It's not easy to listen to Terry talk about the time he had sex with a seven-year-old girl. But after his psychotherapist put us in touch, he agreed to lay it all out for me during a phone call and email, and I was enthralled the way one might stare at a man falling from a bridge. Terry is 38, a small-business owner, and deeply religious—he ends all our correspondence by saying, "Blessings to you, Cord"—but back then when it happened Terry was 20 and a meth head. He was living with his then-wife, his marriage to whom had made him the co-guardian of her two nieces and a nephew. The one niece was a baby, but the other was seven, and it wasn't long before Terry, addicted and in a marriage he calls "abusive," fell for his niece and began a sexual relationship with her.
It started with him walking around the house naked with an erection, making sure to amble past the little girl and inspire her curiosity. After doing that a couple times, Terry began to masturbate with the door open. When his niece would come to watch, Terry would tell her that what they were doing was a secret that she couldn't tell anyone. "In my mind, I had the thought that I would never hurt her and that she would grow up trusting me," Terry said. He says he wanted her to look up to him.
The third time Terry masturbated in front of his niece, he did it while she was in the room, and he played a pornographic movie on the TV. "Do you want to try what they're doing?" he asked her, motioning to the woman riding the man onscreen. His niece said yes, and she took off her shorts before straddling him. To avoid getting too graphic, Terry said he knew almost immediately that he was going to injure the girl if he went any further—"she was so small," is how he puts it. "That's when the reality clicked in and I grabbed her and lifted her off of me and sat her next to me on the couch," he says. "I got up and walked out of the room saying, ‘Lord, what am I doing! Lord, forgive me for what I have done!'"
When Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested last year and charged with 52 counts of molesting young boys, America's universal hatred for pedophiles was once again put on prominent display. A society is defined by what it despises as much as what it loves, and though the United States has a history of a great many scorned communities, none is as broadly reviled as men who have sex with children. When Sandusky was finally convicted earlier this year, Twitter exploded with people wishing for him to be raped or killed while incarcerated, both of which are good possibilities in our country's prison system. Outside of jail, it's not uncommon for average citizens to harass and assault pedophiles, crimes which courts have been known to ignore.
Then there's the problem of finding homes for pedophiles who are arrested and eventually put back into communities. In Florida, where Miami-Dade County has grown increasingly restrictive about where people who commit sexual crimes can live, the department of corrections once housed a small group of pedophiles under a bridge, like real-life trolls. Elsewhere in America, with neighborhoods both informed and alarmed by a growing number of sex-offender tracking sites, it's now become easier than ever to harass and intimidate a pedophile in your neighborhood until he moves away. But to where? Nobody seems to care as long as it's not near them.
In an ABC News article from 2003, a corrections officer from Los Angeles told reporter Michael S. James that imprisoned pedophiles "usually don't make it" without protective custody. Leslie Walker, a prisoner's rights activist, told James, "[Child sex offenders] are at risk of being murdered, having their food taken, having their cells defecated and urinated in. Their life is truly a living hell." Good, most people will say. But there is a growing number of researchers, many of them out of Canada, whose work suggests that pedophilia is an illness deserving of the public's sympathy the way any brain disorder is. Some of the scientists say pedophilia is a sexual orientation, meaning that it's unchangeable, regardless of how much jail time or beatings or therapy someone is dealt. Others have reason to believe that pedophiles are born that way, and that some of them will suffer through entire lives without hurting a single child. If this research proves to be correct, it should help shape both our public policy and our public attitude, so that we're protecting kids while also protecting pedophiles from angry mobs, cellmates, and themselves.
On Valentine's Day of last year, Dr. Vernon Quinsey, then of Queen's University, and Dr. Hubert Van Gijseghem (pronounced HI-sheh-hem), who was retired from the University of Montreal, testified before the Canadian Parliament's "Committee on Justice and Human Rights." The topic of the day was mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of sexual offenses against children. For about two hours, Quinsey and Van Gijseghem discussed what they believed would be the appropriate course of action when it came to imprisoning people caught with child pornography, or attempting to have sex with a minor. Though the topic of conversation was particularly controversial, the meeting was pleasant and kind in that stereotypically Canadian way. But amid all the niceties about policy, this, from Dr. Van Gijseghem, stood out:
[I]t is a fact that real pedophiles account for only 20 percent of sexual abusers. If we know that pedophiles are not simply people who commit a small offence from time to time but rather are grappling with what is equivalent to a sexual orientation just like another individual may be grappling with heterosexuality or even homosexuality, and if we agree on the fact that true pedophiles have an exclusive preference for children, which is the same as having a sexual orientation, everyone knows that there is no such thing as real therapy. You cannot change this person's sexual orientation.
What Van Gijseghem meant by "real pedophiles" is the definition most of the scientists I spoke to use and the definition we'll use throughout this article. That is, people—the overwhelming majority of whom are men—who have an unwavering sexual attraction to prepubescent children. When you start to read a lot about pedophilia, you realize that the dialogue gets muddied because so many laymen use the term "pedophile" to mean anyone who sexualizes a child. But a 21-year-old who has intercourse with a 16-year-old, while not a good decision maker, is probably not a pedophile. Nor is someone who, say, exposes himself to a 5-year-old boy necessarily a pedophile. They may have committed a pedophilic act, but unless they have a clear preference for undeveloped children the way heterosexual men have for women, they are not pedophiles.
Van Gijseghem and Quinsey's point on that afternoon in February was also one of semantics. When I call Van Gijseghem in the middle of August, he tells me that he got a lot of hate mail from people who thought him using the term "sexual orientation" meant he was equating raping children with consensual sex between adults. "They said, ‘You bastard! You are treating pedophilia like a normal human function,'" says Van Gijseghem. "I can understand these criticisms, but I'm not using the term sexual orientation to mean that at all."
Van Gjiseghem says what he and his colleagues mean by sexual orientation is a person's inborn and unalterable sexual preference, irrespective of whether that preference is harmful to others or not. Currently, there is no significant longitudinal evidence that pedophiles can be made to not be attracted to children, and thus it can be defined as their orientation. And if pedophilia is a sexual orientation, that also means it's futile to send pedophiles to prison in an effort to alter their attractions. Doing so is akin to sending a homosexual child off to a religious-based institution that claims it can "pray the gay away."
"You are telling me that even if we were to impose a five-year minimum on people it would not solve the problem," asked a concerned Marc Lemay, an MP from Quebec, during the February testimony. "Yes, the risk is high," said Van Gijseghem. Lemay would later say, "What you are telling us today, with all due respect, is frightening."
Something that might help mitigate Lemay's fright is that viewing pedophilia as a sexual orientation might help us rationally deal with it. In his January 2012 paper "Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?" published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, forensic psychologist Michael Seto writes, "Viewing pedophilia as a sexual orientation would suggest that treatment is more likely to be effective if it focuses on self-regulation skills (in order to effectively manage pedophilic urges, thoughts, etc.) than on trying to change sexual preferences."
In other words, if you can't beat pedophiles, it's best to try and help them help themselves.
Imagine a world in which admitting your attraction to busty women or tall men led to alienation, jail time, or your murder. Older gay men can probably remember such an era, but nowadays most sexual appetites have been mainstreamed to the point of banality. Pedophiles, for obvious reasons, don't enjoy the same kind of tolerance, and thus it seems as if they may be locked forever in a sexual prison from the moment they're born.
Dr. James Cantor is the Head of Research in the Sexual Behaviours Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada's largest mental health and teaching hospital. He's also an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto's school of medicine. He's been working on better understanding pedophiles for about 12 years now using a variety of methods. In the Kurt Freund Phallometric Lab, Cantor and his colleagues can attach an instrument to sex offenders' penises in order to gauge their responses to a variety of sexually charged images. The Freund lab, Cantor tells me during a phone call last week, is one of the few in the world that can measure increases in penis volume rather than just increases in circumference.
Cantor's work also focuses on running sex offenders through what he calls "a battery of neuropsychological exams," and brain scans on top of that, thus providing one of science's most well-rounded looks at how a pedophile is made. That there are a lot of unanswered questions in Cantor's field of research can't be overstated, but his initial findings are noteworthy.
Cantor says his first indication that there was something different about pedophiles' brains was that, compared to teleiophile offenders (sex offenders who victimized adults), pedophiles' IQs were about 10 points lower on average. He also found that the age of a pedophile's victim was directly proportional to the pedophile's IQ—the younger the children, the lower the attacker's intelligence. "That was our first clue that the brain was somehow involved," says Cantor, adding that pedophiles also performed relatively poorly on memory tests.
Other patterns soon emerged: Pedophiles tended to be shorter than teleiophiles, which Cantor says told him "whatever's going on, it's not just the brain; it seems to be that the whole body isn't formed quite correctly." Pedophiles were more likely to have failed grades in school. They were also more likely to have sustained head injuries before the age of 13. All of this helped lead Cantor to the suspicion that not only did pedophilia have to do with brain growth, it had to do with very early brain growth. After several years of amassing a catalogue of intriguing research, in 2008, Cantor published a paper [PDF] about what he tells me was the last clue that made him almost certain pedophilia is a prenatal issue: non-right-handedness.
"Handedness is often a useful indirect way of looking at a population and getting an idea of whether the brain formed properly," says Cantor. "Normally the left half of the brain develops more quickly and earlier than the other hemisphere of the brain, and that's what makes most people right-handed. But if something happens during development in utero—poor nutrition, prenatal stress, that kind of thing—the brain stops developing, so the other side of the brain starts to compensate."
In the general population, only about 8 to 12 percent of people are either not right-handed or ambidextrous. In Cantor's pedophile studies, nearly one third of the men were non-right-handed.
"The only other groups that have rates of non-right-handedness that are that high are schizophrenics, people with bipolar disorder, people with autism," says Cantor. "Other major behavioral disorders for which there is no longer any debate that there is some physiological contribution. The only thing that affects handedness is the brain structure."
With that as his last finding, Cantor felt he had enough evidence to justify scanning pedophiles' brains to see how they differed from average brains. Before he started performing the scans, he'd heard two dominating theories: The first was that pedophiles had an issue with their frontal lobes, the part of the brain where consciousness and self-control functioning is held. People with damaged frontal lobes tend to be more disinhibited and impulsive than the rest of us, which might lead a person to make terrible sexual decisions. But Cantor says he never agreed with that theory, because he never believed pedophilia was about suppressing urges. "If you ask any guy on the street how he controls his desire to have sex with children, he'll look at you like you have three heads," he says. "Most men don't have that desire to control."
The other school of thought said that pedophilia was the result of a problem with the temporal lobe, the section of the brain that controls our most basic survival motivators. Cantor calls them "the four Fs": feeding, flight, fighting, and fornicating. He says that if he had been forced to choose between the two theories, he would have chosen this one "because sex is in this mix." As it turned out, however, everyone was wrong.
"There was nothing significant in the frontal lobes or temporal lobes," says Cantor. "It turned out the differences weren't in the grey matter. The differences were in the white matter."
"The white matter" is the shorthand term for groupings of myelinated axons and glial cells that transmit signals throughout the gray matter that composes the cerebrum. Think of the gray matter like the houses on a specific electricity grid and the white matter like the cabling connecting those houses to the grid.
"There doesn't seem to be a pedophilia center in the brain," says Cantor. "Instead, there's either not enough of this cabling, not the correct kind of cabling, or it's wiring the wrong areas together, so instead of the brain evoking protective or parental instincts when these people see children, it's instead evoking sexual instincts. There's almost literally a crossed wiring."
The good news, according to Cantor, is that it if they can figure out how the wiring gets crossed, they might be able to suggest ways pregnant mothers can help ensure their baby is unlikely to be born a pedophile. "It is quite possible that one or more components of the process are related to prenatal stresses like poor maternal nutrition, toxin exposure, ill health, or poor health care," he says. "If so, then improving health and health care in general may reduce the numbers of people vulnerable to developing pedophilia, as well as other problems."
Every expert with whom I spoke wanted to get one thing straight: Being a pedophile is different from being a child molester. Sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, who occasionally fields letters from people fighting off pedophilic urges, calls these people "gold-star pedophiles." In April of this year, for instance, he got this letter from a man who was attracted to children but claimed to have never acted on that desire (emphasis Savage's):
You know when Dan says to someone with a weird (to others) fetish, or some kind of physical peculiarity, or whatever, that they should "hold on, there's someone... plenty of someones... out there for you, give it time, put yourself out there," and so on? That doesn't apply to us. Not only should we not put ourselves out there... but I walk around every awful day of my life knowing that THERE IS NO ONE OUT THERE FOR ME.
There are among us men who live their whole lives wanting to have sex with children but never doing it. America might have more of these men if we eased our taboos on anyone even admitting an attraction to kids. Consider that in Germany there is Prevention Project Dunkelfeld, an organization that, like a suicide hotline, offers free counseling to anyone struggling with thoughts of molesting a child. "Dunkelfeld" translates to "dark field," and PPD's founders say their goal is to make sure pedophiles come out of the shadows and get the help they need before they offend. A sample PPD tagline is representative of the kind of sympathy with which it approaches the problem: "You are not guilty because of your sexual desire, but you are responsible for your sexual behavior. There is help."
Canada, too, has Circles of Support and Accountability, an association of volunteers who are advised by professionals on how to help convicted sex offenders reacclimate to society. While some COSA programs are beginning to pop up around the States, we have not nearly as many as our northern neighbors, who originally concocted the COSA model. Further hindering America's progress are our "mandatory report" laws, some of which say that therapists are required to contact authorities if they have even a "reasonable suspicion" that a child is being mistreated somewhere. For example, California's mandatory report policy says very openly that "no evidence or proof is required prior to making a report" [PDF], making it perfectly acceptable to call the cops on a person solely for talking about sexual fantasies regarding children. Naturally, to avoid this alarmist scrutiny, most pedophiles sit silently on their secret desires, which is at best unhealthy for them, and at worst dangerous for children.
If we can get pedophiles to begin acknowledging their dangerous desires, experts like Dawn Horwitz-Person, a psychotherapist in Chico, California, who specializes in treating sex offenders, believes we can help pedophiles "learn how to manage their desires the way alcoholics do." Horwitz-Person focuses on a very 12-step-like manner of therapy and acceptance focusing not on changing pedophiles' basic desires, but "changing how they think about things." "I try to get them to develop empathy and to get them to recognize the risk factors in their life," she says. "I try to get them to understand that when they feed their brains a lot of deviant sexual fantasies, it's going to lead to them acting on those fantasies." There is no panacea, says Horwitz-Person, there is only process.
For parents wondering what to do while society and politicians get their ducks in a row when it comes to pedophiles, Dr. Cantor says that one important way to keep children safe is by disabusing them of the notion that strangers are the primary concern when it comes to molestation. "By far, the most common perpetrators of sex offenses against children are people known to the kid," he says. "Not talking to strangers is a good lesson for children, but then their guard is down to where the actual danger is."
The old adage is that the true mark of a society is how it treats the weakest in its ranks. Blacks, women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and others are still in no way on wholly equal footing in America. But they're also not nearly as lowly and cursed as men attracted to children. One imagines that if Jesus ever came to Earth, he'd embrace the poor, the blind, the lepers, and, yes, the pedophiles. As a self-professed "progressive," when I think of the world I'd like to live in, I like to imagine that one day I'd be OK with a man like Terry moving next door to me and my children. I like to think that I could welcome him in for dinner, break bread with him, and offer him the same blessings he's offered me time and again. And what hurts to admit, even knowing all I know now, is that I'm not positive I could do that.