Update (Tuesday 4th September): Last night Channel 4 aired a documentary dealing with a highly controversial topic – Married To A Paedophile. Judging from the Twitter responses, there was widespread confusion around the unusual way it was filmed.
The doc was originally recorded as an audio documentary, using the real voices of families affected by men convicted of the crime. Actors were then cast to lip sync over these recordings for the film that was broadcast yesterday, to protect the anonymity of those involved. This wasn't entirely clear to viewers however, with many taking to Twitter to express their confusion about the format, and how involved the families were in the production.
A few viewers did express empathy for the actors who had taken on these difficult roles. But beyond the immediate shock and emotional strain some audience members experienced watching the documentary, the overwhelming reaction on social media was confusion towards the treatment.
This story was originally published on Monday 3rd September
There are up to 80,000 paedophiles in the UK operating online who pose a threat to children, according to home secretary Sajid Javid, and the crime is on the rise. There has been a 700% increase in the number of referrals of child abuse images to the National Crime Agency and the images are becoming more graphic.
There have also been calls to increase the severity of the punishments given to those involved in the crime. In 2017, 2,528 people were sentenced for making, distributing or publishing child sex abuse images, with less than a quarter going to jail, almost half receiving suspended sentences and a fifth given community orders, reported The Independent in August. Critics, including the UK's solicitor general, have backed plans to give longer prison sentences to sex offenders who download indecent images of children.
The increased prevalence of child abuse images means that not only is the number of child victims increasing, but the number of often-innocent families whose lives are upended by the crime – because of their relationship to the criminals themselves – is also on the rise. This is the subject of a controversial new Channel 4 documentary, Married to a Paedophile, which follows two wives with convicted partners and delves into the impact of these men's actions on their families. Hundreds of women each month will wake up to learn that the man they love and trust has been viewing images of child sex abuse online, and their stories have been largely unexplored until now.
First made as an audio documentary, the film was then shot as a drama with the cast lip-syncing the words of the families' voices (to protect their identities, giving them greater freedom to share their stories). It's an unusual technique that makes for harrowing viewing. Filmmakers, directed by Colette Camden (whose voice is used in the film), followed the families over 12 months and examine the breakdown of ostensibly happy marriages, while showing how partners (and the criminals themselves) deal with the shame and the stigma of the offence.
One of the women featured is Kate (played by Sinead Keenan), whose husband Alex was arrested on suspicion of downloading sexual images of children. She describes the moment she found out her husband's secret at the police station after 12 hours of questioning: "Eventually they ushered me and Alex into this horrible little concrete room [with] just a couple of plastic chairs and a table and bare walls... and said 'Alex has got something to tell you'. That was when he confessed." Alex was released on bail that night and the couple drove home together, but a week later he left the family home of 20 years, leaving behind his two grown-up daughters.
When Kate asked her former husband about the ages of the children whose images he had downloaded, he told her "he'd seen pretty much everything, which came as something I couldn't quite comprehend really. As far as I was aware we were a happy, ordinary couple." They separated almost immediately.
When we meet Alex (played by Nicholas Gleaves) it's clear his life has changed beyond all recognition. He now lives alone in a caravan 170 miles away and, like Kate, speaks frankly about how he's come to terms with these new circumstances. He is still on good terms with his daughters, who are open to understanding the factors behind his behaviour, but he admits he no longer has a respected job or reputation in the community.
The main reason Kate wanted to share her story was to raise awareness of a group of people who rarely receive sympathy. "The welfare of family members is not considered at all when people think about the effects of online offending, and yet this crime is devastating for the wives, mothers, children, etc," she told Refinery29.
"We are innocent, of course we are not technically victims of any crimes, so very few people give us any thought. The focus is always the victims – quite rightly and understandably – and the rehabilitation or otherwise of the offender, never us. I hope the documentary will open up a debate about the effects of internet offending on the families of offenders."
Another woman who shares her story on film is Helen (played by Abigail McKern), one half of an older couple, who has decided to 'forgive' her husband and accept his version of events (that he didn’t do anything with the pictures). However, her doubts appear to grow as the film progresses.
Helen, whose friends and family were initially supportive but cut her off once they realised she planned to stay with her husband, told Refinery29 she "had a deep need to talk about what had happened" and help other women facing similar issues. By taking part in the film, she also wanted to reiterate the fact that wives like her "usually have no idea about their husband's inappropriate interests."
"They are not responsible for the behaviour and generally could not prevent it happening even if they found out. It can be an incredibly lonely experience, both emotionally and practically. They are also victims," Helen added.
There are few issues more taboo than paedophilia, and anything that appears to invite sympathy for convicted criminals is bound to come under fierce criticism. But director Colette Camden's intention was not to fan the flames of public outrage. "I wanted to explore this incredibly interesting aspect of shame," she told Refinery29. "How do you pick up the pieces after a discovery like this? It’s a crime that carries such a stigma – you might find yourself shunned and reviled overnight, tainted by the shame of association, wondering who knows what’s happened under your roof, and are people thinking you were in any way involved?"
She added: "For many, it’s the sudden brutal end of a marriage, and in a manner that denies you the usual sympathy and understanding. For the few who try to stay with their partner, it requires a deeply traumatic rethink of the trust you might have based your marriage on."
Married to a Paedophile airs on Channel 4 at 9pm on Monday 3rd September and will be available on All 4 afterwards.