Is a zero-tolerance approach really the best way to stop paedophiles from abusing children?

A new security branch has been created to find paedophiles lurking on the “dark web”. Yet this zero-tolerance attitude is beginning to be called into question – for people who have never acted on their desires and want help, should we be locking them up at all?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone. . . But I’m scared I might.”

Tom*, from Bristol, is an engineer in his late twenties. According to his online profile, he’s an introvert, likes Tarantino films and heavy metal music. He describes himself as a “console junkie”, with a particular affinity to his N64.

What it doesn’t say, however, is that he’s a paedophile.

At least by the legal definition of the term. Since he was a teenager, Tom admits that he has experienced a “sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children” although he is adamant that he’s “never touched a child inappropriately” in his life, and that the limit of this paedophilic activities rests solely online – mainly by watching videos and images.

Like potentially hundreds of other Britons, Tom exists in a grey area – not directly causing harm to vulnerable children, but, he admits, “being part of the abuse”. And while Tom says he’s not “addicted” he wants to stop himself before doing “something absolutely terrible”.

“It’s a problem that I ignored for too long – sometimes I even justified it. I said, 'Well, at least I’m not one of the sickos that makes it'. But now I want to. . . I need to get help. And I’m not sure where to go, without getting locked up”.

People like Tom are outliers when it comes to Britain’s current policy on dealing with paedophiles. While the most common image of a paedophile is one actively engaged in child abuse, academics such as Leeds Beckett professor Tamara Turner-Moore note that the concept of paedophilia exists on a wide spectrum. Some studies suggest that around 10 per cent of the UK’s adult population may have felt an occasional sexual attraction to children and young people, even though they have not acted on their impulses.

Such individuals are the main target of the British government’s new strategy to catch suspected child abusers online. According to Keith Bristow, head of the National Crime Association (NCA), there are “over 50,000 people” in Britain who would be classed as paedophiles under the law still at large – most of whom use the back-alleys of the internet to watch the explicit material.

At the “We Protect Children Online” summit last week, Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled a new unit – comprising of intelligence agents from GCHQ and the National Crime Association – charged with hunting down paedophiles lurking on the dark web, and getting rid of “sickening and depraved” material. “The dark net is the next side of the problem, where paedophiles and perverts are sharing images, not using the normal parts of the internet that we all use,” he told delegates.

Little has been said on how the new security branch would work, although it is understood that the unit would receive £10m to create “specialist teams” to trawl the internet for paedophiles. Much of the work carried out by the unit would be in line with operations carried out by the NCA earlier this year, where more than 650 suspected paedophiles, including teachers and social workers, were arrested in a six-month operation that monitored people who look at and share images of child abuse.

Paedophilia remains an uncomfortable taboo in western conversation – and rightly so. Few issues seem to unite people more than the agreement that those who sexually harm children are morally repugnant, and should be rooted out of society.

Yet recently, the “zero-tolerance” methods which the UK and other western countries use to deal with people like Tom have been questioned. The Paedophile Next Door, a recent documentary produced by Channel 4, featured an interview with 39 year old “Eddie”, who admitted to looking at child pornography but never acting on his inclinations. While causing a significant amount of controversy both on social media and the national press, others welcomed Eddie’s call to provide help for men like him, before they did something far worse.

Similarly in a long piece for Matter, American journalist Luke Malone interviewed Adam, a teenager who runs a support group for paedophiles seeking help, after he spent two years of watching pornographic videos featuring young children.

And it’s not just journalists urging a rethink of paedophile prevention policy. Donald Findlater, Director of Research and Development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, one of the few organisations working with people who have paedophilic inclinations, tells me that current government policy is too punitive, and does not recognise that the varied individual experiences of those who view child pornography. “In my experience and judgment, there are many men in our society who are paedophiles (ie primary sexual interest) and who live celibate lives as the act is dissonant with their sense of self and regard for others,” he says. “They live a lifetime without harming any child. Of course in our society they cannot ‘come out’, get support etcetera. This can make part of their lives very lonely.”

Findlater, who also manages the Foundation’s preventative helpline, called “Stop it Now!”, also notes that in his experience emotional support is often the most important factor to help people ward off their sexual inclinations, especially in a time when explicit material is so readily accessible online.

“Our task is to support such callers better manage their behaviour. And hopefully find a way of living in society without causing harm in the future. Which starts by managing risk today – removing self from temptation, reminding the caller of their past success in managing; reminding them of the harm to children of sexual abuse; and of the consequences to themselves of acting.”

Perhaps rightly, the general public reject most forms of assistance – particularly from the state – for paedophiles, a mood that has not fettered in the wake of the Jimmy Saville scandal, or recent allegations of a brutal paedophile ring that flourished in Westminster during the 1970s and 1980s. But to Tom, rather than deterring paedophiles, these attitudes are actually worsening the problem – not least by leaving those wanting to help themselves in the shadows.

“I’ve thought about handing myself in, but I know what’ll happen,” he tells me. “I’ll end up getting arrested, my house will be searched, raided . . . And then I’ll end up in prison where, as you know . . . once they out someone as a paedo . . . they’re finished.”

There are few organisations currently willing and able to help and provide preventative care to Tom. While charities like the Lucy Faithfull Foundation provide some assistance to people before they engage in paedophilia-related activities, most are underfunded, and lack the resources needed to reach out to vulnerable people. Meanwhile, more prominent organisations like Circles UK, provide support and rehabilitation mainly to convicted sex offenders.

But how does one “rehabilitate” a paedophile?

Methods vary depending on where one lives. In Sweden, organisations like the Karolinska Institutet provide individually-tailored cognitive therapy sessions for self-confessed paedophiles to work through the underlining motivations behind their urges. Meanwhile in Germany, efforts such as the Prevention Project Dunkelfeld (PPD) provide confidential treatment “for individuals who have a partial or exclusive sexual preference in terms of pedophilia or hebephilia and seek therapeutic help”. According to the project’s website, the therapists work with paedophiles to understand and identify their sexual urges, and provide strategies, integrating modern behavioural therapy and sexology to suit the patient’s personality. Additionally, and perhaps controversially, the therapists also provide medication designed to reduce the sex drive of their patients, in conjunction with their psychological treatment.

Despite the apparent success of PPD, there is little to suggest that a similar strategy will be adopted in the UK, so organisations like the Lucy Faithfull Foundation have to find innovative ways to work with their limited resources.

Findlater tells me that in providing therapeutic approaches, more is going into helping people like Tom whose paedophilic tendencies tend to manifest online. As such, the foundation provides psycho-educational sessions, known as “Inform +”, and sessions with family members or loved ones in order to help “manage their future online life”. Other forms of help include providing self-help guidebooks and online resources like CROGA, which can help vulnerable people control their activities on the web.

“There are lots who need these aspects – I'd rather they didn't have to get arrested first, ie that we could help others, without arrest, who recognise they have a problem online. But right now our options are limited,” Findlater tells me.

“Solutions require boldness by politicians and professionals. The media and the public (and other politicians) live and pronounce out of a lot of ignorance, which means we don't find and deploy the best, most hopeful solutions. And we do a poorer job of protecting children, whilst pretending otherwise,” he adds.

Similar approaches have been taken by other organisations. According to Stephen Hanvey, the director of Circles UK, the worst way to deal with someone with paedophilic inclinations is to isolate them. There is still “a lot of ignorance on the crossover between viewing images online and contact offences,” he says.Though he admits there is “no one solution” to “curing” a paedophile of his sexual urges, his experiences have shown him that treatment was necessary, and that even those convicted in prison were given “minimal support” after they are released.

“What doesn’t work is leaving them in prison,” he says.

But it’s not just charity organisations that might need to approach paedophilia differently – to let such organisations be innovative, perhaps the whole concept of what a paedophile is needs to change.

Dr Rebecca Roache, a philosophy lecturer at the University of London, has written on paedophile rehabilitation for Oxford University’s Practical Ethics journal. From her research, Dr Roache told me that rethinking how paedophilia is understood is vital if preventative measures are to take place.

“Currently, ‘paedophile’ is synonymous with ‘child sexual abuser’ in the public’s imagination. Presumably this is because the vast majority of us only ever encounter paedophiles once they have been caught abusing children,” she says.

“It would probably help if people could be encouraged to realise that not all paedophiles abuse children, and that while child-abusing paedophiles might be an appropriate target for our wrath, non-offending paedophiles who are struggling with alarming and unwanted desires deserve our sympathy and help. And it seems plausible to think that the more we help the latter type of paedophile, the better we will get at preventing the former type”.

Whether that’s true remains unclear, and in light of recent scandals involving child abuse, it seems unlikely that any future government will propose policy initiatives seen to be “easy” on paedophiles. But while that might be good for the ballot box, such approaches tend only to abandon people like Tom, and in a way allow their inclinations to become stronger until the moment they cause a physical sexual offence. Not only does that do little to help those with paedophilic urges, but more importantly, does nothing to protect society’s most vulnerable children.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Hussein Kesvani is a journalist and the co-host of the No Country For Brown Men podcast. He tweets @HKesvani.