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Hidden lives

Diana FongMay 29, 2013

Pedophiles cannot change their sexual attraction to minors, but, with help, they can avoid becoming child molesters. A young man talks to DW about living with a predilection that can never involve consensual relations.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Max Weber* is short, a bit stout, and with his impish grin still boyish-looking for a man who is nearly 30 years old. He grew up near Berlin and trained to be an engineer, but psychological problems related to his pedophilia have made it difficult for him to hold down a job. The problem for Weber and other pedophiles is they can never have a consensual sexual relationship with the type of partner they naturally feel most attracted to - children.

"I [recognized] this attraction to kids when I was around 14 or 15, but I didn't realize it was something not normal. I thought everyone feels this way, but nobody talks about it," he told DW.

Weber's sexual awakening occurred during a beach holiday at the Baltic Sea, where nude sunbathing is normal.

"There were three naked girls - 6, 7 and 8. I was 18 or 19. I was building sandcastles. They were interested in those castles, and we played. I started to have sexual fantasies. I realized that this is what's called pedophilia," he said. "It made me fear myself."

Child molesters who sexually abuse young boys and girls make the news when their crimes come to light. A pedophile, on the other hand, is someone who may or may not be a child molester. He - or, less often, she - is someone who is sexually attracted to children.

Weber was afraid that the common image of the pedophiles as a dangerous sexual predator applied to him too.

"If I'm attracted to children, I must be some kind of monster," he thought. His knowledge of pedophilia was limited to what he picked up in the news: "I only knew what the newspaper said: 'There's a pedophile who killed a child.' I thought, 'What chance do I have to live my life without hurting anyone?' I didn't want to hurt children."

Though he is a pedophile, Weber has never committed a sex offense.

From all walks of life

Since most pedophiles are only identified once they have molested children, it is impossible to know how many others share Weber's sexual orientation. Estimates say pedophiles make up 1 percent of the male population in Germany and elsewhere. They are all ages, come from all walks of life, whether the late British television personality Jimmy Savile, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky or Catholic clergymen.

There have been cases of female molesters who abuse minors. They are, however, not generally regarded as pedophiles, because they are not sexually attracted to children.

"To think that pedophiles are these old creepy men. That is the most ridiculous thing, because they are our neighbors, our teachers, they are fathers, they are friends. You can go to a punk rock concert and meet pedophiles with red and pink hair," said Lisa Meier, a psychology student who volunteers in a counseling center for victims of sexual abuse. Meier is also friends with Weber and aware of his pedophilia.

Jimmy Savile (Photo: Leslie Lee)
Fans and viewers were shocked by revelations that the late British TV personality Jimmy Savile, was a pedophileImage: Leslie Lee/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sexual attraction to children is a predisposition that cannot be changed. Thus the only way to stop children from being molested is to prevent pedophiles from becoming offenders in the first place.

"We can protect our children by giving pedophiles the chance to seek help, to give them the chance to go and see a therapist. It's very important we don't stigmatize people for their sexuality," said Meier, stressing that not every pedophile is doomed to become a sex offender.

A Berlin project started a few years ago tries to offer help to pedophiles. Called Prävention Dunkelfeld, the group, whose motto is "Don't offend," reaches out to the hidden population of pedophiles through public service announcements on television.

An ad shows a boy and an adult and reads "Do you like children more than you like?"
Groups like Prävention Dunkelfeld reach out to pedophiles through public service adsImage: Charité Berlin

It was Weber's mother who saw one of the TV spots and suggested he contact them. For Weber, Prävention Dunkelfeld was a godsend.

Years of psychotherapy have enabled Weber to come to terms with his sexuality and find fulfillment in interacting with adults, something that had been difficult for him since he had only felt comfortable around children.

For a time, he also took medication that lowers the effect of the male hormone testosterone. It did help suppress his sexuality. However, he suffered from one of its long-term negative side effects - depression - and eventually stopped taking the medication.

In daily life, Weber has little contact with children, and that is intentional. Avoiding children helped motivate his decision to become an engineer. But it's hard to steer clear of children in public places.

A boy inside a man's body

"Sometimes I see children I don't know on the streets, on the train. It's such a feeling of emptiness and being lonely," said Weber.

"Many pedophiles [think about] having a loving relationship, sex and everything with some child. That's an idea I never had. I dream of sexual games with girls, like playing doctor," he said. "As a child, I didn't want to grow up."

Weber has come to accept his sexual predilection, which he does not believe he can change.

Jerry Sandusky (Photo: Eric Gay)
Popular former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky abused young boys for decadesImage: dapd

"It's part of who I am," he said.

But the impossibility of sexual gratification is not the worst part of it, he explained. It's the feeling of living a lie - of having to keep such a large part of his identity secret.

Even Lisa Meier, who is childless, has qualms about her friend.

"As much as I trust him as a person - and he is a good human being - I would want to be there if he spent time with my [hypothetical] children, because there's still this danger."

Weber is fully aware that though he is not a sex offender, he must keep his disposition secret because it is so discomfiting.

"Many people wouldn't accept me as a human being anymore if I told them," he said. "It's much worse dealing with the secret and loneliness than pedophilia itself."

* Max Weber is a pseudonym.