Little boys and lonely men: Oliver James explains why some adults prefer the company of small children

Click to follow
WE HAVE no means of knowing the truth behind the child abuse allegations made against Michael Jackson last week. He has not been charged, still less convicted. What we do know is that he likes to surround himself, both on stage and in private life, with small children. And he is said to prefer their company to that of adults. Clearly, in such circumstances, he could be a target for blackmail whether or not any abuse took place.

As it happens, a friend took me to a Michael Jackson concert recently. At the start of the final song 40 or so prepubescent children came on to the stage and formed a circle around him. At the end he joined them. 'It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase 'paedophile ring',' I could not help joking to my friend, who snarled at me for being cynical.

Why do some men seek the company of small children? When we send little Timmy off to the cubs, is he safe with that nice Mr X the scoutmaster? Are such men potential molesters, even if only a few put their fantasies into practice? Or is it, by and large, normal for a man to enjoy the beguiling presence of little boys?

Some men become child abusers mainly on impulse. They do not specially enjoy the constant company of little children. They prefer sex with adults and may well have developed stable relationships. But perhaps their life caves in. Their wife may leave or they may get the sack. Their self-esteem collapses. Then they turn to an unthreatening alternative for sexual comfort. Other abusers are so morally or sexually indiscriminate that anything human will do if the mood takes them. Others still, are socially ineffectual - mentally ill, of very low intelligence or slightly senile. They are social misfits of little attraction to other adults. Only children may be innocent enough to get involved with them; they, in turn, may see children as easy to coerce.

Psychologists call these men 'situational' abusers - they will molest small children only in certain situations. Everything we know about Jackson suggests that he does not fall into this category.

Another type of paedophile is called 'preferential'. These people prefer sex with children to sex with adults. They find fully grown sexual organs repulsive and the need to satisfy a fellow adult threatening. Often, they were abused in childhood themselves and are compelled to recreate that experience. It may have been the nearest they ever got to being loved; or they may be unconsciously trying to relive a childhood trauma but, this time, as the one who is not humiliated and powerless. Such men will carefully engineer their lives so that they spend much of their time in the company of small boys. Some abuse huge numbers of children in their lifetimes - several hundred is quite common.

Most commonly, such paedo philes will court children with attention, affection and presents. Paedophile pornography may be used to encourage the feeling that nothing 'wrong' is happening, alongside the paedophile's authority and status as an adult. Other children may also be used to enhance the illusion of legitimacy, leading to sex rings of children from the same school class, scout troup or locality.

This kind of paedophile is a master seducer, highly skilled in listening to children, identifying with them and talking to them in their own language. Children who have been neglected, beaten up or given a very weak sense of right and wrong are particularly vulnerable. The abuser's biggest problem is not how to find such children, it is how to get rid of them. Once they reach puberty, they lose their attraction and the abuser wants to end the relationship. And, at that moment, the rejected child is most likely to disclose 'the secret'.

Some of these facts fit Jackson's case - for example, he has never admitted to adult sexual relationships. But that is not conclusive evidence. The great majority of men who are attracted to work or play with young boys never abuse them. Their devotion to boys' welfare and development turns a potentially pathological drive into something highly constructive. We all have our reasons for our line of work - not least shrinks, who tend to be attracted by other people's emotional problems because of their own. There would be few shrinks left if all the ones who are screwed up were weeded out.

Some unmarried men who work with young boys may be asexual, their need for genital sex totally repressed or successfully sublimated into creative endeavour. There must be many who have paedophile fantasies but are able to satisfy them in lone masturbation.

Children are hugely appealing to adults: evolution demands that they should be. They have smooth skin ('smooth as a baby's bottom' says the soap advert, neatly linking a woman's face with her offspring's behind); they are innocent; they are easily impressed and easily made to laugh. But these qualities are also what made Marilyn Monroe special.

The appeal of children also forms the core of the appeal of women to men in our culture. That is what makes it so easy for a man to transfer his instinctive sexual urges from women to children.

The author is a clinical psychologist.