Sunday, June 24, 2012

Getting the Message Right:

Compassion and Media Responses to Sexual Abuse

A guest blog by:
David S. Prescott, LICSW

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with James Cantor. A scientist and editor of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment (ATSA’s journal), James has spent his career seeking out ways to understand and prevent sexual abuse. With the Jerry Sandusky trial in the media spotlight, CNN recently asked James to write a piece for the opinion section of its web site. His submission carried the title “The Science of Pedophilia and the Prevention of Child Molestation”. Typical of news media outlets, James had control over his text, but CNN elected to use the catchiest possible headline: “Do Pedophiles Deserve Sympathy?

The good news is that James’ article is excellent and garnered enough attention to warrant an on-air interview on CNN’s “Newsroom” with Don Lemon. It is encouraging to see reasonable, science-based information available to the public. My concern is with the messaging of CNN’s headline (“Do Pedophiles Deserve Sympathy”), which horrifies even as it draws readers in. It is worth examining the words themselves, and our susceptibility to media influence. This is not simply an academic exercise; at least one listserv for the discussion of sex-related topics has seen considerable discussion on minor points, such as whether there is enough brain research to warrant “sympathy for rampant pedophiles”. It seems that some of us have let language get the best of us.

First, CNN uses the word “pedophiles” even though the article makes clear that not all who molest children are pedophiles and many people who are sexually attracted to children who do not molest them. Terms such as “child molester” and “pedophile”, while potentially useful in some professional contexts, are implicitly misleading in others.

“Pedophile” implies identity. Although research is unclear on the extent to which people can change their sexual interests, it is clear that not all people who sexually abuse are equally dangerous, that the majority of them are not known to re-offend, and that they re-offend less as they get older. More recently, we have also learned that reports of sexual crimes have declined in recent years. As a treatment provider, I’m concerned that the word “pedophile” can mislead others. Treatment is about people living different, better lives; it is not about changing somebody’s fundamental identity. Approaching treatment from an identity perspective can also make it seem insurmountable. Which would you choose: Changing the way you live or changing who you actually are?

“Pedophile” implies that a person is destined to have sex with children unless specifically prevented from doing so. One can argue that the belief in the inevitability of re-offense was central to the establishment of our field’s first programs, prior to adequate studies of re-offense rates. Simply put, when the field of treating people who had abused began, professionals typically thought their clients were all at high risk.

“Pedophile” has many negative connotations. It is hard for lay people to hear the word without associating it with “evil” and/or “monsters”. One typically sees it in the same paragraph as words such as “predator”. Rational discussion about resource allocation and science-based public policy become even more difficult under these circumstances. The Medical Director of a civil commitment program who asked why no one had been released from a program, expressed the relevance of this point succinctly: How do you release somebody after building them up as monsters? (Oaks, 2008).

Similarly, the word “deserves” raises many questions: Do pedophiles deserve sympathy? Compared to whom? What does anyone actually deserve? To some degree, don’t all human beings deserve more than they have in their life? What do any of us deserve? In some cases, our clients have considered these questions more than we have. In 2009, the staff members of a civil commitment program heard from three clients who were nearing the end of treatment. The format was akin to a town hall meeting, in which 100 or more staff asked questions of clients housed in another facility:

Staff: Tell us why you deserve to be released into the community after all the harm you’ve done.

Client: (after some thought): I don’t know that I deserve anything… but I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Finally, there is the word “sympathy”. Research has found that empathic treatment providers can produce better outcomes than those who adopt a harsh, confrontational style (Marshall, 2005), but most of us shrink away from the idea of sympathy, which implies a deeper emotional congruence. Again, language matters. Let’s have a look at other places where this word appears in our lives.

First, those of us who are fathers have heard about sympathy pain and weight gain when our partners are pregnant. Then, as parents, we might display super-human strength to defend our children. This aspect of the fight-or-flight response is known as sympathetic arousal. Many of us remember the 1953 play “Tea and Sympathy”. If not, we will remember that the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” became famous due to its shock value. Sympathy ultimately connotes closeness, often bordering on intimacy.

Having read up to this point, take a moment to consider: Under what conditions would you answer “yes” if someone asked you if pedophiles deserve sympathy?

On the other hand, one might also ask: Assuming that our clients have consented to treatment (and knowing that punishment alone does not reduce risk), do they also not deserve our best rehabilitative efforts? Do they not deserve humane and compassionate treatment providers? Do they not deserve the most empirically sound management in the community?

Another way to look at this is to consider those who would experience victimization at some point in the future if professionals did not intervene. Do they not deserve our best efforts at maintaining the highest standards of care, including maintaining an empirically supported treatment approach? If the answer is yes, we have to conclude that people who abuse and are at risk to molest children may indeed “deserve” our most compassionate response in order to involve them meaningfully in interventions.

These questions and comments do not arise out of any desire to hug thugs or defend deviance. Rather, it is becoming clearer in the research that people can stay safer in our communities when they receive the same compassionate concern as any other people seeking to lead better lives. For example, Wilson, Cortoni, Picheca, Stirpe, & Nunes (2009) found that compassion-based programming can yield very impressive results in community aftercare services.

We are now at a point in our field’s development where we have effective means for helping people change and stay changed. The good news is that articles such as James Cantor’s show that we can provide helpful, needed information to the public. The challenge now is to make sure that we are all asking the right questions.


Marshall , W. L. (2005). Therapist style in sexual offender treatment: Influence on indices of change. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment, 17, 109-116.

Oaks, L. (2008, June 7). Locked in Limbo. Minneapolis Star Tribune. Retrieved June 23, 2012 from

Wilson, R.J., Cortoni, F., Picheca, J.E., Stirpe, T.S., & Nunes, K. (2009). Community-based sexual offender maintenance treatment programming: An evaluation. [Research Report R-188]Ottawa, ON: Correctional Service of Canada.


  1. As a late developing eleven year old, I wrote love letters to a six year old girl (and she wrote back). As a 17yo I started to feel self conscious about the fact I fantasized about sex with children. I'm now in my 50's and I've come to accept paedophilic attraction as an intrinsic and probably innate component of my nature.

    Whether by luck or good management, I've avoided any sexual interaction with children. I like kids and I've gone out of my way to be involved with them, but I think a sense of decency and good sense has constrained my responses to sexual feeings. I've also kept my romantic attachments to myself. I treat romance as an aspect of bonding but I don't cast friendships with children in a romantic light. I don't, as a rule, have 'romances' with children.

    This doesn't mean I wouldn't like to be sexual with them or that I don't feel romanically attached.. It does require some discipline to act according to social expectations. It does not require supernatural effort, however. It is simply a choice.

    At one stage of my life I became overwhelmed by the hoplessness of my situation. I'm attracted to women and have relationships with them, but children figure most vividly in my affections. I grieved for a child who I loved very much who moved overseas. I was unable to express or discuss my sadness with anyone. I felt increasing sexual frustration. I was getting older and I was (and am) unconvinced that sex play between adults and children is harmful if it's in harmony with a child's development and wishes. I felt like a prisoner of society's puritanism.

    But I knew that the reactions to childhood sexual experience could be toxic to a child, so this more than anything convinced me that sex play would be wrong. I also felt an increasing burden of guilt and shame around my sexual feelings. At this stage of my life I had little to do with children but I fantasized about them a lot. I was a maelstrom of internal conflicts and intense feelings. I also dveloped a depression, drank to much, neglected my adult relationship and attempted suicide. All this in secret. I 'knew' that if I ever shared my feelings with anyone, my life would be over.

    I knew I needed help, and I was very lucky to find a competent counselor. I didn't intend to tell him about my paedophilia, but it was soon obvious that it was pointless not to. To my surprise he was unfazed, insightful and nonjudgmental. I was extremely lucky, since I later had a very different experience.


  2. ...

    It became clear to me that if I was to recover my mental health and happiness, I'd have to accept my feelings AND the social constraints around them. Since then, I've become increasingly stubborn in identifying as a 'good paedophile'. I've told a few close friends, including my current adult partner, about my orientation, This hasn't always worked to my advantage and it has never ceased to be terrifying, but it tempers my identity and forces me to make it a reality.

    What was obvious then, and is even more obvious now, is that the ability to see paedophilia as potentially positive, as a possible virtue, is fundamental to my ability to live as I do. I still feel attracted to children, but my feelings are light and untroubling. I find the company of children rewarding, not frustrating. Perhaps it's because my libido has decreased with age, but I find it easy, often effortless, to acknowledge moments of arousal and move on to something else. Children themselves are always on the move, and this way of experiencing my sexuality, as weightless and insignificant, seems to fit perfectly with their nature.

    I suspect 'paedophilia lite' is old news. It reminds me of the weightlessness of the clouds of putti that tumble from painted ceilings. It's simply an aspect of the human condition that sometimes requires careful management (like many other aspects, especially in the realm of sexuality).

    Personally, I think paedophilia is a trait which is innate or fixed in early development. It presentsd as an 'emotional congruence' with children and an erotic response to them that isn't so far removed from the eroticism of normal nurturing (Freud's picture of an erotic continuum pervadfing human life illustrates what I mean here). I suspect that benign paedophilic affects are probably being problematically sexualized as a by product of the socialization of normative masculinity.

    What 'paedophiles' need most right now, more than anything, is a model of themselves that is consistent with being a good, healthy and whole person, who has a particualr way of responding to children that is neither harmful or harmless, but simply is. The model also needs to assert the possibility that paedophilia can motivate selfless, socially constructive acts and might be something to be proud of.

    This model is completely at odds with current media hyperbole, moral panic and the earnest pathologizing of some clinicians.

  3. It would have been better to say: "a particualr way of responding to children that is neither harmful or beneficial, but simply is."

    A neutral trait, in other words.

  4. As usual, excellent piece. I had to laugh a bit when I read that CNN changed Dr. Cantor's original title - I wrote an editorial for the Syracuse Post Standard in May about a similar subject (allowing sex offenders and their families to re-integrate healthily post-release and toning down the disturbing public desire for them to suffer and fail). It was entitled "Public and Political Attitudes Towards Sex Offenders: Revenge of Prevention?" They subsequently ran the story as, "Sex offenders deserve tolerance", which completely changed the tone of the piece and in my opinion, was not at all the point I was trying to get across. Television interviews I've done on the same subject have been similarly edited to be as sensational as possible. It's too bad that "protect the children" seems to be nothing more than a tagline for the press.

    1. I was recently asked to present to the Interpol Crimes Against Children group in Lyon, France. The presentation went very well; however, my original title was "Circles of Support & Accountability: Safe and Humane Re-Entry for Persons Who Have Sexually Offended. The organizers asked that I remove "and Humane" from the title so as not to turn off attendees before they got in the room. I ultimately agreed with the suggestion, but it really did cause me to ask myself (and my colleagues), "At what point do we just tell the truth?"

  5. An excellent, well-reasoned, and well-presented piece indeed. While I would never defend or condone abuse of any kind, I heartily believe that those who are at risk of committing abuse (or who have already committed abuse and wish to prevent reoffense) need and deserve our help, not our hatred. The media bears a huge responsibility in fueling the fires of vitriol and extremism that we see in society today - the voices clamoring for practically the utter annihilation of anyone perceived to be a "child molester" or "pedophile" (which they mistakenly assume to be true of virtually everyone who is a registered sex offender). So much for the media being "objective."

  6. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I agree that the media's use of sensationalism and corresponding language impedes our ability to understand, treat and stop sexual abuse.

    If we continue to believe that all offenders are monsters, then we will never realize the extent or impact of child sexual abuse, because we won't be able to accept that most offenders are normal people who live in our communities, shop in our grocery stores, teach and counsel our children and even have prominent positions in our communities.

    If all offenders are monsters, this implies that there is no hope for a normal life. It also prevents survivors and offenders from stepping forward and asking for help.

    Survivors can't step forward for fear their family will be broken apart and they will be blamed. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I didn't want the abuser to leave; I just wanted the abuse to stop.

    Offenders can't step forward, because if they do their lives as they know it is over. They become the "thing" that everyone hates and fears. They have very little chance for a normal life. How can we expect them to come forward and ask for help when the consequences are so dire?

    We need treatment programs that treat the family as a unit to help them heal and be able to function as a healthy family unit.

  7. I state this as someone who has sexually offended, been through treatment as well as a prison term, and has zero desire to re-offend.

    The treatment program itself helped me understand my risks, motivations, and potential interventions and while I realize the value of all those tools, it's not as valuable as one other thing I got out of treatment.

    I had the fortune of getting an extremely caring and compassionate therapist. He modeled for me something that had been largely missing from my childhood, and as a result not only will I never re-offend again, and this doesn't mean I feel "cured" and will put myself in risky situations, it means, because I do not want to hurt anyone and understand what my abuse resulted in, I will not allow myself ever to get into a risky situation and will utilize all the tools I've learned to the fullest.

    Had I had a less compassionate therapist, I may well have still acquired the tools, but had no motivation to use them.

    Additionally, having this modeled for me, I was able to apply it to my relationships, and now my marriage and other personal adult relationships are so satisfying, and I say this sincerely, my marriage is better than it's been in thirty years, that I have no desire for inappropriate relationships, child or adult.

  8. Thank you all, for your comments. I am deeply grateful for your thoughts, which wil inform future projects.

    -- David Prescott