Hosted at the J School

Hosted at the J School

On Tuesday night, The Current hosted what their editor in chief referred to no fewer than three times as a “groundbreaking” discussion about the psychology of pedophilia. Thrilled just to be invited, Bwog’s own Editor in Chief Taylor Grasdalen attended to learn more. Trigger warning: mild discussion of sexual abuse.

I’ve never given pedophilia much thought. To attend a 90-minute lecture and panel on pedophilia, then, probably totals all the time I had ever prior given the disorder. “Pedophilia,” defined: “sexual feelings directed toward children.” The panel, introduced by The Current‘s Joshua Fattal, CC ’15, was comprised of Luke Malone, journalist with Matter and This American Life and Columbia Journalism School ’13; Elizabeth Letourneau, Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and James Cantor, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. These three offered a surprising diversity in their training and opinions — particularly useful in this conversation — though they wholeheartedly consense in teaching “society” and “culture” to see pedophilia as something biological and entirely separate from status as sexual offender.

Only this way, we learned, can we become more empathetic. We’re generally not inclined to empathize with pedophiles, but Cantor’s research and description of those affected as having developed their disorder in utero — and Letourneau’s and Malone’s own research and reportage — leads change here. Cantor proposed homosexuality as apparently analogous to pedophilia, that it’s something one is born into, but diverges in action; where gay men (and gay women, too, though the stress was on men) can safely act on their sexuality, pedophiles cannot. Upon action, they do become sexual offenders. There’s no doubt, as Letourneau explained, that harm is done when children are party to sexual acts. But we see pedophilia synonymous with sexual offense, and this view compromises our ability not only to treat but to prevent offense, the “action” and fulfillment of pedophilic fantasies, the harm.

Malone, in his thesis at Columbia, wrote about teen pedophiles and what Letourneau calls the self-directed “dreadful terms” that young pedophiles use for themselves. There’s “awful internalization,” again paralleled by the panel to homosexuality with its radical self-loathing, depression, thoughts of suicide, thoughts that “I am a monster.” No one would choose this. Cantor’s work over the last decade has involved diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), also called a diffusion MRI, with which scientists like himself may map and read brain tissue and its changes when stimulated. Recently accepted for publication (and received with applause by this crowd), his research concludes that there’s no single “sex center” in the brain but a network that together decides, ultimately, “what’s sexy” to the individual. These factors in the brain include face recognition, motor control, and reaction suppression.

Suppression of reaction is important to pedophiles in more than the context of a research laboratory. Letourneau discussed her dream of an intervention program, believing that there might be a window in adolescents’ life where their “brain plasticity” could allow preventive treatment, though estimates its cost between one to two million dollars. The trials, the programming, the implementation. It would primarily be done online, with some therapy supplement. There’s also the potential of actual treatment for pedophiles who have already offended and been caught, people in prison, people whom Cantor currently characterizes as recipients less of justice than of vengeance (at least in the American “system,” he says).

The panelists left little room for interpretation of pedophilia as something other than “predisposition” (per the event’s title), but whether it’s “perversion” seems to involve one’s actions and ability to suppress his feelings. One member of the audience, during the brief Q&A, asked whether the panel understands pedophilia as more romantic or more sexual. Cantor and Letourneau agreed that very few pedophiles — and even sexual offenders — see their feelings or actions as harmful, often walking the line between romantic love and paternal love. But again, Letourneau reiterates that there is no way for a pedophile to act upon his (again, this discussion male-centric) “urges” without causing harm. Whatever “love” the individual sees in his behavior (or mind, though scientists and researchers like these are mostly able to study only those incarcerated for their actions due to rare self-reporters) is irrational. This is not to say that they don’t know their actions to be wrong, but that they generally believe their intentions to be good.

Malone, unofficial host of the discussion, finally prompted Letourneau and Cantor: “What more could be done?” Elizabeth Letourneau sees a need for prevention via early intervention, and a change in public attitudes. This conversation is dated as recently to the recent Jerry Sandusky controversy, where we have begun to learn — as presented in the media — that child sex abuse really is preventable, with effort. James Cantor, too, discussed this and the costs of not seeking prevention; the average inmate costs the United States $25,000 per year, and as much as $100,000 for someone incarcerated on sexual offense charges. These costs mount as sexual offenders are often targeted by their peers in prison. By reforming, intervening, and perhaps rehabilitating rather than imprisoning for life those even mandatorily reported, such funds could go to research and make the cycle less costly, and less painful. The average child sex abuse victim “costs” some $360,000 in his or her lifetime — for therapy, their own harm or spurred abuse, their own difficulties down the road. So much money might be better directed elsewhere.

It’s predisposed, that’s almost certain. But that it makes one perverse and sexual crimes inevitable — this is less likely, and this is where we must turn our attention.