Someone recently messaged me on Twitter with many questions that I thought would make a great article. Before I get started, I want to open the door: My handle on Twitter is TNF_13 the same as here, so feel free to DM me on Twitter if you have questions you would like answered.
Disclaimer: None of what I am about to say changes my firm belief that a sexual attraction to children cannot and should not be acted upon, in any way. I do not tolerate the sexual exploitation of children. At the same time, answering some of these difficult questions are essential to understanding how we can best help pedophiles/MAPs, and how we can keep children safe.
Also: Some pedophiles have sexual abuse in their background, and are just as much against sexual abuse as I am. Some, even more so. One of my friends Yarrow is very opinionated about the subject, and rightly so. Yes, we are survivors. However, most survivors do not go on to abuse children. The idea that most abusers were abused themselves is a myth.
How Does Attraction To Children Work?
The first set of questions related to attraction: What does that mean? Am I a young person trapped in an adult body? What makes you able to control your attractions?
I would say that my attraction towards children is the same as anyone else’s attraction to anyone else, men for women or men, women for men or women, etc. I am not attracted to all children. Some children are drop-dead gorgeous, others are just… okay. Sure, children bring up sexual feelings, but they also bring up emotional feelings of wanting to connect with them, and romantic feelings of wanting to take care of them, cuddle, kiss… all the things one would normally do in a romantic relationship.
You could say, in that sense, that it is the attraction itself that leads me to not want to act on those attractions, except maybe the emotional part. Why is that? Well, if I have this natural desire to love, care for, connect with, and enjoy spending time with children, that is a natural desire for positive things. Acting on the sexual and romantic part of my attraction with a child would cause extremely negative things to happen. This is something that most pedophiles understand just fine on their own.
Having a sexual attraction to children, if it were only sexual, would likely be as the trolls say, something that amounts to wanting to “have sex with children” or “urges to rape children.” However, the attraction is not only sexual in nature: It also involves emotional attraction and romantic attraction. It is not a desire to harm, it is a desire to love in every sense of the word: Protect, cherish, woo, serve, cuddle, spend time with, and be friends with someone on a deep and intimate level. Just as sex is just one part of a relationship for those with attraction to peers, the sexual aspect of a pedophile’s attractions are just one part of their attractions.
Practical Application: I see a cute boy in a social setting where it would be appropriate to talk to him. What would I do? I would talk to him just like I would anyone else: I get to know him, tell jokes, funny stories, ask questions… it operates just like any other friendship. That is where it ends for me. Maybe I see him again, maybe we only talk the one time, I am indifferent, but friendship is where it stays. I do not wish to do anything that would be confusing, harmful, or traumatic to a child. It is not about where the legal or social boundaries are for me, it is about the harm it would cause. I am uncomfortable having a fantasy about children I know in real life, I prefer fictional outlets that do not have thorny ethical issues involved.
What Makes Someone A Risk To Children?
The second set of questions relate to what separates someone like me from someone that is at-risk to or has harmed a child: Why am I able to control my attraction where others cannot? How can people know the difference between what is/is not acceptable with children? How can we tell the difference between someone who is safe around children and someone who is not?
In terms of my personal ability to control my actions… because I am a human being? I am not quite sure why anyone would assume that a pedophile has more or less ability to control their behavior than someone who is not a pedophile. Perhaps because of the continuous conflation of those who abuse children and those who are attracted to them? To me, the question boils down to, “How can anyone with an attraction to other human beings choose to remain celibate/single for the rest of their life?” They just do: They pursue fantasy and masturbation, whatever it takes. They make a choice and they live by it. The same applies to me: I have chosen that I do not want to harm children, so avoiding that is a byproduct of that choice. As for why I made that choice, it is because I care about children.
Knowing the difference between what is and is not acceptable with children is straightforward: Look at your own motivations. If you seek to take care of a child, such as when changing a diaper, and the motivation is not sexual, nor would the behavior be confusing or harmful, then the behavior is likely acceptable. With sexual abuse, it is really the motivation and the effects of the behavior that matters the most, not the specific behavior. A picture of bath time for one person might be a way of using that picture for pleasure to someone else.
As far as telling the difference between safe/unsafe people, this guide has more information about that. Two things to watch for offhand: Violating boundaries without seeming to care, and seeking out spending alone time with children.
Why Do People Sexually Abuse Children?
The third set of questions is difficult to answer concisely: Why are people unable to recognize what is and is not appropriate? What do we need to educate people with in order to help them so they do not abuse children? How do we stop victims from becoming abusers themselves?
To start, we need to recognize that most victims do not go on to abuse children. This is a myth that is not grounded in reality. Two-thirds of abusers do not have pedophilia, and those with pedophilia may or may not have sexual abuse in their past. Some do, some do not. The abused-abuser hypothesis is not grounded in statistics: It is grounded in popular opinion. While helping survivors of sexual abuse to heal, forgive, and move on is important, it is dangerous to do so under the motivation of “preventing future abuse.”
Getting to the meat of the issue, the motivations for sexual abuse are wide and varied, even among children who sexually abuse younger children. The motivations for adults are just as complex, and typically not related to sex. A few months ago, I read the story of someone (again, lost no thanks to Medium) who had abused a young boy, and his circumstance seemed to be that he was very overwhelmed with what was going on in his life, and the choice to harm a child for him was a long process.
While I am aware of abusers that offend in very specific situations, the thought I hear from other advocacy programs and from researchers is that most abusers groom their victims to gain their trust over a period of time. While some abusers do have pedophilia, many do not. In fact, one study showed that one-third of sexual abusers of children have pedophilia while two-thirds do not, a Dutch study (p. 65–66) found that 20% of sexual abusers of children have minor attraction (not just pedophilia), while Michael Seto’s estimate is that 50–60% of those who sexually offend against children (any offense) have pedophilia. While determining precise numbers is difficult due to underreporting, it is clear that a significant number of sexual crimes against children are perpetrated by someone with a sexual attraction to children.
In other words, answering the question, “How come people abuse children?” is not an easy thing. Generally speaking, I have heard many people say that those who abuse generally do so when they are most desperate and in a very poor mental place. So, providing mental health resources and ensuring people have ready access to help and support, whether they are attracted to children or not, is a good way of countering some of that.
How Can We Protect Children From Sexual Abuse?
This is another question that is straightforward enough, but does not have a concise answer. On my website, I look at seven areas inside prevention: Systemic steps and policies, a child’s right to their body, sexual education, behavior signs in potential abusers, tips for individuals and families, how to have a conversation with a potential abuser, and supporting pedophiles/minor attracted people. Each of those areas is complex, and not necessarily straightforward. As the writer of the questions mentioned,
“People are more comfortable talking about the color of their poop than they are talking about the topic of sex.”
One of the number one things we can do is talk about sex with children in an age-appropriate way: Talk about boundaries, healthy communication, consent, and yes, eventually mechanics and safe sex. Another very important subject is knowing the facts, which are nuanced and should be read in paragraph form (not from a list). Why? Because your brain needs time to absorb them. While lists have the illusion of giving you all the essential information you think you need, they actually hinder our ability to understand the material being presented and how it applies to the issues.
Child sexual abuse, pedophilia, and sex offenders are three nuanced topics we need to learn about within prevention if we hope to keep children safe. Other areas, such as knowing how sexual abuse happens and adolescent relationship abuse, are also useful to know. By filling in the gaps in your knowledge, you can help counter some of the myths that float around in society around these topics.