On Tuesday evening, Channel 4 had a unique bit of programming in their primetime 9PM slot. The Paedophile Next Door, narrated by documentary-maker and historian Steve Humphries, presented the radical argument for treating paedophiles and would-be sex offenders before they offend. In the UK there are currently no treatment or therapy programmes for paedophiles who are yet to offend – any treatment is only available, voluntarily, after conviction.
It's a progressive move by Germany, then, to have put out a TV campaign encouraging people who are having sexual thoughts about children to come forward and seek help. "I don't want to be an offender," said one of the actors on the snippet we saw on the show. It's jarring and uncomfortable, but that's the point. More jarring still were the programme's harrowing interviews with individuals who were abused as children. One woman who was repeatedly raped by her father spoke in the slowest whispers. Her face brightened when she spoke of training to be a social worker, but was still contorted with pain.
But it was a 39-year-old man named Eddie – the titular paedophile next door – who was the focal point of the hour-long film. Eddie admitted, on camera, to a primetime audience, to having sexual attraction to girls as young as five. It was remarkable, gut-churning, to see such a regular-looking man making the confession on television. But again, that was the point. Paedophiles seem, as the show's rather silly, more than faintly Chris Morris-esque narration said, "just like ordinary men". We are told at one point – helpfully – that Eddie "even became captain of the school rugby team".
A trailer of the Channel 4 show
Eddie appeared on the show because he wanted to raise awareness. He didn't want to be how he was. He wanted help – help that isn't currently available. He argued that the demonising of paedophiles drives them to offend; that the current infrastructure is nowhere near as preventative as it could be. The closing note was Eddie saying he'd been accepted onto a treatment programme in Europe, with a cutaway of him writing a "coming out" letter to his mum. Grim, but a vague flicker of hope in such a sunless area of humanity.
Still, for many, that Eddie was given such a public platform was problematic. Irresponsible. Some of the general public weren't comfortable at all – "bring back the death penalty, I say", read some tweets, predictably. In fact, many had a problem with publications even reviewing the show. The Guardian's Rebecca Nicholson wrote a shrewd review, yet found herself being accused on Twitter of empathising with paedophiles.
One of the advocates for preventative treatment options was Jon Brown, the NSPCC lead for tackling sexual abuse, who appeared on the programme and said it would be a "positive development". It did feel like some of the show's prudent messages were lost in the way it was presented. The eerie synths, the Michael Burke on 999-style voiceovers and the bogging down with a potted history of paedophilia really did make it feel like an episode of Jam.
I tracked Brown down for a wider conversation.
VICE: Hi Jon. The overarching question, it seems, is this: Is the system for dealing with paedophiles in the UK broken?
Jon Brown: The system is certainly in need of reform. I wouldn't go as far as to say that it is broken. We have a really strong child protection system in the UK – some strong policies, procedures and well-developed practices, but it's a bit narrow in its focus. It needs to become focused if we are serious about preventing child abuse in all its forms. We need to recognise that there are many, many people out there causing harm to children that are never prosecuted.
So what we're aware of, what gets reported is, effectively, the tip of the iceberg?
The documentary spoke of the individuals in our community, like Eddie, who aren't exclusively attracted to children, and don't transmit their thoughts into behaviour. How do we know he's genuine, though?
Well, we don't. We need to issue a mode of caution; I was on a 5 live interview on Tuesday and that point was being made there, that we don't know if Eddie is being genuine or if he has indeed committed sexual offences. There is a tendency for those who do abuse children to cover it up, to be very manipulative and devious.
But the bigger picture is that there are individuals with these kinds of thoughts who want to do something about it?
Yes. Selfishly, they don't want to end up in prison. Altruistically, they don't want to cause harm. They want help, and we need to be looking to develop many more services over the phone and face-to-face to help the individuals understand their behaviour, control it and make sure they have sufficient strategies in place to ensure they don't act on the behaviour when they are in situations of stress and depression or whatever the triggers might be for them. At the NSPCC we believe it's crucial work that needs to be invested in, as indeed do more facilities for victims. It's a dual operation we would like to see.
Because we can't rely on children to report offences, can we? Even with a facility like Childline, where they have the ability to refer the case to the police, a victim might be being threatened, or in a reward cycle with their abuser.
If a young person contacts Childline identifying the individuals who have abused them, although in the strictest confidence, a conversation will then take place that helps them move to a point where they are comfortable reporting it. If you then look at a potentially similar service for individuals who are concerned about sexual thoughts towards children, there would be parameters surrounding it. My vision is that a nationwide, 24/7, 365 days a year online and phone service could provide counselling for individuals who are concerned about their thoughts. I don't see the NSPCC providing a service like that, but we certainly would support it and we would use our experts who work with child victims to inform the work and help establish it.
The more direct interest with the NSPCC is towards young people who are concerned about their sexual thoughts about children, because paedophilia doesn't develop in adulthood. There is some evidence that suggests biological determinants, that some people may be born with that predilection, which then develops through a complex cocktail of circumstances.
The programme did touch on this, but it doesn't seem particularly helpful for such research to become public before the science is more solid.
Yes, it leads you down some problematic paths if you start to talk along those terms, as you get to genetic selection and awful things like that. What is clear so far from the research is that the biggest determinant for paedophilia is environment and experiences. Paedophilia isn't a sexual orientation. It's a sexual preference. Young people may grow out of this kind of thought pattern, or it may become further reinforced as an adult. Both the NSPCC and Childline already get calls from young people with concerns about themselves, so there needs to be developed provisions there.
Does the terminology surrounding paedophilia need to change? The phrase "coming out" was used a lot in the programme, which felt incredibly problematic.
Indeed. It's just not a helpful phrase to use and we need to be incredibly clear about that differentiation. From a clinical psychiatric point of view, its actually seen as a mental disorder, if you look at the DSM. That medicalisation of the term can be useful in targeting treatments.
Well, for those individuals whose interest and arousal is very strong, drug treatments may be offered. Generally speaking, though, we have seen that talking therapy and CBT approaches offer the best prospect of helping people understand and keep control of their thoughts.
The issue around the term "child pornography" was also raised, too, which felt important. Because it's not porn, is it? It's a visual record of abuse.
Yes, the word "pornography" gives the wrong message. I'm pleased that was conveyed in the programme. At the NSPCC we always refer to it as child abuse imagery or illegal images of children.
The show dealt with the idea of providing preventative treatment for paedophiles, rather than only acting after the crime has been committed. Can you ever imagine a Britain where treatment plans become compulsory in prison, rather than voluntary, as they are now?
You're right – treatment does remain voluntary, in as much as you can have a individual sentenced to X number of years in prison due to sexual offences against children, with a condition of treatment. But if the individual refuses to engage in that treatment, the reality is that they're not going to continue with it as there's such a shortage of places. We are concerned at the NSPCC about the shortfall between demand and availability for treatment places within the criminal justice system. We are aware of cases of individuals who are clearly in need of treatment who are released from custody without having had it, or any clear assessment as to the risks they represent.
It's worth mentioning, too, that quite a lot of work has been undertaken in how we can work with people in apparent denial, where someone is flatly denying they have committed an offence. The work looks at the possibility of engaging with and disassembling their denial, examining how they constructed it. There also needs to be a greater availability of treatment services for individuals with historic conviction who aren't currently monitored or supervised by the probation service.
We need to recognise that there are many, many people out there causing harm to children that are never prosecuted
Is this something that the government wants to fund? It doesn't seem like the kind of thing people will be falling over themselves to throw money at.
Yes, well, it comes down to how you package and sell it. If it's sold on a prevention ticket, saying that we need to find out how we can best prevent the sexual abuse of children, it presents a far better prospect in terms of securing funding from individual donors, organisations and government. No one can argue against the idea of preventing child sexual abuse. But how we go about it, how we prevent it from occurring, is a difficult decision in terms of what needs to be done.
So what are we talking? Better sexual education for children in schools? Better advice for parents?
Yes. And those sorts of things are still relatively contentious, actually, when you get into the field of sex offenders and pedophiles. But if you wrap it up as a prevention argument, that's the best prospect of securing funding. It's the angle we're wanting to pursue at the NSPCC.
Speaking of better advice for parents, the retired DC who appeared on the documentary said that one of the answers is for parents to stay with their kids the entire time they're on the internet, whether it's on the computer, tablet or phone. This seems like decade-old, ridiculous advice. Not to mention impossible.
Yes, that argument isn't helpful at all. Especially now with smartphones and the fact that there's wifi in so many public places. Communications are developing much, much faster than they were before.
What are the statistics surrounding child sex abuse in the UK?
It's thought that one in three children are sexually abused by an adult but don't tell anyone. Over 90 percent of children are sexually abused by someone they know and our figures show that (from cases that have reached prosecution) up to one in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused. Of course, all these are underestimates. We are only dealing with the tip of the iceberg.
Are you hopeful?
I am. I have to be.
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