Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Pedophiles vs. child molesters...

Had an interesting discussion last night with some of my Facebook friends.  Someone posted an article from the New York Times about enjoying your quality of life after you get a fatal diagnosis.  I think she posted it because one of her friends and colleagues at my alma mater just died of cancer.  He had been on hospice.  Anyway, I read the article and enjoyed it.  Just as I was about to click away, I noticed another headline from an op-ed piece.  It read Pedophilia: A Disorder, Not a Crime and it was written by Margo Kaplan, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law.

Naturally, I read the article.  I was interested for several reasons.  First off, I had a run in with a pedophile when I was growing up.  I didn't know that was what he was when I knew him and he never physically harmed me.  But he used to make inappropriate comments and showed me pornography.  He also showed me a medical book he owned that had photographs of nude children in it.  When I began to look more like a woman, that behavior stopped, the same way it stopped when my older neighbor became more womanly.  This man has been dead for ten years.  It never occurred to me that what he was doing was abusive until I was in my 20s and seeing a therapist for depression and anxiety.

The second reason I was interested was because when I was studying social work, I had a professor who did a lot of work with child molesters and pedophiles.  You might think the two terms are interchangeable, but they really aren't.  A pedophile is a person who is sexually attracted to children, generally younger than age 11.  That doesn't mean the person acts on their impulses.  It just means they have those feelings and desires.  A child molester is someone who has actually harmed a child by sexually abusing them.  Not all child molesters are pedophiles.  Sometimes people sexually abuse children for reasons other than being attracted to them.

Anyway, Ms. Kaplan's article was about how people with pedophilia, which she classifies as a mental disorder, are being unjustly persecuted by our current legal system.  Again, let me reiterate-- these are people who are attracted to children through no fault of their own, but have not actually done anything to harm a child.  Many people think that being a pedophile is a choice.  That notion, for me, fails the logic test.  Why would a person willingly choose to sexually desire people who are within a segment of society they can never legally or peacefully pursue a relationship?  When you consider what happens to people who are discovered to have any kind of prurient attraction to children, it doesn't make sense.  Being "outed" as a pedophile means being shunned, potentially losing one's job and housing, possibly being targeted for crimes, and maybe even going to prison.  And in prison, what typically happens to anyone who perpetrates crimes against children?  They, along with rapists, are at the bottom of the totem pole in "the joint".  It's likely they will be harassed and possibly hurt or killed by other prisoners.

And that brings me to my next point.  What can a pedophile do about his (or her) situation?  We might tell them they need "professional help" from a mental health therapist.  But how does a pedophile access professional help without risk?  Therapists have a duty to respect confidentiality, but there are limits to that respect.  They must make a report to the authorities if they have a client who is a danger to themselves or another person, especially if it involves a child.  Therapists are humans and they each have a threshold at which they will feel compelled to act.  Reporting crime is a good thing-- an innocent person has the right to protection over a client's right to privacy.  But if all you're doing is reporting that you have feelings of attraction toward children, you haven't actually touched one in a criminal way, and you're asking for competent, professional help, you should probably be commended and assisted, not automatically reported to the authorities.  Moreover, many therapists lack training in this area, don't understand it, and aren't helpful to clients who are dealing with it.  What they probably should do is refer the client to someone who knows what they are doing rather than trying to deal with it themselves or automatically going to the police.  That's the ethical thing to do for any healthcare professional-- don't try to work beyond the scope of your expertise.  From what I understand, there are therapists who are trained in dealing with pedophilia, but it's kind of a niche specialty.  It's not the kind of issue a garden variety therapist ought to be treating.

I posted Margo Kaplan's article with some hesitation, since this is a topic that tends to bring out vitriol in a lot of people.  There's a guy on my friends list who is a police officer and he immediately posted an argument as to why what Kaplan wrote was "bunk".  This guy enjoys arguing with people and is a bit of a right fighter, so I didn't take the bait.  When it comes to pedophiles, people either want to warehouse them in a prison or take them out in a field and shoot them.  And the first responses did, in fact, demonstrate that sentiment.  One person said she was sure there was "counseling" in prison.  Another commented that they should just be shot.  That kind of knee-jerk, thoughtless response is still politically correct, since most people don't have much empathy for pedophiles.

I went a bit deeper and commented that it's easy to say you want to shoot a pedophile or put him (or her) in prison if it's someone you don't care about.  But what if you have a son or daughter who is a pedophile?  What if it's your husband or parent or sibling?  What if they go beyond pedophilia and actually resort to child molestation or viewing child pornography?  How do you deal with the conflicting emotions that might come from that scenario?  Do you still want to shoot the pedophile if it's your son?  I'm guessing you probably wouldn't, especially if your son hasn't actually hurt anyone.  It's not a crime to have feelings, impulses, and desires.  It is a crime to victimize people, particularly children and other vulnerable people who lack the ability to fully protect themselves.

Is it right to pre-emptively lock up people who admit to being pedophiles?  That seems to go against their civil rights.  It costs a lot of money and manpower.  It also doesn't solve the problem.  A person who admits to having a problem with pedophilia is not the one we must worry about the most.  It's the person who doesn't identify themselves and doesn't think there's anything wrong with sexually desiring and molesting a child that should concern us.

I was pretty pleased with the discussion we had last night.  Most of my friends, some of whom I actually know offline, are basically reasonable about this subject.  On the other hand, most of these people are parents and I know that the basic drive to protect their children would kick into overdrive if they found out their neighbor was a pedophile.  And I have to admit, had I been a parent, I would probably feel the same way.

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