So a few days ago, Mark Turner over at Friendly Atheist published this post, titled “Archbishop Claims Pedophilia is Not a Crime.” The title of this post, as well as the subsequent discussion, bothered me a great deal. It bothered me in the same way that talk of “pedophile priests” bothers me. There’s a fairly thoughtless conflation between the terms “pedophile” and “child molester” in common speech, and it really does everyone involved a great disservice.
First, I’d like to define terms. A pedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to children. A child molester is someone who sexually abuses a child. There’s a subtle, but important distinction between the two. Pedophiles can be child molesters, and child molesters are frequently pedophiles, but the two are not the same. There are child molesters that are not pedophiles, and there are plenty of pedophiles who have never abused a child. It’s this second group that I want to talk about.
Not all pedophiles are criminals. Not all pedophiles want to abuse children. Many pedophiles understand that abusing children is morally wrong, and refrain from doing it. Many pedophiles are able to keep their emotions and their attractions in check, and never harm anyone. Many pedophiles are able to keep their attraction hidden, and may go through their whole lives without ever revealing their pedophilia. We don’t actually have an accurate estimate of the number of pedophiles, precisely for that reason.
And that’s the problem. Pedophilia is so stigmatized that it’s nearly impossible for any pedophile to actually seek help. Therapy, support groups, hotlines, advice columns–none of those things exist. There is no safety net available for pedophiles who have difficulty restraining themselves and not abusing children.
It makes sense for society to provide means for pedophiles to manage their pedophilia in ways that do not harm children. Obviously, if they get help and support, they will be much less likely to abuse children than if they are demonized and shunned.
So what happens when society instead treats pedophiles with hatred and contempt? Pedophiles are shunted into the shadows, where they do not get the care they need. They become more likely to abuse children, and far less likely to seek help or treatment. When pedophiles and pedophilia are stigmatized, we see more abused children, more fractured families, and more damaged communities.
So what are the ways that pedophiles become stigmatized? Well, one of the most prevalent ways is by the conflation of pedophilia with child abuse. Many people regularly interchange the terms “pedophile” and “child molester” without ever thinking about it. This may not sound like it has a significant effect, but many people aren’t aware there’s a difference at all.
So when I see people (particularly atheists) talking about “pedophile priests,” or I see headlines like the one from Friendly Atheist, it makes me angry. These people are a part of a problem that hurts everyone, and they’re entirely oblivious to it. It’s easy to ignore the elements of society that have already been marginalized, but we can’t afford to do that. For the sake of children who are potential victims, for the sake of the families of those children, the communities around them, and, yes, for people suffering from pedophilia, we need to do better.