with Monique Schafter
For over a year I’ve been working on a documentary about child sexual abuse. The story is told through the eyes of a 28-year old survivor of abuse who asks the question: why would someone abuse a child?
After speaking to a variety of psychologists, people who work with offenders, and even an offender himself, we’ve learnt that there are many factors that can lead to someone committing child sexual assault. But one of the most confronting reasons is the idea that paedophilia is a sexual orientation.
Research suggests that a very small proportion of people develop an attraction towards young children during adolescence, the same time that most of us begin to work out if we’re heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.
While the media uses terms like “child abuser” and “paedophile” interchangeably, the truth is that not all paedophiles act on their impulses. Many are distressed and horrified that they have these feelings, so seek help to ensure they never act on them.
It’s also worth noting that only a small proportion of child sex offenders are actually paedophiles. Most are men who are sexually attracted to adults but for a variety of other reasons choose to sexually assault a child. Some experts say the criminal behaviour may be influenced by traumatic events experienced in an offender’s own childhood, combined with access to children and a belief that they’ll get away with it. For other offenders, it’s a mixture of paedophilic tendencies, severe intimacy issues and other factors.
Some psychologists who treat offenders admit that in particular cases they can’t change a person’s orientation towards children and so the treatment focuses on teaching offenders to manage their behaviour. The same goes for paedophiles that haven’t offended.
While nothing can take away from the inhumanity of sexual abuse and the life-long trauma experienced by victims, when I learnt about paedophilia as an orientation, I felt a sense of sadness for people born with those tendencies.
Could you imagine having urges like that – that you couldn’t turn off? In a society that’s understandably scared of and outraged by “paedophiles,” it would be incredibly hard to admit to those feelings and ask for help.
As most people will tell you, sexual orientation is the hand you’re dealt at birth, not an option you choose along the way. Fortunately for the clear majority of adults, our sexual instinct drives us towards consensual, respectful and safe encounters with other adults.
Nothing will ever excuse an act of child sexual assault, but I hope that having a better understanding of the many factors that motivate that behaviour might help us stop it from happening in the first place.
Our documentary will screen later this year on ABC2.