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UK Debates Approach to Child Sex Abuse Prevention as Pedophile Outs Himself on TV

In Germany, Prevention Project Dunkenfeld offers treatment to those who confess desires towards children. As Britain confronts a growing problem of child abuse, the prevailing approach to the issue is being re-examined.

by Katie Engelhart
Nov 26 2014, 6:50pm

Image via Reuters

On Tuesday evening, the British public was introduced — with much fanfare — to a soft-spoken, floppy-haired pedophile named Eddie.

Outing himself for the first time on a Channel 4 documentary, The Pedophile Next Door, 39-year-old Eddie calmly explained that his "age of attraction" includes children as young as four, though he is not "exclusively attracted to children." He said that he first self-identified as a pedophile in his 20s, after he began watching child porn. "I was genuinely distressed and worried… I would much prefer not to have these feelings and attractions, but I have them. And that's difficult."

"People will probably say 'Why isn't this guy locked up? We should kill this guy, we should go and give him a good shoeing.'"

Eddie insists that he has never acted on his desires — and indeed, that "I don't think I'm capable of that kind of thing." He says he wants help, to ensure that he never does offend.

But what recourse is there for the self-aware and self-critical pedophile: the adult who lusts for children, but who abhors his own desires — who recognizes his capacity to harm, but does not want to be a child molester?

Image via Channel 4

In the Channel 4 documentary, presenter Steve Humphries does his best to ramp up the theatrics. Shots of Humphries glowering in the rear-view mirror of his car are accompanied by dramatic one-offs: "Most of us would never dream of talking to a pedophile." Eddie himself acknowledges that the subject he is broaching is one that triggers an instinctive hostility. 

"People will probably say 'Why isn't this guy locked up? We should kill this guy, we should go and give him a good shoeing,'" he says.

"I, honest to God, won't run away from you and if that is what you want to do to me, you come and do it, because all you are doing in that scenario is just keeping the status quo.

But the crux of the film was rather level-headed: that we need a new approach to pedophilia, because what we're doing now isn't working.

Indeed, the film has rekindled a debate about pedophilia in Britain, which can seem to be perpetually awash in pedophile scandal. Some are agitating for a new approach to treating potential child abusers, while others, like Prime Minister David Cameron, want to toughen legal safeguards. 

According to one researcher cited in the film, around 1 in 6 children in Britain will be sexually abused before the age of 16. "The problem is getting bigger and bigger," said Jonathan Taylor, formerly of Scotland Yard's former pedophile unit. "We haven't even got in the boat to go and see the tip of the iceberg."

"I would much prefer not to have these feelings and attractions, but I have them. And that's difficult."

Preventing the sexual abuse of children "has always been seen through the criminal justice lens [where] the option has always been to punish," Maia Christopher, executive director of the US-based Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, told VICE News. The result is that, historically, pedophiles have only received help and rehabilitation "after harm has been done." But Christopher says that recent years have seen a new push to address deviant sexual desires before they manifest as acts of child molestation.

But this requires creating space for pedophiles to voluntarily come forward and fess up.

Germany's Prevention Project Dunkelfeld — whose slogan is "Don't Offend" — is often held up as the gold standard in pedophile treatment. Dunkelfeld operates 10 outpatient centres across Germany, where self-described pedophiles receive a year of free therapy, delivered through weekly group sessions that are built around specific themes. Since it launched in 2005, some 4,500 patients, almost exclusively men, have entered the program.

Image via Prevention Project Dunkelfeld

The program's literature describes pedophilia as a "sexual preference" and a "sexual preference disorder" — and starts from the premise that pedophilia is not a mental illness, but rather a fixed and unwavering sexual predilection. By this logic, pedophilia cannot be cured or even reoriented, but it can be managed, such that pedophiles are not slaves to their urges and can avoid abusing children.

Most patients self-refer themselves to Dunkelfeld, Dr. Till Amelung, who has worked with the program since 2009, told VICE News. In the first instance of contact, would-be patients are assessed to ensure that they are intellectually and psychological stable — and that they are indeed pedophiles. "We explore their sexual fantasies about children, to see whether they are sufficient to bring about orgasm or climax."

Treatment draws on cognitive behavioural therapy and also borrows from the realm of addiction counseling — with its strategy of "relapse prevention." Amelung emphasizes coping strategies and stress alleviation, and helps his patients to break patterns of rumination and sexual fantasy. He also challenges what he describes as common "maladaptive...attitudes or convictions" among his patient base, which hold that "sex with children is OK [and] children might profit from sexual experiences with adults."

One role-playing exercise, which casts pedophiles in the role of the defenceless child, is designed to "sensitize the men to the feelings of shame, guilt and helplessness that accompany kids in a sexual situation."

Amelung treats both convicted child abusers and non-offenders. Some are "exclusive" pedophiles (who are only attracted to children) and others are partial pedophiles (who may also be attracted to adults). For exclusive pedophiles, Amelung says, part of the process is helping them realize "that they will never have sex with someone that they really desire. There's a great amount of grief."

Dunkelfeld runs slick TV ads on German television stations and in movie cinemas — and organizers tell VICE News that, almost a decade after they launched the program, they don't receive much in the way of public criticism or outcry.

Video via Prevention Project Dunkelfeld

The German model reflects a shifting approach to pedophilia within scientific circles, whose experts and researchers increasingly see it not as a mental illness, but rather as "a sexual orientation" — albeit one whose exercise inherently involves victimization and assault.

There is scant research on what causes pedophilia, though studies do suggest a genetic predisposition. Pedophiles are more likely than the general population to be short and left-handed and to have a lower IQ (by about 10 points.) Some show evidence of atypical brain anatomy.

New approaches also make a distinction between pedophiles and child molesters: categories that are often conflated. Last year, the American Psychiatric Associated updated its Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders to draw a distinction between people who have "recurrent, intense and sexually arousing fantasies" about children, and those who actually molest kids. According to the manual, people who lust for children but whose desires are not distressing or harmful to themselves or others "do not have a mental disorder."

"It's a handicap. I try to compare it to having diabetes," Dr. Corine de Ruiter, a forensic psychologist, told Channel 4.

"The problem is getting bigger and bigger. We haven't even got in the boat to go and see the tip of the iceberg."

Therapists who work at Germany's Dunkelfeld program are regular speakers on the conference circuit, but their model is rarely replicated. In many countries, so-called "mandatory reporting laws" make it tricky for non-offending pedophiles to come forward.

Legislation in many American states, for instance, requires people working in certain professions to go to child protective services if they suspect that a child is being abused or is at risk of abuse. These laws are credited with exposing instances of child abuse, but they may also push professionals to err on the side of caution, and report even non-abusing pedophiles to authorities. This, in turn, could drive pedophiles further away.

Some pedophiles seek help in online support groups. The "Virtuous Pedophiles" are run by two anonymous men, both of whom have families and children. Together, they gather in the deep web to help each other eschew their sexual desires and abstain from child porn. Some hail the groups as essential, but others, like the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, worry that they might instead function as underground trading posts for pedophilic tips and tricks.

Germany does not have mandatory reporting laws. Britain doesn't either — though professional medical bodies like the British Psychological Society have their own reporting requirements that can have a similar effect, for example mandating that disclosed past offences be reported to the authorities. In September, under pressure from a number of survivors' organizations including the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), the UK government confirmed that it is considering American-style mandatory reporting rules. Five months earlier, in April, Prime Minister David Cameron told journalists that he would make it illegal for people to download "manuals" on how to sexually groom children — in the same way that it is illegal, under the UK's Terrorism Act 2000, for people to download terrorist training manuals.

This same government recently heard, from the head of the National Crime Agency, that British law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed by the number of people in Britain accessing child pornography — around 50,000 each year — with the result that many will elude law enforcement.

One program that does run in Britain is the Stop it Now! helpline, run by the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, with funding from the UK Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. But Stop it Now! Director Donald Findlater told VICE News that the organization is largely limited to providing anonymous counseling by phone. A pedophile can come for in-person treatment, but only if he agrees to report himself — or be reported— to police. When callers get through to the hotline, they are read a statement:

"The Helpline is confidential. We will not ask you for your name or any other details, but if you do give us any information that identifies a child who has been, is being, or is at risk of being abused, we will pass this on to the appropriate agencies. We will also pass on details of any criminal offence that has been committed."

Image via Stop it Now!

Findlater explained that the majority of calls come from "those who are troubled by their own thoughts." The average hotline user calls three or four times, though some call upwards of 20 or 30 times — over the course of several years. In some instances, family members or friends get involved. And Findlater said the calls keep coming, in increasing rates. Last summer, the Home Office promised £100,000 of funding after Stop it Now! revealed that it was missing a startling 5,000 calls each month, due to understaffing.

The group also runs workshops for professionals, like "Sexual Fantasy and Arousal: Managing the Problem."

But the very notion of psychological treatment for pedophilia is controversial. For some, it recalls now-discredited attempts to "cure" homosexuality via so-called "gay conversion therapy" — which, in some cases, involved forcing gay men to masturbate to imaginations of heterosexual encounters. Others worry that defining pedophilia as a sexual orientation — over which a person has no control — will mainstream it, or strip pedophiles of responsibility for their actions.

British officials have reason to be especially wary when it comes to re-tooling their approach to child pedophilia. As late as the 1980s, members of the infamous Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) — which sought to legalize sex with children — were given audiences with politicians and civil liberties groups. They campaigned publicly, published a magazine, lectured at universities, appeared on respectable news programs and even submitted to a Home Office enquiry into age of consent legislation. The PIE's logic of "children's sexual liberation" was widely and brazenly shared. Since the group's disbanding in 1984, a number of its members have been convicted of child sex offenses. 

As it stands, pedophiles are usually revealed only after they violently abuse children: when they're convicted in court, or when their whereabouts are revealed — and draw wild-eyed crowds.

In 2000, after the murder and rape of a young girl named Sarah Payne, British tabloid News of the World launched a "naming and shaming" section, which published photographs of pedophiles along with their addresses, and brought hoards of enraged protesters to take to the streets. Vigilante attacks sometimes followed.

In the wake of these publications, some men picked up and skipped town. As a result, the Channel 4 documentary notes, these pedophiles moved further underground.

Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart