The Counterintuitive, Distressing but Necessary Way To Stop Childhood Sexual Abuse

Health and medicine explained.
Sept. 24 2012 2:32 PM

How Can We Stop Pedophiles?

Stop treating them like monsters.

What's the best way to keep children safe?
What's the best way to keep children safe?

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers/Getty Images.

One summer day in the mid-1990s, Spencer Kaplan climbed aboard a bus at the camp where he was a counselor-in-training, sat down next to a little boy of about 9, and thought, “My God, I want to kiss him.”

Spencer—a pseudonym—was 14. He was a short, sensitive teenager who wore high tops and backward baseball caps. As a junior counselor, his job was to help an older counselor with the 8- and 9-year-olds. Spencer had noticed this boy before, sitting alone, cloaked in an endearing shyness. On the bus Spencer coaxed him out of his shell. For the rest of the summer, Spencer took the boy under his wing and basked in their closeness. The attraction Spencer felt was dizzying.

Spencer was raised in a stable environment by loving, highly educated parents. He had been a cute little boy himself, with a blond-streaked bowl cut, brown saucer eyes, and a dazzling grin—relatives often needled him about his certain future as a heartbreaker. He even did some professional modeling and acting. In the video for Don Henley’s 1989 song “The End of the Innocence,” you can see him running around in the sunshine with floppy limbs. He was never abused or molested.

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Even before that gush of feelings at camp, he’d felt stirrings of attraction toward other boys. At a school assembly, he was entranced by a boy his own age who struck him as the most beautiful person he’d ever seen. When he was 12, he developed a crush on his best friend. The two would sleep with their arms wrapped around each other, and although nothing sexual happened, Spencer adored their intimacy.

When he got to high school, his sexual and romantic yearnings felt as puzzling as they do for most kids hacking their way through the jungle of adolescence. He liked girls, but they didn’t make his heart quiver like boys did. He wondered if he was gay but wasn’t sure about it. He was lonely. In his senior year, when he was 17, his regular roller hockey game was joined by “Josh,” a smart and sweet 13-year-old with whom Spencer fell “madly in love.” They talked for hours after the games. His high school friends teased him about his “little friend.” Spencer realized that he was getting older, but oddly, the type of boy he was attracted to wasn’t.

He spent a nervous night on the Internet typing in searches on a word he was beginning to think might describe him: pedophile. His confusion turned to terror. He was baffled that the tenderness he felt toward Josh had anything to do with what he read online about predators, psychopaths, violent child rapists, and murderers. He realized that what felt entirely natural to him was despised by society, and that once he turned 18, it could make him a criminal.

Spencer went off to college and tried to force himself into something resembling a normal life. He dated both men and women his age, but at the deepest level he missed the emotional connection he’d felt to younger boys. He spiraled into depression, skipping classes and spending days smoking pot and sitting glazed-eyed in front of the television. Halfway through his sophomore year, he took a medical leave from school and went home. The feelings followed him there. Walking around the mall in his hometown, he struggled with the effort to look away from young boys.

After breaking down in tears one day, Spencer decided he had to explain himself to his parents, who couldn’t understand why their promising son’s life seemed to be imploding. He sat down with them in the living room and stammered. “The boys at the mall,” he started. “I can’t stop staring at them. I want to be with a boy. I’m attracted to boys.”

They were alarmed and insisted on getting him help. Over the next 10 years, though, the people Spencer and his family thought could help almost always regarded him as a criminal even though the only crime he had committed was a thought crime. When he shared his attraction to boys with one therapist, she barked: “You can’t do that.” Another therapist suggested getting Spencer into a sex offender treatment program. A youth ADHD specialist wanted to medicate him. Confiding his attraction nearly always led to suspicious inquiries about whether he had molested children, and little help when he answered no. “Most had not the slightest idea how to deal with someone like me,” he says.

Spencer is in his early 30s now, with neatly coiffed brown hair and sharp features. He’s bright, friendly, and breezily self-deprecating. (Regarding his parents’ painful realization that their son was a pedophile who hadn’t finished college, he observes, “For a Jewish family, you don’t know which is worse.”) He emphatically states that he understands the law and that he has never molested a child. He considers himself a “minor-attracted person,” a term that some prefer to “pedophile,” and what he and others like him have been quietly promoting is the idea that society needs to recognize that they exist, that they are capable of controlling their sexual desires and deserve support and respect for doing so.

“It doesn’t protect children to have a stigmatized group of outcasts living on the fringe of society,” Spencer told me. “Anyone who’s serious about protecting children from abuse has to be just as serious about the needs of minor-attracted people.”

He doesn’t mean their “need” to have sexual contact with children, but their need for safe avenues to seek therapy, feel understood, and thrive as non-offenders. It’s a perspective being embraced by a growing number of clinicians, researchers, and therapists as well. Child sexual abuse is typically viewed solely as a criminal problem—something for cops to catch, courts to adjudicate, and everyone to fear. But some in the psychiatric community believe that preventing abuse calls for a much broader public health approach, one in which the potential abuser himself is reached and treated before doing harm.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s article about pedophilic behavior last week in The New Yorker, he detailed how difficult it can be for people to recognize child molesters in their lives. Elizabeth Letourneau of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies child sexual abuse, agrees that even with red flags, people are notoriously unable to recognize child molesters because people they respect simply don't fulfill the image they have of "monsters” or “predators.”

Given our blind spots, she says, we need to try and reach potential abusers before they abuse, or even after they’ve abused but don’t want to again, which means first understanding the source of their harmful urges.

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