“The Paedophile Next Door,” a documentary that aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, illustrates, in high relief, many of the problems faced by child sexual abuse victims, offenders, citizens and policy makers. Remarkably, this story also documents the problems faced by non-offending pedophiles, that is, people living with – but not acting on – sexual attraction to children.
This documentary helps demonstrate the weakness of the typical “monster” frame that we have for men attracted to children. These men are not all monsters – certainly not the ones who refrain from abusing children. And even when considering those who have abused, viewing them as monsters is not only unhelpful, it is harmful to our own self-interests. As demonstrated in the show, communities that banish known sex offenders simply remove them from known addresses – from which they could be monitored – to unknown addresses from which they might be more likely to continue to harm others. But there is more damage wrought by the monster frame than just this.
When we convince ourselves that only monsters would sexually abuse a child, then we blind ourselves to the red flags in our own families, social circles and communities. If someone we love or respect acts in unusual ways with children or is even accused of abusing children, we often look away, unable to fathom that a good man (or woman) would do something so harmful to a child. And so headmasters get away with abuse, fathers get away with abuse, and coaches, teachers and doctors get away with abuse. For decades.
Another problem with the monster frame is that it prevents us from viewing child sexual abuse as preventable. Monsters are unpredictable, unknowable, and thus their actions cannot be prevented. Yet, as we saw in this excellent piece of reporting, there are men – an unknown number, and surely some women though far fewer – who make the moral decision to avoid acting on their sexual attractions to children. If we also view these people as monsters, or monsters-in-waiting, then we cannot offer them help or hope.
It is better now – there is far less child sexual abuse and far more reporting of abuse when it does occur now than at any time in the past 25 years. But still, too many children are left vulnerable by our collective unwillingness to recognize that even those we hold most dear might engage in the sexual abuse of children.
We must de-stigmatize help seeking by these people, and then we must be ready to provide effective prevention interventions. At the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, our mission is to conduct research, evaluate policies, inform the public and partner with like-minded organizations in order to create and disseminate proven prevention strategies. Investing resources in the development, evaluation and dissemination of effective prevention measures – particularly those targeting individuals most in need and most at risk – might be one of the most effective ways to reduce the rates of child sexual abuse. Certainly it is superior to waiting for abuse to happen and only then reacting.