How paedophiles can be stopped

Many abusers start offending at an early age, often having been abused themselves. A new project aim

Kay will never know whether reporting her 14-year-old son Jon to social services for sexually abusing a neighbour's child prevented him from moving on to become an adult paedophile in the style of Ian Huntley and Roy Whiting. Would he have been another Chris Langham, who was last week found guilty of downloading sadistic and depraved child pornography? Or a Timothy Cox, recently put inside on an indeterminate sentence for running an internet chat room where punters watched filmed abuse of children, including the rape of babies?

It is certainly possible, says Donald Findlater, deputy director of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, where he works therapeutically with paedophiles. He hears time and again how their abusing began when they were children: "A 35-year-old man who came to me had started as a nine-year-old. By the time I saw him he had abused more than 500 children."

Such revelations rarely make us question what leads a nine-year-old boy to do this, but increase the cry for ever more punitive measures to deal with adult offenders. Earlier this year the government raised the possibility of chemical castration. While Kate McCann and her husband must face the fact that child abduction and trafficking is one way that children end up appearing in the kind of pornography watched by Langham.

But we ignore the fact that the child may be the father of the adult paedophile. Twenty per cent of people convicted of sexual offences are under the age of 20, according to the Home Office. Victim surveys report that 30-50 per cent of child sex abuse is carried out by young children and adolescents. Some 50 per cent of adult sexual offenders report sexual deviance in adolescence.

Paedophiles do not just appear fully formed as adults, says Andrew Durham, who works with child sex abusers for Warwickshire Council. "But fear and loathing of paedophiles blocks people from understanding the importance of their child hood circumstances. There is always something in childhood that breaks down the moral compass, in my experience. Many feel inadequate and isolated misfits who cannot form relationships with their peers. They gain power and control through abuse of younger children."

Preventing more victims lies at the heart of the work of Eileen Vizard, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and clinical director of the NSPCC's National Child Assessment and Treatment Service. For more than 20 years she has researched, diagnosed and treated some of the country's most disturbed and dangerous children who are sexually abusing others and who, if not helped to stop, may be on a trajectory that will lead to compulsive abusing as an adult.

Vizard led and co-authored the recently published first major study into this phenomenon, entitled Links Between Juvenile Sexually Abusive Behaviour and Emerging Severe Personality Disorder Traits in Childhood. It was funded by the Home Office and published on their website in November last year.

Early difficulties

This is a three-year study of 280 identified juvenile sexual abusers, more than 90 per cent male. Abusing had very occasionally begun as young as at five-and-a-half years, although 14 years was average. More than half had abused victims five years younger than themselves and the majority abused female victims. There are great similarities in the behaviour of young abusers and adult offenders. Most had abused relatives, friends and acquaintances. In more than half the cases there had been penetration, masturbation and oral sex; one-third used verbal coercion. In some cases there had been co-abusers.

The extent and reality of child-on-child sex abuse is shocking, but so are the childhood experiences and circumstances child abusers endure. Without exception, they share childhoods that should not be tolerated in a caring society.

A quarter endured physical abuse, 74 per cent emotional abuse, 71 per cent sexual abuse; 92 per cent were exposed to domestic violence and 73 per cent experienced family breakdown. Nearly half were found to have "inadequate sexual boundaries". The research divided juvenile sexual abusers into "early onset" - those beginning before the age of 11 - and "late onset" beginning after this age. The first group were more likely to have experienced inadequate family sexual boundaries; multiple forms of abuse, poor parenting and insecure attachment. The latter group misused substances, targeted specific groups and often used verbal coercion.

Vizard sees a "developmental trajectory" where the abusers may be having sexual fantasies and beginning harmful behaviour towards other children. She says: "Without help, some sexualised children may move on to abusing other children at home or at school, later masturbating to sexual images of children and becoming entrenched in patterns of frank sexual abuse of children."

The research also shows a sub-group with emerging severe personality disorder who are more likely to have an early difficult temperament; more insecure attachment; inconsistent parenting; placement disruption and parents with mental health problems. Their sexual abusing is often premeditated and predatory. The fear that child abusing may increase through the stimulus of online child pornography which more and more children and young people access is chillingly real. The web features in half the cases of child-on-child sex abuse cases that Andrew Durham sees each year. "When young people see adults abusing children on the net, it normalises what is being done," he says.

The Taith Project, managed by Barnardo's, gets referrals of eight- to 18-year-olds from across Wales with "concerning" sexual behaviour. De nise Moultrie, the children services manager, says: "Particularly worrying about chat rooms is not just the images of child pornography being seen but the relationships children get into online around what they see."

The importance of taking the acts of young abusers seriously cannot be overstressed, says Vizard, who believes that as a society we have to do better than merely condemn paedophiles as depraved monsters as though they existed outside normal humanity; we have to understand how damaging their childhoods can be.

This is not indulgent liberalism, but a conviction, built on many years of learning how young abusers think, feel and behave, that potential victims could be protected by the kind of work that she and others are doing. What is needed is sufficient public support to ensure that the funding is made available to do this work on the scale that is needed.

Moultrie stresses that we are talking about children right across the social scale: "I think we are hugely handicapped in getting support because of public revulsion. A lot of professionals don't want to acknowledge that children are sexual abusers of other children. Parents read newspapers and don't want to identify their child as a monster, so they may reject the child or deny what is happening." Others, who might be prepared to support funding for children who are being abused, do not recognise that young people who are abusing other children may also need support.

Constructive help

Yet Vizard has seen how, with intense therapy, young abusers change direction. Their disturbing and distorting experiences are addressed; they are helped to see why the way they are acting is wrong and the impact they have on victims. They are taught techniques based on cognitive behavioural therapy for dealing with feelings and impulses in a non-damaging way, rather than leaving them to develop the compulsive behaviour that makes adult paedophiles so very dangerous.

Durham is confident that working with young abusers makes a difference: "You can get remorse at what the victim has suffered. These young may not have reached the stage of blocking out empathy and they are capable of forming a relationship with me as a safe adult. So they will listen and see that they can choose to learn not to follow the path they have taken. We have been going 12 years and have a very low rate of repeat sexual offences."

Kay is one of an increasing number of mothers of teenagers who tell the Stop It Now! helpline - set up for those who are abusing or fear they may - about their problem. She says that reporting Jon was agonisingly difficult, but through his treatment, in which she was involved, he learn ed techniques for controlling his behaviour.

"We have learned to communicate as a family and to talk about whether a situation is 'safe' for him. He has a therapist and I feel so very grateful that through this work Jon has taken responsibility for changing."

But if that constructive help had not been available, she dreads to think what might have happened.

Stop it Now! helpline 0808 1000 900

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood