Who likes a pedophile? I’d guess that most people think pedophiles ought to be locked up forever (or worse). Affording a vigorous professional defense to people accused of even the most serious crimes is the hallmark of any true criminal defense attorney. Think about it: if your lawyer isn’t willing to devote his or her expertise and energy to defending someone nearly all of society thinks is indefensible, then what makes you think he or she would completely defend you? Persons charged with pedophilia or child pornography offenses have rights and they have defenses. Indeed, many recent psychological studies suggest that pedophilia may be more of a mental health disorder (and therefore potentially treatable) than a crime. According to a recent New York Times Article:
CAMDEN, N.J. — THINK back to your first childhood crush. Maybe it was a classmate or a friend next door. Most likely, through school and into adulthood, your affections continued to focus on others in your approximate age group. But imagine if they did not.
By some estimates, 1 percent of the male population continues, long after puberty, to find themselves attracted to prepubescent children. These people are living with pedophilia, a sexual attraction to prepubescents that often constitutes a mental illness. Unfortunately, our laws are failing them and, consequently, ignoring opportunities to prevent child abuse.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines pedophilia as an intense and recurrent sexual interest in prepubescent children, and a disorder if it causes a person “marked distress or interpersonal difficulty” or if the person acts on his interests. Yet our laws ignore pedophilia until after the commission of a sexual offense, emphasizing punishment, not prevention.
Part of this failure stems from the misconception that pedophilia is the same as child molestation. One can live with pedophilia and not act on it. Sites like Virtuous Pedophiles provide support for pedophiles who do not molest children and believe that sex with children is wrong. It is not that these individuals are “inactive” or “nonpracticing” pedophiles, but rather that pedophilia is a status and not an act. In fact, research shows, about half of all child molesters are not sexually attracted to their victims.
A second misconception is that pedophilia is a choice. Recent research, while often limited to sex offenders — because of the stigma of pedophilia — suggests that the disorder may have neurological origins. Pedophilia could result from a failure in the brain to identify which environmental stimuli should provoke a sexual response. M.R.I.s of sex offenders with pedophilia show fewer of the neural pathways known as white matter in their brains. Men with pedophilia are three times more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous, a finding that strongly suggests a neurological cause. Some findings also suggest that disturbances in neurodevelopment in utero or early childhood increase the risk of pedophilia. Studies have also shown that men with pedophilia have, on average, lower scores on tests of visual-spatial ability and verbal memory.
While treatment cannot eliminate a pedophile’s sexual interests, a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication can help him to manage urges and avoid committing crimes. But the reason we don’t know enough about effective treatment is because research has usually been limited to those who have committed crimes.
Our current law is inconsistent and irrational. For example, federal law and 20 states allow courts to issue a civil order committing a sex offender, particularly one with a diagnosis of pedophilia, to a mental health facility immediately after the completion of his sentence — under standards that are much more lax than for ordinary “civil commitment” for people with mental illness. And yet, when it comes to public policies that might help people with pedophilia to come forward and seek treatment before they offend, the law omits pedophilia from protection.