This article was published in Lot’s Wife on 25/3/2011
It is quite possible that there is no more reviled member of society than the paedophile. One need only browse a tabloid or tune into talkback radio to witness the kind of vitriol that the subject tends to arouse, and it is considerable. The emotive language in such media tends to challenge the very humanity of paedophiles, with epithets such as ‘monster’ and ‘animal’ common parlance. A Facebook group, with a membership of a little under 200,000, challenges even the latter equivalence – “Why do we test on animals when we have paedophiles sitting in prisons?” its title queries.
It shouldn’t be particularly surprising that child sex abuse provokes this kind of rage. The concept of vulnerability and innocence exploited, combined with the very real psychological damage inflicted on many victims, makes paedophilia a highly emotional topic, particularly for those who have seen the effects on loved ones or suffered from abuse themselves. It is neither astounding nor unreasonable that society’s sympathies lie more or less exclusively with the victims.
Some of the rhetoric, however, is indefensible. It is disturbing to see that some are so quick to advocate the death penalty (and worse) for child molesters, particularly given the fact that Australia has not employed capital punishment for over 40 years. What seems clear is that such people are yet to come to grips with why that form of sentencing has been abandoned. The abolition of the death penalty in Australia was, among other things, a statement that even the worst criminals are still, essentially, human beings. That some would so readily have this paradigm revoked for convicted paedophiles is a problem that is symptomatic of the largely unconstructive public discourse on paedophilia.
Even the terminology itself is flawed. A paedophile, correctly defined, is an adult who is sexually attracted to children. That this term is also employed by the media and the wider public to refer to somebody who sexually abuses children is problematic in the extreme, as it asserts an equivalence that depends on a major logical fallacy. If an act of child sex abuse depends on a sexual urge towards a child or children, common sense dictates that at least some who feel that desire do not act on it. To argue otherwise ignores the elementary distinction between impulse and action, and fails to take into account the powerful inhibition, guilt and compassion reflexes that inform much in the way of human behaviour. It is quite likely that there are many more paedophiles than there are child molesters, but, crucially, data on this simply doesn’t exist.
Even Australian law struggles with this important distinction. Child pornography legislation, in particular, more or less punishes paedophiles for being paedophiles. That child pornography ought to be illegal is indisputable; nevertheless, the hefty penalties inflicted on those found with such material in their possession are deeply troubling.
There are no easy answers as to how paedophilia should be dealt with. A good start, however, might be to establish how and why it originates. Astoundingly, such information is highly inconclusive. Theories abound: that it is a result of unhealthy exposure to sex at a young age (e.g. through abuse); that it is a mental disorder related to developmental difficulties; even, possibly, that it is a sexual orientation present at birth. It is quite possible that some or all of these are factors, but the result is clear: through no choice of their own, whether as a result of biology, socialisation or both, some people at some stage find themselves sexually attracted to children.
The manner in which society deals with this fact is, to say the least, deeply defective. Paedophilia is stigmatised to the extent that few support services exist to assist those who feel such urges, and treatment is generally only available to those who have already offended. Unsurprisingly, many of those who are captured and then released into the community go on to re-offend; unsurprising, because the vast majority of data being collected on paedophilia is being taken from people who had the disposition to act on their impulses in the first place, and it is on this skewed information that treatment is being based. No wonder, then, that paedophilia is such a little understood condition as a whole. Comprehensive study of paedophilia is going to remain out of reach until non-offending paedophiles allow themselves to be examined psychologically, and whilst media continue to promote vigilantism and hysteria, this is extremely unlikely to happen. Likewise, without appropriate counselling, the paedophile is considerably more likely to turn to other paedophiles for support through sexual-desire based frameworks such as chat-rooms and P2P networking, and thus pave the way for their own future sexual offences. It’s not an ideal situation by any standard, and, while police may be becoming increasingly adept at catching offenders, the problem is not being addressed at its root; as a result, child sex abuse continues more or less unabated.
In order to maintain a humanist society, we require progressive humanist paradigms; paradigms that extend even to those who break social order and harm others. Paedophiles are people too – people who require treatment, or at the very least assistance in managing their condition. If we are serious about protecting children from sexual abuse, it is critical that greater understanding and openness replace the mindless vilification that dominates discourse on paedophilia.