[TW: Pedophilia, child molestation, rape.]
Sometimes, I see people on the internet who talk about pedophiles. These people talk about ‘pedophile priests,’ they mention ‘disgusting pedophiles,’ they often use the word ‘pedophile’ as a synonym for ‘child abuser’, and almost always the word comes with a very negative connotation. This is part of a greater attitude that society holds toward pedophiles, which creates a serious problem that I would like to address.
I want to get one thing out of the way very quickly. Pedophiles and child abusers are not the same thing. Pedophiles are people who are sexually attracted to children. Child abusers are people who sexually abuse children. There is an extremely important difference between the two. Pedophiles are defined by their thoughts, child abusers are defined by their behavior. If this doesn’t make sense, I’ve included a helpful Venn diagram above.
It’s entirely possible for pedophiles not to be child abusers. I would argue that most pedophiles aren’t child abusers. For instance, heterosexual men are attracted to women. However, most heterosexual men would never even consider raping a woman. Just because heterosexual men are attracted to women doesn’t mean they are willing to ignore the (very serious) legal and ethical problems involved with rape. In exactly the same way, even though pedophiles are attracted to children, that doesn’t mean that most are willing to ignore the very same legal and ethical problems involved with child abuse. Most pedophiles are normal people, and are just as horrified as everyone else is at the thought of abusing a child.
Furthermore, not all child abusers are pedophiles. There are a number of reasons that drive a person to abuse children, and a sexual attraction to them is only one. Again, like rape, child abuse is frequently more about power and dominance than about sex or attraction. There is some overlap between pedophiles and child abusers, sure, but they’re not identical. The fact is, most pedophiles aren’t monsters or child abusers. They’re just as horrified by child abuse as everyone else.
You may have noticed that, although I’ve used phrases like ‘most pedophiles,’ I haven’t provided any numbers or statistics in this article. That’s because there aren’t any. What percentage of the general population are pedophiles? One percent? Five percent? We have no idea. What percentage of pedophiles are child abusers? One percent? Fifty percent? What’s the age, race, and gender distribution of the pedophile population? Nobody knows.
Most of the studies of pedophilia use convicted child abusers as subjects. Nearly all available statistics on pedophiles or pedophilia focus on this subgroup. Most of the psychology and sociology of pedophilia use this subject pool to base their research on. Most of the conclusions of that research might not apply to pedophiles who don’t abuse children.
The problem is that society treats pedophiles like they’re already guilty of committing a crime. By either assuming that all pedophiles are child abusers, or assuming that all pedophiles will inevitably become child abusers, most people eliminate the very real possibility of trying to help pedophiles not become child abusers in the first place.
Conflating pedophilia with child abuse marginalizes pedophiles who don’t abuse children. When people are rendered invisible by society, there is nothing there to help them. There is no counseling available, there are no support networks, there are no organizations to advocate on their behalf. And some people slip through the cracks. Plenty of pedophiles don’t need support to keep them from abusing children, but there are plenty more who do.
And, in many cases, the situation is far worse than simple erasure. Most of society is violently opposed to the idea of functional support structures for pedophiles. Most people are quick to demonize and dehumanize pedophiles instead of supporting them. This pushes pedophiles to the sidelines, where they are unable to get the help they need. And, of course, when pedophiles are actively prevented from seeking help, some may succumb to their desires.
The fact is, stigmatizing pedophiles and treating them like scum hurts everybody. It’s far better to treat pedophiles with compassion and understanding instead of fear and hatred. None of them chose to be pedophiles, and most are trying to do the right thing, even in the face of a hostile culture that despises them. It’s time the rest of us chose to do the right thing as well. After all, pedophiles are people too.