The sexual abuse of children is, understandably, a key concern for the public. Child sexual abuse can cause long-lasting harms for victims, ranging from relationship difficulties to eating disorders.
But misperceptions about those who perpetrate it abound in public debate. Although the terms "paedophile" and "child sex offender" are often used interchangeably, the two are distinct.
Paedophiles are sexually attracted to young children. They have either acted on this attraction or fear they might. But not all paedophiles act on their attraction – and this is where support services can help reducing offending.
Conversely, not everyone who offends sexually against a child is a paedophile. Some may have a sexual interest in and/or offend against both children and adults. Others do not have a sexual attraction to children but instead act opportunistically.
Clinicians use the following Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria to diagnose paedophilia:
- Over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges or behaviours involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).
- The person has acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.
- The person is at least age 16 years and at least five years older than the child or children in Criterion A.
Paedophilia is, however, a key risk factor for sexual offending against children. Research shows that paedophilic offenders have significantly higher rates of reoffending than those who opportunistically abuse children.
How prevalent is it?
While it's difficult to determine the proportion of adults in the community who have a sexual attraction to children, studies estimate the prevalence is between 1% and 5% among adult males. Little is known about its prevalence among adult females, though far fewer perpetrators are female.
The prevalence of child sexual abuse is also difficult to determine and estimates vary considerably. A recent summary of Australian studies estimated that 4-8% of males and 7-12% of females experienced penetrative child sexual abuse.
Around 12-16% of males and 23-36% of females experienced non-penetrative child sexual abuse, such as molestation or exposure to pornography.
What is being done to prevent child sexual abuse?
Initiatives have emerged around the globe that aim to prevent paedophiles from offending (or reoffending). These include:
- Circles of Support and Accountability: groups of trained volunteers who support convicted child sex offenders to reintegrate into the community after prison, with the aim of reducing their risk of reoffending
- Online support groups for non-offending paedophiles, such as Virtuous Pedophiles and the Shadows Project
- Helplines such as Stop It Now!, which operate throughout the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland. These are available to anyone who is concerned about the behaviour of another adult towards children or about their own thoughts and feelings towards children.
Another initiative is Germany's Dunkelfeld Prevention Project. This offers free and confidential treatment to those seeking help for a sexual attraction to children or young adolescents. Beginning in Berlin in 2005, the project has since expanded across several cities in Germany.
The project works from the premise that while no one can be blamed for their sexual attraction to children, acting on this attraction is unacceptable. Paedophiles should therefore be provided treatment and support to prevent them doing so.
Paedophiles who volunteer for the programme receive one year of treatment based on the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) model. This aims to increase victim empathy, reduce offence-supportive behaviours (which can include substance abuse and pornography consumption) and increase self-regulation.
In its first 38 months of operation, 808 men made contact and registered an interest in taking part in the Dunkelfeld Prevention Project. Many travelled long distances – including from Austria, Switzerland and England – to access the service, countering the view that paedophiles won't seek help.
Helplines such as Stop It Now! also report large numbers of calls from those concerned about being sexually attracted to children and requesting support to prevent them offending.
Preliminary research on the effectiveness of the Dunkelfeld Prevention Project is promising; it has been shown to reduce the many risk factors associated with offending. But more research is needed to assess whether this reduction in risk translates into reduced offending.
There has been some resistance to investing in and trialling innovative approaches to preventing child sexual abuse via Circles of Support and Accountability and helplines for those concerned about their sexual attraction to children in Australia, rather than taking a hard-line approach.
Certainly, approaches such as these are not a panacea. They will not eradicate the problem of child sexual abuse. Nonetheless, given the promising results from abroad, Australia should consider similar approaches.