“It is the quality of the relationship that matters,” O’Carroll said. “If there’s no coercion, no abuse of power, if the child enters into the relationship voluntarily ... the evidence shows there need be no harm.”
Obviously, this is not a widely held view. Mccartan uses O’Carroll’s book Paedophilia: The Radical Case in his teaching as “it shows how sex offenders justify themselves.”
Findlater said the notion that a seven-year-old can make an informed choice for consensual sex with an adult is “just preposterous. It is adults exploiting children.”
Goode puts it simply: “Children are not developmentally ready for adult sexuality,” adding that it is “intrusive behavior that violates the child’s emerging self-identity” and can be similar in long-term impact to adults experiencing domestic violence or torture.
Yet not all experts are sure. A Dutch study published in 1987 found that a sample of boys in pedophilic relationships felt positively about them. A major if still controversial 1998 to 2000 meta-study suggests — as J. Michael Bailey of Chicago’s Northwestern University says — that such relationships, entered into voluntarily, are “nearly uncorrelated with undesirable outcomes.”
Most people find that idea impossible. However, writing last year in the peer-reviewed Archives of Sexual Behaviour, Bailey said that while he also found the notion “disturbing,” he was forced to recognize that “persuasive evidence for the harmfulness of pedophilic relationships does not yet exist.”
If that assertion does nothing else, it underlines the need for more research on pedophilia — something on which everyone in the field at least is agreed. There is also a broad consensus around the idea that the approach to pedophilia must be about management and prevention: on stopping potential offenders making that contact (or downloading that image).
Initiatives such as Stop It Now!, which Findlater runs, exemplify this. Stop it Now! is a telephone helpline offering advice to people worried they may be having inappropriate sexual impulses. A similar German program, Prevention Project Dunkenfeld, has as its slogan: “You are not guilty because of your sexual desire, but you are responsible for your sexual behavior. There is help.”
For convicted abusers, Circles UK aims to prevent reoffending by forming volunteer “circles of support and accountability” around recently released offenders, reducing isolation and providing practical help. In Canada, where it originated, the group has cut reoffending by 70 percent. The goal of all treatment is “people achieving a daily motivation not to cause harm again,” Findlater said.
However, Goode said broader, societal change is needed.
“Adult sexual attraction to children is part of the continuum of human sexuality; it’s not something we can eliminate,” she said. “If we can talk about this rationally — acknowledge that yes, men do get sexually attracted to children, but no, they don’t have to act on it — we can maybe avoid the hysteria. We won’t label pedophiles monsters; it won’t be taboo to see and name what is happening in front of us.”