Why Adults Molest Children
by Ron Kokish
The most frequently asked question about child molesters is, "why
do they do it?" Child molesters themselves seem to ask it as
frequently as anyone. The conversation goes something like this.
ME: Why do you want to be in my treatment
HIM: I want find out why I did it.
ME: I can tell you that right now.
You did it because you wanted to!
ME: Sure, that's all there is to it.
It was because you wanted to and for no other reason. I'll bet you're
pretty confused right now, because you were expecting some kind
of fancy psychological explanation. You probably thought I was a
sort of doctor who could treat you for some sort of sickness. You
probably thought you must be sick to want to do something so disgusting.
Did you ever think you might be sick?
ME: So I have good news for you. You're
not sick at all. Not one bit.
HIM: But then how COULD I do that?
If I'm not sick, why did I do it.
ME: I told you - you did it because
you thought it would feel good. And it did feel good, so you did
again and again. That doesn't make you sick. - It makes you evil.
HIM: I'm not!!!! How can you say such
a thing? You don't even know me.
ME: Well, you cared only about yourself
- not about what you might be doing to the victim or cost to society
or about your family or the victim's family or anyone. Somehow,
you pushed all that out of your mind, just so you could have your
way with the child. If that's not evil, you tell me. What is?
HIM: Uh. . . .
ME: That's really good news for you
though. Because if you were sick, that would be something you couldn't
help. Since you couldn't help it and since medical science has no
real cure for such an illness, we'd just have to lock you up forever
to keep you from hurting more children. A lot of people think we
should do that anyway, but luckily for you, we may not have to.
Because plain old evil, that's something you do have control over.
What you did was, you chose to do it. You and you alone. Sure, there
were circumstances influencing your choice, but lots of other people
in similar circumstances have chosen differently. You could learn
to be more like them.
This is obviously a very simple version of why grown people do sexual
things with children, but it is also quite accurate. Many people
like the way this formulation makes the offender completely responsible.
But what about saying he's not sick? How can that be? How COULD
a person do such a thing unless he was "sick?"
The answer is obvious, if we're unafraid to look at it. Simply put,
adult sexual attraction to children is biologically natural. (i.e.
found in nature) It's part of biological sexuality. Various societies
have acknowledged this in one way or another. An ancient Sumerian
poem for example, tells about a young male god's attraction to a
female child he sees bathing in a stream. He tells her how much
he wants to posses her sexually but she asks him to wait till she
is older because her vagina is too small and it will hurt. Unwilling
to delay his pleasure, he takes her by force. (Florence Rush - "Sexual
Abuse of Children - The Best Kept Secret.")
Though exceptions may be made for gods, all recorded civilizations
have strict rules about mortal adults having sexual access to children.
This is particularly true when the adult is male and the child female.
Penalties for violating these rules are usually quite severe; often
death, castration or banishment. The existence of all these rules
and severe punishments seems to imply that although sexual activity
between adults and children is highly undesirable, left to our own
devices, many of us would do it anyway. Otherwise, why would we
need all those rules and punishments to keep us in line?
This theory is supported by responses to an anonymous questionnaire
Briere and Runtz administered
to 193 male college students. Many (21%) acknowledged sexual
thoughts about children. (Journal of Child Abuse & Neglect.
1989 13(1)) Some said they masturbated to these fantasies,
and 7% thought they would act on their fantasies if they could be
sure of remaining undiscovered.
Medical science also supports the notion that adult sexual attraction
to children is not uncommon, at least among males. In the 1950's
Kurt Freund developed a new sensor for an instrument called a
plethysmograph, a biofeedback device for
measuring changes in the blood volume of a human organ. Dr. Freund's
sensor measures these changes in the penis. Hence
"penile plethysmograph" or, more affectionately, "The
Since the 1960's, studies using this device have been done with
thousands of men. Subjects sit in a private room while the
operator exposes them to a series of slides, videos or audio tapes
with sexual content. Many so called "normal" men who have
not committed illegal sex acts show considerable arousal to stimuli
depicting naked children or children involved in sexual activity.
(e.g. Freund, et al, 1972, Behavior Therapy, #6) Based on this kind
of evidence, it's easy to see that adult sexual attraction to children
is rather natural.
But natural isn't the same as "good" or "right."
Any impulse to do or take what we want is "natural." We
may for example, feel an urgent and natural need to urinate or empty
our bowels. But rarely will we do so except in special places designated
for that purpose, even at the cost of considerable discomfort from
delaying this "call of nature." And how many of us haven't
thought at least momentarily of killing a misbehaving child, an
insensitive spouse, or a demanding and insensitive supervisor? But, while accepting
our human "nature" in these areas, we also recognize the
importance of keeping our impulses under control and generally,
we do so.
In short, when it comes to urination and defecation, property acquisition
or interpersonal violence, we seem able enough to separate thoughts
and desires from behavior. But when it comes to sex, and particularly
sex with children, we tend to go beyond merely controlling our ordinary
human nature in favor of civilized behavior. We declare war on it.
We fly in the face of historical and scientific evidence by insisting
that sexual arousal to children is unnatural or "sick."
We refuse to accept our "selves," pretending instead that
we are somehow naturally "pure" in this one (sexual) domain.
That's really too bad, because we are doing exactly the same thing
as the child molester. Unwilling to look our own sexuality square
in the eye, we look for more mysterious explanations. We medicalize,
complicate and mystify ordinary selfishness and evil, thereby relieving
the criminal of responsibility.
But in reality, the psychology of child molesting isn't very different
from the psychology of most socially deviant acts.
1. There's a natural impulse or "want.". (as in "found in nature")
2. There's the process of becoming civilized. It consists of values,
rules based on the values, potential punishments (internal and external)
for breaking the rules and potential rewards (internal and external)
for adhering to them. (as in "conscience")
3. Generalized failure to develop conscience and /or a circumstantially
driven breakdown in it's functioning, so that the desire to gratify
forbidden impulses is perceived as stronger than the psychological
and environmental forces inhibiting it.
This process of inhibiting natural impulses in favor of the greater
social good is called "socialization" or "growing up,"
and it isn't simple at all. It involves a great many influences. First,
there's the basic personality each individual is born with - a kind
of "hard wiring." Then there are other biological factors,
like pre and post natal environment and care. There are early social
influences of mother, father, siblings and other family members. There
is economics, formal education, media influence, religious training,
neighborhood culture, the peers one has available in a particular
environment - the list is almost endless.
So, in another sense, helping an individual explain "why"
he molested children may not be all that simple. Examining the interplay
of his particular experiences, beliefs, feelings, relationships and
the relevance of all this to his pattern of sexual offenses takes
a long time and it takes some courage. But it isn't mysterious, because
sexual offenses against children aren't mysterious - they are simply
a victory of base human nature over higher human qualities. Sexual
offenses are not essentially different from other cruel and selfish
acts. When we pretend they are, we are simply trying to avoid acceptance
of our own nature, we are barking up the wrong tree, and we are making
the situation worse.