Originally published in Daily Maverick
When you hear reports concerning an “alleged paedophile” like Johannes Kleinhans, due back in court this week, it’s difficult to think of his possible crime as anything other than sexual abuse of a minor. But that’s not what paedophilia means. Furthermore, our instinctive horror at the possibility of children being sexually abused might sometimes be counterproductive, in that it leads us to scare potential abusers away from treatment.
Some think that “treatment” for paedophiles is impossible, and that they should simply be locked away for good. Still others think that locking them up is not enough, or that the prison time should come with a guarantee of experiencing some sexual abuse yourself. “Papa wag vir you” (Daddy is waiting for you) is one of the more polite comments to one report on a US Peace Corps volunteer, facing imprisonment for sexually abusing five KwaZulu-Natal girls.
These responses are understandable. I cannot imagine the terror that parents might feel when thinking about these threats to their children – or even the legislative responses to those threats, like when you find out that South Africa’s sexual offenders register lists only 40 names (thought to be a small fraction of the true number).
All paedophiles are attracted to young children, often sexually, but not all those who sexually abuse children are paedophiles, and not all paedophiles are child molesters. Paedophilia describes what you’re attracted to – not what you do with that attraction. For a celibate male priest, a hetero- or homosexual orientation could be a problem, regardless of whether he’s attracted to adults or not. He remains celibate, though, until the attractions are acted on.
Of course these things are not the same in terms of the extent of damage that can be caused to the victims of sexual assault. Children are easier to victimise than adults are, regardless of your view on whether long-term trauma is more or less likely at any given age.
Nevertheless, it’s the sexual abuse of children that we want to criminalise, not the fact that someone was unfortunate enough to be born with sexual desires they are unable to pursue (or can only pursue under threat of severe consequences). I’m not comparing adult sexual abuse to child sexual abuse, except to say that what sort of target an abuser would pick – if they were to abuse someone – is a separate matter from whether they are an abuser or not.
So, a paedophile is a potential abuser of children. It’s not a crime to be a potential anything, though – if it were, few of us would escape imprisonment thanks to our constant potential to break laws, whether the more trivial speeding while driving to the less trivial theft or murder. We don’t do these things for various reasons, including fear of punishment – but also because we don’t want to do them. We might not even want to have the desires we do.
This is the case for many paedophiles, such as Spencer Kaplan or the man who wrote to sex-advice columnist Dan Savage to say that he “walk[s] around every awful day of [his] life knowing that there is no one out there for me” – in other words, that his life can never contain any sexually fulfilling interactions with other humans, because he’s attracted to the wrong sort of humans. I remember listening to another paedophile (but this time, someone who was himself still in adolescence) calling in to Savage’s show, expressing bewilderment at what he should do. He knew his urges were wrong, and he knew that he shouldn’t act on them. He just didn’t know how he could be helped to live with this self-denial for the rest of his life.
We need to help potential child abusers to not become actual child abusers. And speaking of paedophiles as if they are already abusers isn’t helpful because it shames them, and because it runs the risk of driving underground exactly the sort of people we want in plain sight – and in treatment.
In the US, an organisation called B4U-ACT offers counselling for those they call minor-attracted people, and similar support mechanisms exist in Canada, Germany and elsewhere. In Greece, paedophilia is regarded as a disability (edit on 16 April 2022: this was only a proposal, which was in the end not adopted), with social support grants available to those who are willing to present themselves for diagnosis. But who would do such a thing as present with paedophilia, when everyone understands that to mean you rape children?
Dehumanising people can’t be a productive strategy for getting them to treat others as human, rather than as objects for sexual abuse. Some of the articles linked to above contain examples of sufficient verbal abuse, or a complete lack of sympathy, that we shouldn’t be surprised when potential offenders want nothing to do with treatment. We’re telling them we don’t care.
Yet, we remain surprised to hear of cases where some “monster”, “lacking all humanity”, and so forth, has committed some horrible crime. There’s no question that the sexual abuse of children is a horrible crime, and that we should do all we can to make sure it never happens. But making sure that it never happens might well include our own obligation to avoid the lesser crime of refusing someone the treatment they need, and that might protect your – or someone else’s – child.