We have to protect children — even the ones you hate

Over the last four decades or so—the course of my life—we have seen an ever-growing awareness of the effects of childhood abuse and, in particular, the effects of sexual abuse. We feel a strong need to protect children.

The world is outraged about child sexual abuse in a way it was not in the sixties, and this is a good thing. We are more aware than ever that it happened and goes on happening, and we want to stop it.

Everyone agrees

The need to fight child sexual abuse and protect children is an issue that crosses political divisions. Conservatives and liberals, heterosexual and LGBT+ folk, millennials, boomers and Generation Xs are united against those that traffick, enslave, abuse or sexually objectify children.

Or, to put it in the everyday language we hear around us, everyone hates pedophiles.

If you want “likes”, say you hate pedophiles. If you’re a politician with slipping poll numbers, say you want stronger penalties for pedophiles. If you’re smearing someone, suggest an association with pedophilia.

Opposition to pedophiles is so universal that nobody will contradict you, and nobody will speak up in their defence.

Only a pedant would point out that, according to research, most child sexual abuse is not carried out by pedophiles at all. What does that matter? Two wrongs don’t make a right… right? The point is to protect children, first and foremost.

Protect children!

But in our eagerness to protect children, there is one group of children we are overlooking.

What if, shortly after hitting puberty, you become aware that you are a pedophile? What does this mean for you? What are you going to do, and who are you going to turn to?

I can speak about this because it happened to me. Around the age of fourteen or fifteen, I realised that I was a pedophile. It’s something I never acted on and didn’t even openly discuss until I was in my forties.

But how did I know? Well, because a pedophile, as I read in the dictionary, is someone who experiences sexual attraction to children below the age of puberty.

You will notice that it isn’t the same as ‘child molester’ or ‘child sex offender’. That is for the simple reason that being a pedophile does not mean you’re inevitably going to sexually offend against children.

Then why do pedophiles hide?

The only pedophiles most of us hear about are the ones who commit offences. The rest are invisible. Why do we stay invisible? Because we are hiding from you.

We’re hiding because, based on everything we hear on the topic of child abuse, we think that we might be the worst people in the world.

This may even be based on abuse we ourselves endured as children. Some of us were children who were not protected.

We think that, if anyone gets an inkling of what we are, we are worse than dead. We are sure that you, whoever you are, hate us without even knowing us.

The teenaged pedophile

Most pedophiles realise they are pedophiles at the age of fourteen. For some it’s a little earlier, and for many it’s later. Fourteen is not a great age to realise you’re different in this kind of way.

Actually, at first I figured I was gay. Given that I realised this aged eleven (in the mid-eighties) it seemed tricky enough. All the same, things had moved on sufficiently even in provincial England that I felt able to come out at twelve to friends and then, at thirteen, more widely.

The homophobic bullying this brought about and the unrequited crushes I constantly suffered did weigh on me after a time. They were enough to push me to a suicide attempt at fourteen. Happily, there was decent support for that. I had understanding parents; there were books; I got a psychotherapist who didn’t try to ‘cure’ me.

Little of this support had been available a decade before. I was one of the lucky ones. I had to accept that I was always going to be gay (kinky, too, it turned out), but at least it was no longer the 1950s. There was a future for me, if I stuck around.

Life wasn’t easy. The slurs kept coming, but I didn’t make another serious suicide attempt.

But then came a sickly realisation. I definitely still fancied fifteen-year-old boys (and men, too) but I couldn’t help noticing some of the younger boys at school and on TV.

There is no good way for a kid to process this alone

There didn’t exactly seem to be a book on this topic, not from the angle I was seeing it from. There was a strand in older gay literature that valorised the idea of love between older and younger male partners. What I was feeling didn’t seem too far off that track. Maybe it was OK if it was referenced in literature?

But I was an intelligent teen. I sort of knew what these attractions meant. They meant that not only was I gay, but that I was also a pedophile. The fact didn’t panic me, exactly; it just sort of sat there, not making sense… because pedophiles were supposed to be old men in raincoats flashing tiny kids in public toilets, and that wasn’t me. I also hadn’t the first clue what to do next about the feelings I had.

I never went on to either abuse a child or download any illegal material. I think this was partly down to the efforts in that decade to publicise the harmful effects of abuse and abuse material (what was called in those days ‘child porn’).

What I want to think about, though, is all the other kids who are now, in 2020, in pretty much the same situation that I was in the eighties and nineties.

Because I don’t think a single one of them is fated to become an offender either. I believe that, with the right support, all pedophiles can be helped to live non-offending lives. They can help protect children, even if they are still a child.

I’m now going to shift away from the word pedophile. The charity B4UACT that works with people like me, came up with the term “minor-attracted person” or MAP to describe the full range of those who are attracted to minors, including ephebophiles, hebephiles, pedophiles and nepiophiles. This was not a PR stunt to make pedophilia more acceptable, just an attempt to encompass the variations under one term.

You might have been wondering what help is even possible for teenage MAPs? Should we even be considering support for young MAPs while so much child sex abuse still goes on? Shouldn’t we be taking these kids out of school and putting them somewhere safe, so we can protect children?

If we acknowledge this, doesn’t it normalise pedophilia?

This is admittedly not an easy problem, and most of the solutions we currently have are focused mainly on adult MAPs, not teens.

Minor Attraction 101

But let me tell you about some of the things we could be doing to ensure the mental wellbeing of teenage MAPs (none of which involve minimising or endorsing child abuse).

When MAPs first realise they’re minor-attracted, they have a lot of questions. Here are some:

1) Why am I like this?

Short answer: science doesn’t know yet, but you didn’t choose it.

2) Am I going to jail?

Not if you don’t offend—and you can avoid this as easily as anyone else. You can be what is called an anti-contact MAP, which is someone who is committed to never offending.

3) Is the attraction the same for everyone?

No, there are different ages and genders of attraction.

4) Is there help?

Only a bit right now.

5) Should I kill myself?

No. You don’t need to do that.

6) Should I tell someone? Who?

There’s no blanket answer to this. Think carefully about both.

7) Should I be near kids?

You will never avoid every child, so it’s better to make sure you figure out how to behave morally in every situation you might encounter.

8) Is it a sickness or more like LGBT+?

It’s not quite like either. It’s unique and needs a unique approach.

9) Is it bad to fantasise about minors?

It’s important to understand the difference between fantasy and reality (and to stay away from material featuring real children). Some MAPs find fantasy—especially about minors they see in real life—makes them feel more of a risk. Others find that always blocking these feelings makes the feelings scarier and more of an obsession than they need to be. A lot of us find fantasy about fictional children to be an entirely harmless outlet. Scientists are working on a clearer answer.

10) Should I stay offline?

There are temptations. The trick is in knowing how to avoid those without cutting yourself off from life, because self-isolation is a bad idea, too.

11) Can I ever be happy?

There isn’t a short answer to this question.

We want the kids to be happy

What would be your honest answer to a fourteen-year-old MAP who asked, “Can I ever be happy?”

How many things do you see lying in the way of their ability to live a happy, moral life?

It is useless to lay the blame for these difficulties on their minor attraction. They didn’t choose it and the best evidence we currently have suggests that they probably can’t change it either.

The question is this: how they can pursue happiness in spite of it? Since I joined the anti-contact MAP community online, I have heard over and over and over again from people who recall an adolescence cratered with suicide attempts and ideation: month after month and year after year spent in doubt, fear, isolation and terror.

It worries me that this is how MAPs feel, and it enrages me that a lot of people think that this is all that these young people deserve. It’s obvious to me that for every suffering MAP I or other community leaders have talked to, there must be hundreds or thousands of others who feel the same way but who are too afraid to reach out for help. I don’t think this leads anywhere good. Without guidance, young MAPs can take the wrong path.

This is how we can protect children

So, to conclude, here is my immediate thought on how we can reach MAPs at this age, dissuade them from activities that would harm others, and give them options for living a complete and meaningful life.

It’s about making a very small change to sex education in schools. Imagine if, at the end of a well-designed sex ed lesson, the teacher said something like this:

“Okay, we covered the main points today, but I just want to say that there are other kinds of sexual thoughts that people can have. Some of them can seem pretty shocking or feel uncomfortable, but there is help for those people that experience them.

“If you find that you have sexual thoughts about children or animals or other situations that can’t be acted out in real life, don’t panic and don’t blame yourself.

“In the pack you take home today, there is a number you can call and a site you can visit to chat to someone confidentially. The person on the other end is trained to help you.

“And you can come and see me any time in my office if you have a question.”

Here is where pedophiles and other MAPs find help

When I was a teenager, there was nothing like this; in most places there still isn’t. But now there are some models beginning to emerge, mainly aimed at adult MAPs. Some are homegrown efforts by the anti-contact MAP community to provide peer support (which has obvious ethical worries where minors are concerned). Others are led by professionals.

Most of the professionally-led programs, such as B4UACT, The Global Prevention Project, StopSO UK, Don’t Offend India and StopItNow have grown out of treatment programmes for offenders, and most have the aim of reaching people who are at high risk of using or have already used illegal material online. This is really important work.

The problems with “getting help”

Some of the programmes are not yet fully geared to appropriately assist the non-offending MAPs, but most are listening to us and learning. They tread a very tricky line between treating their clients as blameless human beings presenting with a need, and persuading the sceptical outside world that their aim is not to ‘let pedophiles get away with it.’

However, for minors, accessing these kinds of programs is fraught with additional complications, including professional obligations to assess the risk that the minor might present to others and to break confidentiality based on certain disclosures.

For adult clients, that might mean other people, including law enforcement, becoming involved.

For a minor, it would mean a highly plausible risk that their parents or school management would be told. In today’s society, they might very well feel, with some justification, that there is too big a risk of their lives, their futures and their employability all being upended in just a few hours if they say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

This approach doesn’t protect children.

To overcome these issues, there would need to be underlying cultural changes in the whole sector that deals with child protection.

Firstly, the charities whose role it is to protect children need to accept that they could directly prevent more exploitation and abuse if they were prepared to reach beyond their comfort zone and support efforts of this kind.

And if they—or even just one prominent organisation—got behind this approach, then many things could follow: more child protection professionals would understand what minor attraction is; the media might tweak its choice of language when it reported offending, and young MAPs would be more ready to reach out for help. And they would have a much better assurance that they would remain safe and protected while they received it.

There would be resources and support for their parents, too, because this is a very hard thing to try and understand about your child if you have to figure it out in isolation.

The times they are a-changing

I truly believe all of this is on the way. It will come too late for me but that’s OK. Somehow, I managed to get through my twenties and thirties without offending. I don’t think that was ever a guaranteed thing.

I didn’t find happiness easy in that time. The fact that I can experience attractions to adults helped to an extent, but the effort of keeping this secret year after year has not. I have lived afraid that that I might give myself away if anyone got too close. I do not easily form friendships, and I am generally ambivalent about keeping them going in case I should prove a liability further down the line.

The clouds of suicide continue to hang. Three years ago, they hung so heavy that, having made some practical plans to die, I finally realised I could not live with this alone. I reached out for a community that simply did not exist when I was a young man.

This was the community of anti-contact MAPs. We know that children cannot meaningfully consent, and we acknowledge the harm done by abuse and abuse material.

We assist each other in the pursuit of that elusive happy life and, although we are not naive about what can sometimes go wrong, we do not subject each other to the presumption that we are dangerous just because we are minor-attracted.

The community is small and is run by amateurs (with both the good and bad implications of that phrase). There is a fringe of professionals, too—psychologists, scientists, authors and counsellors—that are able to help us to understand each other and ourselves better.

Despite our anti-abuse aims, we have been deplatformed by Discord (who banned our original server) and by Medium (who unpublished a whole slew of anti-offending articles by MAPs, which have since been republished elsewhere) and we have dealt with an endless stream of false reports and suspensions against our individual accounts on Twitter.

We’ll continue to protect children

That continues. It’s a scrappy situation, but we remain optimistic.

I remain optimistic that, based on the models we are creating, there will one day be programs, resources and community spaces designed—with appropriate safeguards and professional supervision—for minors who discover they are MAP.

And when that happens, there will be hope for people like us, and hope of better protection for every child, everywhere. What’s to hate about that?

Start the discussion at forum.prostasia.org