It was in early Spring of 2015 that I headed from London to the American West Coast to spend a week with Gary. He was the first of several self-identifying, non-offending pedophiles living in the US who I had arranged to stay with and photograph as part of an attempt to understand and to document what it means to find oneself attracted to minors.
Gary is a member of an online community of people who feel this "sexual attraction, which we did not choose". According to Gary and others in the community, just as a heterosexual or homosexual person is drawn to people of a particular gender, they find themselves attracted to either boys or girls within specific age-ranges below the legal age of consent. They call themselves "Virtuous Pedophiles" – or "VirPed" for short – because the vast majority of them claim to have never gone down the path of sexually engaging with a minor. They also claim that they never intend to.
Gary is also the founder of the Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention (ASAP). "The forums are helpful in reducing the risk of acting on my urges, even though I don't consider myself at great risk. I've come to accept my paedophilia," he says. "I don't act on it and I am not distressed by it."
I expected a level of suspicion, if not outright fear, from this community when I introduced myself as a documentary photographer. After all, I thought, without their anonymity they surely would be living under constant threat. But it turned out people like Gary were looking for someone to share their story with. After spending several months building trust with a number of the forum's members, I arranged to fly out to meet them.
"Alex, I am expecting you at the airport at 11:30PM. I'll be wearing a light blue jacket." – Gary
On the way over, the reality of what I was doing began to sink in and I started to feel nervous. However, after meeting Gary and being welcomed into his life for the week, I grew so comfortable that my perception of him came to be defined less and less by his sexual proclivity. This turned out to be the case with the others, too. From what I saw, they were regular people trying to get on with life in much the same way that anyone else does, all while having to tackle a burden that they did not choose to bare.
And just like anyone else, they've made decisions about their lives that were easy for me to understand, and others, not so easy. While some of them claim to have chosen a life that is generally isolated from kids, Ian's job involved children directly. With our current perception of paedophilia, it may feel easy to determine which out of the men I visited was leading a 'virtuous' lifestyle, and who was not, however, I felt it was important to give each of them an equal platform in order to allow them to express their own understanding of their attraction.
The purpose of VirPed is to provide the kind of support network that has generally been overlooked by officials and therapists. Indeed, there are places to go if you have already committed a sexual offence, but for those who have not acted on their urges, being bundled together with those who have doesn't make much sense. For the majority of VirPed members I spoke with, their reason for joining the community was not to keep their attraction under control but as a way out of the isolation and depression that comes with keeping it a secret.
Sammy – another VirPed member I visited – said that "having feelings for a child without someone to talk to is like being trapped on a deserted island. You are so isolated that you begin to lose your sanity, little by little. Humans are social creatures. We need to talk to people we trust about things that are bothering us. When it's something this taboo, you aren't really allowed to talk about it to anyone."
Many arrive at the forum with a notion that abuse is unavoidable simply because, they believe, attraction inevitably leads to action. To put it in Gary's words: for the first 50 or so years of his life he felt like he was "a ticking time-bomb". Mixed with the danger of falling in with the wrong crowds, such as pro-contact groups like NAMBLA (an American pedophile advocacy group working to abolish age-of-consent laws criminalising adult sexual involvement with minors), you can see how some pedophiles' interpretation of attraction could lead to them offending, whereas they may have been able to avoid acting on their impulses if they'd had a space in which to discuss their feelings.
It should be noted, of course, that many of these claims cannot be verified. Perhaps some are using VirPed as a cover-up; perhaps some, who were even more daring, saw my photo story as a way to prove they had nothing to hide. I cannot guarantee that this is not the case and I can understand why many would be suspicious.
Even in Gary's case, there is no guarantee that he too hasn't strayed from the "virtuous" path. In 2007, Gary and Tabitha were foster parents to three children. Three years after that ended, the biological mother of the children made allegations against Gary that he had sexually abused one of the girls.
The claims were dismissed by police, and also initially by the alleged victim herself, when I met her back in 2015. Just recently however, the girl, now 20 years old, changed her mind. Appearing in an episode of Dr. Phil earlier this year, she confronted her old foster parents saying that "Gary speaking out about being a virtuous pedophile is disgusting. I want people to know what he did to me; that he's not who he says he is. I'm proof he's lying." In recent months, I tried to get in touch with her for further comment but did not get a response.
The following images are a selection from a series I shot over the course of 2015 as I spent time with several non-offending pedophiles. I have chosen four case studies, whose stories I feel cover a broad range of the issues having to do with the community.
Gary in his home with Spunky, one of his two schnauzers.
As a result of attempting to come out as a pedophile to professionals, Gary says he has faced repeated trauma and prejudice, despite insisting that he has never acted on his attraction to minors. "Being dismissed from university based solely on my sexual orientation was certainly most traumatic," he says. "Being interrogated by the state police and banned from the only hospital in our county was certainly not fun. I was also abandoned by a counsellor without a referral in 1999. As soon as I came out to her, she freaked out and said: 'I can't deal with that.' She refused to meet with me again."
Gary opening the local church in preparation for an AA-style course that he runs to help townspeople with problems such as addiction and depression. As a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Gary's life is focused on religion. He finished building this church with the help of his family and other church members in 2014.
While on a trip to visit his daughter, Gary had arranged to meet Sammy, another member of VirPed, who he has known for several years but only just had the opportunity to meet. The two are seen here having a conversation at a motel, where they arranged to meet. Due to the strong stigma generally associated with paedophilia, anonymity plays an important role in making VirPed a safe and approachable space for minor-attracted-persons. As a result, meetings outside of the forum, like this one, are almost unheard of.
Sammy has been aware of his attraction for the last 20 years. "When I was about 15, I developed feelings for a three-year-old girl," he says. "At that point it was impossible to deny that I was a pedophile."
In the early stages of the internet, before the existence of VirPed and other similar forums, Sammy sought comfort and reassurance in pro-contact forums – mostly online chat groups that openly advocate and encourage sexual activity with minors. "I found a site called the Pedophile Liberation Front. They told me that, yes, people do fall in love with children, and that that is OK. This was very good to hear, but yeah, some other fucked up messages came along with it. I never believed in their rhetoric strongly enough to act upon it in real life, but I did feel I owed them. They saved my life, after all."
Sammy shaves in preparation for one of dozens of job interviews he went to in the weeks I followed him. After much self-denial, he realised he had developed feelings for the daughter of his ex-wife's sister. In order to suppress those feelings he started to smoke marijuana. He had recently been fired from his job after being found positive in a drug test he had to take after being promoted.
Jack is a former VirPed member and a regular contributor to Gary's group ASAP. He left VirPed a few years ago because he doesn't believe it's OK to accept yourself for feeling an attraction to minors as long as you don't act on it. He actually sees his predilection as a defect that he needs to suppress. He chose to stay with ASAP, where they simply discuss the prevention of sexual abuse .
Between the years 1967 and 1989, starting at the age of just 14, Jack claims to have inappropriately touched over 300 young boys. Jack grew up in a children's home, where he says he was beaten, molested and raped by members of the home's staff, as well as the elder children there. Having been born with polio, he was victimised for being weak and not being able to fully fend for himself. "I'm not blaming the institution for what I did," he says. "They may have taught me the behaviour, but I was the one who made the choices and I take responsibility for those choices – good and bad. I'm open about my life. I'm not hiding behind my crimes." Jack says he has not reoffended since 1989.
"My crimes were very calculated, very deliberate," says Jack. "I'd only own as many things as I could fit in my car so I could move from town to town, when I thought the cops were catching onto me. I'd switch from village, to town, to city. I'd just disappear overnight. I never signed a lease. I rented by the month on purpose. My whole life revolved around offending. And I made sure that it did. It was no fluke. Everything was calculated."
Jack's mantra, "Not Today! Not Ever Again!", can be found written on every surface of his life – from his bathroom wall through to his email signature, and tattooed on his wrists. "I've taken so much from so many. I can never give back enough – never," he says. "Even if I lived another lifetime I could never make up for what I have done. I'm not desperate to stay out of prison. I'm desperate not to reoffend. I do not want to hurt another child."
Jack still suffers from the after-effects of his childhood polio. For that reason he has a carer, Kenny (above), who has been living with him since 2011 and looks after Jack for free. "It was empathy that made me want to help Jack out, and that slowly developed into a friendship, which is partially the reason I'm still here," says Kenny. "I had been caring for Jack for a year, when one day he said: 'I need to tell you something and I ask that you don't judge me.' He told me everything. I am not the kind of person who likes to judge."
Kenny lights a lamp on Jack's boarded-up front porch. Kenny, who says he was also abused as a child, has become a key figure in helping Jack not to reoffend. The wooden planks blocking out Jack's porch were fitted by Kenny to prevent him from looking out at children playing in the street in front of the house. If Jack notices a young boy out in public he will immediately call Kenny to let him know. "That takes away the secret as well as the power that the secret has," says Jack.
Ian is another member of VirPed. Although he has also been aware of his desires since his teens, he says he never felt the necessity to come out or seek help about it. He says he learned to accept himself early on. He came across VirPed after deciding that he wanted to speak with others like him. "I'm happy about being able to talk to the wonderful people [on Virped]. It's already more than I would've expected to have in my life," he says.
Ian has been in a relationship with his husband for the past nine years, but has never come out to him or anyone else in his life outside VirPed. "[Coming out to my husband] is something I've been thinking about lately, but I don't want to make any snap decisions. There are so many things I need to take into consideration. Would it make the relationship better? Or would it just forever be a burden that we have to work around? Is there any reason to have to burden him with something that I'm having no trouble shouldering on my own?" Ian says.
Ian helping his younger sister with her car.
Ian has a close relationship with his family and feels a strong urge to start one of his own. He and his husband are currently discussing adoption. "I'm worried about becoming attracted to the children," he says. "I'd like to believe I'm overreacting, but I also believe that ignoring potential problems doesn't make them easier to deal with. I wouldn't want to put myself in a position where I have a child and then, eight years down the line, realise what I've gotten myself into."
Ian works at a specialised children's home that takes in children who come from backgrounds of neglect and abuse. He was personally picked out for his role by the home's weekend supervisor, who is unaware of Ian's predilection. "I have thought about my line of work. For a long time I asked myself if I should be doing this job. But eventually I thought that there are many people who find themselves attracted to people they work with, and it doesn't mean they shouldn't do their job. It just means you have to manage your feelings in a mature way."
Ian browses the children's section of his local library, looking for books to buy for the kids he works with. "I want to see these kids succeed and lead a happy, normal life. The kids know that, and they respond to it. I don't think I would be as interested in the kids or their wellbeing if I wasn't a pedophile. Channelling those feelings into something positive makes having to deal with the moments of my uncomfortable attraction worth it. Pedophilia is a part of me: I couldn't change it without changing who I am. My experiences, even the bad and unpleasant ones, make me a better person, not less of one. Sure, it makes things difficult, but it's not the entirety of my existence. My identity isn't based on who I'm attracted to. I like who I am, and I enjoy my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
* Some names have been changed.