, so that I'm not muttering to myself about it. I'm not specifically looking for feedback, but feel free to comment (as always).