A judge in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania sentenced Jerry Sandusky to 30 to 60 years behind bars today. “The crime is not only what you did to their bodies,” Judge John Cleland said of the ten boys who the 68-year-old former Penn State assistant football coach sexually molested, “but to their psyches and their souls, and the assault to the wellbeing of the larger community in which we all live.”
Truly, the Sandusky case has exposed just how fixated, morally disgusted, and yet befuddled we are by pedophilia as a society. Horace Mann, the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, now Sandusky… it keeps coming up. But what’s behind it? For cultural and political reasons, pedophilia remains a poorly understood phenomenon. Few have decided to study it in earnest.
Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic out of Johns Hopkins University, is one of them.
Berlin has counseled pedophilic men for over 30 years. In that time, he has come to view pedophilia as a kind of innate sexual orientation, not unlike homosexuality or heterosexuality, but fundamentally different in that it must never be acted upon. I met with Berlin in his Baltimore office, where we talked about the problem of men who love boys, and how society doesn’t get it.
Do we do ourselves a disservice when we call people like Jerry Sandusky monsters? Are they monsters, or just sick? Should they be taken to a mental hospital, or to prison?
I’d look at this as being similar to alcoholism. We have to have a criminal justice component; we have to have laws against drunk driving. But nobody would think we could solve the problems associated with alcoholism simply by putting every drunk driver on a registry or handing out stiffer sentences. We need research. We need a criminal justice and a public health approach. Having said this, I don’t think society gets it. I think society has the sense that we can legislate or punish this problem away. And to the extent that we’re not concentrating on the public health side of it—that we’re not helping people deal with these urges before they act—I believe as a physician that we’re doing ourselves a tremendous disservice, not only to the children who are abused, but to the men who have these conditions.
You consider pedophilia to be a sexual orientation. Could you explain that?
What we know is that we don’t decide who it is that we’re going to be attracted to. When we were little kids we didn’t sit down and say, “Look, we’ve got choices.” We discover who we’re attracted to, and people who discover they’re attracted to prepubescent children have that attraction through no fault of their own. If you didn’t make a value judgment—and I think we should—but if you’re just looking at it in terms of the fact that people differ from one another sexually, it’s just a difference. Now having said that, I think that we do have a right and should be making value judgments. As a psychiatrist, I don’t want my profession or the government involved in the bedrooms of consenting adults, but I do believe that we have an obligation as a society and as a medical profession to protect children.
So where does that leave the people with pedophilia?
I feel sad for the people with pedophilia because what we’re saying to them is that, unlike the rest of us, you can’t express your sexual attractions. But we need to help these people understand why they can’t. Children are not miniature adults. They don’t vote, they can’t buy alcohol, they don’t drive cars, and they don’t have the degree of maturation that would enable them to be in a situation where they can meaningfully consent or not consent.
What kind of feelings do they have for children?
There’s a tremendous spectrum. There are people who are attracted to children who are not simply lusting for them. They have feelings of affection, even of romance. I mean, intellectually they know they shouldn’t be feeling this way about a child, but the fact of the matter is that they do. And then there are others who may just be wanting sex for sex’s sake.
What are they like as people?
It’s important to understand that knowing something about a person’s sexual attractions tells you nothing about their personality. You don’t know if they’re kind or caring, conscientious or not conscientious. I think most people when we use the term pedophilia assume that the person must be characterologically flawed. That they don’t have any redeeming qualities. That’s absolutely not true. They may be fundamentally decent people. The problem is that most of society has a very hard time wrapping their minds around the idea that someone who experiences these attractions or gives into them could be a human being deserving of assistance. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why we don’t reach out and try to help these people before they’ve acted, because we don’t think they’re deserving.