What Natascha should not be asked

If you'd been kidnapped at the age of ten and held captive in a tiny cell for eight years, what do you suppose you would want to do immediately after you escaped? Speak to a friendly therapist, perhaps? Spend hours and days sleeping and taking long, hot baths in a comfortable, secure hotel? Or how about sharing all the gory details of your confinement (including as much sexual detail as you could muster) with the world's press?

It is no surprise that the Austrian teenager Natascha Kampusch has chosen to avoid this last route. Yet she has clearly been under huge pressure to reveal all, as evidenced by the pointed letter that she recently released, addressed to "journalists, reporters [and] public opinion". "I would like to say," she states, "that I do not want to and will not answer any questions about intimate or personal details. I will take action against anyone who crosses this line, voyeuristically or otherwise. Whoever tries that should watch out."

These are hard-headed and heartfelt words. Unfortunately, however, they seem unlikely to stem prurient interest in her story. Because when it comes to young female victims of paedophiles and sex murderers, the public's appetite for their ordeals seems to be almost insatiable, and is decidedly creepy.

With any murder or kidnap case, there is, of course, every reason to report what happened, to try to unravel basic questions of guilt and logistics. However, the story of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, as well as that of Sarah Payne, ran and ran in the press, propelled at least in part by a startling public hunger to know the minutiae of how exactly these girls had been abused.

In recent weeks we have also been reminded of the JonBenet Ramsey story - possibly the most lurid of them all. The killing of this beauty pageant contestant - a shockingly sexualised six-year-old - was championed by the American supermarket rag the National Enquirer, which ran article after article replete with sleazy detail. Again, I have no idea how public speculation about what had happened to her sexually could be in any way instructive.

In the case of sex murder we can, unfortunately, quite easily imagine the likely details, if we really want to - we don't need them spelled out. But, instead, we dig for information, and our prurient interest puts the parents of these murdered children in a terrible situation. On the one hand, they know that keeping the story in the press piles pressure on the police and the justice system: a good thing when you're intent on a positive verdict. On the other, they must be well aware that widespread interest in their daughter's story has an unwholesome side, at the very least. What parent whose daughter has been killed by a paedophile really wants the sexual details of the crime pored over, their child's terrifying last moments reduced to a weird public titillation?

With the market in weekly real-life magazines booming, each headline on the covers more shocking and salacious, our appetite for these stories seems more pronounced, and more regularly fed, than ever before.

I'm not suggesting that we should always turn away from darkness, horror and evil. Clearly, there are some crimes where rubbernecking is not only acceptable, but essential - where we have to take a deep breath and look. When Martha Gellhorn reported from the Dachau death camp, for instance, in the days following the end of the Second World War, our interest was justifiable. Reporting every detail in perfect, direct prose, her descriptions of the stinking piles of corpses, of the horrific "experiments" carried out on prisoners, are an ongoing testimony to the worst that human beings can devise: a record of crimes that, as Gellhorn said, should make us feel "ashamed for mankind".

Yet while these kidnappings and sex murders also make us ashamed for mankind, I'm not sure that prying into the sexual details, over and over, generally tells us anything much at all about the individual criminals - who are usually unerringly oblique. Rather, it tells us something vicious about ourselves.

When people talk about the intense interest in these cases, they often accuse those who eat up the horror of intruding on the parents' grief, making themselves complicit in a tragedy that is not theirs to claim. In fact, our complicity lies elsewhere. Many people are murdered each year, but most of those that the press and public focus on are attractive young women and girls, because, horrifically, we find their cases more sexually compelling.

When it comes to our hunger for these stories, it is not the girls' parents we are complicit with, but the criminal himself. The small, dark corner of our brains that feeds on this information is a tiny reflection of the full-blown sickness of child abusers and murderers.

And, for someone such as Natascha Kampusch, our fervent interest in her experience, our prying and questions and speculation, have the potential to create a second ordeal to rival her first. The only way forward is to do exactly as she has asked. Just leave her well alone.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian