Todd Nickerson is a 43-year-old virgin.
The graphic designer, who has dark blond shoulder-length hair, thinning at the front, and a prosthetic right hand, lives alone in a mobile home near Savannah, Tennessee. For a long time, he stayed in his bedroom, isolated, because he had a secret: He was attracted to children.
Nickerson is a pedophile.
By definition, it means he is sexually aroused by prepubescent children (in his case, girls). However, Nickerson tells VICE it does not mean he is a child molester, and he stresses he has never and will never act on his desires.
"I kind of had to get over a lot of society's BS, this idea that you're doomed to offend," he says in a phone interview. "I had to say, 'No, no. You're not, you have control over that.' We're not slaves to our hormones."
This is a part of a VICE Canada project investigating the impact of vigilante pedophile hunting in Canada.
Part Two: Predators or Prey? Creep Catchers Accused of Targeting People with Physical and Mental Disabilities
Part Three: A Pedophile Opens Up About Being Targeted By Vigilantes
Due to the stigma surrounding pedophilia, it's difficult to know how many people are affected by it, although experts have estimated it's 0.5 to two percent of the general population. But not all people who commit sexual offences against children are pedophiles. In fact, according to studies, between 40 to 75 percent are not. When it comes to child porn, however, closer to 80 percent are pedophiles.
"There are people who are pedophilic, they know they're attracted to children, and never touch a child, never download any kind of child pornography, they never break any kind of law," says James Cantor, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and sexual behaviour scientist who has been studying pedophilia for 20 years.
"It also works the other way around. There are people who are child molesters, they actually committed crimes and victimized someone even though they sexually prefer adults." These people are sometimes referred to as surrogate sex offenders, Cantor explains, who use children to replace an adult sexual partner.
The distinction is rarely discussed publicly, likely in part because no one really has much sympathy for a pedophile. More recently, self-described "pedophile hunters" like Creep Catchers have made a point of labelling most of the people they shame online a "pedophile."
Ryan Laforge, president of Surrey Creep Catchers, tells VICE in his mind a guy who says he wants to ride bikes with a teenager is as much a pedophile as someone who requests naked photographs.
"I got bigger worries than to lose sleep over that exact minor detail," Laforge says.
Laforge and vigilantes like him operate by posting profiles on Craigslist and dating sites, pretending to be at least 18 years old, and later informing the adults who express interest in them that they are actually a minor, typically around 14-15 years old. During the ensuing conversations, they send photos of people who look young, pulled from volunteers. The people in the images are currently over the age of 18 but were often younger at the time the photos were taken—though there's no set standard as to what age.
Cantor says the ideal age range for a true pedophile would be 10 and under, while hebephiles are attracted to children around 11-14 years old.
People who attracted to children in the later teens, aged 15 to 16, are technically ephebophiles and aren't considered to have any kind of mental disorder. Based on the tactics used by vigilantes, the majority of the people vigilantes bust are hebephiles or ephebophiles, says Cantor.
"It sounds like few of them would be considered pedophiles."
Media reports that often conflate pedophiles with child abusers exacerbate the confusion.
But Nickerson says there are many pedophiles who have no interest in hurting children.
His own realization that he was a pedophile came over time.
Nickerson, who was born without his right hand, says he was molested by a family friend at the age of seven. He believes both factors could have contributed to his sexuality (research shows pedophiles are more likely to be left-handed.)
"I think on some level I identified with my abuser more than I did with the males in my family. He was very gentile and clearly interested in me," says Nickerson.
He recalls being in sixth grade, standing around with three or four boys from his class discussing which girls they had crushes on.
"All the other boys in my group were kind of [into] this one particular girl who was the most well-developed girl in our class. I wasn't attracted to her at all," he says. "The girl I was I was attracted to was the petite, undeveloped girl."
But, being 12, he didn't think much of it. His "eureka moment" came when he was 13, hanging out at his grandparents' house. He remembers sitting in the living room drawing when his grandparents' neighbour visited with his seven-year-old daughter.
"I looked up, and this little girl was standing there watching me draw. It just struck me, 'wow,'" he says. "At that moment I realized, this is a little different than being attracted to the least-developed girl in your class."
What followed, he says, was a period of deep denial, including visits to church where Nickerson prayed that god would "take this away from me."
Then, when he was 18, he says he fell in love with a five-year-old girl he was babysitting—the daughter of a family friend.
"She would take her clothes off and run through the house," he says. "That girl was the only time in my life that I faced real temptation."
Nickerson quit babysitting and left town, realizing he could no longer pretend his desires didn't exist. Instead, he kept his guard up so as not to trick himself into believing a child could reciprocate his feelings.
"There were days when I was suicidal, where I would wake up and that's all I could think about."
Nickerson has also tried and failed to have adult relationships. When he was 20, he says he briefly dated a woman who was six years older than him, but there was no sexual chemistry. In college, which he started at the age of 25, he says he didn't date at all.
"When two adults are flirting, there's that unspoken exchange and non-verbal cues. I'm not good at reading those because I'm just not really attracted to them." As graduation loomed, Nickerson says he panicked.
"It kinda dawned on me even though I'd accepted my attraction, for a while I'd entertained this idea that I could get married and have a family and have a normal life," he says. "I realized that would never happen."
Nickerson says he experienced stages of grief, including serious depression. To make things worse, a cousin had found some journal entries in which Nickerson admitted to being a pedophile, so he knew it was only a matter of time before the rest of his family found out.
"There were days when I was suicidal, where I would wake up and that's all I could think about," he says.
A clip from VICE Canada's upcoming documentary 'Age of Consent'
Desperate for some sort of comfort, he turned to Girlchat in 2005, an online forum for pedophiles who mostly believe in "pro-contact"—the idea that consent laws should be changed to make sex with minors legal. Though he says that point of view made him uncomfortable, the "cult-like" mentality sucked him in.
"I kinda threw myself at it, it was kinda like: These are my people."
Within a year, he says he outed himself on the forum, giving up his real name.
"I was kind of of the mindset that I was gonna die soon anyway, take my own life. It didn't really matter." He says it was liberating and that he even created an autobiographical page online that stated he was a pedophile; he shared it with his parents.
"They didn't really want to address it," he said. Eventually, though, he said they came around to accept it. "They knew I wasn't going to hurt any kids." These days he says he's not around kids, as most of the children in his family are grown.
But soon after, a vigilante group called Perverted Justice, which partnered with Dateline to film To Catch A Predator, infiltrated Girlchat and found Nickerson's information. They outed him publicly, posting his name and photos on a site called Wikisposure. He says they also called people in his town and spread lies about him, including that he was in possession of child porn, and distributed flyers with his face on it.
Nickerson lost his job at Lowe's. His father also lost his job when his employers found out about Nickerson.
"They literally made my life as miserable as they could," he says, noting the shaming lasted for years.
He feared being physically attacked, but that never happened. He also claims cops never charged him with any crime.
On a positive note, however, he says being outed made him leave Girlchat. He's now a moderator on Virtuous Pedophiles, a closed online support group for pedophiles who say they're committed to not offending. An organizer told VICE the group currently has 1,845 members.
In light of his experiences, Nickerson says he's wary of vigilantism. He echoes the concerns of authorities who say vigilantes don't have standards or ethics to abide by.
"They can say whatever they want to say. If someone's coming there to meet a minor, that's not really a person who is completely innocent or anything," he concedes. "But I know that in some cases they would actually badger people, force people into it. We don't know that they're not doing that."
But he also believes continuing to stigmatize pedophiles can actually endanger children.
"Real pedophiles get that idea stuck in their head, they start to believe the myths. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for them," he says. "Society thinks we're the scum of the earth as it is."
The theory is bolstered by Cantor, who says people often offend after a long time of trying to abstain.
"They often know that there's something up, that they're different, and they don't want to be acting on it but they talk themselves into believing that it's not so bad, that a particular circumstance is an exception, that a particular is kid is more developed and knows more about what's going on," he explains.
Once caught, however, it serves as a wake-up call, and treatment can be sought out, sometimes from behind bars.
Cantor says he's supportive of the idea of wanting to prevent sexual abuse against kids, but he thinks the shaming aspect of vigilantism is counterproductive.
"If somebody is surfing the net looking for an inappropriately young partner and is all of a sudden going to get confronted with 'Look at what you're doing,' to me that's an opportunity for this person now confronted to start thinking… 'Do you want to talk to somebody about this? Do you want sex drive-reducing medications? Do you want a therapist to help you deal with these feelings that you can't express in a public way?'" he says.
"Rather than publicly shame, drive somebody further into suicide and depression, which essentially just drives people underground where nobody can support them." Mandatory reporting laws in Canada requiring a therapist to report on a client who is a pedophile if a child is believed to be at risk make it even harder for pedophiles to speak out, he notes.
Laforge admits that Creep Catchers might push a predator underground. But he thinks that's proof that more people like him are needed "until there's nowhere left for them to go."
He says he can respect someone like Nickerson—a non-offending pedophile who is open about his condition so everyone around him knows. But he believes Creep Catchers are necessary for the people who won't be so forthcoming.
"At least people can say 'OK, you see this guy at the school, you see him at a park, you see him at the pool or something, at least you know you can watch your kids better'."
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