In my recently published short story, a character with an indecent past finds himself the victim of blackmail. ‘Someone has to hold up a mirror and show the monsters what they really are,’ he’s told by his extortionist. As a writer, it’s thrilling to explore these immoral deeds through the safety of fiction. There’s an addictive sort of pleasure to be found in inventing warped criminals, and with the evergreen popularity of crime fiction it’s clear that we can’t stop reading about them, either.
But sometimes reality can eclipse the imaginations of even the most depraved authors. In 2012, two such cases graced UK tabloids: the historical allegations against radio DJ and TV personality Jimmy Savile, and the sexual abuse scandal of Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins. The nature of these crimes was shocking — not only were the actions themselves numerous and abhorrent, but the celebrity status of the accused meant that we were complicit in their wrongdoing. We had held up these men, celebrated them, and in doing so had given them the power to act out their darkest fantasies and destroy innocent lives.
Since these events came to light we’ve tried to assuage our national guilt through increased efforts to convict child molesters. Operation Yewtree has exposed the historical crimes of Rolf Harris, Max Clifford and countless others, while last year the National Crime Agency arrested 660 suspected paedophiles in an unprecedented nationwide crackdown.
The action hasn’t been limited to law enforcement agencies, either — vigilantes such as Stinson Hunter seek out paedophiles online and distribute their personal information, while groups under the ‘Communities Against Paedophiles’ banner have formed across the country to warn others about convicted sex offenders in their local area.
Although the risk of sexual abuse is not as widespread as some media outlets would have you believe, a glance at the figures does reveal some unsettling truths. Estimates put the number of paedophiles in the UK between fifty thousand to over a quarter of a million, and almost 85% of those who are convicted had no previous criminal history. With no easy means of identifying these individuals, they’ve become one of modern society’s bogeymen — lurking among us, posing a threat to the most vulnerable members of our community. A quick google search for ‘paedophile’ returns headlines like ‘evil’ and ‘terrifying’, and it’s understandable that the subject invokes fear or vitriol. But is this response truly an effective means of tackling the problem? Should we re-examine the way we treat paedophilia?
Firstly, it’s important to make a distinction between paedophilia and the physical act of child molestation. Classified as a mental disorder, paedophilia is defined as an attraction towards pre-pubescent children — one does not have to act on that desire in order to be considered a paedophile. There is debate among academics as to the root cause of the disorder, with some studies pointing towards environmental factors such as being sexually abused during childhood, while others propose biological causes like abnormal brain development.
Of course, if someone with paedophilia acts upon their desire by molesting a minor or viewing child pornography, then it becomes a criminal act. Convicted sex offenders are given a variety of treatments depending on the nature of their crime and the likelihood that they will reoffend, often involving countless hours of therapy, and for high risk cases, chemical castration. Rehabilitation programmes like Circles UK work with offenders to help them stay straight after their release, but even though they’ve produced an 80% reduction in re-offence rates since 2007, their success isn’t widely publicised. This is a regrettable consequence of public opinion being heavily skewed against the rehabilitation of paedophiles. Our criminal justice system is predicated on the belief that people can reintegrate with society after serving their sentence, but many community groups actively shun reformed sex offenders, despite the fact that isolation and low self-esteem are key motivators for re-offence. While some may find any association with paedophiles deeply unpalatable, the truth is that depriving them of acceptance and social integration will only create more victims in the long term.
Now I’m not suggesting we welcome sex offenders with open arms, but very rarely is paedophilia given the same consideration as other mental disorders. Media coverage and political debate often centre around those who’ve broken the law, meaning that public discourse is largely concerned with the punishment of those individuals, and in the process conflating paedophilia with criminality. Rarely do we consider those who suffer from the disorder, but have not committed any offence.
The simple reason for this is that it’s incredibly difficult to find any of these people, and so we hear very little about them. News stories like those of Savile or Ian Watkins create a monstrous image of paedophilia, and so it’s unsurprising that people suffering from the disorder rarely come forward. Our health service also provides surprisingly little support — doctors are professionally obligated to report any self-identified paedophiles to the police in cases where that individual either has children, or works with children. While organisations like the Lucy Faithfull Foundation have anonymous phone lines, anyone wishing to meet in person will have to disclose their personal details which, again, will be handed to the police. Although the caution is understandable, it serves only to reinforce the idea that all paedophiles are criminals, and it’s obvious that few will opt to be treated in such a manner.
In order to tackle child molestation effectively, it’s clear that we could do more to prevent paedophiles from offending, rather than punishing and vilifying them after it’s too late. That means making it easier to seek help without fear of judgement or criminal repercussions, and, in this regard, our cousins in mainland Europe may have already found the answer. In Germany, a pioneering programme called Project Dunkelfeld aims to provide free, confidential treatment to anyone who believes that they suffer from paedophilic urges. The comprehensive course combines group therapy and professional support, and has proved wildly successful. Since opening in 2005, the project has helped over 5,000 people and expanded from one centre in Berlin to eleven throughout the country. National campaigns have raised awareness for the cause, spreading the message that having these urges doesn’t make someone a monster, and that help is available.
While the UK has made some progress with projects like the Safer Living Foundation, we’ve yet to follow Germany’s lead in actively reaching out to paedophiles. The thought might make some people uncomfortable, but unlike crime fiction this isn’t something that exists solely in the imagination. If changing our treatment of paedophilia can prevent another Jimmy Savile, then we have a moral obligation to explore that possibility. Unless we want today’s children to appear in the headlines thirty years from now, asking us why we didn’t do more.