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.

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.

As Cord Jefferson reported recently in Gawker, new research suggests that pedophilia—the attraction to children, not the act of molesting them—is essentially impossible to change. James Cantor, a senior scientist at the Sexual Behaviors Clinic of the Center of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, is at the forefront of neuroimaging studies of pedophiles and has described a kind of crossed wiring in their brains that they’re likely born with. He has expressed hopes that by pinpointing pedophilia’s neurological origins, it may someday lead to a course of prevention.

In the meantime, one way to protect kids may be to reach pedophiles pre-emptively, to give them the therapeutic tools to control themselves and still lead fulfilling lives. A non-offending pedophile like Spencer is preferable to one who’s forced into treatment after committing heinous acts, or even worse, one who is never treated because his acts go undiscovered. The opposite of a non-offending pedophile is not a non-pedophile, which people would obviously prefer, but an offending pedophile.

There is, by now, a sobering familiarity to child sexual abuse scandals, from the Catholic Church and Penn State to Hasidic Brooklyn and Horace Mann. First comes the shocking news. Then there’s a period of mass absorption in the story, a combination of revulsion and chewing over every graphic detail. The perpetrators are decried as monsters. There are investigations and trials. Finally, retribution is sought against anyone who may have known about but not stopped the abuse.

“All of the attention is on known sex offenders and just heaping on the punishment,” Letourneau told me. “This is said to be due to an interest in prevention, but it’s really about retribution. If people are really serious about preventing children from being molested or raped, it may very well necessitate the uncomfortable acknowledgement that some people are born as pedophiles. All we do is drive it underground.”

I’ve thought about this a lot. I have close friends who are rape and sexual assault survivors and have seen how that trauma reverberates through their lives. I’m also a mother of young children, and the notion of pedophilia is as disturbing to me as it is to any parent. I would probably think they were all uncontrollable monsters, too, if it weren’t for Danny.

Danny was a friend I met shortly after graduating college in the late ’90s. He was a scrawny kid from the Bronx, sweet and geeky and neurotic, and he would come over to share beers with me and my then-boyfriend at our apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. One day, he met a 12-year-old girl on the street in the Village, told her he was a photographer and wanted to take her picture, and arranged to meet her again. When he showed up at her parents’ apartment building, the police were there. They discovered rope and scissors in his bag along with a library book about pedophilia. Although the assault he had apparently planned didn’t happen, he confessed that on another occasion, he followed a 10-year-old girl, tied her up and masturbated in front of her. He was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse and sentenced to six years in prison.

I was shocked and appalled, and my heart ached for his victims. But I couldn’t bring myself to abandon him as a friend, and I decided to treat him with the same concern I would any friend who was ill, which was the only way I could make sense of what he had done. I visited him at Riker’s Island while he was awaiting his sentencing, and we exchanged letters during the years that he was imprisoned at Attica and Oswego. I occasionally got a collect call from him. I attended his parole hearing, and when he was released and put on a bus back to the city on a hot summer evening in 2007, I met him at Port Authority. He stepped off the bus dressed in prison-issue jeans, carrying his few belongings in a saggy mesh sack. He walked through Times Square, blinking at the lights and absorbing his new freedom.

Since then, Danny has held a job, hewed to the rules required of him as a registered sex offender, attended group counseling sessions, and gotten married. (Diagnostically, he’s probably a non-exclusive hebephile, meaning that he’s attracted to adult women as well as pubescent girls.) He takes responsibility for what he did and is haunted by shame and guilt over it. His growth in counseling coupled with the terror of returning to jail prevents him from acting on his attraction to young girls. I occasionally worry that he may reoffend. But more than that, I worry about all the other guys like Danny out there, the ones who haven’t been caught and the ones who haven’t even done anything yet.

Fred Berlin, the founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins University, has studied pedophilia for more than four decades and is leading efforts to consider it a public health issue. “It appears likely that the percentage of people apprehended is just a fraction of those out there who have these attractions, or even act on them,” he said. “We as a society do virtually nothing to reach out to them before the fact.”

Berlin has had success treating pedophiles with therapies similar to those for drug addicts, with an emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s actions, identifying triggers, and resisting cravings, as well as developing empathy for potential victims and addressing cognitive distortions that may support unhealthy behavior. His patients have also had successful outcomes with testosterone-lowering medication, otherwise known as chemical castration.

But these treatments are almost only used on men who have committed offenses, because they’re the ones who show up. Almost nobody comes forward these days without having done something horrible first, which Berlin attributes largely to mandatory reporting statutes. Every state has laws that require health care professionals to report suspected child abuse, laws that are broadened when high profile cases like Penn State occur. Many mental health workers, fearful for their own liability, may rush to report a client who says that he has been thinking about abusing children, concluding that he must be an imminent threat. The result is that men who are grappling with the attraction and other mental health issues that emanate from it—depression is common—have nowhere to go.

Like other clinicians, Berlin compares contemporary attitudes toward pedophilia to old attitudes about alcoholism, before it was understood as a disease that can be managed with proper support. “With pedophilia, we’re still in the pre-Betty Ford era,” he told me. “When do we ever hear, ‘If you’re a 17-year-old worried about being attracted to a younger kid, or worried about having sexual urges you can’t control, for goodness sake, please come in and seek help?’ ”

On a cool day in March, Spencer and 12 other pedophiles gathered in the conference room of a hotel near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The door was closed and the shades were drawn. There were about 30 mental health professionals and students in the room as well. Everyone sat at large round tables under fluorescent lights, sipping coffee and leafing through handouts of the day’s schedule. The pedophiles were mostly guys in their 20s and 30s. One goateed man looked like someone you might see mowing the lawn of a suburban family home. Another one in jeans and hiking boots looked like he could have been an Outward Bound leader. A well-groomed young man in pressed slacks, a starched button-down and cufflinks never lifted his gaze from his hands folded before him on the table. His face was fixed in an expression of pure anguish.

They were there for a workshop being held by B4U-ACT, an organization intended to create dialogue between mental health professionals and “minor-attracted people.” There were PowerPoint presentations (Spencer shared his: “One Minor-Attracted Person’s Experiences Navigating the Mental Health System”) interspersed with group discussions. A handout contained testimonials from pedophiles associated with the group who couldn’t make the meeting. (Iggy, age 20: “I think it’s morally wrong to have any kind of sexual relationship with boys, but it’s also immoral to hate and try to shame those with a sexual orientation which they didn’t choose.”) Many had begun to realize in their early teens a pattern of attraction that was different from their peers. Suicidal thoughts and attempts were a common theme.

B4U-ACT was cofounded by Russell Dick, a clinical social worker, and Michael Melsheimer, a pedophile and convicted sex offender. In 1995, Dick was the social work director at Springfield Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital in Sykesville, Md.; Melsheimer, a former YMCA director who had served four years in a federal prison for aggravated sexual assault involving children, was a patient there.* They served together on the residents’ rights committee and became friends.

After leaving the hospital, Melsheimer spent years haranguing the state of Maryland about the dearth of mental health services available to people like him, and eventually won an $8,000 grant to address it (or, as Dick recalls, “to shut him up”). The two started B4U-ACT in 2002 with the goal of making mental health care available to people who “self-identify as minor-attracted and who are seeking assistance in dealing with issues in their lives that are challenging to them,” the group’s Web site says. B4U-ACT is intended to help non-offending pedophiles “before they act,” although some who associate with the group are former offenders like Melsheimer who are seeking support so they don’t reoffend.

“We’re just recognizing that people who are attracted to children are there,” Dick said. “They didn’t choose it. Jerry Sandusky was once a young teen growing up, trying to figure out his sexuality perhaps, and there was nobody there saying, ‘If this is a situation you’re dealing with, here are some resources to help you cope.’ ”

Dick has received hate mail and death threats from around the world. (Melsheimer died in 2010.) Mental health professionals who associate with the group have been blasted as “predators with Ph.D.s” and the organization has been called “NAMBLA with a Ph.D. and a marketing plan.” One of the loudest voices against the group is Judith Reisman, a conservative activist associated with Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell. Reisman set the right-wing blogosphere ablaze last year after she attended and reported on a B4U-ACT symposium.

To Reisman, pedophilia is not some fluke of nature, but the product of an evil culture. “We’re breeding a nation of pedophiles,” she told me. “All the stimuli to which billions of people have been exposed over the last 60 years has manipulated the human mind. All the pornography they’ve been raised on and pharmaceutical products they’ve taken has made them crazy. Some of the crazy people are pedophiles. Some of the crazy people are scientists. Scientist-pedophiles. They will conclude that we’re born this way because it’s the easiest way to get away from the fact that we need to go back to the drawing board.”

Her writing and radio appearances claim that conditioning for pedophilia is driven by the homosexual agenda, and that the ultimate goal of gay men is to “obtain sex with as many boys as possible.” What then, I asked, was her suggestion for men like those who turn to B4U-ACT, self-identified pedophiles who don’t act on their urges, want support, and are trying to lead healthy lives?

“They should go isolate themselves totally. If it was me, I’d try to find myself on a mountain somewhere and never go anywhere, like people who cannot go outside because they’re allergic to everywhere outside their home.”

It might feel emotionally gratifying to propose that people with these harmful urges essentially imprison themselves, or as many online commenters say, put a bullet in their heads. But putting aside any whiff of science or sympathy, advocating isolation or suicide as public policy is simply not very practical.

In addition to B4U-ACT, other approaches to pedophilia are percolating that may ultimately protect kids by putting the focus on prevention. A website called Virtuous Pedophiles was created this year to “provide peer support and information about available resources to help virtuous pedophiles remain law-abiding, and lead happy, productive lives.” Some experts are looking for a model in Prevention Project Dunkelfield, an initiative in Germany that has provided free confidential therapy and pharmaceutical options to hundreds to men who are attracted to children, reaching out to them through billboards and television commercials. Some also advocate amending U.S. laws in a way that would mandate the reporting of suspected child abuse but would present therapeutic havens for pedophiles who have not offended or who may have in the past and don’t want to again.

None of this might register for truly unrepentant pedophiles. But if even a fraction of them can find safe routes to treatment, and if that prevents any portion of child sexual abuse, the effort seems hard to discount. The alternative is unconscionable.

Correction, Sept. 25, 2012: This article originally misstated the location of Springfield Hospital Center. (Return.)

Jennifer Bleyer (@jennypencil) is a writer and teacher at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.