Chemical Castration - or Compassion for Paedophiles?

Every paedophile was once somebody's little child, a member of somebody's family. To imagine that they are somehow distinct from us, that they are 'those monsters over there' is a fairy-story we can no longer afford to believe.

The UK National Crime Agency claims there are some 750,000 men in Britain who are sexually attracted to children: that's one in every 35 men. And with the NSPCC estimating some one in 20 children are sexually abused (over 36,000 annually), it's likely every one of us is affected in one way or another, maybe because we ourselves were abused, or we know someone who was ... or because we have committed - or we'd like to commit - such a crime.

The challenge of effective child protection requires us to face the reality that adult sexual attraction to children is not something freakishly rare. It is part of everyday life, arguably perhaps even an intrinsic part of that great ragbag of surprises which is human sexuality.

All over Europe, initiatives are springing up which have the power to change our thinking about paedophilia. For more than 10 years, Prevention Project Dunkelfeld (PPD), in Germany, has been advertising and attracting paedophiles out of the 'dunkelfeld', the 'dark field' where no authorities are aware of them, and engaging them in therapy to help them manage their sexual urges and stay law-abiding. In the Netherlands too, an advertising campaign 'My name is Frank' draws paedophiles into therapy programmes. Now, in Sweden, a research project is poised to add a valuable new technique to the range of options keeping paedophiles non-offending. For the first time, a randomised controlled trial (the 'gold standard' of medical research) will be used to test whether voluntary medication to reduce libido can assist carefully-selected paedophiles in maintaining their law-abiding lifestyle, without being tempted to act out their desires and harm children. The project, known as Priotab, will be a test, too, of the public's attitude to such an approach. Only with successful crowdfunding will the project go ahead, so if the public do not endorse the idea, it will fail.

It is likely the UK Government will be watching this experiment closely, as this month they also are planning to roll out a national network of new clinics offering injectable anti-androgen medication to volunteers, this time however only to offenders within the prison and probation system, rather than to those in the community at risk of offending. Public reaction will be critical in deciding how paedophiles are treated and what help will be available to them. It has been a long hard slog even to reach this point.

Psychiatrists are frequently reluctant to treat sex offenders; many therapists feel that paedophilia is outside their range of expertise; doctors and other professionals faced with someone asking for help with intrusive sexual thoughts towards children are likely to respond with bewilderment and may well report the individual to the authorities simply to 'cover their own backs'.

It does not have to be this way. In Britain now, we have a specialist charity, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation, offering training and resources. We have a national telephone helpline run by Stop It Now! And we have StopSO, a national specialist treatment organisation for the prevention of sexual offending, which can put people in touch with therapists across the country trained to work with potential and actual sex offenders.

Every paedophile was once somebody's little child, a member of somebody's family. To imagine that they are somehow distinct from us, that they are 'those monsters over there' is a fairy-story we can no longer afford to believe. Perhaps the most important intervention we can offer is high-quality sex education in schools, exploring the reality of paedophilia, so that teenagers worried by their sexual thoughts and urges understand that they are not alone, there is help available, and while people do not choose to be sexually attracted to children, they can always choose not to act on that attraction.

At the moment, the talk in the media is of 'chemical castration' for paedophiles. This provides a key moment for reflection and change. Do we want the notion of 'chemical castration' to prevail, with its brutal imagery of cutting off testicles, or will the public back a more nuanced approach that understands the goal is not punishment of perverts, but rather it is about developing a model of child protection so targetted and effective that even the first offence is avoided and no child is harmed?

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