MB Cowan delves into the real world of sex offenses against children, where media stereotypes fail to address the reality of both victims and offenders, and where draconian laws may do more harm than good.
PEDOPHILE – the word conjures up images of deranged and dirty old men lurking in shadowy places, child molesters hiding in alleys and under bridges, prowling the streets with puppies, handing out candy in schoolyards.
We want to believe it happens to others, that it does not occur in loving homes and will never happen to us. But it does. We want to believe that women do not molest and rape children. But they do. We claim that boys are “lucky” to have sex so early. They are not. Rape and molestation do not constitute good fortune and the abused boys suffer lifelong trauma.
We hold tightly unto the belief that those whom we trust are worthy. Not necessarily. Abuse often comes from those we trust. We want to believe that people are receptive to hearing the truth. But they are not. We are told Uncle Charlie was “teaching” us about sex, auntie was “playing” with you, and dad was just “checking.” When the veil of denial is lifted, and these acts are recognized for the rape they were, oh, how it hurts.
We sometimes pretend that if a child experiences pleasure during molestation, that makes it okay; it is never okay. A physical response to forced stimulation is not remotely similar to consensual pleasure, and adds to the disgust, shame, confusion, guilt and self-loathing that these survivors feel.
We fear that abused children will inevitably grow up to abuse. No one is destined to be an offender. As with any trauma, treatment is necessary to heal, undo guilt, shame, fears and the cluster of maladaptive beliefs and behaviors. Those who receive treatment and share their story seem unlikely to repeat.
We falsely believe we are safer by enacting harsh laws for keeping known offenders “far away,” ostracizing them into chronic unemployment and homelessness. We fear the ones in our neighborhood and want to drive them out, despite the fact that they have an extremely low recidivism rate. The Department of Justice reports only 5% reoffend with a sex crime, but the media continues to report and perpetuate the myth of the incurable pedophile monster. The greatest danger is not from those offenders who have been caught, but from the unknown ones who have not.
The responsibility for prevention and treatment is in the hands of the individual who has intrusive sexual thoughts, impulses and urges towards children, especially when they have never yet acted on those impulses. It is also in the hands of the community and treatment providers to make treatment affordable, accessible and non-shaming. By stigmatizing a person for suffering a mental disorder, we drive that person into the shadows where her disorder festers. Treatment must begin when a child is abused, or when an adult individual first experiences sexual urges and intrusive thoughts about children.
The barriers to treatment are nigh-insurmountable. One faces the stigma of being labeled a pedophile, the fear of a police investigation for a crime one has not actually committed, the loss of reputation and employment, the difficulty in finding a skilled and affordable therapist and a bleak future. No one can afford to have his name associated with the diagnosis of pedophile on an insurance form. The word itself means the end of any life in normal society, and too often the beginning of a life in the shadows.
Approaching treatment in a realistic and humane way, the term pedophile must be retired. The majority of individuals classed as pedophiles should, more correctly, be diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder/Trauma, sub-set – Sexually Abused Child Syndrome; those who have not acted out, and those who have. SACS use children to medicate themselves and for their own gratification in the clutches of posttraumatic stress disorder, with obsessive-compulsive features, and often dissociation.
I want to believe that in the 21st century, we have the opportunity and the motivation to face this vile disorder. Individuals are coming forward with their past victimization, schools of psychology and social work are addressing it and an entire field in sex abuse is available. Offenders, when accepted as having PTSD and are given the opportunity to receive affordable help, are more likely to seek treatment. Imagine billboards and ads: “There is someone you can talk to” or “Get help before you hurt.”
Those who offend against a child require intensive daily treatment, usually under confinement, for at least 5 years. The journey is difficult; not all make it. The critical factor is breaking the denial, often taking a year of confrontation in a daily group. Following that, the individual rebuilds her reality, learns to communicate effectively, take responsibility, develop empathy and compassion for others, manage anger appropriately, learn what triggers her, what her high risks are and how to redirect maladaptive thoughts and behaviors. Then, a relapse prevention plan is developed. Upon release, the success or failure of that person hinge upon a support group, job and place to live. At present, laws and social attitudes are thoroughly designed to make it as hard as possible to succeed, and thus much, much easier to relapse. The same slogan suggested for the individual may apply to the community: “Help before you hurt.”