How can we prevent child abuse if we don't understand paedophilia?

If we want to keep children safe from sexual harm, then surely knowing what we’re dealing with would be a good first step

Share

Paedophilia is one of those things that appear straightforward at first glance but get more and more confusing the closer one looks.

It is broadly defined as adult sexual attraction to children and young people below the legal age of sexual consent. That means a paedophile is someone who is primarily or exclusively sexually attracted to children (although they may also be sexually attracted to adults as well). That much is relatively simple, at least as long as we can agree on what a ‘child’ is and when a child turns into a sexually mature, self-determining adult; a transition we place, in this country, at the age of 16.

What gets a bit more complicated is distinguishing between paedophilia (the sexual attraction) and child sexual abuse (adult sexual contact with children below the legal age of consent). Paedophilia is, strictly speaking, in a separate conceptual category to child sexual abuse, although in everyday life the word ‘paedophile’ is typically taken to mean a person (usually a man) who has sexually offended against a child.

There are many basic questions about paedophiles to which we do not yet know the answers. We find it hard to pin down how to describe it - is it a sexual orientation? A medical diagnosis or a psychiatric condition, perhaps a paraphilia (a disorder of sexual function) or a fetish? We struggle to figure out where it might come from - is it an individual genetic fault in the ‘wiring’ of the brain? Does it come from trauma? Or is it merely a statistically inevitable part of the continuum of ordinary human sexuality, the tail of a bell curve that will always exist? Once someone has it, what can they do about it – is it in fact something that can be chosen? Or altered?

Perhaps most importantly, we do not know how many people there are out there who feel this attraction. It seems to me that if we want to keep children safe from sexual harm, then surely knowing what we’re dealing with would be a good first step. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

A major UK child charity once informed me that they would not be involved in research to find out how many paedophiles there are, because to understand would be seen as empathising, and this might lose them funds. They preferred to keep working in an area about which they did not even know basic facts, rather than challenge ignorance. The result of such an attitude is of course that children continue to be abused. Now is the time to shift our attitudes and begin to explore. The journey is uncomfortable but the goal is better child protection, so any discomfort is worth tolerating.

The first step is to try and work out how many paedophiles there are. There seem to be only eight studies in total which have ever been conducted on this question, and clearly we need bigger studies to get a more accurate picture, but these are the best we have at present. They indicate how many paedophiles there may be, by looking at the responses of ‘normal’ men in the general adult male population (and one of the studies also included women in their study).

There are five lab-based studies and three questionnaire-based studies, all using volunteers. The laboratory studies took their data from direct self-report (what the research subjects themselves said about their sexual arousal to children), more general questionnaire responses (which included measurements such as ‘sexual impulsivity’ and self-esteem), and ‘physical responses’ which in this context means fitting a ‘strain gauge’ to the man’s penis and using a machine called a ‘penile plethysmograph’ to measure how much his penis reacted, for example when images were shown or tapes narrating a sexual story were played.

These lab studies indicate that somewhere between 17 per cent  and per cent of a ‘normal’ sample of men (who do not describe themselves as ‘paedophile’) seem to be capable of being sexually aroused by young children, under the age of twelve years old. In other words, roughly one in six to more than one in every two adult men may be capable of being sexually attracted to children.

The three questionnaire surveys also found surprisingly high rates. For example, the most recent study, conducted by Becker-Blease and colleagues and published in 2006, used a self-completion questionnaire study of 531 undergraduate men. This study found 7 per cent admitted sexual attraction to ‘little children’, but 18 per cent had sexual fantasies of children, with 8 per cent masturbating to those fantasies, and 4 per cent admitting that they would have sex with a child ‘if no-one found out’.

Judging by this study, we would be therefore looking at around one in five of all the men we know having some degree of sexual attraction to children. Remembering that these survey rates relied on voluntary disclosures, it’s not impossible that this is in fact a conservative figure. For women, the only study conducted so far (by Smiljanich and Briere, in 1996) suggested 3 per cent of sample of 180 women admitted to ‘some attraction to little children’ and 4 per cent used child pornography.

These are not figures I’d like to bet my shirt on – the earlier studies in particular are quite suspect, but what they do show is that, among men, sexual arousal to children is not rare and that there is a crying need to find out more.

Given that it is possible judging by the study that maybe one in every five men is capable of being sexually aroused to children, and that there is an unknown number of men out there who are primarily or exclusively sexually attracted to children, how do we keep children safe – or at least safer than we are currently managing to do?

I believe that attitudes like that of the major children’s charity I spoke to must change. We must have the courage to look hard and to listen to those paedophiles who want to tell us their experiences so we can learn how to prevent child abuse. Some people experience such sexual desires but don’t act upon them. Perhaps, for them, in a sex-saturated society, that’s quite an achievement. We need to be able to acknowledge and understand their self-control.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

 

Political satire is funny, but it also causes cynicism and apathy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links