Of people and pedophiles

If you are reading this, it is because some desire or another has led you to. Thankfully your desire to keep reading is a fairly simple one; no one is telling you that it is immoral or illegal to continue. Sexual desires, however, are more complex. Even talking about sexual desires, if done at all, often requires the use of hushed tones, a trusted audience, and a private setting.

Given the stigmas surrounding certain sexual practices this is hardly surprising. While a growing number of people are challenging these stigmas in certain contexts —U of T’s sexual diversity program tackles this problem through education, for instance — pedophilia is seldom discussed. It is rarer still that pedophilia is discussed in the contexts of treatment or social integration, and as such, it remains at a critical distance from social settings.

It is safe to assume that most people have a strong visceral revulsion to pedophilia in any context and under any circumstances. Threats to our children evoke in us strong protective instincts — a response that is deeply ingrained. It is true that pedophiles that have acted on their desires have harmed children irrevocably, but it is equally true that not all pedophiles hurt children. In fact, in scientific circles, a conception of pedophilia as a permanent condition that affects people irrespective of their moral inclinations – they cannot help being attracted to children – is becoming increasingly acknowledged.

It might come as a surprise, but there are members of society who are not otherwise bad people and who also sexually desire children. For what is likely the vast majority of pedophiles, this desire is one that their conscience will never let them act upon; instead of recognizing this struggle and offering help, much of society acts with unspecified prejudice.

On the whole, this attitude is harmful to individuals afflicted with pedophilia, and society as a whole. The current social climate is so caustic that pedophiles fear to seek treatment, which increases their risk of suicide because they end up trying to cope in silence with desires they can’t fulfill or justify; it also increases the likelihood of them actually committing sexual offenses.

In contrast to the wealth of scathing popular opinions, the testimonials of some self-diagnosed pedophiles speak strongly to the misery of coping with the condition. U of T has no student group dedicated to the support of non-offending pedophiles to reach for comment, but Virtuous Pedophiles, an online support group for non-offending pedophiles with over 200 members, acts as a platform for people to post about their struggles. One post from an anonymous 20-year-old man exhibits both sadness and a reliance on others that is entirely divergent from the typical vilification of pedophiles. “I wish with all my soul that I could have a brain that’s wired normally… I don’t think I can get through this on my own,” he writes.

In an equally candid statement during an episode of the popular podcast This American Life, a young male pedophile speaks about his battle with a nature he can’t change and the limits he places upon himself, for the benefit of a child he will never have. “The thought of having a kid is very scary. I’m not convinced I could ever allow myself to do that, you know, as much as I may want it… for both of our safeties,” he said.

Within scientific circles — both at U of T and around the world — understandings of pedophilia diverge from social definitions. According to scientific communities, pedophilia is not only a permanent mental condition, but evidence is also not sufficient to support the idea that pedophilia is a behaviour born of malevolence or inadequate social skills.

Dr. James Cantor, an associate professor of psychiatry at U of T, whose clinical work and research interests are largely devoted to understanding pedophilia, is also the head of research for the Law and Mental Health Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). He said that pedophilia is “innate that the person is essentially born with it and can’t change it over the course of life… it isn’t something that they chose and it isn’t something artificial that was forced on to them.” He goes on to say that it is “the only way to explain the existing research.”

Within the clinical world, pedophilia is considered a mental health issue, with treatments being offered and developed; and yet, the dominant social response to pedophilia is not conducive to helping the people who suffer from it. The treatment options currently available involve either using chemicals to block the pedophiles sex drive, or psychotherapy, which seeks to integrate people into what might be considered normal society.

Our legal system, however, does not reflect this scientific understanding. U of T professor emeritus of philosophy, and philosophy of sex scholar, Ronald de Sousa points out that there seem to be “some obvious, really weird things in the way that the law is in this area, in that, people [can] basically be found to have committed a crime, a thought crime, a crime that doesn’t have any basis in what they’ve actually done.”

An example of such a law is Section 163.1 (c) of Canada’s criminal code, which makes illegal “any written material whose dominant characteristic is the description, for a sexual purpose, of sexual activity with a person under the age of eighteen years.” This law makes a very specific interaction with imaginary depictions of unreality illegal — De Sousa remarked that, due to laws like this, pedophilic desire might be “the only thing that remains in the criminal code that can be designated as a thought crime.”

Cantor also said that laws requiring therapists to report pedophilic desires of their patients are “overactive,” and that if a person is “born sexually interested in children through no fault of his own what we want him to do is come into therapy and get help.” Cantor argues that since “the therapist is required to pick up the phone and call Children’s Aid Society, which is the current law, [and having to] arrest this guy and take him out of society,” pedophiles are deterred from seeking the help they need. “So, instead of having pedophiles in society receiving sex drive reducing medications, or whatever, we have pedophiles out in society completely unbeknown to anybody.”

The systemic reaction to pedophilia is somewhat confused, and public perception of pedophiles is so corrosive that an equitable, measured reaction is likely far off. In light of statistics that suggest that as many as five per cent of men and as many as one per cent of women may be pedophiles, it is important to note that society treats non-offending members of this group poorly, due to the egregious crimes of a few. We should reconsider our prejudices rationally; continuing to vilify non-offending pedophiles endangers their lives, and precludes opportunities for improvement of society.