1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

When society mistakes pedophiles for molesters

Kate Ferguson
December 2, 2014

Graham is a young man living with a painful secret: he's sexually attracted to children. He's tried to get help but therapists want nothing to do with him. Despite what many might think, he's not a child molester.

Symbolbild Suizid Verzweiflung Rote Linien
"I hate showing others the details of my own darkness," Graham says.Image: Fotolia/Kwest

Graham, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, first realized that he was sexually attracted to children when he was about 12 years old. "I noticed that I was getting older and the girls I thought about were either not getting older or in fact becoming younger," he told Life Links in an interview.

It was hard for Graham to come to terms with his sexuality, especially during puberty. "I felt like I was carrying a dark, empty place deep within me, but that everyone could see it if they looked hard enough."

Eventually, when he was 17, Graham got very drunk and told his mother about his sexuality over the phone. "I don’t remember the conversation. I just remember the need to let things out."

While Graham says his mother "accepted it," she told him she did not want to know any details. From that day on his pedophilia "could not be spoken of."

Turned down by therapists

Now in his mid-twenties, Graham lives in the United Kingdom where he leads what might seem like a normal life. He has a job and plenty of friends but his sexuality remains a constant source of torment.

Emotionen Wut Einsamkeit Verzweiflung Trauer Alleine Junge Rucksack
It was during puberty that Graham started realizing he's sexually attracted to childrenImage: Fotolia/Mikael Damkier

"I wish it would go away. Sometimes you just want to take a blowtorch to part of your own mind," he said.

Like many other pedophiles, Graham says he has no intention of becoming an offender. But his good intentions don't change the way he feels about children.

Despite his best efforts, Graham hasn't been able to get professional help. "The first therapist I went to declined to continue after the second session, saying she couldn’t deal with 'potentially-offending' behavior,'" Graham said.

As a result, Graham now simply tries to avoid children on a daily basis because he doesn't know how to behave around them. "It's a defense respone," he said. "Because I think of them sexually, it's hard to act like a normal 20-something-year-old male would in their presence. I don't know what normal is and it’s too risky."

One in 25 men may have pedophilic disorder

What Graham experiences is called pedophilic disorder and is characterized by a persistent desire for sexual contact with a prepubescent child or children. Diagnosis requires that an individual has either acted on their urge or been actively distressed by it.

Symbolbild Misshandlung und Missbrauch von Kindern
Not every person with pedophelic disorder automatically becomes an offender.Image: Fotolia/Gina Sanders

It's unknown how many people suffer from pedophilic disorder but estimates suggest that one in 25 men may actually meet the criteria.

Despite the often accepted belief that sexuality isn’t a matter of choice, stigmatization of people with pedophelia is high, with little distinction made between being sexually attracted to a child and acting on that desire.

Describing child molesters simply as pedophiles, as Britain's notorious Daily Mail tabloid for instance did in August 2014, weakens a distinction that is otherwise crucial in how we judge a person - by their actions, not their desires.

'Taboo surrounding pedophilia bad for children'

And Jens Wagner agrees. Wagner represents Germany’s national pedophile treatment program "Kein Täter werden" ("Don’t become an offender"). It's a free and entirely confidential service for people struggling with their sexual attraction to children.

Those behind the program believe that increasing public tolerance of pedophilia is key to protecting children. "The societal taboo surrounding pedophilia is bad for children," Wagner told Life Links. "Hysteria helps nobody, nor does the myth that every pedophile becomes a molester."

According to Wagner, 80 percent of sexual crimes against children are not committed by pedophiles.

Pedophile treatment program for teenagers

An important step in helping pedophiles come to terms with their sexuality might be therapy from an early age. That's why Berlin's oldest and most prominent hospital, The Charité, recently announced it was extending its pedophile treatment program to cater to youths between the ages of 12 and 18.

Präventionsprojekt Kein Täter werden
"Kein Täter werden" - or "Don't Offend" - provides therapy for pedophiles.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Their campaign video, called "You Dream of Them," promises young people free and confidential help in dealing with their sexual feelings towards children. The program has received 676,000 euros ($843,000) from the German government and will run for three years. At present, there are 100 places available to those seeking treatment.

The idea of an individual as young as 12 being classified as a pedophile may seem absurd.But Andreas Peter, who heads the youth program at The Charité, points out that sexuality cannot be classified strictly according to age.

"Development differs from one individual to another. Some 12 to 13 year-olds are more sexually developed than their 16 year-old counterparts," he told Life Links.

Discouraged from speaking out

Getting help is something Graham is still struggling with in the UK. His fear of being reported by what he describes as an "over-enthusiastic therapist trying to protect themselves" has discouraged him from seeking further treatment. But, he says, "I wish that there was help out there."

Thinking about the future is particularly scary for Graham. "Sometimes I start thinking how, frankly, unlikely it is that I will find someone who can accept what I am.”