Forensic psychologist Belinda Winder
, who founded and heads the Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, wants society to understand one key aspect about pedophilia.
“Many people understand pedophilia to be both a sexual attraction to children but also
the act of committing abuse against children,” she explains to interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. “And that’s wrong.” Those are two different things, she continues.
“Pedophilia is sexual attraction – enduring and sustained sexual attraction. Not something that someone wakes up with one day, but something that people have come to realize, sometimes over many months, that they have a sexual attraction, maybe a sexual preference, for pre-pubescent children.”
Of course sexual abuse against children does occur, and Winder explains that’s not pedophilia but pedophilic disorder, “where someone acts on their interests.” The disorder also covers the significant mental difficulty, such as guilt or embarrassment, that having this attraction may cause. (And it’s worth noting that Winder reports that more than half of the people convicted of committing sexual abuse against pre-pubescent children are not pedophilic.)
Winder’s research, conducted in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, shows this distinction between urge and action matters greatly for addressing pedophilia. This is especially true in an environment where its merest whiff results in instant condemnation – and where the angry ornaments of that condemnation serve none of the victims of pedophilic disorder, whether the children or the offender.
“Until we as a society can see there is a difference between a sexual preference for children which we cannot change and cannot do anything about and we did not choose, versus committing sex abuse against a child — which absolutely people should take responsibility for, which they do have control over and which they can change — then I think the world is going to be quite a difficult place for anyone who wants to step forward and say, ‘This is me, what a most unfortunate sexual orientation to have.’”
That awareness helps in therapies that have been shown to successfully address pedophilic disorder offenders. “It’s taking the blame for the preference and the interest from people but putting the responsibility for their behavior squarely back with the person.”
Winder set up the Sexual Offences, Crime and Misconduct Research Unit in 2007 to build upon the collaborative relationship between Nottingham Trent’s Psychology Department and the British prison Whatton, one of Europe’s largest sex offender prisons with more than 830 convicted male sex offenders housed there. She is also co-founder, trustee, vice chair and head of research and evaluation for the 6-year-old Safer Living Foundation
, a charity that conducts and evaluates initiatives that help to prevent further victims of sexual crime.
In this podcast Winder discusses the prevalence of pedophilia, how it can be viewed as a sexual orientation, and what responses work – and which don’t – in addressing the disorder. On the latter, Winder sees some popular responses to offenses as ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Imprisonment, Winder says, is appropriate for the crime but does little to deal with the underpinnings of why people committed child sex offenses.
But some of the programs set up to address those underpinnings, like Britain’s former Sex Offender Treatment Programme, don’t work. “[SOTP] was carefully evaluated and some of the aspects of that which really didn’t seem to work at all was the idea that we needed to encourage more empathy in people, the idea that empathy was important – if we encourage more empathy then people wouldn’t offend – that’s just too simplistic and has not been shown to work. Part of the SOTP was getting people to go through every minutiae of what they had done and the offense they had committed, and again, I think that’s more to encourage shame, and shame can be very counterproductive. If you are dwelling in a pool of shame, then it may be you feel you are beyond saving.”
Exclusion also doesn’t help, which is why Winder has a special scorn for sex-offender registries, which she calls “actively ineffective." "If what you need is to connect with other people – this is what helps you not offend again in the future. … Once you’ve been brought to task for your sexual offending you are highly unlikely to commit another one. But the thing that might push you to re-offending is not having people to talk to, not having a place to stay. So really we need to allow people to resettle.”