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Facing Disturbing Truths About Pedophilia Could Help Us Keep Kids Safer

Pedophilia can be something you're born with. It's not an addiction, although pedophiles can be sex addicts and are often given addiction-type treatment. As a sex addict, I'm convinced we fail these people in ways that increase our risks.
(Photo: Mish Mish/Flickr)

(Photo: Mish Mish/Flickr)

A guy I know was recently arrested for possessing child porn. We used to be friends but had a falling out years ago. Later he became kind of a big deal locally, a city councilor and the publisher of a magazine. Not surprisingly his being arrested got some attention in the media.

You might imagine I enjoyed some schadenfreude at the moment I saw his name in the paper, but as a sex addict I just felt bad for him. While I am lucky enough to not share in this type of attraction, I know what it is like to be unable to control myself sexually, and to do things that are shaming—and harmful—to myself and those around me.

When I was in rehab for sex addiction there were a few guys who were into kids, although they did their best to deny it. The staff at the rehab gave certain guys a psychological test. From what I heard, it’s kind of a stimulus-response test: They would put the guy in a room and show him photos of a six-year-old boy and a hot 25-year-old woman until the guy would finally prove to them and himself what we all suspected: that the guy wanted to molest kids. Even after the test, he still would not want to admit to the rest of us the nature of his true attractions. He would wander around for days moaning that the test was wrong, the staff was wrong, and he didn’t, he really didn’t, want to fuck kids at all.

Pedophilia—being attracted to a prepubescent or early pubescent kid—is defined by the DSM-5 as a sexual “interest.” (The DSM-5, released in 2013, originally revised its old definition of pedophilia to “sexual orientation”—meaning you were born that way—but there was such a public outcry against this attempt to de-stigmatize it that the brave psychiatrists said that “orientation” was a “typo” and was supposed to be “interest.”) It’s estimated that about one percent of men are, in fact, born this way.

You aren’t going to tell your wife about it. You aren’t going to tell your friends or go out for some beers with the guys at work and say, “I have to tell you, Joe, I find children extremely erotic, and I feel really bad about it.” You aren’t going to tell anyone.

Pedophilia is not a sexual addiction, although pedophiles can be addicted to their form of sexual behavior and some of the most prolific child sex offenders have undoubtedly been sex addicts. The traditional treatment for pedophilia is Relapse Prevention, which is based on helping people with addiction identify—and develop coping skills for—high-risk situations.

The DSM-5 says that pedophilia is only a sexual disorder if it causes “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty”—or if you act on it. It is a “paraphilia,” a “sexual impulse disorder characterized by intensely arousing, recurrent sexual fantasies, urges  and behaviors that are considered deviant with respect to cultural norms and that produce clinically significant distress or impairment.”

Other familiar paraphilias include exhibitionism, sadism, voyeurism, and frottereurism (a fancy name for the guy who rubs his dick against other people on the subway). There are hundreds of different types of paraphilias ranging from abasiophilia (being sexually attracted to people with impaired mobility) to zoosadism (being turned on by torturing animals). It’s a weird world out there sexually, and all sorts of people are into all sorts of things that are not of their choosing.

“One cannot choose to not be a pedophile, but one can choose to not be a child molester,” Dr. James Cantor, a professor at the University of Toronto medical school and a leading expert on pedophilia, wrote in a CNN op-ed in 2012. He also said that pedophiles are most likely to abuse when they are most desperate and feel they have nothing to lose.

Imagine that your sex drive is all about fooling around with 10-year-old boys or girls. How do you learn to live for the rest of your life with—but never act on—this burning sexual need without going crazy? You go to a psychiatrist or some other mental health professional, right? Probably not. Mandatory reporting laws require them to report anyone who comes for therapy or counseling and who is “suspected of,” which could be interpreted as “at risk for,” molesting a child.

You aren’t going to tell your wife about it. You aren’t going to tell your friends or go out for some beers with the guys at work and say, “I have to tell you, Joe, I find children extremely erotic, and I feel really bad about it.” You aren’t going to tell anyone. You’re going to remain silent, you’re going to hate yourself, and you’re going to suffer.

These conditions seem almost created to make you feel desperate and therefore most likely to sexually abuse a kid.

When it comes to pedophiles and other people with weird sexual urges, our society is all about punishment, not prevention. We don’t want to help people who we think could mess with our kids. We want to pretend they don’t exist until they do mess with our kids, and then we want to punish and make an example of them. Even saying the words help and pedophile in the same sentence pisses people off. But this is likely the best path to reducing child sex abuse.

“If you even mention something that sounds empathetic to the mental disorder of pedophilia, people might incorrectly think you are excusing child sexual abuse,” Margo Kaplan, a law professor at Rutgers University, told the New York Times. “It combines our discomfort with mental disorders and our disgust with sexual deviance—it really hits the jackpot of social animosity.”

Most of us do not understand that pedophilia and child sexual abuse are not the same thing. On the one hand, many guys who have a sexual attraction to kids do not act on it. On the other hand, studies show that about half of all child molesters are not sexually attracted to their victims; they do it because the have a personality disorder or other serious mental health problem.

When it comes to people with weird sexual urges, our society is all about punishment, not prevention. Even saying the words "help" and "pedophile" in the same sentence pisses people off. But this is likely the best path to reducing child sex abuse.

But the biggest misconception is, again, that guys choose to be totally turned on by six-year-olds and that therefore they have a moral problem. Being stigmatized in this way is like sex addiction—or any addiction, for that matter. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re not all morally responsible for the consequences of our actions.

There are websites that try to help people who are attracted to kids and wish not to act on it. One is Virtuous Pedophiles. Another is Celibate Pedophiles, run by Ethan Edwards (a pseudonym). His “about me” reads:

I am a pedophile, always celibate, and I have never seen child pornography. My attraction is strongest to girls around 4 years old, but I am also attracted to girls and women up through their 30s or beyond. Now in my late 50s, I’m divorced and living alone. I was married for over 10 years and was heavily involved with raising my 3 daughters. Before retirement I was a highly successful software engineer. I am very unusual for a pedophile in that I didn’t realize the full nature of my attraction until I was in my 50s—but it was there all along. I am disturbed that I cannot tell people who I really am, and that if anyone finds out, I risk losing everything. I have come to care very much about the terror of the typical pedophile who realizes as a teenager that his attraction isn’t going to go away, who has nowhere to turn for help.

Weird, right? Does it make you uncomfortable? There is a lot about sex and sexual desires, disorders, and addiction that should make you feel uncomfortable. All of it pushes you outside your bubble of what you thought sex was supposed to be. I know that a lot of the sexual things I have done would seem very odd to most people.

My former friend was indicted for 10 counts of possession of sexually explicit materials and two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. He will almost certainly go to prison. And the thing is, he should.

When I was fresh out of college I got a job with the American Civil Liberties Union working with prisoners. There was a guy who was in prison for molesting a kid. He told me that he had had his paperwork forged so it looked like he was in there for manslaughter: He did something sexually with a kid, but he made it appear as if he was in there for killing someone. It’s an interesting concept. If you are in prison for killing someone you can get some slaps on the back and some cigs. If you are in there for messing with a kid, you get fucked up.

No one likes thinking about pedophilia. I know I don’t. But I also know that my former friend didn’t choose what turns him on, and I know he probably has been living in fear and with pain his entire life. If he and other pedophiles had safe places to go to get help before they commit crimes, both they and our kids would be in a much better place.

This post originally appeared on Substance, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “Facing Disturbing Truths About Pedophilia Could Help Us Keep Kids Safer.”