Growing up, Camryn* had always considered his taste in women particular: short, flat-chested, youthful. The girls he had liked in high school were smaller in stature, a body type he now describes as "loli-like," referring to "lolitas." Two years after he graduated high school, he still felt most drawn to playfulness and youth, parceled in the trappings of "cuteness." He had never suspected that he could be attracted to children.
Camryn was 20 when he first met his step-niece, who was five years old at the time, at his stepbrother's house. Camryn has slight autism and, when he felt alienated from family "adult" conversation, he would take his step-niece outside to play tag. Like this, they forged a connection. Eventually, Camryn offered to babysit. Cartoons, miniatures and make-believe—pastimes that Camryn had always enjoyed anyway—sanctioned more substantial quality time. But as months passed, Camryn increasingly experienced pangs of attraction when his step-niece would climb on his back or hang off his arms. He was forced to consider his condition: He was attracted to a five-year-old. Now what?
Camryn knew he could never force himself on a child of any age. The cost to his step-niece's well-being was too high. Children with a history of sexual abuse face higher rates of substance addiction, suicidal ideation, and PTSD. Some research estimates that child sexual abuse victims are a staggering one thousand percent more likely to face revictimization later in life – that is, further instances of sexual assault. Also, he says, he is just morally opposed to it.
He resolved never to act on, or even carelessly reveal, his feelings, although he struggled at times to maintain composure. He reasoned that his standards of behavior needed to account for his predilections. "I decided to keep my desires to myself," he said. "My worry of 'slipping up' did kind of hamper attempts to carry her when she was tired."
Experts at anti-child-abuse organizations like Stop It Now! argue that the most certain way for a pedophile to avoid "slipping up" is making sure they are never alone with a child and to abstain from fantasizing about children altogether. Camryn's approach is different, although he insists it helps serve the same purpose.
Shortly after realizing his attraction to children, Camryn logged onto his computer, where he spent most of his time, and stumbled upon a few pornographic flash games on a site similar to 4chan. Many were Japanese, exhibiting wide-eyed anime girls—"lolis"—participating in an unfathomable range of sexual acts. With a few points and clicks on each girl's tiny shape, he could control the child's movements. Scripted dialogue advanced the most basic plot arcs: schoolgirls, sisters. Like this, Camryn would role-play sexual scenarios with virtual children.
I see myself and any child lover like me who wants to touch a child [and] then goes home and acts out in a safe, virtual environment, [as] a healthy person with a grasp on their attraction.
Camryn soon upgraded to Morrowind, the third game in the action role-playing series Elder Scrolls, which back in 2002 operated at the cutting edge of customization. Gamers who shared Camryn's penchant for virtual pedophilic role-play crafted and circulated special "mods," unofficial additions to the game, on underground forums. These mods animated non-playable characters on the periphery of the adventure with insatiable lust for Camryn's avatar. Virtual children, some as young as three, would behave as proxies for his inclinations. In the next Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, Camryn installed a more interactive mod: Before removing a child's cloaks and peasant garb, the player had to go through the motions of wooing her. In other scenarios, Camryn could win a child bride in a contest.
In lieu of therapy, behavioral treatment, or other preventative measures, this is how Camryn attempts to manage his illicit temptations. For more than a decade pedophiles have done this, arguing that it is a victimless platform to engage in sex with children. Some say it even acts as an outlet for their physical desires.
"I see myself and any child lover like me who wants to touch a child [and] then goes home and acts out in a safe, virtual environment, [as] a healthy person with a grasp on their attraction," Camryn told me over Linden Lab's virtual world Second Life.
On Virtuous Pedophiles, a forum for pedophiles who do not act on their desires, I met another mod connoisseur, Artichokes*, who asked us to change his handle. Over an Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Artichokes effused about his favorite Elder Scrolls mod: "You're sneaking around Whiterun and night is coming. You see a kid walking on the city roads even though it's dark, and you choose them as your victim. You wait for the guards to patrol a bit to the side, and then sneak behind her, forcing her into submission and tying her. Soundlessly you bag her and leave town, running into the night forest. Then you take her into a secluded area and let her out."
We need to make sure options to express true fantasies (i.e. thoughts that do not involve real children at any level) remain available.
Camryn and Artichokes, like many pedophiles interviewed, have become deeply immersed the Elder Scrolls mod culture, where they can engage sexually with pixelated fantasy children, legally and in secret. For many, it feels like the only sexual channel that doesn't risk incarceration or social alienation. Driven underground and left literally to their own devices, pedophiles are leaning heavily on these erotically charged videogames, virtual worlds, and the communities surrounding them. These online venues, they attest, mitigate their desire to pursue their fantasies in real life.
"We need to make sure options to express true fantasies (i.e. thoughts that do not involve real children at any level) remain available, and that pedophiles are aware of them as a far better alternative than fantasizing about—or worse, hurting—real children," PresidentBush, a member of the same mod community, told me over an encrypted chat application.
Experts are more skeptical. Lifelong treatment methods and a comprehensive therapy program, they say, are the most fail-safe methods for managing pedophilic desire. Sitting alone at home, sinking hours into virtual worlds, could further isolate pedophiles from more reliable professional and social resources: therapy, community bonds, anti-androgen treatment. But when these resources are stigmatized or inaccessible, or present the possibility of jail time, virtual worlds, to pedophiles, can feel like their one refuge.
Camryn is a pedophile, but he insists that he's stringently opposed to "contact-offending," or initiating sexual contact with anyone under the age of consent, and especially the pre-pubescent children he is most attracted to. In popular culture, pedophiles are typified by the mustachioed playground-lurker or some low-toned religious leader, constantly poised to commit some irredeemable evil. However, research shows that not all of them have contact-offended, nor will they. Experts estimate that one to five percent of all men experience attraction to children, but a substantially smaller percent of this group will pursue physical contact with one. Like countless other pedophiles, Camryn says he believes that having sexual relations with children is immoral and destructive.
"Countless" others, experts contend, because most fly under the radar unless they are convicted of a criminal offense.
(Interviewed in a private chat, Artichokes admitted, "I don't think I'm really the kind of person who could rape a kid, but I also understand that I'm a complete stranger on the Internet." Sources interviewed all contend that they have never contact-offended, though anonymity prevents official corroboration.)
There's no evidence to suggest that people can change their pedophilia.
Dr. Michael Seto, the director of Forensic Rehabilitation Research in the Integrated Forensic Program of the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group and a leading expert on pedophilia, says pedophilia can be viewed as a sexual orientation along the axis of age rather than gender. Most pedophiles develop sexual interest in children around puberty, the same age at which most teens first start to experience feelings of physical attraction. Pedophiles interviewed described how, as they progressed through their teens and early 20s, they noticed that the girls or boys they liked stayed about the same age. Many were horrified.
According to recent research, the forces behind pedophilic desire may be triggered even before birth. But environmental factors—such as the cultural glorification of hairless, lithe female bodies—can exacerbate an attraction to children. It's very common that pedophiles were themselves victims of childhood sexual trauma; nearly all pedophiles interviewed said they had experienced abuse as children.
On the level of brain chemistry, the strength of these psychological factors, whether congenital or circumstantial, has convinced Dr. Seto that pedophilia can't really be eradicated. "There's no evidence to suggest that people can change their pedophilia, just like there's no evidence that someone can change their gender orientation," he said. As a result, lifelong deterrence measures—psychological and pharmaceutical—are the only option for "treating" pedophilia, or preventing the sexual victimization of children.
Despite this, there are surprisingly few resources to support non-offending pedophiles. Most formal treatment remains under carceral jurisdiction (once a pedophile is charged, incarcerated, or on parole or probation for a sex offense). In prison, pedophiles have access to group talk therapy, although fellow inmates regularly attack sex offenders once their crime is disclosed. Upon release, cognitive-behavioral therapy like Pavlovian conditioning is a common route. In some cases, a pedophile will be asked to imagine jail time immediately after fantasizing about a child. In others, chemical castration, a slow-release testosterone neutralizer, remains a popular route for lowering pedophiles' sex drives, though it's typically only offered to sex offenders.
A lot of therapists are concerned that any risk is way too much risk [when counseling pedophiles].
The stigma against pedophilia often directly affects the availability of resources; in Texas, for example, the government will pay for a pedophile's physical, but not chemical, castration.
The most accessible preventative measure—therapy—is similarly fraught, even for non-offending pedophiles. Mandatory reporting laws in many jurisdictions require that therapists convey suspicions of child abuse to authorities. Because of these requirements, as well as ethical concerns, many therapists will turn patients away on the basis of their attraction to children.
Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, typically handles pedophiles after they are charged with sex abuse. She regularly receives calls from young men sexually interested in children, or their concerned parents, scoping out their options before discernable signs of problematic behavior arise. Any methods, resources, or treatments that could even slightly decrease a pedophile's impulse to contact-offend, she reasons, could simultaneously protect a child and keep a potential offender at bay. Christopher can suggest therapy, or specifically tailored workshops like B4UACT, but cannot guarantee immunity from the legal system, nor can she promise judgment-free counseling.
"A lot of therapists are concerned that any risk is way too much risk," she told me. "They're concerned it can't be managed and there isn't a way to provide services and also assure people's safety."
Fearful of rejection by mental health professionals—not to mention possible legal repercussions—pedophiles often hesitate to seek help managing their desires, even if they, like Camryn, believe that statutory rape is an atrocity. And, sometimes, even if they don't.
When asked whether he has considered therapy, Camryn became combative. "I'd probably end up on some sort of watch list and have trouble finding housing," he said.
According to experts, the stigma associated with pedophilia has been the greatest obstacle to developing effective prevention techniques and funding rehabilitation programs. Dr. Seto notes that "prosocial" pedophiles—ones who experience empathy for children or shy away from harmful sexual behavior—more often than not don't know where to turn for help.
They're starting to self-organize. A lot of the time, it's an individual struggle: Who the hell are they gonna talk to?
"I get why people are angry about pedophilia," Dr. Seto explained, "because it's tied to child sexual abuse and child pornography, but it's a real obstacle in terms of dealing with this problem. So they're starting to self-organize. A lot of the time, it's an individual struggle: Who the hell are they gonna talk to? How many individuals are going to admit this to their family, to their close friends?" He noted that the conflation of pedophilia with child molestation, while intuitive, is technically inaccurate. As a result, pedophiles are typically driven underground and left unchecked.
When opportunities for support are few, far between, and risky, the burden of self-governance is often left to the pedophile themselves. As a result, thousands turn to less formal resources to manage their desires: forum-based self-help groups, dark web chatrooms, and above-ground IRCs. Here, they discuss symptoms—loneliness, depression—or share resources, like legal images of girls described as "jailbait." In thousands-strong collectives like Virtuous Pedophiles, like-minded pedophiles beseech each other to "remain law-abiding and lead happy, productive lives." An online community of mutual support has formed for pedophiles, which Luke Malone documented with immense grace in his landmark This American Life piece on a 16-year-old non-offending pedophile. For some, this is enough.
Others prefer a more immersive outlet. In games like Skyrim, pedophiles can navigate bustling cities or populated streets without fear of judgment. In online virtual worlds, they can socialize knowing their avatar body won't be incarcerated if they inadvertently reveal their pedophilia. And in those digital bodies, pedophiles can engage in sexual scenarios forbidden outside digital contexts. They can be themselves, they say. The question is: To what end?
Back in 2007, a sexual revolution occurred in cyberspace. Second Life, a virtual world that boasted more than six million "residents," originated as a sandbox for user-generated content. The free-to-download platform is Aladdin's genie in pixel form, able to manifest anything at a user's whim: G-rated towns lined with maple trees and French boutiques, in-game foot races benefiting IRL cancer foundations, hellscapes where women in Juicy Couture tracksuits noisily craft anvils, and, famously, secluded zones attracting sexual deviants of all proclivities.
Its edifices and landscapes aren't Second Life's only venues for boundless exploration: So customizable are Second Life avatars that a player could don a cleft chin and Armani-style suit by day and by night, hulking paws, green fur, and exaggerated, functioning genitalia. Predictably, Second Life became a hub for fetishists around the world—including pedophiles.
At the peak of Second Life's popularity, Jason Farrell, a reporter from Sky News, was tipped off to a playground hidden behind the wall of a virtual shopping center; it was called "Wonderland," either with deep irony or cutting earnestness, depending on whom you asked. According to Farrell's 2007 report, child avatars—typically manned by residents over 18—would bide their time on swings and slides until users approached them offering money in exchange for sex. Torture, rape, and maiming were just some of the items on the menu there. News of this "virtual pedophile ring" led to a domino effect of shock and horror covered by news outlets worldwide.
It really makes no difference if this is a fictitious or a real event, when the objective elements of child abuse are given.
In one of the many related reports, a German news station aired a clip to illustrate the kind of indiscretions going down right under Linden Lab's nose: a scene that involved a young girl naked and on top of an older bald man in his bedroom. A toy merry-go-round spun nearby. For added pathos, the news station filmed Peter Vogt, a senior public prosecutor in Halle who handled cases of child pornography, watching the clip. Horrified, he told the reporter, "It really makes no difference if this is a fictitious or a real event, when the objective elements of child abuse are given."
Ethically speaking, many would agree. Financially, there was no doubt: A reputation as a hub for furry sex and pedophilia isn't exactly a tech company's ticket to the big bucks. In response, Linden Lab cracked down on "age-play," sexual role-play between a child avatar and an adult avatar, generally both operated by IRL adults. Lucas*, a former Second Life age-player, understood Linden Lab's decision—they have to preserve their reputation to stay afloat as a business—but still considered it an infringement on his "free speech." "If consenting adults are involved," he told me, "I see no difference between this and dressing up in Boy Scout uniforms with your adult significant other."
Other Second Life residents felt that a plague of depravity had been lifted from their community. When I asked around in-world, Second Life users consistently told me that they were disgusted by age-players and child avatars. Fearful of any association with it, no non-age-player I spoke with agreed to talk on the record about pedophilia in Second Life.
Vogt's charged declaration on the "objective elements of child abuse," aside from mirroring the reaction of the average viewer or Second Life resident, provokes an interesting question: Do virtual pedophilic relations encourage pedophilic behavior, or can it be a victimless outlet as long as professional care remains risky?
The extent to which our digital relations bleed into our physical ones has been a topic of fascination ever since R-rated Internet content became accessible to the basic web surfer. Light bondage, to some, was a rabbit hole that spat you out somewhere between torture porn and rape fantasy. The darkest human impulses could manifest in a split second before our eyes without forcing us to face their human costs.This accessibility, critics argued, could chip away at our collective capacity for empathy. Was anyone hurt in the making of this video? Who knows?
Child pornography is widely acknowledged as an indefensible evil: the real-life exploitation of children and all of the consequences that can follow, including irreversible physical and psychological damage as well as 15 to 30 years of prison time for its producer. In 1982, the Supreme Court decided that, because of its exploitative nature, child pornography would not be protected under the First Amendment. Falling under the legal definition of obscenity, child porn is defined as "any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor." The digitally rendered images Camryn and his peers view (and create), however, do not necessitate the physical or psychological abuse of a child. They are currently included under First Amendment protections.
This immunity from typical obscenity laws was not always the case: In 1996, Congress passed the Child Pornography Prevention Act, which branded virtual child pornography as criminal. They reasoned that images of children, morphed and computer-edited into porn, or digitally created pedophilic images, could indirectly endanger minors. In 2002, however, the court flipped: "As to virtual child pornography whetting the appetites of pedophiles," attorney Paula Bird wrote in the Barry Law Review, "the Court contended that the government could not constitutionally base legislation on the 'mere tendency' of speech to promote illegal acts." (Erotic digitally rendered computer images "indistinguishable" from that of real minors are still illegal).
According to a recent New Yorker feature, one incentive behind the strict enforcement of child porn laws is that, often, law enforcement considers its possession a strong indicator of either past or future sex abuse. Dr. Seto would argue that the reality is more nuanced. His research has shown that there are some notable distinctions between child porn consumers and contact offenders: Demographically, the former are younger, and fewer of them have a prior criminal history. Psychologically, they score higher in empathy, and, once caught, their rates of recidivism are lower than those of sex offenders. In a meta-analysis of 21 studies on online offenders (4,464 child porn consumers), Dr. Seto found that one in eight child porn viewers is on record as a sex offender (one in two self-reported contact-offending).
Dr. Seto added that, despite the risks involved, some of his patients have told him that, on occasion, they use child pornography accessed on the darknet as a substitute for contact-offending. Transferring their sexual impulses onto virtual planes, they claim, helps remove them from the physical world. But for others, Dr. Seto has found, child pornography serves as more of an incitement than an outlet.
Do fetishes and proclivities engaged virtually—these so-called "mere tendencies"—bleed into our IRL sexual experiences? The answer, according to Dr. Seto, is that they only do if the risk factors and inclinations to commit those acts already existed: No amount of digital media is going to force someone's hand if their hand was not already moving in that direction.
The thing that distinguishes [prosocial pedophiles] from pedophilic offenders is that they don't want to have sex with children.
"The thing that really matters is how antisocial that pedophilic person is," he told me. "People vary on that. We have everything from people who are really antisocial, engage in a lot of criminal or harmful behavior—they might physically abuse children as well as sexually abuse them—and we have people who are quite prosocial—they have empathy, low in risk-taking, are stably employed, don't use alcohol or drugs. People on the prosocial end are less likely to offend against children. The thing that distinguishes [prosocial pedophiles] from pedophilic offenders is that they don't want to have sex with children. They see it as a negative behavior, and they want to be law-abiding."
The analogy Dr. Seto uses is that the average heterosexual man who wants to have sex with women would likely not grab a woman off the street. Somebody who is exceedingly antisocial and has low impulse control might. These two people have the same desire for sex, but their behavior is contingent on deeper psychological impulses that digital media won't fundamentally change. The analogy stands for pedophiles, Dr. Seto says: The greater a person's innate aversion to crossing boundaries and harming others, the less likely they are to manifest their sexual inclinations.
Camryn has mimed pedophilic sex hundreds of times over Elder Scrolls mods or Second Life. But when asked whether that had any effect on his IRL sexual behavior, he made the same analogy as Dr. Seto: "I do not feel as though I am actually any more of a danger to anyone sexually than your average, straight, 'normal' male is when it comes to women," he said. "I abhor rape and forcing anyone [into] sex, and so the idea of me raping or molesting a child is ridiculous."
"There are no increased feelings of desire for physical contact, as there is a very clear line in my mind between fantasy and reality," PresidentBush said.
Even in a virtual reality world, it's a dangerous activity that puts children in a sexual position.
Despite sources' assurances that online pedophilic behavior remains distinct from real-life urges, and can even help stomp them out, digitally entertaining these urges can be dicey. Jenny Coleman, director of Stop It Now!, an organization dedicated to preventing the sexual abuse of children, is skeptical that the gains could outweigh the risks. Concerned about the impact of creating a digital environment where children are portrayed sexually, Coleman told me, "Even in a virtual reality world, it's a dangerous activity that puts children in a sexual position. For many folks, it makes it more difficult to resist temptation."
Critics of increased accessibility to sexually charged representations of children argue that consistent consumption of this media could, in pedophiles' minds, legitimize sexual relations with minors. Just as sexually violent pornography can have a corrosive effect on real-life romantic relations by normalizing potentially harmful behavior, the consumption of child porn could ease the stigma surrounding pedophilia. It depends, primarily, on how prosocial the pedophile is.
Coleman also doubted the motives of these pedophiles' online age-play. Logging into Second Life and role-playing sex with children fulfills a carnal urge. In the face of pedophiles' claims, this venue is, to Coleman, not a sufficient prevention tactic. Conflating the two could lead to dangerous consequences. "I would question that the intention of reaching out to those games isn't purely to not harm a child. It's also to meet a need," she explained.
Organizations like Stop It Now!, which supports at-risk individuals by directing them to professional help, do not recommend that pedophiles find healthy ways to fulfill their sexual desire for children. As a part of a public health campaign, Stop It Now! focuses on education and outreach to prevent the abuse of children. Their helpline requires little in the way of identifying information and points pedophiles or individuals concerned about their sexual behavior toward vetted resources. Their website offers educational materials, treatment referrals, links to 12-step groups, and other resources to adults at risk of abusing. A download list of Elder Scrolls mods is conspicuously absent.
Camryn and I planned to conduct our interview in Second Life, where, despite Linden Lab's strict ban, he still age-plays regularly. After meeting on an online forum for gaming mods, I asked Camryn where he would be comfortable speaking with me. He suggested renting a room in a virtual furry brothel. Eager to accommodate him, but anxious about the prospect of copulating humanoid animals in the periphery of our interview, I teleported to the coordinates he provided. Camryn took his time dressing his avatar while I waited on a veranda. "Welcome!" read a sign. "Visitors since open: 17,743." A few bushy-tailed Second Life residents stood around, shifting their weight from foot to foot as they chatted with other furries. An arrow on the ground designated a set of stairs: "Gang Bang Ahead."
"Do you know a good quiet spot?" I asked. Another set of coordinates appeared in my chat box.
My avatar fell out of the sky and onto a set of wood planks bordered by an infinite ocean. Timber crates framed the makeshift raft. It certainly felt secluded. Camryn was waiting cross-legged on one of these boxes. His avatar is a patchwork of fetishes: a tiny girl's body covered only by a thong, boots, and bikini top; a foxlike face complemented by pointed, brown ears. He told me that he uses his other avatar when he's in the mood to be on the adult end of the "age-play" scenario.
Whenever a carnal urge surfaces in his consciousness, he immediately turns to the virtual world.
Camryn is not currently employed, but he picks up temp jobs when he can. He no longer babysits because "nobody would trust an adult my age." He says that he was fired from his last gig after coworkers insulted him about his weight and affinity for cartoons. He is currently on Supplemental Security Income. "Honestly," he said, "I think it was gender favoritism."
When Camryn found Second Life, he was thrilled by the idea of acting out his fantasies, digitally but with real people. Sexually, he insisted, it mitigated his attraction to real-life children. Whenever a carnal urge surfaces in his consciousness, he immediately turns to the virtual world. He'll hook up with another avatar in a house, a club, or a rented room in a hotel.
Lucas, a former Second Life resident and pedophile, told me that, in addition to acting as an outlet for his desires, the virtual world was an attention sink: He became addicted. After work, Lucas would immediately rush to a computer and log into his avatar body. In both M-rated clubs and the more G-rated zones, he would while away five hours on the weekdays and ten on the weekends, chatting with virtual boys. (Lucas identifies as a hebephile, or someone sexually attracted to boys on the verge of puberty.)
Second Life was eating away at his primary one, he said, "and stopping the possibility that anything in my real life would get better." Staying his hand was one thing, but forging positive bonds with people outside of a sexual, or pedophilic, context was another. In an effort to better himself and find solidarity, Lucas joined Virtuous Pedophiles, which offers advice on how to find non-judgmental therapists, confide in friends, forge romantic relationships between adults, and stamp out suicidal thoughts.
"The #1 goal of VP for pedophiles is to not abuse children. The #2 goal is to be as happy and have as good a life as possible," Ethan Edwards, a co-founder of Virtuous Pedophiles, told me. "People who do care about other people... most often offend when they feel desperate, alone, and as if they have nothing to lose. Involvement with a community like VP should help with all those things—especially the 'alone' part."
Coleman agreed, adding that the number one strategy for prevention is working with a professional who specializes in adults who are attracted to children. "I think not being in isolation is key," she said. Avoiding sexual triggers and increasing support and education are the time-tested methods to prevent contact-offending. Sitting alone at home, clicking on bodies of virtual children, is not high up on her list of effective treatment measures.
Camryn and I wrapped up our interview on the drifting raft in Second Life. Before we parted ways, he asked if I knew of any other games or virtual worlds where he could, as he said, "safely be myself." Camryn said he has lost friends and estranged himself from family members because of his attraction to children. This virtual environment is one of the only places he feels secure.
Outside of these digital worlds, Camryn is struggling. With unstable finances, few personal connections and no professional clinical resources, virtual spaces now form the boundaries of where a major part of his identity can exist. As time passes, he is driven deeper and deeper underground, separated further from society at large.
I was turning to leave when out of the sky fell a bloated black figure. It was a horse from the neck up, but its torso was that of a comically-exaggerated inflatable sex toy. Thick dark hair covered her pregnant stomach. She landed on top of a wooden crate and stood, observing us. For a second, no one said anything. Then I asked her to leave. I told her we were having a private conversation, but actually, her avatar was making me uncomfortable.
"I understand," she replied. She turned and slowly walked into the ocean, sinking closer to the bottom with each step.
"Well, that was disturbing," Camryn said.
* Names have been changed