Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sympathy for Pedophiles

I think people should show more sympathy for pedophiles.

I would like to make it clear that I am not excusing child sexual abuse. I know firsthand how harmful it can be, and the research clearly shows that child sexual abuse is linked with a pile of mental health issues, such as mood/anxiety disorders, substance abuse, sexual offending, dissociative disorders and personality disorders. Having sex with a child can cause that child misery for decades afterwards. It's never OK.

But pedophiles aren't the monsters people make them out to be. They don't set out to ruin a child's life. They don't cackle to themselves and think 'how can I make this child miserable?' Research shows that contrary to stereotypes, most child molestors are not psychopaths - in fact, rapists have far higher rates of psychopathy, as do non-sexual offenders. The only category of child sexual abusers who do have high psychopathy rates are those who offend against both children and adults, who make up a small proportion of sex offenders.

And not all pedophiles sexually abuse children, nor are all child sexual abusers pedophiles. In fact, among criminal populations, the best predictor of pedophilia is not child sexual abuse, but viewing child pronography. And there are no doubt other pedophiles who don't even watch child pornography - it's just that they're hard to study because they haven't gotten caught.

Nevertheless, it is true that being a pedophile greatly increases a man's (most pedophiles are men) risk of sexually abusing a child. But this isn't because they want to hurt children.

Pedophilia, by definition, means you feel a desire to engage in sexual behavior with a child. Although most normal men are a bit attracted to teenagers (but prefer adults), sexual attraction to pre-pubertal children is quite abnormal. And it's not a choice, any more than whether you prefer men or women is a choice. (Fortunately, gays and lesbians can act on their sexual feelings in a healthy, consensual manner, which makes their situation very different from pedophiles.) There are even a few cases of pedophilia linked to organic brain diseases such as brain tumors.

Now, it's possible to feel those feelings and never act on them. But people differ in their strength of willpower. And poor willpower is not a moral failing, it's a failure of executive functions. People also vary in the intensity of their sexual desire, and more intense sexual desire requires more willpower not to act on it.

Furthermore, it can be really unpleasant emotionally to feel that your desires are morally wrong. This is why many pedophiles look for ways to justify their actions. They don't want to think of themselves as someone who hurts children, or wants to hurt children. So they try to argue that sexual contact between an adult and a child doesn't hurt the child, at least if you do it right. (It's true that some forms of child sexual abuse are less harmful than others, but there is no way to have sexual contact with a child without harming them. And earlier societies didn't have ways of having sexual contact with children without harming them, they just didn't notice the harm because they were less aware of psychological problems.) People have a strong desire to make their actions fit their values, and failing that, to make their values match their actions.

And the stigma of pedophilia hurts, as well. This is illustrated by the story of the guy with the brain tumor linked to above, which I'll relay here for those who don't have access to the full-text. Pre-tumor, he was a fan of pronography involving adults, but had no interest in child pronography. Then, as his tumor began to grow, he got interested in child pornography. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn't stop himself, so instead he went to great lengths to hide this. As the tumor progressed, his urges grew stronger, until he began sexually abusing his stepdaughter.

She told her mother about it and he was charged with child abuse, removed from his family's home, and required to undergo treatment. He was expelled from the rehabilitation center for trying to solicit sexual favours from other inmates, and was about to go to jail when he went to the hospital with a severe headache. They suspected it was psychosomatic and admitted him to the psychiatric ward after he threatened suicide, but then when he showed balance problems, a neurological cause was suspected. An MRI showed the tumor, and surgery successfully removed it, at which point his behavior returned to normal. He was eventually felt to no longer pose a threat to his stepdaughter, and he returned home.

Several months later, he developed an interest in child pornography again, as well as a persistant headache. This time, he didn't hide it - he went straight to the hospital, where they found that the tumor had begun to grow back. They removed it again, and he's been fine ever since.

In this case, this guy literally could have died. His stepdaughter may very well have saved his life - if she hadn't told, he might have continued on without treatment until the tumor became inoperable. As it was, although he didn't get the right treatment at first, he had professionals observing him and they noticed when his symptoms started looking particularly neurological. The sequence of events when his tumor recurred are even more relevant - he sought help right away, and didn't reoffend against his stepdaughter.

If pedophilia was treated more as a mental illness rather than a moral failing, he might have sought treatment when he first developed an interest in child pornography. He knew it was wrong, knew he couldn't stop himself - but a thorough medical evaluation could've found the tumor earlier and removed it before he got to the point of abusing his stepdaughter. As it is, because he didn't seek help early, she'll have to live with the effects of that abuse for the rest of her life.

And although they didn't ask him, I'm pretty sure I know why he didn't seek treatment right away. He didn't want the stigma. He didn't want his wife to reject him, he didn't want society seeing him as a monster, and he didn't want to admit to himself that he was a pedophile.

Now, most pedophiles don't have a brain tumor. But that doesn't mean they can't be helped by treatment, because there are some successful treatments, both medical and psychological. Problem is that most pedophiles, like the guy with the brain tumor, do not seek help for themselves. They only come to the attention of treatment providers late in the story, when they've gotten caught acting inappropriately. This results in a lot of harm that could be prevented if these people had sought help earlier.

And even when they do get caught, very often the reaction isn't to provide treatment, but to punish them instead. Research shows that punishments such as jail time do absolutely nothing to change a pedohile's sexual orientation, or make it easier for them to resist acting on their desires. All they do is add an often traumatic experience and a stigmatizing criminal record onto their problems, then dump them back out without any improvement. Sometimes they'll at least reduce the opportunities to offend, by things such as criminal record checks for working with vulnerable populations. But if you really wanted to have sex with kids, there are plenty of opportunities anyways - like the volunteering programs I've been in that didn't perform record checks. (Out of four different programs working with disabled kids that I've participated in, only one required a criminal record check, and one of the ones that didn't had a great deal of opportunity to abuse kids undetected.) Furthermore, you can have contact with kids without volunteering or working for a kids' program, by simply befriending parents or neighborhood kids.

All in all, it's not just for the benefit of pedophiles that we should treat them with sympathy and help instead of reviling them. This will also help the children who could be their victims.


Blogger abailin said...

Oh wow, thank you! This is really brilliant. I think it has a much broader application than pedophilia, too-- I've often thought the same about people who crimes that obviously indicate lack of impulse control or ability to foresee consequences rather than actual intent to cause harm. Many people who are violent, too, probably should be given psychological help rather than punishment. It is not only the more moral choice, it's also far likelier to prevent repeat offenses.

I do have one... not a point of disagreement, just something I'd like to see more expansion on. You write "...earlier societies didn't have ways of having sexual contact with children without harming them, they just didn't notice the harm because they were less aware of psychological problems." Do you have any specific data supporting this statement? I believe it is correct, but I can't completely rule out the possibility that the harm in having a child participate in something sexual is caused by something about the societies we live in, rather than something innate-- "Brave New World" comes to mind here, where adults encourage sexual exploration and play among children as healthy, which struck me as oddly plausible (and is, of course, not the same as saying that sexual play between children and adults is acceptable, much less potentially beneficial). Please understand that I am not, in any way, advocating or condoning sexual acts with children; I am simply expressing a scientific curiosity about whether our presumptions about the effects of child-adult sexual contact are necessarily correct, and what the underlying causes are in either case.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

I don't have much evidence, mainly because there's not much recorded. I do know that the Byzantine Empire had a rule that you weren't allowed to consummate a marriage between an man and a girl until the girl was at least 12 years old, and several cases were reported where violation of that rule resulted in behavior suggestive of adverse psychological impact - threatening suicide if the marriage was not annulled, fearing the sight of any man, and one who went home in tears wanting to be a nun.

Reference for that:

7:27 AM  
Blogger RhythMates said...

Girls are married off at early ages today by people who harbor stiff religious beliefs that counteract any psychological rationale. Warren Jeffs is a prime example of a pedophile who convinced regular people to sacrifice their very young daughters to him. Religious figure acts as "the one" resource for everything spiritual and scientific whereby making it easy for people who don't want to be surrounded by culture of competing ideas.

1:00 PM  

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