Last week I had an article on paedophilia (or pedophilia, if you are on the other side of the pond) published in Salon, a digital magazine based in the USA. Since then, I have received many emails from readers who felt that the article resonated with them. Some confided heartbreaking stories of abuse and thanked me for my conclusions, while others admitted to feeling attracted to children and were angry that my article did not treat paedophilia as a sexual orientation like any other. With that in mind, I´d like to clarify a few things.
Not all paedophiles are predatory and not all sex offenders are paedophiles. To be attracted to children does not necessarily mean you are a danger to society- but unlike being gay, straight or bisexual, it does mean that you cannot fulfill your sexual urges without breaking the law and damaging a child, whether physically or mentally.
The keyword here is consent. My personal belief is that the age of consent should be lowered: it seems ridiculous that a 17 year-old could end up on the sex offenders´register for a perfectly natural ´roll in the hay´ with his 15 year-old girlfriend, for example. But we cannot apply that argument to a pre-pubescent child, and they must be protected at any cost.
As I said, not all paedophiles act on their desires- although sometimes the urges can be very strong and therefore become extremely dangerous. This is exactly why therapists, support helplines and special centres are urgently needed for pederasts who can´t deal with their compulsions. One reader sent me a detailed report of studies purporting to prove that watching virtual child pornography quenches paedophiliac desires (I´ll post some links in the comments box under this article) and asked if I would advocate virtual porn as another way of dealing with the problem.
Looking at the overwhelming evidence to support virtual porn as an antidote to child molestation I say we should advocate anything that helps make sure these desires don´t spill over into reality. My overall view is that criminalization of anything- whether it be drugs, prostitution or child porn- has no benefit to society in the end, and only serves to push the problem down into a murky criminal underworld where it can´t possibly be controlled.
I didn´t talk about virtual porn in my article, preferring to focus more on where my own research had taken me- what I had learned from experts, who spoke at length about the need for open discussion and support for victims of trauma (so, a focus on child sexual abuse rather than paedophiles who do not engage in child molestation). But there is an interesting piece on virtual child porn here by Tauriq Moosa for any readers who are interested.
My own article focuses on Ariel Castro, the man who abducted three girls in Cleveland, Ohio, and who claimed he was raped as a child by his uncle. I see no reason to believe Castro was inventing these accusations since at the time of writing, he intended to commit suicide. Is it relevant that he was raped by his uncle? It´s debatable, and we can´t know for sure that it was partly or wholly responsible for turning him into a ´monster´. But that´s exactly why we need more research.
It´s also difficult to know whether the rape was a one-off event or a sustained period of regular sexual abuse from a very young age into adolescence. But in any case, all the experts I interviewed (and more besides the ones quoted in the final article) strongly agree that at the very least, it´s an important piece of information. Sweeping it under the carpet because we hate this guy and we can´t possibly feel empathy for Castro the child is rather short-sighted. What if it is relevant? Wouldn´t that mean we urgently need to find better ways of helping abused kids so their demons don´t catch up with them in adulthood?
As one reader wrote to me: ´Society seems a bit confused and hypocritical on this issue. We feel empathy for abused kids, but only while they are kids. Then we expect them to sort themselves out and be normal adults, but we don´t give them the tools to do that.´
Other readers took offence at Castro´s being linked to the paedophilia angle (one reader wrote, bizarrely and insensitively, that Castro didn´t take kids, just ´old hags´). To that I would say that Gina DeJesus was 13 at the time of her kidnapping so there is no doubt where the law would place him. But how much do their ages matter? Does it affect the level of trauma these poor women endured for 10 years? The only relevant point is that Castro was an abused child who went on to become a predatory sex offender, and the article´s aim was to address the idea that this is a possible correlation: that maybe sexual offences- whether against kids or adults- could be cut dramatically if we took a new approach.
There were many more studies that I couldn´t fit into the finished article that would back this link between abuse as a child and sexual offences committed as an adult, and there have even been studies that the US government has dismissed because they say using paedophile testimony ´isn´t valid´. This narrow-minded attitude on the part of the government demonstrates just how much our knee-jerk reactions prevent us from helping future generations. We have to break the taboo; we have to listen to them.
As for the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key brigade, my article discusses why this is not a realistic option. Here is one quote from Dr Robin Wilson, who agrees:
“There is little to no evidence that get tough on crime measures reduce risk to the community. This is an answered question- more punishment does not equal less crime. This is particularly true for sexual offenders, where registries, public notification, and residency restrictions negatively impact opportunities for resettlement. Treatment does work, as does evidence-based community supervision and wraparound care.”
The original article can be accessed here and I welcome comment and debate on this most controversial topic.