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An inconvenient truth about paedophilia

The busting of a large child-porn ring involving prominent South Africans including a private school headmaster unwraps another sordid layer of our society. It wasn’t difficult to put a name and a face to the headmaster in question. It appears that he was a very good and popular headmaster. Putting myself however in the shoes of the parents of that school, I can imagine the anger and the shock, the “lock him up and throw away the key” gut reaction which is inevitable and understandable, even if his crime was limited to accessing and keeping child porn alone and he never harmed any child directly under his care.

To act as a civilised society in response I think it is worth taking a closer look at paedophilia, lest we overreact, and what we find is an inconvenient truth indeed. Paedophiles cannot help their attraction to children.

It is unarguable that any act involving the sexual exploitation of children including the possession of child pornography is criminal and deserving of punishment.

Being a paedophile, however, is not a crime. Having a sexual attraction to children is in itself not a criminal act, any more than wishing someone dead makes one a murderer. Acting on those impulses however most definitely is.

A paedophile, according to scientific studies summarised conveniently here, has no choice in what turns him or her on. There is good evidence that the brains of paedophiles have a wiring fault that deflects the objects of sexual arousal from the normal path of adults onto children, that the triggers pertaining to kids — big head, big eyes and round face that define “cuteness” — lead to the sexual arousal centre, rather than to the protective nurturing centre and the activities one would expect of an adult relating to a child. Paedophiles literally can’t help themselves. Their search for love takes them to love objects that are unobtainable in normal civilised society.

Medical treatment for paedophilia, from psychotherapy to medication, even chemical castration, has been tried with very few positive results. Paedophilia appears to be a psychiatric condition of disordered sexual identity for which there is no known cure and minimal likelihood of rehabilitation.

The issue of whether one chooses ones sexual identity is still very topical and worth expanding on. How history has treated “other” sexuality is seen in modern attitudes towards homosexuality, and in particular whether one gets to “choose” ones sexuality. Please note, I don’t equate being gay to being a paedophile in any sense whatsoever.

Whether being gay is a matter of choice is still hotly debated. In 2012 Cynthia Nixon, star of Sex in the City, announced she had changed her orientation from straight to lesbian with about as much nonchalance as if she’d announced a preference for McDonald’s to Burger King, provoking outrage from LGB activists, mad that she had used the word “choice” at all

But not all LGB folk agree. Here is a powerful argument by a lesbian writer as to why saying that LGB people have no choice plays into the “hands of the enemy” in affirming that being gay is essentially an accidental misfortune. Or just bad luck. She makes a strong point.

Nevertheless the civil liberties that the LGB community has fought for on the whole still seem to hold the “absence of choice” argument as central. So what do we do with the paedophile, who similarly has no choice, but no legitimate outlet for his sexual identity?

The distinction is that a paedophile acts out on a child who is always a victim, and society cannot allow this to happen. But short-term incarceration is not a great option because the paedophile cannot be rehabilitated. Reintegration into society always carries a risk because the paedophile’s urges will never disappear. The only hope is a system that reports and monitors paedophiles so that they are kept on the “straight and narrow”. In this day of the internet it would involve the type of NSA surveillance being heavily criticised after being exposed by Edward Snowden.

The vast majority of paedophiles never hurt any children. Read about their own stories and their efforts to protect children here. Perhaps the best solution for paedophiles is to “come out” to an organisation like this, run by people who know what it is like to live with the affliction.

One alternative is to do with paedophiles, who have crossed the line, what is done with psychopaths and the criminally insane — that is to keep them captive indefinitely, in safekeeping as a protection to society. This seems an especially harsh punishment for a person whose perversion was acted out in private, as might describe the headmaster at the start of the post.

That a human being can be born with a defect that causes him or her to look for love in the wrong places is tragic. We cannot as a society afford to let paedophiles practice their sexual orientation, that is definite, but perhaps accepting that they themselves are victims of biological accident will lead us to a solution that is fair to us, them and to all children everywhere.