The most frequently asked question about child molesters is, "why do they do it?" Child molesters themselves seem to ask it as frequently as anyone. The conversation goes something like this.
ME: Why do you want to be in my treatment program?
HIM: I want find out why I did it.
ME: I can tell you that right now. You did it because you wanted to!
ME: Sure, that's all there is to it. It was because you wanted to and for no other reason. I'll bet you're pretty confused right now, because you were expecting some kind of fancy psychological explanation. You probably thought I was a sort of doctor who could treat you for some sort of sickness. You probably thought you must be sick to want to do something so disgusting. Did you ever think you might be sick?
ME: So I have good news for you. You're not sick at all. Not one bit.
HIM: But then how COULD I do that? If I'm not sick, why did I do it.
ME: I told you - you did it because you thought it would feel good. And it did feel good, so you did again and again. That doesn't make you sick. - It makes you evil.
HIM: I'm not!!!! How can you say such a thing? You don't even know me.
ME: Well, you cared only about yourself - not about what you might be doing to the victim or cost to society or about your family or the victim's family or anyone. Somehow, you pushed all that out of your mind, just so you could have your way with the child. If that's not evil, you tell me. What is?
HIM: Uh. . . .
ME: That's really good news for you though. Because if you were sick, that would be something you couldn't help. Since you couldn't help it and since medical science has no real cure for such an illness, we'd just have to lock you up forever to keep you from hurting more children. A lot of people think we should do that anyway, but luckily for you, we may not have to. Because plain old evil, that's something you do have control over. What you did was, you chose to do it. You and you alone. Sure, there were circumstances influencing your choice, but lots of other people in similar circumstances have chosen differently. You could learn to be more like them.
This is obviously a very simple version of why grown people do sexual things with children, but it is also quite accurate. Many people like the way this formulation makes the offender completely responsible. But what about saying he's not sick? How can that be? How COULD a person do such a thing unless he was "sick?"
The answer is obvious, if we're unafraid to look at it. Simply put, adult sexual attraction to children is biologically natural. (i.e. found in nature) It's part of biological sexuality. Various societies have acknowledged this in one way or another. An ancient Sumerian poem for example, tells about a young male god's attraction to a female child he sees bathing in a stream. He tells her how much he wants to posses her sexually but she asks him to wait till she is older because her vagina is too small and it will hurt. Unwilling to delay his pleasure, he takes her by force. (Florence Rush - "Sexual Abuse of Children - The Best Kept Secret.")
Though exceptions may be made for gods, all recorded civilizations have strict rules about mortal adults having sexual access to children. This is particularly true when the adult is male and the child female. Penalties for violating these rules are usually quite severe; often death, castration or banishment. The existence of all these rules and severe punishments seems to imply that although sexual activity between adults and children is highly undesirable, left to our own devices, many of us would do it anyway. Otherwise, why would we need all those rules and punishments to keep us in line?
This theory is supported by responses to an anonymous questionnaire Briere and Runtz administered to 193 male college students. Many (21%) acknowledged sexual thoughts about children. (Journal of Child Abuse & Neglect. 1989 13(1)) Some said they masturbated to these fantasies, and 7% thought they would act on their fantasies if they could be sure of remaining undiscovered.
Medical science also supports the notion that adult sexual attraction to children is not uncommon, at least among males. In the 1950's Kurt Freund developed a new sensor for an instrument called a plethysmograph, a biofeedback device for measuring changes in the blood volume of a human organ. Dr. Freund's sensor measures these changes in the penis. Hence "penile plethysmograph" or, more affectionately, "The Peter Meter."
Since the 1960's, studies using this device have been done with thousands of men. Subjects sit in a private room while the operator exposes them to a series of slides, videos or audio tapes with sexual content. Many so called "normal" men who have not committed illegal sex acts show considerable arousal to stimuli depicting naked children or children involved in sexual activity. (e.g. Freund, et al, 1972, Behavior Therapy, #6) Based on this kind of evidence, it's easy to see that adult sexual attraction to children is rather natural.
But natural isn't the same as "good" or "right." Any impulse to do or take what we want is "natural." We may for example, feel an urgent and natural need to urinate or empty our bowels. But rarely will we do so except in special places designated for that purpose, even at the cost of considerable discomfort from delaying this "call of nature." And how many of us haven't thought at least momentarily of killing a misbehaving child, an insensitive spouse, or a demanding and insensitive supervisor? But, while accepting our human "nature" in these areas, we also recognize the importance of keeping our impulses under control and generally, we do so.
In short, when it comes to urination and defecation, property acquisition or interpersonal violence, we seem able enough to separate thoughts and desires from behavior. But when it comes to sex, and particularly sex with children, we tend to go beyond merely controlling our ordinary human nature in favor of civilized behavior. We declare war on it. We fly in the face of historical and scientific evidence by insisting that sexual arousal to children is unnatural or "sick." We refuse to accept our "selves," pretending instead that we are somehow naturally "pure" in this one (sexual) domain.
That's really too bad, because we are doing exactly the same thing as the child molester. Unwilling to look our own sexuality square in the eye, we look for more mysterious explanations. We medicalize, complicate and mystify ordinary selfishness and evil, thereby relieving the criminal of responsibility.
But in reality, the psychology of child molesting isn't very different from the psychology of most socially deviant acts.
1. There's a natural impulse or "want.". (as in "found in nature")
2. There's the process of becoming civilized. It consists of values, rules based on the values, potential punishments (internal and external) for breaking the rules and potential rewards (internal and external) for adhering to them. (as in "conscience")
3. Generalized failure to develop conscience and /or a circumstantially driven breakdown in it's functioning, so that the desire to gratify forbidden impulses is perceived as stronger than the psychological and environmental forces inhibiting it.
This process of inhibiting natural impulses in favor of the greater social good is called "socialization" or "growing up," and it isn't simple at all. It involves a great many influences. First, there's the basic personality each individual is born with - a kind of "hard wiring." Then there are other biological factors, like pre and post natal environment and care. There are early social influences of mother, father, siblings and other family members. There is economics, formal education, media influence, religious training, neighborhood culture, the peers one has available in a particular environment - the list is almost endless.
So, in another sense, helping an individual explain "why" he molested children may not be all that simple. Examining the interplay of his particular experiences, beliefs, feelings, relationships and the relevance of all this to his pattern of sexual offenses takes a long time and it takes some courage. But it isn't mysterious, because sexual offenses against children aren't mysterious - they are simply a victory of base human nature over higher human qualities. Sexual offenses are not essentially different from other cruel and selfish acts. When we pretend they are, we are simply trying to avoid acceptance of our own nature, we are barking up the wrong tree, and we are making the situation worse.