Talk about emotional whiplash. Two weeks ago in The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv wrote about John, a socially awkward veteran who was ensnared in an Internet child-sex sting in the late 1990s. He was convicted of persuading a child to have sex with him (although no sex happened—the supposed child was really a cop) as well as possession of child pornography. After his release, he landed back in jail on another child porn charge. Nearing completion of that sentence, despite a lack of evidence that he had ever molested a child himself, he was subject to a legal procedure known as civil commitment, which allows sex offenders to be detained beyond their prison terms on the grounds that they’re likely to harm again. Aviv never suggests that child pornography is a victimless crime, but you’re left with the feeling that John doesn’t quite deserve to be jailed indefinitely.
Just when you were starting to feel kind of sorry for child porn offenders who have never personally abused, out comes “The Price of a Stolen Childhood,” the New York Times Magazine’s cover story this weekend by Slate’s Emily Bazelon. Centered around the question of whether financial restitution helps child pornography victims, Bazelon tells the story of a woman named Nicole, who, as a 9-year-old, was raped and abused by her father, who continued to rape and abuse her for years while videotaping and posting his crimes on the Internet; and the story of Amy, who was also 9 when her uncle repeatedly raped and abused her and circulated images of his depravity online. The descriptions of the women’s abuse and resulting psychological trauma are so vivid and horrifying that you probably can’t help but think that of course everyone who views child porn should go to jail and pay restitution—and those who create it should be strung up and shot.
Nowhere in either article is the most dark and disturbing question asked: Why do some grown men want to rape or molest little kids? Or even look at images of such acts? You might answer that it’s because they’re sick perverts, but "sick pervert" is neither a medical diagnosis nor a psychiatric designation. Believing that the world is simply pocked with sick perverts who are destined to rape and molest children is, in a way, to give into the inevitability of their crimes with our fingers crossed that they'll be caught. (Most are not.) It does nothing to prevent men like John from doing what he did, nor what happened to Nicole and Amy from happening again.
That’s why researchers are increasingly studying child sexual abuse as a public health issue, with a focus on identifying risk factors that may lead to abuse and protective factors that may prevent it. But compared to the many millions of dollars we spend on civil commitment, trials, imprisonment, sex offender registration, and the like, we spend almost nothing on prevention.
“We're investing all of our money in a very small number of people,” Joan Tabachnick, a co-chair of the Prevention Committee of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, told me. “The primary prevention part, before any child is harmed—that’s where we need to ratchet it back to. But the way we invest is completely reactive and doesn't look at most situations of sexual abuse.”
Elizabeth Letourneau, a child sexual abuse expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agrees. “We keep waiting for bad things to happen and then reacting to them,” she said. “To prevent risk we have to know what's causing the issue, and that has to do with basic science. And there's almost no basic science in our country that targets this problem.”
Letourneau thinks a big step would come from the creation of a single federal agency mandated to prevent childhood victimization, because different types of victimization—physical and sexual assault, for instance—often go hand in hand. “The bang for your buck is very high if you find risk factors for any kind of child neglect,” she said.
Certain potential sexual abusers would still evade detection in this model. They’re the ones who wouldn’t display typical risk factors but are preferentially attracted to minors—the true pedophiles, that is. That’s where novel research on the neurological underpinnings of pedophilia comes in, like the work that clinical psychologist James Cantor is spearheading at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, which I’ve written about in the past and which many in the field are eyeing with interest.
It’s a sad truth that there will probably never be a total eradication of child sexual abuse. And questions about how we should handle child pornography offenders and compensate sexual abuse victims are certainly important. But if we’re really so disturbed by these stories, the most critical question we should be asking—and funding the hell out of in search of answers—is how to prevent people from becoming offenders or victims in the first place.