The sexual abuse of children is a horrible topic to contemplate. But, if we genuinely want to make the world a better place our opinions need to be better than destructive rhetoric. Our reactions often lack thoughtfulness or clarity. As a result, society's response to child abusers typically makes things worse.
ped·o·phile n. an adult who is sexually attracted to a child or children.
paedophilia n. condition of being sexually attracted to children.
Collins pocket English Dictionary
Thought-crime is the idea that by thinking certain things, you are a criminal. When such ideas enter politics and law it is serious evidence of a totalitarian, suppressive state. Thought crime is not crime. No matter what a person's beliefs (or attractions), judgement should be based on behaviour. So our first point is this: a paedophile is not the same thing as a child abuser. A paedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to children. A child abuser who someone who behaves sexually towards a child. There are passive paedophiles (some of them have spoken out, albeit rarely) who are normal moralistic human beings who do not want to harm others (and don't).
The main problem is when a paedophile does not know or does not care that he is harming others. Although it may seem very obvious to many people that active paedophilia is immoral, the people involved can justify it in many ways.
A common line of thinking that prolific paedophiles will give is that they are the ones who are seduced by young people (6-year-olds and up), and that the young people "know what they are doing", and are quite capable of thinking sexually and initiating sexual contact. This argument has been best articulated by the paedophile advocate, Tom O'Carroll (1980).
Some do not accept that they harm children, and argue that love is good (including sexual love).
Some argue that occasional consensual sexual liaison is a useful and educational experience for the child. On the extreme of this, a fundamentalist evangelical pastor was jailed in Australia for child abuse after spending the 1990s sexually abusing his own daughter in order to 'educate' her1.
Some paedophiles are unfathomable. They just do it. Perhaps they don't know why. Perhaps they know they are wrong, and that in itself is what they are looking for: acts which separate them totally from society.
The main counterarguments against the pro-love positions are that physical paedophilia does harm children2. It is too much of an unbalanced relationship for it to be healthy. Teachers and those in positions of authority and trust cannot enter into relationships with their juniors; it is nearly always complicated and destructive. In other words, there should be no sexual unions between adults and children. Especially when there are adults who are serially attracted to children - or happen to end up with them - it is clear that their given justifications are veering into wishful-thinking territory. Their judgements are clouded by their deviancy.
The sexual liberality of the 1970s in the USA and Europe is infamous for its flamboyancy. After oppression and much hiding, sexual minorities of every kind were entering the public sphere. But in a now-forgotten corner of that recent history, paedophile groups also found themselves somewhat emancipated.
In France, various public petitions of the late 1970s called on Parliament to abolish age of consent laws; in particular, a 1977 petition calling for the decriminalization of all consenting relations between adults and minors was signed by prominent public intellectuals including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and France's most prominent child psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto. Paedophile advocacy groups thus operated in a context in which cultural ideas about children's sexuality were being redefined more generally. [...]
Groups such as the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the UK (created in 1974); North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) in the US (created in 1978); the Danish Paedophile Association (DPA) (set up in 1985); and International Paedophile and Child Emancipation (IPCE) (founded in the early 1990s), drew on Freudian theories and on sexological research, including the Kinsey Reports, to argue that children are sexual beings, and on ancient Greek models of sex. [...]
While always a controversial issue among the wider population, public attitudes towards adult-child sexual relationships have hardened significantly since the 1980s, though important cultural variations remain. In Western Europe, paedophile political lobbies have mostly withered away in the face of increasing public outrage at sexual abuse of children, and although in the Netherlands a 'Love Thy Neighbour, Freedom and Diversity' Party was founded in 2006 whose aims included seeking to decriminalize sexual activities at any age unless they are dangerous or coerced (it also supported the criminalization of sexual maltreatment of animals, currently not punishable in Dutch law), it was unable to raise the required number of public signatures from Dutch citizens to participate in actual elections. In the US, Canada, and the UK, increasing police surveillance and criminalization of their members have led many - though not all - of the most prominent groups to disband or to transform into less visible Internet-based [hidden communities].”
We will often find that the more dangerous or shocking something is, the more it can stick in our minds. Priests and Bishops, constantly expected to be moral, can suppress their own feelings and thoughts (for theological reasons, too, if they belong to a dualistic religion such as Islam, Christianity or Judaism) beyond the point that it is healthy. People cannot pretend not to even have immoral thoughts! The more pressure is on a person like this, whether it is self imposed or not, causes more and more tension.
If we have a bad habit, such as biting ones nails, we can stop it through self-suppression. Because it is a superfluous behaviour to our inner selves it does not infringe much on our psyche. If we try to suppress innate things (lust, greed, anger, etc) then we can only succeed for short periods of time. They are inbuilt characteristics of our biochemistry and hormonal cycles, just the same as every other animal. A textbook on abnormal psychology mentions studies that show that "pedophiles and perpetrators of incest are often rigidly religious and moralistic"5.
The worst step is reached when a person does not admit to themselves that these thoughts occur. Such religious fervour or devotion is frequently a cover up for a guilty conscience, people who are pressurized to behave well, constantly, are forced into doublethinking and timebombing their way through life.
If a paedophile comes not to care about society and other people then it is in part because they were ostracized and rejected by their entire set of friends and family. If we want to stop a person from becoming a dangerous misanthrope, for whatever reason they are classed as potentially dangerous, then the worse thing we can do is give up on them, resent them, attack them, alienate them, hate them or abandon them. Yet this is precisely what happens, with outrages being driven by cheap journalism. Some newspapers like to stir people up with outrage and sensationalism, and paedophiles are always an easy target.
Insults, hate, death threats and antisocial behaviour are the worst modes of behaviour we can display to a person who feels guilty, insecure and confused. When a group of townspeople picket outside a known offender's house, does this help the problem or make it worse? It makes it worse. How can they operate normally if we only show them modes of behaviour that are violent, dehumanizing and antisocial? If we want to reduce the types of monstrous acts that harm minors, then why do we act in a way that perpetrates the creation of monsters?
Society loves scapegoats. People suppress their own desires, pretend for ever that they do not think immoral things, so they revel in other's lapses in order to prove how honourable they themselves are. So imagine the public feel-good factor of having public registries of sex offenders available for all to see - people can easily overlook their own flaws when such societal scapegoats are available for a parade!
Harassment, sensationalist journalism, constant alienation and social outcasting do not help. Someone who is potentially confused or guilty, and sexually deviant needs to a stable life within a stable community. As a result of harassment, most sex offenders report feeling depressed, hopeless and afraid6. Criminals get worse with instability: job security and home security both reduce the rates at which people re-commit crimes. The same holds for paedophiles. Forcing them to move house, ostracizing them from society, and making it hard for them to keep a job, all increase the likelihood of re-offence6. Monstrous and uncivil behaviour makes monsters out of even well-adjusted people. The way cheap tabloids expose paedophiles is harmful and detrimental both to communities and individuals - especially given the simplistic and inadequate criteria by which people come to be classed as a paedophile.
The public love public registries of sex offenders. They are popular. They are also a gold-mine for lazy journalists - but hey, if newspapers can sell and innocent people can be warned of sex offenders who live nearby, surely no-one loses out? Think again. Journalism should involve careful investigation, and sex-offender lists should be carefully managed, but often, neither is the case. In a world where politicians pander to populism and journalism gives way to churnalism and sensationalism, public sex offender registries actually do more harm than good. Consider some examples:
“One day in 1996 the lights went off in a classroom in Georgia so that the students could watch a video. Wendy Whitaker, a 17-year-old pupil at the time, was sitting near the back. The boy next to her suggested that, since it was dark, she could perform oral sex on him without anyone noticing. She obliged. And that single teenage fumble wrecked her life.
Her classmate was three weeks shy of his 16th birthday. [...] She was arrested and charged with sodomy, which in Georgia can refer to oral sex. She met her court-appointed lawyer five minutes before the hearing. He told her to plead guilty. [...] Not being the most organised of people, she failed to meet all the conditions [of probation, and] was incarcerated for more than a year. [...]
Georgia puts sex offenders on a public registry. Ms Whitaker's name, photograph and address are easily accessible online, along with the information that she was convicted of "sodomy". The website does not explain what she actually did. But since it describes itself as a list of people who have "been convicted of a criminal offence against a victim who is a minor or any dangerous sexual offence", it makes it sound as if she did something terrible to a helpless child. [...] Registered sex offenders in Georgia are barred from living within 1,000 feet of anywhere children may congregate, such as a school, a park, a library, or a swimming pool. [...] Since the church at the end of Ms Whitaker's street houses a child-care centre, she was evicted from her home.”
Article "Sex Laws" in The Economist (2009)
Her life has been plagued periodically by lazy journalists happening upon her details on this register, and then stirring up local harassment against her. Her story is not unique, and not even a particularly serious case. In another example, 'Mike' was 22 when he slept with a girl who said she was 17, but was actually two years younger. Since then, he has found himself fired for his appearance on a sex offender list, and has found it difficult to hold down a job. He was once a security guard, "but his probation officer told him to quit, since the uniform lent him an air of authority, which would not do. He is now unemployed, and lives in a flophouse in Atlanta between a jail and a strip club. The area is too desolate to have any schools or parks, so he is allowed to live there"6.
Our simplistic and reactionary thinking destroys people's lives, where in reality the original act was isolated and not actually a sign of a dangerous paedophile. Many non-dangerous pseudo-paedophiles come to be on these lists.
“Publicising sex offenders' addresses makes them vulnerable to vigilantism. In April 2006, for example, a vigilante shot and killed two sex offenders in Maine after finding their addresses on the registry. One of the victims had been convicted of having consensual sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend when he was 19. In Washington state in 2005 a man posed as an FBI agent to enter the home of two sex offenders warning them that they were on a "hit list" on the internet. Then he killed them. Murders of sex offenders are rare, but harassment is common.”
Article "Sex Laws" in The Economist (2009)
Public sex-offender registries cause more harm than good by allowing cheap journalists to destroy lives for the sake of profit. They have been shown not to reduce sex offence rates, and to increase the likelihood of re-offence. They also come to trap people who have merely ended up the wrong side of a technical piece of legislation, but who are not in any way a paedophile or rapist. In Georgia, USA, where a study was conducted, only 5% of those on the list were found to be clearly dangerous.
Human Rights Watch's researcher Sarah Tofte states that punishments for sex offenders should be tailored for individual cases, and inclusion onto sex offender lists should not be automated, but subject to a case-by-case review.
"You're the man with no choice, yes it's been decided you've done wrong.
And there's single voice that will stand up and say, 'oh just what has he done?'
For they all read the news, and it's surely proof enough for them.
And they flatly refuse to consider, oh, was he really to blame?"
"When the fingers point" music track by The Christians
“Child abuse and paedophilia has been a particular problem for Christian institutions. Christian clergy have been under much scrutiny over the last two decades after a long series of immoral scandals involving child abuse. The cases have been shocking, wild, numerous, public, and they keep coming. It seems that the Church's teachings on sexuality lead to a development of sexual dysfunction amongst its priests. Christian Churches, the biggest example being the Catholic Church, have fought to conceal paedophile priests and move them from place to place when allegations arise. They have tried to deal with paedophilia by sending priests on sick leave or to rehabilitation centres ran by other Christians, but, it appears that Christian hierarchies are the last places you should trust when it comes to dealing with sexual abnormality. The scale of the scandals has led to various Churches declaring themselves bankrupt as they attempt to pay some of the court costs and settlement fees demanded of them. No other industry - even those closely associated with children such as boarding schools - has a rate of abuse anywhere near the rate found amongst Christian clergy. Counting is difficult, but, around 3% of all priests appear to be prone to recurring sexual indecency with children. Catholic Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi represented the Vatican before the United Nations Human Rights Council, and stated that Jews and Protestants have worse rates of child abuse, but still admitted that in the last 50 years "somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases". Police have called for routine checks of all priests, and a growing distrust of Christian religious professionals is finally beginning to become apparent amongst the general public.”
Do not trust journalists when it comes to sex exposés - sex sells, they say, and if a few facts go unchecked and a few innocent lives are ruined, the newspapers are never held to account. Do not accept public paranoia nor mob instincts when it comes to dealing with sex abuse cases. Leave things to the police, to the experts. Don't trust systems of thought or religions which are particularly harsh on sexuality. Christian priests are the most likely to develop into paedophiles and sex abusers1. Yet these often talk the talk of morality and caring for children. Be reasonable and calm, and don't be tempted to fight fire with fire. If you want society to be a safer place, then, don't engage in behaviour that destroys lives.
This advice must extend to lawmakers too, not just consumers of cheap newspapers.
“All parents want to protect their children from sexual predators, so politicians can nearly always win votes by promising curbs on them. Those who object can be called soft on child-molesters, a label most politicians would rather avoid. This creates a ratchet effect. Every lawmaker who wants to sound tough on sex offenders has to propose a law tougher than the one enacted by the last politician who wanted to sound tough on sex offenders.”
"Sex Laws" in The Economist (2009)
Lawmaking that results from public outrage, without heeding the overall effect on others, is called mob rule. It is a particular weakspot of democracy if the people are whipped up into a frenzy about a hot topic. Education, good news reporting and calm-headedness must replace hot-headedness if we are to lessen the rate of child sex crimes.