Paedophilia is not (yet) child abuse

Originally published in Daily Maverick

When you hear reports concerning an “alleged paedophile” like Johannes Kleinhans, due back in court this week, it’s difficult to think of his possible crime as anything other than sexual abuse of a minor. But that’s not what paedophilia means. Furthermore, our instinctive horror at the possibility of children being sexually abused might sometimes be counterproductive, in that it leads us to scare potential abusers away from treatment.

Some think that “treatment” for paedophiles is impossible, and that they should simply be locked away for good. Still others think that locking them up is not enough, or that the prison time should come with a guarantee of experiencing some sexual abuse yourself. “Papa wag vir you” (Daddy is waiting for you) is one of the more polite comments to one report on a US Peace Corps volunteer, facing imprisonment for sexually abusing five KwaZulu-Natal girls.

These responses are understandable. I cannot imagine the terror that parents might feel when thinking about these threats to their children – or even the legislative responses to those threats, like when you find out that South Africa’s sexual offenders register lists only 40 names (thought to be a small fraction of the true number).

All paedophiles are attracted to young children, often sexually, but not all those who sexually abuse children are paedophiles, and not all paedophiles are child molesters. Paedophilia describes what you’re attracted to – not what you do with that attraction. For a celibate male priest, a hetero- or homosexual orientation  could be a problem, regardless of whether he’s attracted to adults or not. He remains celibate, though, until the attractions are acted on.

Of course these things are not the same in terms of the extent of damage that can be caused to the victims of sexual assault. Children are easier to victimise than adults are, regardless of your view on whether long-term trauma is more or less likely at any given age.

Nevertheless, it’s the sexual abuse of children that we want to criminalise, not  the fact that someone was unfortunate enough to be born with sexual desires they are unable to pursue  (or can only pursue  under threat of severe consequences). I’m not comparing adult sexual abuse to child sexual abuse, except to say that what sort of target an abuser would pick – if they were to abuse someone – is a separate matter from whether they are an abuser or not.

So, a paedophile is a potential abuser of children. It’s not a crime to be a potential anything, though – if it were, few of us would escape imprisonment thanks to our constant potential to break laws, whether the more trivial speeding while driving to the less trivial theft or murder. We don’t do these things for various reasons, including fear of punishment – but also because we don’t want to do them. We might not even want to have the desires we do.

This is the case for many paedophiles, such as Spencer Kaplan or the man who wrote to sex-advice columnist Dan Savage to say that he “walk[s] around every awful day of [his] life knowing that there is no one out there for me” – in other words, that his life can never contain any sexually fulfilling interactions with other humans, because he’s attracted to the wrong sort of humans. I remember listening to another paedophile (but this time, someone who was himself still in adolescence) calling in to Savage’s show, expressing bewilderment at what he should do. He knew his urges were wrong, and he knew that he shouldn’t act on them. He just didn’t know how he could be helped to live with this self-denial for the rest of his life.

We need to help potential child abusers to not become actual child abusers. And speaking of paedophiles as if they are already abusers isn’t helpful because it shames them, and because it runs the risk of driving underground exactly the sort of people we want in plain sight – and in treatment.

In the US, an organisation called B4U-ACT offers counselling for those they call minor-attracted people, and similar support mechanisms exist in Canada, Germany and elsewhere. In Greece, paedophilia is regarded as a disability, with social support grants available to those who are willing to present themselves for diagnosis. But who would do such a thing as present with paedophilia, when everyone understands that to mean you rape children?

Dehumanising people can’t be a productive strategy for getting them to treat others as human, rather than as objects for sexual abuse. Some of the articles linked to above contain examples of sufficient verbal abuse, or a complete lack of sympathy, that we shouldn’t be surprised when potential offenders want nothing to do with treatment. We’re telling them we don’t care.

Yet, we remain surprised to hear of cases where some “monster”, “lacking all humanity”, and so forth, has committed some horrible crime. There’s no question that the sexual abuse of children is a horrible crime, and that we should do all we can to make sure it never happens. But making sure that it never happens might well include our own obligation to avoid the lesser crime of refusing someone the treatment they need, and that might protect your – or someone else’s – child.

William Creasey and media responsibility, redux

This is an edited version of an op-ed originally published by the Cape Argus (October 21).

The recently revised South African Press Code confirms that the role of the press remains – at least from the point of view of the Code – pretty much what we’ve always understood it to be. To summarise, the press serves society by allowing us to make informed judgements regarding events of the day. In doing so, they should refrain from violating the dignity or privacy of others unless justified in doing so by a legitimate public interest. Continue reading “William Creasey and media responsibility, redux”

William Creasey: Sex-offenders and media responsibility

A friend alerted me to this front-page spread in Friday’s Cape Argus regarding William Creasey. For those unfamiliar with Creasey’s history, he was arrested in 2003 and later convicted for indecently assaulting minors. Following his release on parole in 2009, nothing (that I know of) has been heard of him – at least in relation to this sort of crime. What’s interesting about Friday’s story is that it details what essentially consists of a sting operation, exposing the fact that Creasey is using a pseudonym and expressed an interest in offering art classes to children. The police response was ‘that there was nothing they could do until they had proof that Creasey had committed an offence against a child’.

Why does the Argus feel that it has the responsibility to do more, and that their attempts to do so are front-page news? Of course sex with unwilling participants is illegal and immoral, and of course children often require a measure of paternalism to protect them against threats they might not fully understand. But one point of view would be that Creasey had done wrong, had served his time, and was currently doing nothing illegal – and nothing that justified this violation of his privacy and rights to trade his skills as an art teacher for money.

Those arguing in favour of exposing a man who is (to our knowledge) not guilty of any current crimes might argue as Paul Hoffman does,saying that the public does not need to wait for harm to be done and that we “are entitled to seek a suitable interdict if there is a reasonable apprehension of harm”. But my concern here is that any (or many) people are potential threats to some interest or other, and any subjective ranking of those threats or interests is open to abuse. So in principle, it seems preferable that we punish actual criminals rather than potential ones. Here, Creasey has been punished for actual crimes, and is now being further punished for potential crimes.

He did himself no favours by posting the Gumtree ad described in the story, and you can read his editing of that ad either as an acknowledgement that it was inappropriate for his to be teaching children, or as an attempt to not draw attention to the fact that he wanted to teach children. Likewise, the fact that he was using a pseudonym could be suspicious or not, depending on whether you believe him in saying that it’s a pseudonym he’s always used for his artistic endeavours. On the least sympathetic reading, he was engaging in what’s known as “grooming” – a term describing attempts by a sex offender to target and prepare children for sexual abuse. Or, he could simply be trying to get his life back on track, and doing what he loves (I mean teaching art, of course).

While South Africa does have a registry of sex offenders, it only went live last year and at this point only lists current convictions rather than historical ones. So Creasey would not appear on it, making it impossible for parents of children he might teach to check whether he (or anyone else) is on the registry. From what I can gather, the registry itself and the process for having a name checked on it is cumbersome and dysfunctional enough to make it pretty difficult to do so in any case.

But the larger question remains, despite these issues: Should our newspapers engage in this sort of pre-emptive strike against a possibly innocent man? Should your past always be available as a means by which to smear your reputation and limit your freedoms? It’s a sensitive and tricky subject, but we should guard against the tendency to allow ourselves to justify anything “for the children”. While sexual abuse is undoubtedly a threat to them (and to others), there are also threats for us all when the media becomes a vigilante.

Edit: Some people can’t read past their instinctive outrage, it seems. I’m addressing how complicated this balancing act is – I’m not coming down on the side of Creasey’s privacy. In general, though, I would defend someone against a known violation of their rights as opposed to protecting people from possible harms. If it’s true that paedophiles are irredeemable, as Mr Simpkins seems to believe, the balance shifts in favour of the exposure in the Argus.

Edit 2: The Argus has subsequently published this explanation for why they exposed Creasey.

Edit 3: The Argus then published this op-ed in which I make a fuller case for why it was inappropriate for them to expose Creasey in this way.