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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker