Sympathy for Monsters
Last week I was in Banff while my partner organized and ran a conference on sexual offending, mainly pedophilia, there. The biggest stars in the field of researching sexual offending were there and, while I did not attend the conference, I spent a week drinking with them afterward. To my surprise, I came out of that experience a little changed. My biggest epiphany was this: more than anything, I feel sorry for pedophiles.
Now let’s be clear: I am not saying I feel sorry for child abusers or molesters, I am not diminishing the trauma of sexual abuse, and I am not excusing pedophiles who act on their urges. Well, maybe a little bit on that last point, but I’ll get there. Pedophiles are people who are sexually attracted to children, whether or not they actually act on such attractions.
So what do I mean by asserting my sympathy for pedophiles? Think of whatever it is that turns you on, that really gets you going. A particular sex, body type, sexual act, fetish object, whatever. Take a good while to really imagine that thing. Now imagine that was the only thing, the absolutely one and only thing, that turned you on. Now, what if that thing was illegal, immoral, harmful, and all around you? Tough huh?
We don’t know what causes pedophilia, but we definitely know it’s not a choice. These researchers and others are working on it, but their efforts are often stymied by the ignorant public. Here’s an example: a research group based at a Canadian university wanted to see what made pedophiles who acted on their pedophilia different from those who didn’t and victim’s rights groups got upset that these research participants would be compensated for their time. These participants would be volunteering their time, something that we pay any other participant for, to look at images of clothed, computer-generated people (no children were exploited in the making of these images), and the ignorant public phrased it as “paying pedophiles to look at porn.” If we don’t pay them, what is going to entice them to out themselves for science? Remember, these are not convicts, these are regular guys who have never actually done anything to a child. Recruiting was halted and the research was force canceled. Why was the reaction so fierce? It’s because rather than seeing them as people with a problem, people see pedophiles only as “monsters.”
Turning them into de facto monsters has important consequences. A colleague told me about an ad he saw in Germany which shows a young man sitting on a bus or train, when a family with a child gets on and sits opposite him. We hear the heartbeat of the man slowly beating faster and faster and faster until eventually the family gets off, the man covers his lap with a binder, and the voiceover says “Like children too much? We can help.” The ad was for a therapy clinic or somesuch.
This ad would be impossible in Canada or the United States, because of the fact that we prefer to see pedophiles as monsters who should be, as a friend recently told me, “dragged out and shot in the street.” Do you see the problem here? By demonizing pedophiles to the extent that we do, we make it impossible to identify them before they offend. No one with pedophilic tendencies is going to come forward himself, because he knows how vilified he is. This actually increases the amount of sexual offenses against children, because since we can’t find and treat pedophiles before they offend, we have to wait until after they have hurt someone.
So when we, as a society, make it impossible for pedophiles who have not committed a crime to get treatment, we are partially to blame when they can’t take the pressure anymore, crack, and abuse a child. It’s already a hard enough lot to be born with or to develop an inappropriate and harmful sexual attraction (this “harm,” by the way, is what makes pedophilia different from, say, homosexuality. Culture changes over time as to what is appropriate or inappropriate, but acting on homosexual urges involves consenting adults while acting on pedophilia involves people who are not able to consent). Besides being born with this, though, you can’t even tell anyone for fear of being treated like a criminal for thoughtcrime. Untreated, you may eventually succumb to the constant and devastating pressure, doing untellable harm to a child in the process, and being labeled a monster by everyone else.
So yeah, I am sympathetic. Don’t take this to mean that I am unsympathetic to victims; I hope I have been clear that acting on pedophilia is wrong and harmful. It’s not a crime to have desires, though, it’s more like an illness. What happens in places where HIV is demonized? People don’t get tested because they don’t want to know the results, and the disease spreads unchecked. We need to make it easier, not harder, for people who think they have a problem to come forward and get helped, and we can’t make this happen by stopping research and by talking about pedophiles as if they are monsters instead of who they really are: people.