To Stop Child Sex Abuse, Don’t Just Give in to Hatred of the Offenders
I once attended a school board meeting where I watched a dad come to the podium to fulminate about an unconfirmed rumor that someone in a van had been stalking neighborhood children. In a span of just three minutes — the time allotted for public speakers — his focus shifted from a measured appraisal of practical steps to ensure kids’ safety to a fuming rant in which he luridly described what he’d do if he got his hands on this nameless, faceless perp. In the moment I briefly found myself more concerned about this raging father than the bogeyman in an Econoline allegedly casing playgrounds.
As part of my duties in a previous job I had to monitor the comments sections of news stories, including stories announcing arrests or convictions of men (and occasionally women) charged with pedophilia-related crimes, like assault or possession of child pornography. And again, the bloodthirsty fantasy punishments cooked up by some of the commenters were chilling, in fact so disturbingly specific in their description of what torture they would inflict I often felt almost protective of the child molester. And once again, the over-the-top descriptions of violence also served to take the focus off the victims and onto the adults who would avenge them.
But is that really where the focus should be? And do these declarations of righteous anger in any way help young victims, or do they merely serve to make those airing them feel better about themselves?
In the 2006 film Little Children, based on the novel by Tom Perrota, an ex-cop played by Noah Emmerich torments Jackie Earle Hayley’s Ronnie, a convicted sex offender recently released from prison, upping the ante until he indirectly causes the death of Ronnie’s mother. Near the end of the film, when Emmerich’s character attempts to apologize, he discovers Ronnie bleeding to death in a park after castrating himself.
Emmerich’s Larry is falling apart after he accidentally shoots a teenager, leading to the loss of his job as a cop and the rupture of his marriage. Clearly, Larry isn’t really going after Ronnie in order to protect the community but rather because he needs what he believes to be a socially acceptable target to vent his anger over the downward turn his life has taken. And who better to pick on than a pariah?
I detected a similar motive (in much milder form) behind the violent intensity of that school board speaker’s remarks and of the endless series of “give me five minutes alone with him” comments attached to stories about sex offenders who target kids. To be sure, it’s natural to experience explosive rage towards anyone who hurts a child in that way, and especially so if one has children of their own. But when one stews in that righteous anger, feeding it and looking to sustain it out of the sheer dark desire to hurt somebody — a desire familiar to most if not all of us — then we can no longer claim that our outrage is in service to innocent victims, but only to ourselves. Uncontrolled rage makes us selfish and irrational, whereas what’s called for to actually protect children are selflessness and a level head.
And it also calls for no small amount of compassion for the pedophiles themselves, who are often victims first before they become perpetrators. And perhaps as often, those who feel sexually attracted to children do not want to act on their impulses — but they also find it difficult to get help, partly thanks to those who are merely looking for a suitable villain to chastise.
Which is tragic, because the condition — one of a family of disorders collectively known as paraphilias — is actually treatable, meaning that it is possible to break the cycle and thereby reduce the number of victims (an estimated 13 percent of girls and 6 percent of boys) dramatically.
The first, immediate priority of course must always be to protect potential child victims. But if we treat those who experience these impulses and have refrained from acting on them not as monsters deserving of our righteous rage but as sick people who can be helped, then countless children will also be saved.