Should we do more to help paedophiles?
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Luke Malone has published an extremely moving, disturbing, and distressing article in Medium, entitled ‘You’re 16. You’re a pedophile. You don’t want to hurt anyone. What do you do now?’ (warning: Malone’s article contains a graphic description of child abuse). The article focuses on ‘Adam’, a young man who, aged 16, was horrified to discover that he was sexually attracted to children. Disturbed by his sexual desires, and desperate to avoid acting on them, he suffered depression and initially used child pornography as an outlet for his feelings. (He subsequently stopped doing this.) Adam describes how he eventually went to see a therapist, who was unsympathetic, inexperienced in this area, and ultimately of little help. It turns out that, despite the fact that paedophilia is recognised as a mental disorder, there are major obstacles to helping people who, like Adam, are desperate to avoid harming children. Malone summarises some of the main problems:
There is currently no mechanism for treating someone who has pedophilic urges and hasn’t acted on them. A major roadblock is the existence of mandatory reporting laws, which dictate that people in certain professions must report suspicion of child abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services. … Mandated reporting revolutionized the way child abuse is handled in the U.S. and has brought many incidents to light, but it can be problematic for young men like Adam who haven’t abused children. The civil and criminal liabilities facing those who fail to report someone who goes on to molest a kid, combined with the fact that it need only be based on suspicion and not probable cause, means a report could be triggered when well-intentioned individuals reach out for help. The overwhelming number of minor-attracted men I spoke with said this was too much of a deterrent.
(Malone focuses on the US context. In the UK, there is no similarly clear-cut legal obligation to report suspected child abuse; nevertheless, there exist penalties for professionals who fail to report it.)
That non-offending paedophiles tend not to make themselves known to medical staff—or, indeed, to anyone else—means that not only do they not receive professional help to curtail their urges, but also that very little is known about them scientifically. It is, for example, poorly understood how and why people become paedophiles, how their condition progresses, and what factors make it more or less likely that they will go on to abuse children. As a result, it is difficult to know what steps to take to prevent paedophiles from harming others.
The result is a very uncomfortable and disturbing situation. We do not want child-abusing paedophiles in our society, yet we do nothing to prevent paedophiles from becoming child abusers. As a society, our efforts are reactive: it is only when a paedophile is found to have already abused children that society’s mechanisms spring into action to prevent the paedophile from causing any further harm. But, by that stage, of course, children have already been harmed. What can we do about this?
Well, it looks like our strong desire not to tolerate child abuse is itself obstructive to efforts to prevent it. Child abusers are perhaps the most widely loathed class of criminals—and understandably so. Few psychological traits are as appalling to us as the sexual attraction of an adult to children. We do not stop to question the extent to which child abusers are responsible for their actions—we just want them locked up, disposed of, sent away somewhere where they cannot harm our children. Non-offending paedophiles like Adam know all this, and it gives them a strong incentive to keep quiet about their desires.
In attempting to extend help to those like Adam, there are at least two major problems to overcome. The first is largely a cultural or political problem: given society’s attitude to paedophiles, it would take a brave and sympathetic government to attempt to persuade its citizens that investing money in helping paedophiles is worthwhile. This would involve distinguishing between child-abusing and non-child-abusing paedophiles—a distinction rarely made, perhaps because it’s the child-abusing paedophiles that we come to hear about—and arguing that the latter deserve our compassion and our money. Imagine the Daily Mail headlines! The current government, which apparently does not believe that any kind of mentally ill people really need treatment, is almost certainly neither willing to meet such a challenge, nor capable of doing so. As a result, the UK and Ireland’s Stop It Now! helpline, which (among other things) offers advice to paedophiles who are worried that they may go on to commit child abuse, is so under-funded that it misses four times the number of calls it takes; and in 2011 the government was apparently keen to stress that taxpayers’ money was not used to fund an NSPCC helpline aimed at counselling paedophiles who have offended and are afraid of relapsing. Given this, any future government faces an uphill struggle to persuade the public that counselling for paedophiles is a worthwhile use of taxpayers’ money. Having said that, increasingly there are programmes outside the UK aimed at helping paedophiles avoid offending—the Preventell helpline in Sweden and the Prevention Project Dunkelfeld in Germany—which may provide reason to be optimistic about future efforts in this direction in the UK.
The second problem is more theoretical. If we take seriously the idea that paedophiles need help to avoid acting on their urges, do we risk encouraging the view that they are not morally responsible when they do abuse children? Do we risk, for example, endorsing the idea that the undeniably repulsive Ian Watkins could not help meticulously planning and attempting the rape of an eleven-month-old, abusing numerous other children, and amassing an electronic stock of child pornography that was a breath-taking five times the size of the police force that investigated him? I think it is overly pessimistic to suppose that we cannot admit that paedophiles might need help to control their urges without thereby committing to the idea that they are not responsible for abusing children. There are many examples of ways in which society currently offers to help people control their undesirable or illegal behaviour without excusing those who fail to act appropriately. For example, efforts are made to rehabilitate criminals, but those who nevertheless go on to commit crimes are held accountable for those crimes. And anger-management therapy is available for those who have trouble controlling their temper, yet people are still held accountable for crimes committed in anger. Given this, there seems no reason to suppose that offering paedophiles help to control their urges should undermine attempts to hold them responsible when they do abuse children.
Even so, in offering to help paedophiles to control their urges, would we risk conveying to them—through extending understanding and sympathy—that being a paedophile is somehow acceptable? Not necessarily. Lessons here can perhaps be taken from Dr Hanna Pickard’s work with people suffering from personality disorders. Her approach aims to convey to patients that they are morally responsible for their behaviour, yet without engaging in blaming behaviour. Pickard explains the importance of this distinction:
To be responsible is to have control over your behaviour, in which case you can be held accountable, as well as supported to do things differently. Blame, in contrast, is about how we respond when a person is responsible for harm. We blame someone when, in addition to asking someone to answer for their behaviour and to change, we also do things like retaliate and reject them, judge them or write them off, and feel all sorts of hostile emotions, like hate, anger, disgust, scorn, and contempt. Blame gets in the way of people’s motivation to change. Responsibility and accountability, in contrast, are central to it.
This resembles the way in which we respond to misbehaviour by very young children. If my four-year-old scratches her younger brother (which, unfortunately, she occasionally does), I do not engage in the sort of blaming behaviour described by Pickard. I do, however, try to convey to her that she is responsible for her behaviour: that it is wrong, that it is unacceptable, and that she must find alternative ways of expressing her feelings. Part of this involves acknowledging and accepting her anger, annoyance, frustration (etc.)—she can do little about how she feels, after all—but focusing on there being acceptable and unacceptable means of expressing it. Similarly, we might try to accept that paedophiles cannot help having their desires, but they can help how they respond. The desires are not themselves the problem, after all: the problem is the child abuse that follows when the desires are not managed appropriately.
There are, then, ways in which we as a society might start to explore ways to help prevent paedophiles from abusing children. Doing so will not be easy. But if Adam’s story shows us anything, it shows us that burying our heads in the sand and pretending that we cannot do anything to prevent child abuse is unrealistic, and fails the very children whom we wish to protect.