Debate About Definition of Paedophilia Must Not Mask Reality of Child Abuse

Paedophiles may try to convince themselves these are 'consenting' relationships but they come at great cost to the victim, or survivor, and to the UK taxpayer through associated health costs. At the NSPCC we hear about and work with this fallout every day.

A recent Guardian article examining the definitions of paedophilia and the extent of sex offending has kicked off a fevered debate between academics and members of the public.

But while it raised some important questions about how we should deal with the problem of sexual abuse it skirted over one of the main issues - the terrible impact on the many thousands of young victims.

By not focusing on this and instead choosing to highlight those who advocate that, for example "it is the quality of the relationship (between the abuser and child) that matters" does a serious disservice to the many victims who may have been silenced for decades before being able to talk about what they experienced and its impact on them.

It is not possible for a child to enter into a consensual sexual relationship with an adult because child sexual abuse is fundamentally about the abuse of power. Social perceptions and norms have of course changed but we are not living in the 16th Century where children were sometimes married before they were teenagers and life expectancy often did not extend beyond the late 30s or early 40s for many.

And let's not forget that some children are extremely young when they are first sexually assaulted -often pre- primary school age - so it's quite frankly ludicrous to suggest they could give informed consent to a sexual relationship.

Since the 'discovery' of the relatively common incidence of child sexual abuse within the family or extended family, due primarily to the work of the feminist movement in the 1970s, we have gained a clear understanding of its impacts, both short and long term.

We know of the dynamics of child sexual abuse; how abusers often plan and fantasise about offending before moving on to abuse; how they can trick and groom their victims to make them feel as though they were in some way responsible and how the process of grooming means abusers often do not have to use physical force to get what they have been fantasising about.

Paedophiles are indeed not "necessarily (physically) violent" but as we know from countless victims of domestic violence the psychological and emotional abuse can sometimes be even worse.

The impacts of sexual abuse of children have been well documented by researchers in the UK, Europe and North America. In addition to physical injury, the long-lasting effects can include enduring feelings of betrayal, stigmatisation and powerlessness which can in turn increase the child's vulnerability to further abuse. These feelings can be exhibited through depression, often persisting into adulthood, acute anxiety, uncontrollable outbursts of anger, problems in forming secure and trusting attachments with others, attempted suicide and alcohol and drug misuse. Victims often talk of carrying an often unbearable burden that they cannot tell anyone about.

Paedophiles may try to convince themselves these are 'consenting' relationships but they come at great cost to the victim, or survivor, and to the UK taxpayer through associated health costs. At the NSPCC we hear about and work with this fallout every day. Treatment for victims of child sexual abuse can significantly reduce and mitigate these impacts and we are currently testing and evaluating a guided approach to help child victims recover from their experiences. But, worryingly across the UK there is a serious shortage of treatment for victims of child sexual abuse- our research estimates that at any one time around 55,000 children who have been sexually abused are not receiving the therapy they need.

We also know that many children who contact our confidential ChildLine service talk about resorting to injuring themselves as a way of blocking out the horrors of being sexually abused.

But while we, quite rightly, focus our efforts on helping the victims I accept there is a need for an on-going rational and evidence based debate on the issue of child sexual abuse. The study of paedophilia is relatively young and opinion and consensus with regard to its aetiology is not unanimous as is the case with many areas of the natural and social sciences.

Diversity of view should be seen as a strength as well as a challenge and rigorously testing different hypotheses is of course how knowledge develops. The testing of key questions in child protection through service delivery, research and policy development is central to the NSPCC strategy.

As our understanding of brain functioning and of genetic influences develops so will our understanding of the extent to which nature and nurture informs the sexual abuse of children. Whilst we may be near to isolating and identifying predisposing genes I think it is likely that in future decades we will be concluding that nurture - environmental influences - plays the biggest role in determining sexual interest (not orientation) and behaviour. A fixated paedophile's capacity to change their sexual interest in either boys, girls or less commonly both is extremely limited, but this is an exclusive sexual interest rather than a sexual orientation.

Measuring potential numbers of paedophiles and child sex offenders (those without an exclusive or primary sexual interest in pre-pubescent children) in our communities takes us so far but we should not get too fixated on trying to gauge exactly how many child sex abusers there are; much child sexual abuse goes unreported and undetected - estimates vary between 60-90%- and population wide programmes as well as targeted prevention and deterrence and treatment for victims and offenders is needed to effectively address the problem. We don't need exact numbers for this approach.

Recognising that some (mainly men) will always have a sexual interest in children is important as is the voice and experience of the child victim and adult survivor. We can, should and must be doing more to address those causes of child sexual abuse and paedophilia, and there are many of them, that are amenable to change through prevention activity - information, education, treatment and deterrence. A concerted and government backed approach at all these levels would make a significant impact on one of the major and too often under- recognised and misunderstood public health problems of our time.

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