"How in the world can anyone go through every day living with this curse and not want to fling themselves off the nearest bridge on a daily basis?"
Illustrations by Alex Jenkins
Sexually abusing kids is about the worst thing you can be accused of in our society. The hatred reserved for those who do it is so intense that moral values we otherwise hold sacrosanct can be thrown out of the window in an instant in the rush to condemn. In the summer of 2013, for example, residents on a housing estate in the English city of Bristol burned a 44-year-old disabled man to death who they accused (wrongly, it turned out) of being a pedophile.
But pedophilia can be especially hard to live with for those who haven't committed a crime, and are forced to come to terms with an identity that most people regard as monstrous. For many pedophiles, that reality is the source of major depression.
"When I hear other pedophiles tell me that they are even relatively happy in life, I sometimes am tempted to ask them what fucking planet they live on," said Brett (not his real name), a 40-year-old landscaper who lives with his parents in the suburbs of a major US city and has suffered with depression since his early teens, when he first realized he was attracted to children. "How in the world can anyone go through every day living with this curse and not want to fling themselves off the nearest bridge on a daily basis?"
Sure enough, happy pedophiles seem to be the minority. A 1999 study of pedophilic sex offenders by the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Medicine and Community Health found that 76 percent had suffered from major depression in their life and another 9 percent met the criteria for mild depression.
"When you have a sexual preference that is as stigmatizing as pedophilia, then there's nowhere to go with it, there's no one to really talk to about it," said Professor Michael Miner, one of the study's co-authors. "So you stew in your isolation, which certainly makes one depressed."
Todd Nickerson is a 42-year-old pedophile from Tennessee. Struggling to come to terms with his sexual identity caused him many years of crippling depression. "I look back on it now and find it amazing that I never got to the point where I picked up a gun and ended it," he told me. "There were days when I got up and it was all I could think about. I'd tell myself, 'I just want to die. I just want to die.' All day, for days on end."
Nickerson's depression was made worse when, in his early 20s, he made the mistake of confiding in a cousin his attraction to young girls.
"Maybe it was an act of conscious self-sabotage because I knew my cousin and I knew he would spread it around," he said. "I live in a small southern town so I thought the whole town knew. I couldn't go out in public. I was constantly anxious and didn't want to leave my room."
Nickerson is a self-identified pedophile, but he insists he has never acted on his attractions and believes strongly that any sexual contact between adults and children constitutes abuse. Since most pedophiles are secretive about their sexuality, it's impossible to know how many share Nickerson's stance, but there are at least enough to have spawned an online forum, Virtuous Pedophiles, for those who acknowledge their taboo sexual interest without acting on it.
One of the co-founders of Virtuous Pedophiles, who goes by the pseudonym Ethan Edwards, said depression is so common among members that they have an ongoing poll on suicidal thoughts. While he acknowledged the results aren't scientific, they are nonetheless startling: Nearly 90 percent of responders said they have thought about killing themselves; 20 percent said they have tried.
Edwards, 60, who claims only to have realized he was a pedophile when he was well into middle age, said there are common reasons members give for feeling depressed. "Some just hate the awareness of the attraction itself. Some hate keeping a secret. Some hate having to be single. And a few worry about offending against a kid. I think a lot worry about not downloading child porn, which is a very compelling desire."
It's hard to feel sympathetic for someone who is depressed because they're resisting a temptation to watch child pornography. But even those who work with victims of child abuse stress the importance of separating pedophilic desire from behavior.
"Pedophilia refers to a strong sexual attraction to prepubescent children," said Dr. Ryan T. Shields, assistant scientist for the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Many people who commit sex crimes against children are not pedophiles—they are situational offenders who are actually more attracted to peers. Likewise, many pedophiles never act on their attraction because they don't want to hurt children."
Of course, these nuances are largely overlooked in mainstream media, which tends to use the terms "pedophile" and "child sex offender" interchangeably. The truth is that not all pedophiles are child molesters, and not all child molesters are truly pedophiles, according to Dr. Shields.
"When we assume that only 'monsters' or total strangers are capable of hurting our children, we fail to see, much less act on, evidence that something might be wrong in our own social circles, because none of us believes our friends, relatives, or partners are 'monsters' and therefore they couldn't possibly be trying to engage a child in sex," said Dr. Shields.
Yet in reality, he said, "most of the time child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the child knows. In fact, half is committed by other children."
Read on Motherboard: One Step Ahead: Pedophiles on the Deep Web
The "pedophile as monster" trope has also helped encourage the kind of vigilantism which, even when it doesn't lead to the horrific violence in Bristol, England, can still have terrible repercussions.
In 2013, someone accused 48-year-old Steven Rudderham of being a pedophile in a Facebook post. It's not clear what prompted the post (Rudderham had no record of sex offenses, and no one had complained to the police about him) but the post, which called him a "dirty perv," was circulated hundreds of times and Rudderham began receiving death threats. Three days later, Rudderham hanged himself.
The zenith or, depending on how you look at it, nadir of the vigilante justice movement came with Dateline NBC's show To Catch a Predator, which ran for three years until 2007 and featured stings operations where men seeking sex with children would be outed on TV. (The series was rebooted last year, and is now called Hansen vs. Predator.)
Men were lured via online chat rooms to safe houses where they would find themselves confronted by the show's host, Chris Hansen. In 2006, the show's crew joined police at the property of Louis Conradt, an assistant district attorney accused of grooming young boys online. After SWAT team members burst down the front door of his home in Murphy, Texas, Conradt shot himself in the head.
"There are a lot of people out there who want to paint pedophiles as ticking time bombs. But I've been out for ten years and I've never abused a kid." — Todd Nickerson
Much of the investigative work behind To Catch a Predator was carried out by volunteers from Perverted Justice, an online vigilante group that has made it their mission to expose pedophiles. Nickerson was targeted by the group after he outed himself as a pedophile in an online pedophilia forum.
"They called my job—I was working at Lowe's at the time—and got me fired," he told me. "Then someone in town found out and printed out my biography from the website and started leaving it around town. My dad's boss found out and fired him. My dad was mad at me and threw me out of the house."
Nickerson left town and went to live with a friend in Michigan. His depression grew worse and he started seeing a therapist. Before then, he had always steered clear of therapy, fearful that if he told a therapist about his sexual preference they would be bound by professional ethics to report him to authorities. This therapist didn't report him, but told him upfront there was little she could do for him since this was his sexuality and it wasn't likely to change.
"How in the world can anyone go through every day living with this curse and not want to fling themselves off the nearest bridge on a daily basis?" — Brett
While some people are unbothered by the idea of persecuting someone not because he committed a crime but because of a sexuality they didn't choose and don't want, there are good reasons to be against this kind of mob justice. While studying adolescents who sexually abused other children, Miner, the professor from the University of Minnesota, found these individuals had often grown up socially isolated and that this isolation "more likely predicts committing sex crimes against children as against committing other sorts of crimes."
"The less they have to lose, they less likely they are to adhere to social convention. It seems like it's to society's advantage to have those individuals with a propensity for acting out in some sort of deviant way to have better contact with social institutions, social norms, social involvement. That's a protective factor," Miner told me.
So pushing pedophiles further into the shadows by persecuting them at every turn may well increase the possibility that they will offend. Distancing pedophiles from society has also made some adopt extreme stances, like Tom O'Carroll, a British pedophile activist, who during the 1980s chaired a notorious pressure group called the Paedophile Information Exchange, which advocated abolishing consent laws completely. O'Carroll, who has been jailed for child pornography charges, admits on his blog that his views remain at odds with mainstream thinking with regards to "children's sexual self-determination."
Brett, while self-identifying as a pedophile, has "nothing but disdain and contempt" for people like O'Carroll, who are known within the pedophile community as "pro-contacters."
"It's partly because of that crowd so many people are unwilling to listen to me and pedophiles like me," he told me.
At the height of his depression, Todd Nickerson found himself being pushed towards the "pro-contact" agenda while using a pedophile forum, which he describes as being "like a cult" dominated by a few influential moderators.
"That's both the advantage and disadvantage of the internet," said Miner. "It allows these isolated people to reach out and find a likeminded community. The problem is that in reaching out they might make contact with those who encourage them in negative ways."
Nickerson said he eventually abandoned the forum and as he emerged from his depression was able "to see things for how they are, and not for how I want them to be."
It was around this time he also discovered Virtuous Pedophiles, which he credits with helping saving his life. Like Brett, he now works as a moderator on the site and is committed to helping other non-offending pedophiles find a way to learn to live with themselves in a world that still regards their existence as anathema.
"There are a lot of people out there who want to paint pedophiles as ticking time bombs and when you think that way it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Nickerson. "But I'm here to say it doesn't have to be. I've been out for ten years and I've never abused a kid."
And while most of us are understandably horrified by Tom O'Carroll's belief system, it's worth considering how he believes he got to it. He told me that when he was younger he "accepted the general view that pedophilia must be harmful."
"Seeing only a bleak future with nothing to offer to a family or society or myself, I tried to take my own life," said O'Carroll. "If I had received some sympathetic help before it reached that point, my life might have taken a course for the better as many would see it: not so confrontational, working with society, not against it."
Update 11th January: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a disabled man was burned to death on a Brighton housing estate. In fact the housing estate was in Bristol.
Illustrations by Alex Jenkins
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