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Can Programs Like "Help Wanted" Prevent Child Sexual Abuse?

How do we help all children lead happier, healthier lives?

Image by iStock
Source: Image by iStock

What do you think about when you hear the word pedophile? Do you think of a monster? Someone destined to harm children? Did you know that there are individuals, some still in their adolescence, who have a sexual attraction to children, but have never offended and are desperately searching for help?

At the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, we have learned that there are indeed adolescents with a sexual attraction to children who are looking for our help. We believe it is important to distinguish between an attraction and behavior and are working to provide these adolescents with the an online prevention intervention, “Help Wanted”, in order to give them the tools necessary to live a happy, healthy life, free of offending. But how do we identify and disseminate the right tools?

We have to begin with what we already know. From victim surveys and research conducted with adolescents who have already offended we know that about half of child sexual abuse cases are perpetrated by adolescents, with the average age of perpetration being 14 years old. We also know that adolescents tend to offend for a variety of reasons, which include sheer ignorance, impulsivity, inadequate adult supervision, risk taking, delinquency and sometimes a sexual interest in younger children. Little research, however, has been done with adolescents who are attracted to younger children, but have not acted on their attraction.

Therefore, to further inform “Help Wanted”, we conducted interviews with 30 young adults (ages 18 to 30), living with, but not acting on, an attraction to younger children. Our respondents were primarily male and from the United States. During the interviews, we asked them a variety of questions about their attractions, including what it was like living with an attraction to children during adolescence, how they were able to successfully manage their attractions, and what family, friends and professionals could have done to help.

Unlike the narrative we often hear from the media, our respondents didn’t share stories about struggling to avoid offending. Instead they shared stories about how the realization of their attraction was a slow and often painful process that began in early adolescence and ended in early adulthood. Many shared experiences of fear, depression, shame, guilt and even thoughts or actual attempts at suicide. Some described having to deal with painful realizations that they will never have the type of life experiences that many of their peers will have, such as getting married or having children.

Several respondents shared stories about disclosing their attraction to a family member, friend or professional. A few disclosures went well, but others disclosed to people who either didn’t know what to say, didn’t know how to help, or didn’t want to be involved. Those who chose to seek out help on the Internet described struggles to find reliable, educational information. Instead many found questionable information that left them with the feeling that it was inevitable they would one day harm a child, and that they, because of their attraction, were not human beings, but monsters.

“Help Wanted” will be an online resource available to not only adolescents dealing with an attraction to children, but will be a guide for family members, friends and professionals as well. We are currently in the development phase of the first module, which will focus on providing adolescents with a confidential place to learn more about their attraction as well as the tools to stay safe around children, cope with the emotions that may accompany their attraction and know when and how to ask for help. Future modules will focus on resources to help family members, friends and professionals learn what they can do to help.

In order to effectively prevent child sexual abuse, we all need to begin to differentiate between a person’s interests and actions and work together to provide adolescents with an unwanted sexual interest in children the best chance possible to live a healthy and happy life.

Amanda E. Ruzicka, MA, is a Research Associate at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.