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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own