It’s time to reconsider how we treat pedophiles

This Tuesday, news broke that Stephen Collins, an actor best known for his role as the ever-understanding pastor dad on 7th Heaven, confessed on tape to acts of child molestation. In tapes obtained by TMZ, Collins told his estranged wife, actress Faye Grant, of an encounter with an 11-year-old girl. “There was one moment of touching where her hand, I put her hand on my penis,” Collins said before admitting to more incidents with the same young woman, as well as others.

The Collins news shocked the Internet particularly because it speaks to one of our most guarded (and very illegal) taboos: pedophilia. What Collins describes isn’t a one-time offense, like a drunk guy at a frat might claim after a same-sex hookup; Collins confessed to a repeated pattern of sexual desires, well outside the bounds of what U.S. law or common morality deem as appropriate behavior. As we proclaim our childhoods to be over now that we find out yet another one of our cherished TV dads isn’t what he seemed, we should also ask: How could this have been prevented?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a pedophile is someone who has “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children.” Because of that almost internal, intrinsic nature, there’s been much debate over whether pedophilia qualifies as a sexual orientation, along the lines of being gay or lesbian. That’s not to say that being gay or lesbian equates to being a pedophile, but it suggests there may be factors of attraction beyond an individual’s control.

Addressing the “born this way” debate about pedophilia, Cord Jefferson wrote a piece for Gawker in 2012 to help us understand what it must be like when your basic desires are illegal, even if that’s for the public good. “Imagine a world in which admitting your attraction to busty women or tall men led to alienation, jail time, or your murder,” Jefferson wrote. “Older gay men can probably remember such an era, but nowadays most sexual appetites have been mainstreamed to the point of banality. Pedophiles, for obvious reasons, don’t enjoy the same kind of tolerance, and thus it seems as if they may be locked forever in a sexual prison from the moment they’re born.”

In an article for the L.A. Times, reporter Alan Zarembo argued that “Pedophilia once was thought to stem from psychological influences early in life. Now, many experts view it as a deep-rooted predisposition that does not change.”

“The best estimates are that between 1% and 5% of men are pedophiles, meaning that they have a dominant attraction to prepubescent children,” Zarembo wrote. “Not all pedophiles molest children. Nor are all child molesters pedophiles. Studies show that about half of all molesters are not sexually attracted to their victims. They often have personality disorders or violent streaks, and their victims are typically family members.”

Zarembo quoted Dr. Fred Berlin on the issue, who called pedophiles “good people who are struggling,” attempting to call into question the dominant stereotypes surrounding those attracted to underage children. What are these archetypes? In an August article for Medium, Luke Malone broke them down as such: “There is the playground lurker, the chat-room predator, and the monstrous (often religious) authority figure. These men are usually middle-aged, unrepentant serial abusers who are caught only after remaining undetected for years.”

For these folks, Malone argued that they lack the kinds of communities that exist to help others figure out their sexualities. The Internet has been a boon to LGBT people who need a safe space to understand their sense of self, but where do pedophiles go for comfort, recognition, and understanding?

“Anecdotal evidence suggests that most pedophiles first notice an attraction toward children when they themselves are between 11 and 16, mirroring that of any other sexual awakening. It can be a confusing time for any of us, but imagine realizing that you’re attracted to little kids. How do these young men and women negotiate that with no viable role models or support network? There is no It Gets Better for pedophiles.”

Malone further posed important questions: “Are they all fated to end up as child molesters? Or is it possible for them to live a life without hurting children at all?” Malone found that there are limited support networks that exist on the Web for those with an attraction to children, but due to lack of information and social stigma, they may be difficult to locate, if people are willing to seek them out at all. When even the idea of your own sexual identity is so widely stigmatized, so outside the norm of propriety, can you even begin to admit it to yourself in order to find help? And if so, will you?

As the DSM notes, pedophilia isn’t just who you are or how you’re born. It’s how you behave. In order to be classified as a pedophile, rather than just someone with longings, you have to have “acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.” And as Malone explained, “there’s no mechanism for treating someone who has pedophilic urges and hasn’t acted on them.” This means that pedophiles have few resources in terms of preventative care. You have to act and be punished accordingly.

In an interview with Slate, Elizabeth Letourneau of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health argued that preventing abuse is difficult, particularly because people are unable to recognize child molesters as anything but “monsters” and “predators”—the Internet flashers Malone described or the kind of subjects you might find sensationalized on To Catch a Predator with Chris Hansen. But the problem is that pedophiles aren’t just people on TV or the idealized father we grew up watching on the WB. They are our friends and neighbors. They are people we know.

This might sound like a lot of #NotAllPedophiles to some, but even if you’d prefer that pedophiles stay the shadowy lurkers of your imagination, the best way to keep them there is to “give them the therapeutic tools to control themselves and still lead fulfilling lives,” Jennifer Bleyer argued in Slate. The problem with monsters is that we create a lot more of them if we remain unwilling to recognize the issue until after it is already too late. The Internet might not have sympathy for Stephen Collins, but if we want justice for his victims, we need to get those like him before TMZ does.

Photo via danih84/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.