For decades, I've worked with people in poverty, those who experience abuse and neglect, and those who perpetrate abuse. My goal has always been to help reduce future abuse and violence. Like many, I've experienced anger and rage at those who use sexuality to harm others. But I've come to learn that these feelings, while understandable, don't help to prevent more abuse. In fact, they may make it worse.
In recent months, we've seen the rise of conspiracy claims related to the QAnon movement, with claims that secret rings of pedophiles infiltrate our government and entertainment industry. Pizzagate was, to a degree, where these claims began, with wild and frightening claims of sex-trafficked children in a D.C. pizza restaurant allegedly associated with Democratic politicians. Then Jeffrey Epstein, linked to power brokers in politics and finance, was charged and died after he predated upon young, vulnerable female teens. Finally, Netflix released the film Cuties, with promotional material and clips that objectified young girls, showing them mimicking adult, sexualized dance in hip hop videos. Suddenly, it seems like we are at war with people who want to "normalize" sex with children, and social media is filled with cries for murder, execution, and cancellation of anyone associated.
Children deserve to be protected, and it is indeed our job as adults to protect them. But to truly protect young people, we must deal with reality, and not fantastical conspiracies. There are some critical facts missing from these current conversations:
- Most children who experience sexual abuse are abused by people they know. Over 90% of sexual assaults against children, are committed by relatives, siblings, parents, teachers, pastors, ministers, or neighbors.
- Less than half (around 40%) of sexual assaults against children are committed by pedophiles. The majority of sexual crimes against children are perpetrated by people who do not have a history of disordered sexual arousal to children. Instead, issues of drugs, alcohol, anger, isolation, and control motivate these tragic events.
- Pedophilia, a sexual disorder involving repeated sexual arousal, fantasy, or behavior toward children, is not, in and of itself alone, a highly significant risk factor for sexual abuse of children. I know this seems hard to believe, but research demonstrates that it is antisocial personality traits, low empathy for the victim, disinhibiting drugs and alcohol, and isolation which lead to sexual abuse of children. People with pedophilic arousal and attraction are at greater risk compared to the general public to engage in child sex abuse, but it appears that these other risk factors may carry more weight. It is when pedophilia combines with these other risk factors that we must be most concerned.
- Many people with pedophilic disorder never sexually abuse children. We truly don't know very much about this population, or how many never abuse children, because most keep their fantasies and thoughts deeply secret for shame and fear of punishment or exposure. Pedophiles appear to be born, not made, and have distinct neurological differences which correlate with these disturbed sexual desires. But when pedophiles have empathy, have an awareness of the need to follow social rules, and are sober, these people appear to have no clear risk for sexually abusive behavior.
- Treatment of sexual offenders against children used to be highly punitive, coercive, and filled with shame. But today, these treatments have been shown to potentially increase the risk of recidivism, and to put more children at risk. Punishment and revenge against sex offenders may make us feel vindication, but it comes at the price of future victims. Treatment models such as The Good Lives program have strong evidence for reducing future risk, and rely on building up former offenders, developing skills, resources, motivation, and social connections, not on breaking down these people.
Anger, rage, and fear over the sexual abuse of children not only hurts our chances of preventing future abuse, but it harms the children themselves. It is exactly our rage and shame over sexual abuse, and sexuality in general, which leads many victims to keep their abuse secret. They fear that they are now tainted, that it was somehow their fault, and that our rage will leak onto them.
We need to have better, louder, and more conversations about the way our society and media sexualizes children, in beauty pageants, television shows, and daily life. But we need to have these conversations based on facts, not myths. We need to recognize that these tragedies are due to social policies that perpetuate neglect, poverty, and dehumanization, not the nefarious actions of secret cabals of powerful pedophiles. Blaming pedophiles is a way of saying these problems are external to us. But they're not.
Last year the U.S. learned that thousands of children have reported experiencing sexual abuse while in immigration camps, separated from their families. Children were put in the care of staff who had been inadequately screened and supervised, due to our government's declaration that immigration was a crisis, and its decision to waive and ignore standard regulations about background checks and supervision. Where is the rage? Where is the outcry about pedophiles in government? Sex trafficking of children is happening—by our own government, toward children we have declared disposable through our policy and our contempt.
Prevention of sexual abuse of children shouldn't be a political tool, raised only to score points against our opponents. It shouldn't be based on myths and conspiracies. And outcry against child sexual abuse shouldn't be merely another way to morally grandstand, or to signal virtue and purity, while ignoring the deeper, more complex issues at play. If we want to protect children, as I do, we must deal with facts, not panic.