Pity the Poor Child Molester

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.

11 comments to Pity the Poor Child Molester

  • Cliff Cobb


    Well said. Behavior is largely based on history and context, only partially on volition. Regarding the humanity of pedophiles, no one has ever made the case for it as well as Fritz Lang in his 1931 movie “M”, starring Peter Lorre. The full film is available (with subtitles) at

  • Neva Goodwin

    Polly, I’m really glad to read this. I had quite a good friend, a talented musician who created a children’s choir that inspired talent, loyalty and many friendships for him among both the children and their parents. He had been fighting against feelings that he knew were not socially acceptable all his life. Then, unfortunately, he saw a counselor whose message to him he understood (I don’t know how accurately) as saying “these feelings are really alright – you’re not hurting anyone.” He in fact did not cause any real harm, but he was “caught” just on the verge of doing so, and would likely have gone on to cause psychological damage if he had not been “brought to justice” and given a prison sentence. In the ensuing years he came to understand that, indeed, while he could not help the feelings (in conversation he and I likened them to homosexual urges, which are now understood pretty widely to be usually genetically based, and not antisocial), but had to find ways of not expressing them. He is now out of prison, rebuilding his life, but against terrible odds in society’s excessive panic about this problem. I hope that ways can be found to treat such people more humanely.

    • Thanks for your story. I have never known such an individual, but I have known alcoholics, drug addicts and compulsive spenders. I can imagine how hard it is to control unacceptable urges. The treatment of sex offenders in this country is just appalling, especially the lifetime registry requirements regardless of the type of offense or likelihood of repeating.

  • Polly – Well, child molestors can greatly damage the psyche of a child. I would have the same degree of compassion for child molestors as I have for murderers. Put them somewhere that they can no longer harm children until they are fully rehabilitated.

    • If I had written that we should have compassion for drug addicts, you’d probably have agreed,–although drug addicts can do terrible damage to their families and themselves. Inappropriate touching of a child is and should be a crime, but why does it evoke the same horror as murder?

  • In France last week, a 15 year girl disappeared. She turned up in the trunk of a car in Germany, safe and unharmed, five days later. Her captor had been released after three years for sexual assault, just two months ago. He had actually asked to stay in prison, because he knew he could not suppress the urge. What would you do with him?

    • What would I do? I would take the man seriously when he says he can’t suppress the urge, get him treatment, and a way of calling for help when he thinks he’s likely to act again.
      Molesting children is and should be a crime, but I don’t think it’s an answer to lock up or ostracize sex offenders for life as we often do in this country–including young men who have committed “statutory rape” by sleeping with their underage girlfriends.

  • pat aller

    Brava! I can’t recollect the words that “nothing of man is foreign to me.” I admire your compassion & daring to write your thoughts.

  • So important, yet so hard to remember that offenders are different from us mostly in degree. While it’s almost impossible not to feel horror and loathing, we must also remember to say There but for the grace of [your deity here] go I …

  • Lucian Russell

    Having married a Social Worker, over the years I became aware of the plight of society’s rejects of every kind. I am back attending Church (Episcopal) since 1998, and the message is clear: we are all God’s Children, but it is incumbent upon us who have it better in life to deal with those who have problems, both small and big. Having urges that would result in child molestation is a big burden. We need a way to support our fellow human beings, but we cannot allow people to turn these urges into actions. So I too say yes to compassion, but say that behavior must be within social norms. That is why we have those norms. BTW, notice that over the last decades we are less tolerant of exceptions like Drunk Driving and more understanding of affairs? We are an evolving society.

  • Lisa Kingsley

    This disorder has NO rehabilition, admitted by the molesters themselves. I ask anyone supporting any leniency, have you, your daughter, mother or anyone close to you experience this horrific torture? Walk in the shoes, then talk of your opinion! HUMAN…..HARDLY! Again, opinions are like assholes, everybody has one! I just pray that there is few like you. Like murder, you cannot give back to the innocent what they lost, EVER!