Unpacking the nature of pedophilia in the context of someone’s social identity is very complex. Stigma has been the primary barrier in understanding pedophilia with scientific study. In Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Goffman (1963) described stigma as “bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier.” Pedophilia is the presence of deviant sexual arousal to prepubescent children. And, there are few human experiences that endure more stigma than carrying the “bodily signs” of pedophilia.
“By some estimates, 1 percent of the male population continues, long after puberty, to find themselves attracted to prepubescent children. These people are living with pedophilia, a sexual attraction to prepubescents that often constitutes a mental illness. Unfortunately, our laws are failing them and, consequently, ignoring opportunities to prevent child abuse.” (Kaplan, M., The New York Times, 2014)
In “I, Pedophile,” David Goldberg writes about the isolation, disgust, and shame associated with his pedophilia and addiction to child pornography. In his story, he shares the relief he felt when he was finally arrested and forced to reveal the truth about his deviant sexual arousal and to obtain help. Erving Goffman (1963) stated in his book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, “whether the stigmatized group is an established or not, it is largely in relation to this own-group that it is possible to discuss the natural history and the moral career of the stigmatized individual” (p. 38). Until recently, the “natural history” of pedophilia has been that it is a moral failing to have a deviant sexual arousal to children. Specifically, because of our general discomfort around exploring pedophilia, the narrative for the “moral career” of pedophiles has been that they are destined to become child molesters.
Unfortunately, Goldberg’s story of anguish and shame about his pedophilia is not uncommon. How should society collaborate to create safer communities where those at risk to be child molesters have a way out of their cycle before any more children are hurt? Leaders in social science research journals on sexual abuse continue to reiterate how shame too often hinders prevention because of stigma around pedophilia as a social issue. In hopes of creating a safer society, current prevention and treatment approaches to pedophilia geared toward men like Goldberg. Outreach programs, such as Prevention Project Dunkelfeld, are developing across the world in hopes of preventing men from acting on their urges, including the illicit viewing of child pornography. Prevention Project Dunkelfeld provides outreach with media campaigns that includes billboards and online resources.
Virtuous Pedophiles is an online support group that also challenges the dominant narrative of the “moral career” of those who live with pedophilia. Specifically, Virtuous Pedophiles is an online support those who have never acted on their sexual attraction to children. Virtuous Pedophiles is an online support those who have never acted on their sexual attraction to children. The group forged after gaining public support when they were featured in the episode This American Life called “Tarred and Feathered.” With the help of clinical experts and media, Virtuous Pedophiles was able to move their online support group into mainstream online discourse with their website – www.virped.org. The online support group states on their home page the following social identity:
We do not choose to be attracted to children, and we cannot make that attraction go away. But we can resist the temptation to abuse children sexually, and many of us present no danger to children whatsoever. Yet we are despised for having a sexual attraction that we did not choose, cannot change, and successfully resist.
Most people are not concerned with the less than one percent of the male population living with pedophilia. It’s easy to distance oneself from a social issue when we do not believe it can affect us directly. Except that, as a society we experience moral outrage toward child sexual abuse and wish for ways to eradicate its traumatic existence. However, what if pedophilia were to affect you directly? What if someone you cared for deeply – a son, husband, or nephew – was to be in the one percent like Adam and David? Research demonstrates that shame and isolation, as described in “I, Pedophile,” often fuels sexual offending. And, for those men living with pedophilia, the willingness of family members and a community to support him with access to psychological help could potentially prevent him from sexually abusing children. It is in the best interest of public safety that society integrates the emergent narratives of David Goldberg, Adam from This American Life, and others like those who may relate with those like Virtuous Pedophiles by challenging the dominant (mis)belief that pedophiles are destined to become child molesters. Avoiding ways to address pedophilia because of our moral disgust puts society in a passive role on a social issue that requires collective action.