NORFOLK, Va. — A university professor in Virginia announced Wednesday they will resign in the wake of threats made over their recently published book, which includes interviews of more than 40 adults who are sexually attracted to minors.
The book argues that destigmatizing that attraction would allow more people to seek help and develop coping strategies against committing crimes and ultimately prevent child sexual abuse.
"That research was mischaracterized by some in the media and online, partly on the basis of my trans identity," Old Dominion University professor Allyn Walker said in a statement.
"As a result, multiple threats were made against me and the campus community generally," added Walker, who uses the pronoun "they."
Walker's book, "A Long, Dark Shadow, Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity," drew little attention beyond academics when published in June. The book's preface cited Walker's time as a social worker who counseled victims of sexual assault, some of whom were children.
"I worry that my readers will somehow think that I am downplaying sexual abuse against children or that I am even trying to normalize it," Walker wrote in the preface. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
The controversy at the state school of nearly 25,000 students comes at a time of growing concern surrounding academic freedom and the physical safety of professors as college campuses serve as battlegrounds in the nation's culture wars.
Walker is an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice. Earlier this month, their research caught the attention of some media outlets —- and the professor received threats that law enforcement told administrators to take seriously, university officials said.
An online petition calling for Walker's removal received nearly 15,000 signatures. It referenced Walker's use of the term, "minor attracted persons," and said "(w)e want to be clear that this is pedophilia and should not be considered a sexual preference."
Fox News host Tucker Carlson also talked about Walker's work with the headline "The Left's Depraved New Low."
A letter sent out last week by university President Brian Hemphill noted the controversy had triggered terrible memories and caused fresh pain to people who suffered abuse.
"Ideally, we would be able to debate even the most challenging issues without disruption or threats of violence, but that is not the world we live in today," Hemphill wrote.
Walker was briefly provided with an armed escort while on campus in Norfolk before being put on administrative leave, university officials said. Hemphill had said his "foremost responsibility is for the safety of everyone associated with the campus."
Walker, who is an untenured professor, will remain on leave before officially stepping down at the end of the academic year in May.
"We have concluded that this outcome is the best way to move forward," Hemphill said Wednesday.
The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors called the situation "heartbreaking" and said "(w)e should all vehemently condemn the transphobic hate speech and physical threats directed at Dr. Walker."
The group said resistance to Walker's research was understandable, especially for people with past trauma, and that those concerns should continue to be discussed. But the association also said Walker "produced meaningful, rigorous research" that had "the consistent, clear aim of preventing future abuse to minors."
Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said Walker "is not the first person to turn their attention to that type of work."
"Several others in the field have been working with people with sexual attraction to children who are committed to not offending," Letourneau said. "And it's the way of the future."
Letourneau said people who are attracted to children —- but who have not committed any offenses —- can help academics learn about what might be helpful to others, including their coping strategies to prevent abuse and improve self-acceptance and mental well-being.
The center launched an online prevention program called "Help Wanted" that provides strategies for adolescents and adults to prevent harm and to maintain their physical and mental health and to improve peer relationships, all of which can help coping with sexual attraction to children.
"We all want children to grow up free from abuse — the trick is recognizing how do we do that?" Letourneau said. "If we just wait for an offense to occur and put everything into the criminal justice system, we're never going to get there."