Silent Sexuality: Pedophilia, child sex abuse, and discourse

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The Archbishop of Durban emerged from the papal conclave with his foot in his mouth. “What is paedophilia?” he asked the BBC, referring to allegations of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. “It’s a psychological condition, a disorder… Don’t tell me that those people are criminally responsible.”

Public condemnation was predictably swift, and nowhere more so than Australia, where an extensive Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is currently underway in Melbourne. It will investigate sexual abuse in churches, schools, detention centres, orphanages, and youth groups, and hear from some 5000 victims. For many, the Commission is an opportunity to finally relate their untold trauma at the hands of adult mentors. As Nicky Davis of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests explained, “Our suffering is silent, but not because we don’t want to speak. We desperately tried to be heard but nobody listened, and nobody cared.”

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 12% of women and almost 5% of men in Australia report being sexually abused by the age of 15. Other studies cited by the Australian Institute of Criminology put the figure higher. In terms of harm and scope, child sexual abuse is arguably our most insidious and destructive criminal phenomenon.

But victims are not the only silent stakeholders. Whether because of guilt, self-loathing, the threat of prosecution, or social stigma, the voice of the paedophile is entirely absent from the narrative of abuse. They may seem politically expedient and vainly exculpatory, but there is the grain of an uncomfortable truth in the Archbishop’s remarks. Strictly speaking, “paedophilia” describes a mental disorder – a sexual attraction to prepubescent children. It does not describe the act of sexual abuse.

In practice, however, the label “paedophile” is applied indiscriminately: to people who are not only attracted to children, but act on that attraction through criminal conduct, as well as to people who are not innately attracted to children, but assault them opportunistically. Clarifying this semantic confusion is not an abstract exercise. How we conceive of paedophiles-proper has real implications for the prevention of child sexual abuse and the rehabilitation of offenders.

Sexual Lepers

Studying paedophilic crime is difficult. On one hand, reliable information is scarce. Empirical surveys of child molestation rely on arrest and conviction statistics, offender testimony, or on victim statements. However, fewer than five percent of child sexual abuse cases are reported.

On the other hand, policymakers and the public refuse to entertain the politically blasphemous idea that not all paedophiles are child sex offenders, and that not all child sex offenders are paedophiles. The two are woefully conflated. Consider the headlines announcing the death of Dennis Ferguson late last year. Almost every media outlet from News Ltd. to Fairfax appended “convicted/notorious paedophile” to his name. Likewise, “paedophile priest” has become a convenient designation for abusive clergymen, employed with casual abandon by outlets including the ABC. Paedophilia is equated with criminality, but neither Ferguson nor priests like Gerard Ridsdale were imprisoned because they were paedophiles. They were imprisoned because they kidnapped, raped, or physically assaulted their child victims.

So, what is a paedophile? The most widely-accepted clinical definition is found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association (the DSM definition was used, for instance, by the Wood Royal Commission whilst investigating paedophile networks in the NSW Police Force). Paedophilia, it states, is a paraphilia, characterised by intense, recurrent sexual urges toward prepubescent children younger than 13 over a period at least six months. These urges must cause a person to act on them, or cause them significant distress and “interpersonal difficulty”.

This definition does not require a person to have acted on their attraction in order to satisfy the criteria of being classified as a “paedophile”. Figures cited by bodies like the Canadian Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights suggest that legitimate paedophiles account for as little as a fifth of all child sexual abusers.

And paedophilia is not uncommon. Some leading academics in the field of research on paedophilia and child sexual abuse such as Sarah Goode of the University of Winchester maintain that up to 20 percent of males are capable of being sexually aroused by children (as measured through “penile responsiveness” to stimulating images). Uncomfortably close to home, forensic psychologist Michael Seto found that three to four percent of university-age men admitted to having sexual contact with prepubescent children.

Coining the expression in his 1886 book Psychopathia Sexualis, psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing intended “paedophilia erotica” – like other sexual deviancy, including “homosexuality” – to be treated as a medical phenomenon, not a crime. Over a century later, that approach is finding fertile ground in academia. In 2010, the Mental Health Letter published by Harvard Medical School wrote: “consensus now exists that paedophilia is a distinct sexual orientation, not something that develops in someone who is homosexual or heterosexual.” Many paedophiles, for instance, report the onset of stable paedophilic preferences beginning in adolescence. Their attraction is not only sexual, says Seto, but comprises romantic or protective characteristics too. Except for the absence of legal consent between paedophile and child, it resembles a standard sexual orientation.

It is on this basis that some advocate normalising paedophilia. In 1974, homosexuality was finally removed from the DSM-II as a recognised disorder, and activists envisage a similar process for paedophilia. Others believe the age of consent is not a satisfactory basis for determining the propriety of a sexual relationship. I spoke to one student raised in a family of Spartacists who support its abolition. “The wrong in coercive relationships is that they are coercive,” he explains, “and not because of age disparity.” Full and free consent does not require fully developed mental capacity and in any case, “the mere fact of a person’s desire does not make it wrong.” This is also one reason, he says, for legalising the possession of virtual child pornography.

There is some merit in reforming paedophilia statutes. Laws governing sexual abuse tends to focus on the objective characteristics of a paedophilic relationship – namely, the age of the participants – while ignoring the subjective quality of that relationship.

But more often than not, advocates for paedophilic lifestyles are convicted criminals hailing from the controversial North American Man-Boy Love Association, the defunct Paedophile Information Exchange or similar. Convicted sex offenders like Tom O’Carroll (author of the divisive 1980 manifesto Paedophilia: The Radical Case and former chairman of the PIE) argue that social attitudes demonise an otherwise benevolent type of relationship. It earns “paedophile emancipation” little sympathy.

Gold Star Paedophiles

Yet if paedophilia is to be considered a sexual orientation, there are profound repercussions for the ways we prevent, punish and rehabilitate paedophilic sex offenders. For one thing, it implies some inborn biological cause. In a landmark study, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto found that the brains of paedophiles have significantly less connective white matter tissue. “Instead of the brain evoking protective or parental instincts when these people see children,” said Dr James Cantor, “it’s instead evoking sexual instincts. There’s almost literally a crossed wiring.”

Research like this casts doubt on the orthodox socio-legal view that paedophilia is learnt or acquired after childhood trauma. Significantly, it could also mean the disorder itself is incurable. As the preventative counselling organisation B4U-ACT notes, “reconditioning methods” like aversion therapy or masturbation satiation are just as ineffective as they were in the 1930s – when they were used to “treat” homosexuality.

The solution, then, is pre-emptive management of paedophilic inclinations before they manifest themselves criminally through abuse, sex tourism, or illicit pornography. Treatment and therapy regimes are only provided to convicted offenders. Mandatory reporting laws in every Australian jurisdiction require medical and mental health professionals, and sometimes the general public, to notify authorities if they believe a child is at risk of abuse. They are worthy laws serving a legitimate purpose, but combined with humiliation and the fear of public exposure, they serve to deter would-be paedophiles from seeking help.

Until 2008, SafeCare offered counselling to those who had offended, and those at risk of offending: so-called “gold star paedophiles”. One participant in his early twenties spoke with Radio National in 2010 about his distress after emerging from adolescence with a sexual preference for children. After a period of depression followed by attempted suicide – a familiar pattern found in paedophile testimony from both the US and UK – he commenced treatment with SafeCare. Until, that is, the Liberal government of Western Australia cut its funding.

Similar programs overseas are promising. Some, like Stop It Now! (UK), B4U-ACT (US), or Circles of Support and Accountability (Canada), offer confidential counselling for self-identified paedophiles to help them avoid committing an offence. Virtuous Paedophiles is a start-up initiative which aims to provide an online forum for law-abiding paedophiles to discuss management strategies. It creatively deploys the internet as a tool for self-help rather than a facilitator of child pornography.

Perhaps the most comprehensive program is Project Dunkelfeld (Dark Field) in Germany which caters to non-offending paedophiles. Initial participants were sought through a mainstream media campaign on television and billboards which posed the question, “Do you like children more than you or they like?”

Within three years, over 800 people had contacted the Project, and almost half travelled to the clinic to undergo assessment. And the program is expanding with a total of three dedicated facilities. Participants are encouraged to acknowledge their sexuality, and assume the perspective of their potential victims. Enrolment is conditional on weekly attendance and, if required, medication. With refreshing honesty, its motto reads, “You are not guilty because of your sexual desire, but you are responsible for your sexual behaviour. There is help.”

Distinctions

Regardless of whether or not paedophilia is an innate sexual orientation, it is important the public distinguishes paedophiles from child sex offenders. Factors other than biological attraction play a role in abuse, and it is dangerous to simplify sexual crimes to that alone. Many offenders are not exclusively attracted to children, and prey on them opportunistically given their accessibility and a pronounced power imbalance.

The deferential relationship between a child taking Catholic Communion and their priest almost certainly contributed to the proliferation of sexual abuse in the Church, according to Geoffrey Robertson. And in 61 percent of child sexual abuse cases studied by the ABS, the offender was a relative or family friend of the victim, to whom they had ready access. These abusers assault their victims many more times than the “lone stranger”, who accounts for a mere 11 percent of cases.

Unfortunately, popular imagination is gripped by the lone stranger. When people think of sex offenders, they imagine a decrepit Dennis Ferguson, licking his lips. He was an easy target for the press, and for the NSW government, which hounded him out of public housing. He was “obviously” a paedophile – a crazed monster as much of the media’s making as of his own.

I spoke with Brett Collins, coordinator of Justice Action, a criminal justice advocacy group, and a mentor to Ferguson. The two appeared together in a controversial photograph at Coogee Beach in 2009. Both men are giving a thumbs-up to the camera but Ferguson, with barely six percent of his vision remaining, is smiling in the wrong direction. Behind him, toddlers play in the waves. “We found the most excluded, most disgusting of criminals,” explains Collins. “We came into the media circus with a sense of righteousness and stood beside him.”

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Offenders like Ferguson face a host of extrajudicial obstacles to rehabilitation. In 2009, the Labor government rushed legislation through Parliament in one day allowing the eviction of child sex offenders from public housing. “It was bullying of the worst kind. No non-governmental organisation would give him a job … No member of his family would claim responsibility for his funeral.” But in reality, Collins says Ferguson was an innocuous old man who had served his time. “He couldn’t even raise an erection.”

Noting that the majority of child sexual abuse occurs within the family, Collins concludes that “community behaviour requires community responses,” meaning social attitudes to sex offenders are as much a part of the problem as the offenders themselves. Justice Action supports the introduction of a restorative justice system for dealing with child sexual abuse. It believes a Sex Offences Court should be established which would protect the privacy of both victims and perpetrators, give consideration to the stability of the family unit, and preferentially order psychological therapy instead of criminal sanctions. Through a process of “positive shaming” in both the Court and mentoring support networks, offenders could confront their behaviour without ostracism from their family or local community. Moreover, says Collins, restorative justice is often more satisfying for the victim, who can better understand the mentality of their abuser.

Toward a Safer Future

In one important respect, the Archbishop of Durban is very wrong. Disorders and criminal responsibility are not mutually exclusive. Sufferers of any paraphilia still exercise choice in inflicting their fantasies on others, and those acts cause often irreparable harm. Yet living all around us are people who have been born into a class of perceived sexual deviants and desperately wish it was otherwise. They are paedophiles. Unable to seek support from family, the community, or the healthcare system, they are consigned to a life of torment, or alteratively, a life of tormenting.

In the prevailing political climate, exposure and punishment is the order of the day. It isn’t easy to look beyond the horror of child sexual abuse, or the repulsiveness of paedophilia, and consider questions of rehabilitation or restoration. But if paedophilia and sexual abuse are as widespread as the numbers suggest, prevention and rehabilitation cannot be overlooked.

Insisting on linguistic precision about paedophiles and child sexual offenders serves two purposes. Firstly, it may facilitate the emergence of support networks for paedophiles without the stigma attached to child sexual abusers. Secondly, it will allow for a more sophisticated evaluation of child sexual abuse. Lumping all abuse together under the banner of paedophilia lazily defers some crucial questions. Why does so much abuse happen within the family unit? What is it about institutions like the church that make them breeding grounds for sexual predators? Are attackers attracted to age groups, body types, or the mere idea of coercive sex? The current Royal Commission will hopefully go some way to answering such questions.

Developing an effective response to child sexual abuse demands some appreciation for these distinctions. Against every instinct, it requires lending a compassionate ear to paedophiles and, occasionally, convicted offenders. The mass hysteria accompanying sexual deviancy and sexual criminality is counterproductive. Pre-empting and remedying abuse on its existing scale will likely entail some creative, uncomfortable thinking.

Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks is a third year Arts/Law student. He has been writing for Honi Soit since 2012. In his spare time, Ben is a myopic monarchist who likes to fly gliders.
Ben Brooks

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