I have been wanting to write this article for a long time, but I have held off because this subject is so taboo. Since I don’t adhere to the socially acceptable position of “They should just be punished!” I have feared that by writing as truthfully as I can about the sexual abuse of children, some people will completely misinterpret my words, label me as a “pedophile sympathizer,” and then try to attack me.
This article challenges and up-ends some deeply held, unconscious beliefs that our society uses to maintain its current non-adaptive homeostasis in regard to child abuse. It may be both intriguing and disturbing to read.
I’m writing this article now because I care deeply about the wellbeing of all people, especially children, and I want to actually help to end this nightmare. I don’t hate child molesters—I don’t hate anyone—but I do think we need to address the real issues and bring an end to child molestation. If my actions to protect children lead to negative repercussions for me personally, then so be it. This has to be said.
There has been a continual stream of scandals related to the sexual abuse of children, and the most recent one to hit my Facebook newsfeed, and that prompted me to write this article, was the USA Gymnastic sex abuse scandal. Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, was sentenced to 60 years in prison for sexually assaulting girls as young as 13. One of the victims claimed that he started abusing her when she was six-years-old.
It seems that most people don’t know how pervasive the sexual abuse of children is in our society. According to the organization Darkness to Light, about one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
As a clinical psychologist in training, I estimated that somewhere between 70% and 90% of my patients were sexually abused as children. In addition, there are many people in my personal life who have revealed to me that they were sexually abused as children. Because of this, I suspect that the number of people in the population who were sexually abused as children is probably much higher than 10%. I think that, because of shame, many people never reveal to others what happened to them.
Many people do not want to acknowledge the problem we’re dealing with, and they turn a blind eye to it, often literally. This is exactly what happened in the gymnastics scandal. Girls were telling their parents and other adults what was happening to them, but nobody believed them. Presumably, this was because it would have shattered people’s idea of reality. This beloved and respected medical doctor was, in fact, sexually abusing their children. The denial was so extreme that even when he sexually assaulted girls in front of their own parents, the parents did not believe it.
Denial of the problem predated Freud. Before Freud, psychotherapists did not believe the stories of childhood sexual abuse that their “hysterical” patients recounted. Then, in 1896, Freud published a theory that suggested that all mental illness in adults is caused by the sexual abuse they received as children, which is a pretty extreme position.
Freud later withdrew this claim, and while still suggesting that some mental illness was caused by the sexual abuse of children, he re-theorized that much of the childhood sexual memories his patients had recounted were in fact sexual fantasies that children had about their parents. To me, this theory is both bizarre and perverse.
The book The assault on truth: Freud’s suppression of the seduction theory tells this story, and suggests that Freud manufactured the theory of childhood sexual fantasies in order to protect Viennese society, and perhaps also one of his friends, from facing the extent of the horror lurking beneath the surface. Without making his work more perversely palatable, he might have been unknown today.
One of the things we can say with confidence about the molestation of children is that it leads to many forms of dysfunction in adults, from anxiety and depression, to the abuse of others. Even though the sexual abuse of children is often reframed by the perpetrator as “loving” or “helping” (I have heard many stories like this from adult victims), the underlying drive is hurtful aggression. Just as rape is never a loving act, but an expression of rage, the molestation of children in all its guises is an act of violence. We know that child molestation is violent because of what it produces: suffering.
Children are dependent on us as adults to take care of them and particularly not to harm them. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, dear reader, that having sexual relations with a child will deeply harm them. It’s worth noting here that there is a natural and important physically intimate bond between a mother and her child, and that it is a mother’s responsibility to ensure a nurturing and safe environment for the child to differentiate from her physically, emotionally, and psychologically. In this context, sexual intimacy is extremely confusing for children.
A traumatic experience is any experience that is too emotionally overwhelming to be fully perceived in an integrated way. Traumatic experiences often involve real or perceived threats to survival. They leave imprints in the brain, shattered fragments in each of the senses that perpetually seek to be integrated coherently, learned from, and then stored in long-term memory. All symptoms of trauma are expressions of this drive to integrate and then store the experience as a memory.
Until a traumatic experience has been processed and stored in this way, it continuously waits in the wings of experience for a cue to bring its disjoint parts flooding back into awareness. In the most extreme forms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) this re-cueing can be experienced as a flashback. With more subtle traumas, aspects of unintegrated experiences can be cued, experienced, and overlaid on reality without the entire apparatus of perception being hijacked.
The ability for traumatic imprints to become overlaid on the perception of reality is the basis for most mental illness and dysfunctional behavior. A classic example: veterans returning from war often suffer extreme relational difficulties and breakdowns; an argument with a spouse can become indistinguishable from an exchange of gunfire.
Below is a diagram of the trauma cycle, which shows the two main ways traumatic experiences can be dealt with. First of all, a traumatic experience can be accepted and then integrated, leading to a feeling of safety, contentment, and recovery. The consequential life-affirming experiences then lead to adaptive behavior, which in turn generates more life-affirming experiences, and this continues in a virtuous cycle. Behavior is adaptive when it produces desirable outcomes for everyone involved.
On the other hand, when a traumatic experience is shrouded in shame and denial, it results in non-adaptive behavior, which leads to more traumatic experience for the self and/or others, in a vicious cycle. Behavior is non-adaptive when it fails to produce desirable outcomes for everyone involved.
The trauma can either be acted-out or acted-in. To act-in means to impose elements of the traumatic experience on the self, to express them and make them more real, and to hopefully come to terms with them. To act-out means to impose elements of the traumatic experience on others, to express them and make them more real, and to hopefully come to terms with them.
We all have unintegrated traumas, and we all act-out and act-in aspects of those traumatic experiences every day. Both acting-out and acting-in can be further subdivided into overt and covert behaviors. A father might overtly act-out the trauma of being hit as a child by hitting his own child. A mother might covertly act-out the trauma of being hit as a child (or of watching her mother being hit) by welcoming an abusive partner into the household, who then hits her children (and her).
A young adult might overtly act-in a trauma of being chronically emotionally abused as a child by feeling worthless and depressed and rarely getting out of bed, or covertly by secretly cutting themselves or binge eating and then forcing themselves to throw up.
I believe that most of what we consider mental illness can be related back to some kind of traumatic experience. Many mental health issues are apparent to those who are suffering from them, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These are called egodystonic, which means unacceptable to the self. They are upsetting to the person who suffers from them.
Particularly intense and chronic traumatic experiences can lead to personality disorders, which are egosyntonic. A condition is egosyntonic when the person suffering from the condition does not even realize that there is a problem. Personality disorders are particularly destructive to relationships and those suffering from them usually live highly impoverished lives, even while insisting that the cause of their suffering is other people (never the self).
Whether trauma is acted-out or acted-in, it results in additional trauma for both the person who was originally traumatized, and for other individuals involved. When a young woman kills herself, it not only results in the curtailment of her own potential, but in suffering and distress for her parents, siblings, and friends.
One of the benefits of non-adaptive behavior, whether from acted-out or acted-in trauma, is that it makes the original experience visible. This non-adaptive behavior, a form of externalized experience, validates the original traumatic experience, although at great cost. When original traumas are shrouded in shame and denial, these forms of non-adaptive behavior become the only possible routes for attempted integration.
Non-adaptive behavior provides a lived experience that says: “Yes, this really happened, and this is what it looked like, sounded like, felt like, tasted like, and smelled like”. Every day, in our unconscious drive to integrate our many micro-traumas, we engage in a myriad of illogical behaviors.
Relating this trauma theory back to child molestation, I believe that all people who molest children, or who enable the molestation of children, were themselves molested as children, or suffered from other intimacy violations as children. It is clear that the behaviors are the acting-out of past, unintegrated traumas. I think it’s really important to try to perceive the problem from this perspective because it enables us to take more adaptive action.
Many child molesters had mothers who often violated their boundaries, were clingy, and constrained their children to behave only in ways that pleased the mother. This parental behavior may drive developing sexual urges underground and distort sexual expression. It’s not clear if this parental behavior is the cause of the trauma, or if it’s just another symptom of an environment in which other forms of abuse occur. Note that relevant traumas might have included witnessing inappropriate sexual acts, or other violating experiences.
Also, children sense how adults feel about what they are doing. Often, while being molested, the child doesn’t perceive the sexual act in itself as wrong, but the behavior of the adult in relationship to the act tells the child that it is wrong. The child usually thinks that they did something wrong themselves. This is why most children do not tell another adult about sexual molestation. The adult feels ashamed of their behaviors, knows that it’s wrong, and often threatens the child’s safety to ensure that the secret is kept. The child then carries the shame and secrecy, and often passes it, along with accompanying traumatic experiences, down through generations.
Note that even though I believe that all child molesters were once molested children, or were intimately violated, I am not saying that all molested children become child molesters. Most people who were molested as children either adaptively recover or enter self-reinforcing trauma loops that, while not leading to the molestation of children, result in great costs to themselves and others.
Because this topic is so taboo, and because it cannot usually get discussed properly, most people are only able to address it in very crude terms; they are only able to see child molesters as monsters who should be killed or endlessly punished; they imagine that child molesters are greedy perverts who are taking something that feels good to them and ruining the lives of others, with zero conscience. While this perspective is understandable, it misses a deeper reality: these people were once the very children that we are trying to protect.
The following thought process can be enlightening: once a child has been molested, they are then potentially set on a path to becoming a child molester themselves. At what point do we stop having compassion for their suffering? Is it when they become adults? Is it when they first perpetrate? Given the amount of suffering that child molestation inflicts on victims, I have to assume that the person who inflicts that suffering must themselves be suffering deeply before, during, and after such heinous acts. Do we have compassion until the moment that they first perpetrate? Then, at the moment they act-out their trauma by molesting a child, do we instantly have no compassion for them anymore?
The typical answer is, “No! We hate child molesters! We hate them with a passion! We hate them as much before they first perpetrate as we do after! We hate them from the moment they [magically] changed [from sweet, innocent little children, who were tragically violated] into the grotesque monsters that we know they are (and always have been)! We don’t want to think about when that transition happened, because … because it just doesn’t make any sense! We hate child molesters, and that’s it! We don’t want to think about it anymore! We feel angry now that we had to think about this problem so deeply! Someone else please make this go away!” I believe that part of what drives the unbridled rage is a feeling of powerlessness: we want it to stop, but we don’t know what to do. Helplessness can make us angry.
This hating and shaming attitude that we have, this monsterization that we passionately practice, actually leads to the perpetuation of child molestation. The more we don’t look at the problem and the more we make it someone else’s problem, the less control we have over it. The less control we have, the more angry we get. The more angry we get, the less we want to look at it. This is one of the vicious cycles that helps to keep child molestation alive in our society.
When we push the problem away, don’t look at it, and shame everyone involved, it drives the problem underground. Nobody talks about it. Potential first-time molesters then don’t seek help and support. People actively molesting children are then also less likely to seek help. “Pedophiles” stay under the radar, hiding away as the “sick fucks” that we know them to be. Even if we compile lists of sex offenders, we can’t identify all of them. We have to stay on high-alert and constantly be on the lookout for them.
When we suppress problems, and don’t bring them into the light of awareness and compassion to address them thoroughly and effectively, they tend to fester and increase. On the other hand, when we look problems in the eye, and address them maturely, compassionately, and sensibly, we are able to resolve them thoroughly and adaptively.
All child molesters or potential child molesters must be disturbed by their egodystonic drives. This is partly, I imagine, because they don’t want to hurt others, and partly because of how society views child molestation. Even the ones whose drives are egosyntonic—except for the ones who are also psychopaths—would likely be willing to understand and acknowledge how they have harmed, or might harm, others, especially if therapy was legally mandated.
It’s worth noting that most men are sexually attracted to women, yet raping women—having sexual relations with them without consent—is illegal in most places, and is considered inappropriate by an increasing proportion of the population (it’s ridiculous that it’s not 100%). Gaining adult consent from a child is clearly impossible, so any sexual relations with children is a form of rape. Child molesters are essentially child rapists.
Even if it’s not possible for pedophiles to lose their sexual attraction to children (I have no idea if this is possible), integration of the original traumas would presumably stop the uncontrollable urge to rape children. I suspect that there is hope for rehabilitating any kind of rapist in this way.
We do not suspect every man of being a rapist (of women), just because most men are attracted to women. I think that an important part of breaking the chain of shame that causes child molestation to be perpetuated is a widespread understanding that a rehabilitated “pedophile” may never have molested a child and may be repulsed by the very thought of molesting (raping) children.
Obviously, people who are unable to stop themselves from molesting children need to be prevented from doing so. It makes total sense to keep someone incarcerated for their entire lives, if necessary, to prevent them from molesting children, assuming that they cannot be rehabilitated. Whether they are psychopaths or not, locking them up makes sense.
Helping them to heal from the trauma of the abuse they received as children also makes sense. In the cases where they are released, for whatever reason, rehabilitation would presumably make them much less likely to re-offend. Instead of being terrified that we are surrounded by released sex-offenders, “punished” but not rehabilitated rapists, we could instead comfortably know that to be released they must have first been rehabilitated.
Our current predominant paradigm is to lock them up as punishment. Justice is currently a synonym for socially acceptable revenge, paid for by our tax-dollars. “The family seeks justice,” really means, “the family seeks socially acceptable revenge.” The desire for revenge is understandable, but revenge doesn’t work. It doesn’t solve the problem. It actually makes the problem worse because it distracts from the real issue, which is that people are traumatized and acting out their trauma.
Revenge also comes from trauma and perpetuates trauma, because it causes harm to others (even though we think that “they deserve it”). It harms us as a society to harm others, even in the name of justice. It also harms us to not help others who need our help, even if we hate them, perhaps especially if we hate them. It harms us financially to channel funds into hurting when we could spend less by helping.
Locking people up just to punish them, with no attempt to help them, is not only extremely expensive but it doesn’t even work. The more you punish someone for undesirable behavior, the more they will perform that behavior. No wonder we punish all these evil people: they’re evil people so we punish them for their evil behavior. When they get out of jail, they behave in an equally evil way, or an even more evil way, and so we get to confirm our judgments about them. We believe that criminals will always be criminals, rapists will always be rapists, and that child molesters will always be child molesters. We punish people to confirm that they are evil. It’s a very expensive and stressful form of society-wide self-delusion.
We punish them rather than rehabilitate them even though we know, based on scientific evidence, that it will perpetuate their behavior. We do this because we want “justice.” We shame them and threaten them even though it will drive them underground, into hiding, and make them less likely to seek help and rehabilitation. We do this because we hate them, and we believe that we are justified in our hatred. It is very easy to feel hatred and revulsion for these people, partly because that’s how they must feel about themselves. They most likely picked-up that self-hatred from the adults who molested or violated them as children.
Child molesters, and more broadly pedophiles, whether they have perpetrated yet or not, are perhaps the biggest trauma scapegoats in our society. They’re the place that we can focus our rage and our shaming. They’re how we get our hit of feeling just and good, of feeling “better than.” They’re how we get to feel revenge. They not like us. These are “sick fucks” who “should just all be killed,” we say. The sad reality is that we’re fooling ourselves, because in doing all of this we are contributing to the very problem that we claim to dislike so much.
Perhaps, in a way, our society is covertly acting-in its childhood sexual abuse trauma. Shattered pieces of our society are disintegrated and disowned, left to re-perpetrate trauma on unconscious autopilot while we all unconsciously focus on creating optimal conditions for this cycle by hating, shaming, and punishing those pieces. Perhaps we are all complicit, and perhaps it’s time for us all to take responsibility.
Here are some things you can do today to help end the cycle of abuse:
- If you are the victim of childhood sexual abuse, talking with other victims can help you validate your experience. You can also get support from RAINN. If you are not a victim, talking with victims about their experiences, if they are willing, can help you develop a deeper understanding of what they went through, and can also help to alleviate their shame. Additionally, I highly recommend the book Please Tell!, written by a nine-year-old child about her experience of being sexually abused at age four; be prepared to cry.
- To help humanize perpetrators, I recommend watching the movie Little Children, based on a New York Times Bestseller, and starring Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson. The movie includes the story of a convicted and released child molester. Even though the character is often repulsive to watch, and we see moments of aggressive acting-out, we also see his struggle with himself, and how ostracized, isolated, and helpless he is.
- When a friend starts ragefully ranting about child molestation, use it as an opportunity to take the conversation deeper. Do your part to unravel this tightly-bound, self-perpetuating cycle of abuse and to dissolve the unconscious societal forces that keep it in place. Share this article.
- Learn more about rehabilitation-centric approaches to criminal justice that are both less expensive and more effective at resolving the underlying problems in society. (I personally think that criminal justice should be renamed trauma management and rehabilitation)
- If you’re not already doing so, I recommend seeing a therapist so that you can address any non-adaptive behaviors you might have, and possibly integrate past traumatic experiences. For the integration of traumatic memories, I recommend EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing).
If you appreciated this article, then give it some applause 👏. If you would like to read more from me, then follow me here on Medium. Comments are welcome below, and abuse will not be tolerated.