Trigger warning: Sexual abuse, pedophilia, sexual deviancy
Dr. Anna Salter received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University and was on the faculty of Dartmouth Medical Center for five years, where she served as a director of a number of programs in the Department of Maternal and Child Health. In 1997, she won the Significant Achievement Award from the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. Dr. Salter is the author of eight books, notably Treating Child Sex Offenders and Victims, Transforming Trauma, and Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders.
More than 500,000 predators are online every single day, and the typical pedophile will commit 117 sexual crimes in their lifetime. Only 3% of sexual predators are ever caught.
While pedophilia isn’t an easy topic to discuss, I knew I had to learn more about how these predators’ minds work. I sat down with Dr. Salter to talk about what drives someone to abuse children sexually, why pedophilia is considered a sexual orientation, what cures and treatments are out there, and how to talk to your children about sexual offenders.
The drivers behind child sexual abuse
When asked what drives a person to abuse children, Dr. Salter says that there are different reasons, but the two most prominent are:
The person (almost always men) is sexually attracted to children and is driven by sexual deviancy
The person (again, almost always men) is antisocial and they’ll abuse anyone — children, adolescents, and adults
Dr. Salter urges that not all men are attracted to children. But, those who are, typically only share that common thread. They can have different personalities, different careers, jobs, and responsibilities in the world. Some of them are also attracted to adults, but the common thread for the first group is not any sort of personality characteristic. It’s a sexual attraction to children.
The other group’s common thread is that they want what they want and they simply don’t care if the other person wants it or not. They may molest children and they may rape adults and they don’t care about the repercussions.
Many people assume that most sexual abusers have experienced sexual trauma — or some type of trauma — at one point in their life. While this may be true for other types of violent crimes, Dr. Salter says that’s not the case for pedophiles. She also insists that they are not all sociopaths or psychopaths either. For most, it comes down to sexual attraction.
Pedophilia: A sexual orientation?
Many contemporary studies show that pedophilia is a sexual orientation. Dr. Salter says that believe it or not, there are responsible people out there who are sexually attracted to children but they think it’s horrible and would never act on it — they make smart choices. She compares it to someone who may be sexually attracted to their sister’s husband. That attraction doesn’t always lead to an affair. Attraction is separate from behavior.
People have inappropriate sexual thoughts all the time. The difference between most people and sexual offenders is that most people are able to stop themselves: they have “brakes.” The dynamics of sexual offending are very much like a car with brake failure. And while most of us are able to pull the brakes before we do something irresponsibly sexually, child abusers are not.
The most common misconception that most people have about pedophiles is that they are created by being sexually abused themselves. Now, most criminals have had a tough life, but sexual offenders often use that as an excuse — they make themselves the victim as they believe it will garner support from their peers and law enforcement. But, Dr. Salter affirms that the belief that sex offenders were abused as children actually came from sex offenders themselves.
Deviant arousal is another piece of the puzzle. It can be defined as an abnormal attraction, and there are three main types:
Attraction to minors: Those who are intrigued by “purity” and prepubescent children
Attraction to force: Those who like to feel big, powerful, and forceful
Attraction to pain: Those who are sadists and are attracted to the pain and suffering of others
There are many stereotypes out there about the gay community and pedophilia, but Dr. Salter says that she doesn’t believe this is true in the least bit. There is no evidence that gay men molest children any more than straight men. It all goes back to deviant arousal and sexual attraction, which is why it’s so difficult to determine cures and treatment plans for pedophilia.
Cures and treatments for pedophilia and how to protect your children
When asked about cures and treatments for pedophilia, Dr. Salter says that she doesn’t believe a cure exists, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t controllable. She compares it to alcoholism: she doesn’t believe that you can cure alcoholism, but there are plenty of people who are able to stop drinking.
That said there are different modalities out there that are used as treatment. Behavioral reconditioning can be useful as well as medication. SSRIs that are commonly used for depression often have side effects that reduce the person’s sexual interest. If, for example, an offender can’t stop thinking about children, that dampening effect can help them get a grip on it.
But, there’s more to treatment than that. Going back to the car analogy, you don’t just need to dampen the motor, you also have to build up the brakes. There are different components to treatment, but they all come down to reducing the strength of the motor and reinforcing the brakes.
Unfortunately, pedophiles don’t typically enter into a one size fits all box. You can’t look at someone and immediately know that they are a child molester. But, there are certain signs and signals that you can look out for, so it’s important that parents be vigilant. Get involved in your children’s lives. If they play sports, go to the games and practices and make sure that the coach behaves appropriately. Talk to your kids about signs to look out for, like special gifts or attention from an adult.
If you’re unsure how to start that conversation with your children, Dr. Salter gives another analogy. In the same way that you should caution them about getting in a car with someone who has been drinking, you need to say the same thing in terms of inappropriate behavior from an adult. Let them know that if someone says something that makes them uncomfortable, they should come to you and that they won’t get in trouble. This is especially important for children aged 10-15, who are the most naive.
While Dr. Salter’s work is of course very difficult, she believes it’s worth it. She has also developed the ability to detach and be objective. She makes sure not to let her professional life interfere with her private life and nurtures herself in healthy ways. Meditation and exercise help a lot too.
She says that a life of purpose is a good life, and she believes that her work truly matters. I can’t help but agree, and thank her for everything she has done to help victims of sexual abuse.
If you’re interested in learning more from Dr. Anna Salter, I encourage you to pick up her books linked above. You can also listen to our full conversation on the podcast.