Imagine that you woke up one day and found, not that you had turned into a giant cockroach, but that you felt unacceptable sexual urges towards little girls or boys. What might you do? You might, possibly like Lewis Carroll, turn those urges to harmless ends, like writing books for children. Or you might accidentally stumble into a seemingly innocent way of gratifying those urges. All the while you would be telling yourself you weren’t really doing any harm, and besides, the other good you were doing for the children compensated for your guilt. Mightn’t that be the story of Jerry Sandusky, or Jimmy Savile, or any number of pedophile priests?
I’m not justifying child molestation. But must we demonize molesters; must we treat them as alien, irredeemable monsters? In so doing, we cut actual and potential offenders off from available, effective treatment. We deny any social responsibility for putting people in a position that enables harmful behavior. By denying the humanity of molesters, we deny our own propensity to do foolish or harmful things under the sway of powerful emotions.
Alcoholism, compulsive gambling, overeating, kleptomania, sex addiction and other obsessive-compulsive disorders are not destiny. They do respond successfully to cognitive or behavioral therapies, and/or medication. At the very least, people can learn to avoid situations that trigger such behavior.
In fact, we already know situations that can induce misconduct by otherwise “normal” people. We know that under conditions of war, or drunken frat parties, ordinary young men may rape available women. Then there are the lonely priests, desperate for human contact, who may cuddle the choirboys a little too closely.
The rest of us also lapse from time to time. How many of us long-time married adults, devoted to our husbands or wives, have found ourselves traveling or working late with a colleague—and then slipped guilt-ridden into a brief affair, as did David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell? How many of us have written angry or desperate messages to former lovers, or their partners, at least risking exposure and embarrassment—as happened with Broadwell’s snippy anonymous emails to a rival?
Malcolm Gladwell recently published an article in the New Yorker in which he described child molesters as cunning predators, cleverly structuring their entire lives around pursuing and concealing their deviant sexual needs. I don’t buy this. We are all multiple, conflicted personalities. Until recently, Dominique Strauss-Kahn—economist, lawyer, international political figure, husband to a beautiful, successful, wealthy, loyal wife—managed to carry on a shadowy second life as a libertine. So I say, let’s have some compassion for child molesters. They are human, like us.