Preben Hertoft, Sexologist:
- from Politikens Kronik, 15 December, 1984
Sexual assault is always an unacceptable act and can never be justified. We must be particularly alert when such an assault is committed upon a child. In all contacts between an adult and a child - and not only sexual ones - the adult bears a special responsibility.
During the last few years I have met a number of men who define themselves as paedophiles. They came to me because they were unhappy, were misunderstood or humiliated, or were afraid of the reactions of their colleagues, of their parents or of various authorities. There was always the chance, if things went wrong, that they would be mistaken for violent criminals or even murderers. They loved children - and they did not deny that they also loved them sexually, but this did not mean that they lacked a sense of responsibility, nor that they would ever consider hurting a child. On the contrary, they had often aided children who were in trouble and felt betrayed, and they were upset by the considerable number of children who lead such an unhappy life in our society.
Paedophiles are a group under attack and their situation is an unfortunate one, for in many cases the object of their interest and love will always remain unattainable. Easy solutions to many of the problems facing paedophiles simply do not exist.
There are so many misunderstandings about paedophilia, and discussions of the subject are so often emotional rather than objective - understandable, perhaps, but hardly helpful - that I will try in the following pages to clarify the subject.
Firstly, a definition: the word paedophilia means love of children. We can define a paedophile as a person, generally a male, who feels himself particularly attracted to young persons ranging in age from pre-puberty to those who have recently reached sexual maturity. The paedophile finds sexual satisfaction in relationships with youngsters in this age group, and it is characteristic that as a youth's body becomes fully developed, he becomes sexually less attractive to a paedophile. Why some people become paedophiles we do not know, just as we do not know why most people develop the accepted and so-called normal sexuality. We also do not know how many paedophiles there are. We have no means of changing a paedophile's sexual desires.
The general attitude towards sexual relations between adults and children varies according to the society in which these relations take place. There are indeed cultures where, to a certain degree, relations between adults and children are accepted. In Scandinavia such relations are, as we know, most often negatively viewed. This is probably due to the fact that the child or youth is seen as a victim of assault by an adult, and people assume that the child will be damaged by such an experience, if not physically, then psychologically. The adult is taken for a sexual delinquent, devoid of morality and afflicted with an exclusively sexual interest in children.
But this general view must be subject to closer examination. Violent sexual assaults upon children do occur, but they are not characteristic of paedophile relationships.
It is also not helpful to confuse the exploitation of children, such as might be found expressed in child pornography, with typical paedophile relationships. Child pornography has as little to do with reality as does adult pornography. Finally, there are two more subjects that we must separate from paedophilia: - although not uncommon and liable to confuse the issue - prostitution and incest.
Most paedophile relationships have as little in common with prostitution as do sexual relationships between adults. A paedophile relationship is rarely restricted to purely sexual involvement as it generally involves a mutual emotional interest. It is wrong to reach conclusions about the prostitution of minors and then to apply these same conclusions to paedophilia and its consequences. Child prostitution is first and foremost a social problem and the adult clients of child prostitutes are very often not paedophiles at all.
As for incest, such relations have quite a different background and very different effects on the child as compared to paedophilia. Firstly, the adults involved in incestuous relationships are generally not paedophiles and are thus not specifically interested in contacts with children as such. Secondly, incestuous relationships often imply a brutal breach of trust and misuse of authority. This is precisely the reason why incest can be so traumatizing and cause such serious psychological conflicts. Incestuous relationships are a family problem, and are a sign that there is something wrong with the family in which such relations, often intergenerational, take place.
In former times children were not considered to have sexual feelings and impulses. We now know, from research and observation, that these suppositions are untrue. That children are also sexual beings is, of course, no justification for adults to involve themselves with children. But from our knowledge of human behaviour it should not surprise us that children who are seeking a close relationship with an adult do not necessarily feel that there is such a big chasm between close mental and physical contact in the general sense and the kind of contact which we, often artificially, label as sexual.
As far as older children are concerned, they are usually aware of what is happening, as the following example perhaps may illustrate. Bent, now an adult and married, relates:
"I was twelve when I met G. I had lost a small ring and G. helped me find it. He was about fifty years old and was a seaman. I guessed that his helpfulness might be motivated by sexual interest, for boys perceive such things quickly. All the same, he was a nice fellow and I was glad to have somebody with whom I could gossip."
The relationship between Bent and G. developed into a sexual contact. Bent continues:
"I was always the one who insisted that we do something together. One day when we were out I persuaded him to board an empty boat that lay alongside the quay. As far as sex is concerned, we did a bit of everything. For me he was a comrade. I found it exciting to hear about his life as a seaman, and I could talk with him about everything. I had an outlet for all those things I didn't dare talk about at home. I always looked forward to his ship's return to our town. We had a magnificent time together. But after a few years he signed off and I didn't see him any more. I had, on the whole, a very good relationship with my parents, but I never talked to them about sex and I never told them about G."
Bent's story is not exceptional; on the contrary, it is quite typical, as we know from the many studies now published about paedophile relationships.
I deliberately chose Bent's story as an example, partly because it is the most common kind of paedophile relationship, and partly because in discussing paedophilia one must always be precise and take special care to give the age and sex of the child involved. Relationships with younger children should be approached in a different way than those with children nearing puberty. The sex of the younger partner is also important, as it defines the position one should adopt. However, discussions concerning paedophilia often ramble off into gruesome stories about adult men raping young girls. This tells us more about the fantasies inhabiting the heads of those who tell such stories than it does about paedophilia.
Furthermore, research indicates that adult sexual relationships with children resemble the sexual play that children have with each other more than intercourse between adults.
Most paedophile contacts take place in the home of one of the partners and these partners are usually already acquainted with each other. Although paedophile relations with girls occur more frequently within a rather narrow circle of acquaintances, relations with boys generally have a more casual background. Research shows that the child is often an active participant in the relationship (as described above by Bent), has a positive view of the relationship both sexually and in a wider general sense, and does not feel hurt by it. Boys often continue their contact with the adult for many years after the end of sexual activities. Usually they develop normally, will often later marry and start a family, and will, perhaps, invite their former (paedophile) lover to their home, etc. I don't mention this to idealize paedophile relations, but to counterbalance the tales of horror.
We may therefore conclude that in cases of mutual consent and mutual sexual attraction, sexual activity itself seems to produce no damaging effects. It is to be hoped that this may put parents' minds at rest and help them to avoid being unnecessarily upset and anxious.
Although it is often assumed that "neglected" children in particular allow themselves to become involved in sexual contacts with adults, this is not confirmed by research in the field. Research indicates, rather, that boys who have sexual contacts with adults come neither from particularly neglectful families nor from specific social levels, but that both physically and mentally they tend to be somewhat above average.
I mention these facts not in order to promote paedophile relationships, but to offer some thoughts for reflection. We may start to question whether such feelings are as strange - or, worse, "unnatural" - as is often assumed. Is the adult always committing an assault and is the child always a passive "victim"? Do paedophile relationships always have damaging effects upon children, leaving them perverted or deformed? Are such relationships devoid of any positive aspects?
A calmer attitude towards sexual contacts between children and adults - for we know that these take place, whatever our attitude towards them - has several advantages: parents and others who are responsible for children would suffer less anxiety and the child would be exposed to less traumatization when being examined and questioned by those in authority if and when a paedophile relationship is discovered.
Paedophiles would cease to be regarded as monsters or child molesters who only want to hurt children, and people would understand that they are men just like others, with the same good and bad qualities, men whose feelings and impulses are focused towards an age group where sexual relations often cannot be realized due to concern for the child's best interests. For obviously we cannot make sacrifices of the children involved just to meet the desires and needs of paedophiles. At the same time it would be a great step forward if paedophiles were no longer automatically assumed to be rapists and murderers.
I will close with a few words about the legal age of consent, because in some ways this defines what is understood by the term paedophilia.
Before 1930 the age of consent in Denmark for heterosexual relations was 12! Most people by now have forgotten this and some may be horrified by the fact. The penal code of 1930 set the age of consent for heterosexual relations at 15 years of age, and that for homosexual relations at 18 years. Homosexual activities had previously been forbidden.
In 1974 the Ministry of Justice asked the Council for Penal Law to make recommendations on lowering the ages of consent for heterosexual and homosexual contacts and on the possibility of eventually abolishing set age limits altogether.
After deliberations the Council recommended lowering both age limits to 14 years. Many arguments - particularly judicial - were put forward against the total abolition of fixed age limits. (Report No. 747, 1975).
It was not possible, however, to obtain a majority vote for an age limit of 14, so in 1976 both age limits were fixed at 15 years of age. This put an end to many years of discrimination against homosexuals, although some people were afraid that this law reform would give homosexuals a "free hand" to attack defenseless young men - dark prophecies which were to be proven groundless. On the other hand the police were freed from much useless work and many homosexuals were able to sleep more easily.
Due process of law is always possible in cases of sexual assault, regardless of the age of consent in effect. A lowering of the age of consent does not give a "free hand" for abuse. It does, however, decriminalize most sexual contacts based upon mutual consent and frees many people from unnecessary fears of being involved in a scandal and/or subjected to humiliation, blackmail and judicial punishment.
As noted above, what we can do for paedophiles is limited. However I would like to see a new, preferably objective, discussion on the legal age of consent in the hope that, whatever age limit is ultimately established, more factual information concerning paedophilia will help us stop considering paedophiles as monsters obsessively bent on assaulting children and see them for what they are: fellow humans who are, in most respects, no different from the rest of us.