When you listen to slush readers, editors, and agents talk about what they don’t want to find in their mailbox, you hear about hackneyed ideas, bland openings, purple crayons, and death threats. You also hear, “Don’t send me a sympathetic story about a rapist or a pedophile. Ugh.”
When Henry Gee asked me to submit a story to Nature Futures, I decided to break that rule. Why? Well, first off, I’m not much good with rules. Also, I felt this particular rule was malformed. What it really meant was, “Don’t make me read something that makes me feel I should tell the cops about you.”
One of my pet peeves is the conflation of pedophilia and child rape. Paying attention to abuses of authority, as I do, I have this peeve triggered a lot. The phrase “pedophile priest” makes me grit my teeth.
Not every adult who rapes a prepubescent child is a pedophile. (The term for those attracted to pubescent children is “hebophile.” Those we consider normal–attracted to adults–are teleiophiles.) A summary of research on pedophilia by the Mayo Clinic suggests that one in ten people who molest a child is not a pedophile. Now, the likelihood is good that this tenth person is a juvenile who has themself been molested and, thus, taught inappropriate behavior for their age. Nonetheless, child molestation does not equate to pedophilia.
Nor do we know what percentage of pedophiles have ever raped or molested a child. Pedophilia is a taboo topic, and it’s unlikely that many people would be willing to reveal their pedophilia for the sake of science, particularly if they were managing their sexual impulses in a way that otherwise didn’t bring them public attention. Most research done on pedophilia is done on convicted child molesters and rapists; they are unlikely to represent the entirety of pedophiles.
There are two things we know from studying pedophilia that make it likely that there are pedophiles in society who have never coerced or forced a child into sexual activity. The first is that pedophilia is not always an exclusive attraction. The vast majority of those who have a sexual attraction to prepubescents are also attracted to adults, and this group is responsible for the fewest number of victims. Their crimes tend to be opportunistic, with family members the usual targets. They don’t go out of their way to find victims.
The second thing that suggests the possible existence of non-predatory pedophiles is the profile of those who are studied as criminals. They tend to be emotionally immature and have poor coping and communication skills.
A quick digression: Modern psychology makes a distinction between fetishes and paraphilias based on the impact on someone’s life and on society. A fetish doesn’t cause problems; a paraphilia does. This is a somewhat arbitrary distinction, as it isn’t based on the strength or type of sexual desire involved, merely on the outcome. That means that, given two people with equal desires for some kind of sexual behavior, one may be considered to have a fetish if s/he has the social or financial resources to find someone to willingly indulge him or her, and one may be considered to have a paraphilia because s/he doesn’t.
What this means is that there may well be pedophiles out there who manage to keep their attractions in the realm of fantasy or to find creative ways to satisfy their desires with adults instead of children. That doesn’t mean it would be easy, of course. Making it harder is the isolating effect of such a socially unacceptable attraction. It can’t be easy to find support in managing pedophilia responsibly if telling someone only results in the loss of another friend or worse.
There are programs now for those who want help managing their desires. They aren’t widespread, nor do we have any information on how effective they are, as they’re generally recent. But at the very least, they provide us with one more population in which we can study pedophilia and the prevention of child rape. Some studies from these populations are starting to come out now.
Still, no matter what we find, it won’t change the fact that there is a group of pedophiles with no attraction to adults and no emotional or financial resources to channel their sexuality into something that doesn’t hurt children. And while one of my main characters in the story is sympathetic despite her open attraction to children, it is this reality on which the world of the story is built. My story is sympathetic to the character’s attraction but not at all to the crime.