Almost 4 years ago, I wrote this post pondering whether pedophiles have free will. In that post I said:
there is a very interesting question here. If the science does prove at some point down the road that pedophiles really are not in complete control of their urges and these urges are the result of a brain malfunction – an organic disorder, if you will – must we change our attitudes toward those that commit these crimes?
I further wrote that the discussion was about mens rea – the intent requirement inherent in almost all criminal statutes. That post was written with Klüver-Bucy Syndrome in the background and so it focused on societal responses to acts deemed abhorrent but which were committed by people without the ability to control their urges. I left for another day the thornier question of how society should treat those for whom pedophilia seems to be an “orientation”, just like heterosexuality is an “orientation”1.
Before going further, it is important to note two things: 1) that pedophilia is the term for attraction to young people; not the term for acting upon that attraction. That is called sexual abuse. 2) I am not writing to explore the possibility of legalizing child molestation or sexual abuse. As I’ve stated before, there are very good reasons why society should and must continue to criminalize acts of sexual conduct with pre-pubescent children2 If you have gotten that (#2) from what I’ve written so far then I suggest that you either re-read the above or click here to go somewhere else.
Today I was directed to these two articles in The Atlantic: one by a convicted viewer of child pornography and another which is an interview with a leading researcher on pedophilia. The latter, instructively, is titled ‘What Can Be Done About Pedophilia?’
David Goldberg, the pedophile3, writes briefly but effectively about himself and his urges. I do not read his essay to be an exercise in self-promotion or recasting himself a victim. He clearly understands that his endless pursuit of child pornography is shameful and violently disapproved by society and comes at the real expense to many children who are forced into abuse and made to star in videos for the consumption of the likes of him.
Yet there is a question that he asks that he has no answer for – and apparently neither does science. And that question is: why is he a pedophile?
I decided to continue my journey by seeking the help of a therapist and doing as much research on the topic of pedophilia as I could, with the help of my sister and her computer. What I discovered was that for every small nugget of helpful information, there was a sinkhole of unanswered questions that remained. The main query that I am convinced will always be without an answer is why I am a pedophile. It is the equivalent of trying to determine why someone is heterosexual or gay. We don’t choose our sexual orientations. If we could, believe me, no one would choose mine.
Dr. James Cantor, the aforementioned expert has this to say:
What do we know about where pedophilia comes from?
The best current evidence suggests that pedophilia results from atypical wiring in the brain. This field of research is still very new, but it appears that there exists what could be considered a “cross-wiring” in the brain anatomy that is responsible for controlling natural social instincts or behavior. Although learning happens after birth, humans are pre-wired to recognize and respond to certain stimuli. It seems, from research conducted thus far, that stimuli that usually elicits nurturing and protective responses in most adults are instead eliciting sexual responses in pedophiles.
So are pedophiles “born that way”?
In studies, pedophiles show signs that their sexual interests are related to brain structure and that at least some differences existed in their brains before birth. For example, pedophiles show greatly elevated rates of non-right-handedness and minor physical anomalies. […]
Goldberg received a 90-day sentence for his crime of viewing child pornography. Admittedly, he had other things going for him: a supportive family, a job, no criminal record and most importantly, no record of ever having acted upon his sexual urges and that he resided in Canada.
But it remains an undeniable fact that were he arrested in the United States, he faced far more severe sentences for the same actions: for instance, in Connecticut, a similar offense carries a mandatory-minimum 5 years in jail, up to a maximum of 20 years.
The criminalization of pedophilia presents several interesting issues. As noted above and echoed by Dr. Cantor and Popehat last year, it is important to keep separate the two classes of people: those that are attracted to children but do not act upon it and those that do. In the criminal justice system, we punish actions, not people. The act of having sexual contact with a minor is the crime and that is and should remain punishable.
But what are we to do with those in the former category? That presents a bit of a Catch-22, in my estimation.
If we accept that pedophilia is an atypical state of existence for a few and that we do not punish states of being, but rather actions, then a pedophile is not a criminal.
But we want to prevent pedophiles from becoming criminals by giving them the tools to avoid making that leap.
But by vilifying, demonizing and lumping pedophiles in the same category as sexual molesters, we are in effect de-incentivizing pedophiles from seeking help and treatment and pushing them further underground.
We also don’t know if there is any correlation between pedophilia and viewing child pornography and abusing children. But I’m not sure such studies are possible, because they require people to acknowledge that they have sexual urges involving children. Given the climate today, I can’t see a reason why a person would willingly reveal such a thing about themselves. And if we can’t know that, we are fighting in the dark. Goldberg and Cantor say as much:
I am not advocating the cross-generational lifestyle. In fact, there is never an instance when an adult should engage in sexual behavior with a child. But until we as a society learn that help for those who view child pornography is a far better alternative to incarceration, we are doomed to see the continued proliferation of this problem. Scientists don’t know for certain if there is a correlation between viewing child pornography and offending against children. Wouldn’t it be nice to get pedophiles help before we find out for certain?
Consequently, when someone who thinks he might be a pedophile comes in for counseling or therapy, the psychologist may be compelled by law to report the person to the authorities. That, of course, can lead to loss of the person’s job, family, and everything else. So, these people have simply stopped coming in at all, and instead of getting help to them, we now have pedophiles circulating in society receiving no support at all.
These aren’t easy questions and are only made more difficult by the fact that there is so much at stake – the children , and I mean it sincerely – and it’s easier to err on the side of protecting all children.
If there are pedophiles who have successfully resisted urges to act on their desires, then does it mean that those who fail to resist those urges are in some sense more culpable? Or does the fact that pedophilia may be an “orientation” provide cause for some mitigation?
While there seems to have been some progress made in research with attempts to understand the nature and cause of pedophilia, the law unfortunately seems to have run in the opposite direction.
I don’t know who will turn out to be correct or if there is a cure or if it is something that even needs a cure4 or whether there really is no hope for people attracted to the youngest for theirs is a slow inevitable descent into criminality (which then raises the questions I asked in my post in 2009).
Do we presume that all pedophiles will molest children? Do we criminalize simply having urges that are age-inappropriate without any further action? Do we punish them more severely or less? Do we treat people with medicine or chemical castration? These are all questions that are un-answered as far as I know.
What I do know is that 4 years later, this subject is still far too taboo to be discussed openly and with the proper amount of thought it deserves. Maybe in another 4 years.
[Because there are many who would skim this post and conclude that I am advocating de-criminalizing the act of pedophilia, I feel it is important to reiterate that I am not. I am merely exploring an area that is novel to me: the possibility that pedophilia is an innate state of existence and what is to be done about it. There are many important competing interests at play here that warrant, in my opinion, a modicum of thought. Also, this is my personal view only.]
H/T: Norm DeGuerre.