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Are you raising a paedophile?

With high-profile child sex abuse cases causing fear among Australian parents we investigate what causes paedophilia and what can we do about it.

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When we hear the sickening details of child sex abuse, it’s tempting to dismiss all paedophiles as evil monsters who should be locked away forever.

Even the idea of an adult being sexually attracted to a child, after all, is abhorrent to most of us. Our instinct is to protect children, the most vulnerable and defenceless of victims, from a crime that can have devastating consequences for the rest of their lives.

But while some child sex offenders are very dangerous and sociopathic, not all paedophiles act on their attractions – not least because it’s morally wrong and illegal.

So what causes paedophilia? Science increasingly suggests some people are simply born that way, making it more like a sexual orientation (albeit one that can never be acted upon) rather than a later psychological problem.

“No-one chooses to be sexually attracted to children,” says Nicholas*, a married father-of-four who has never told his wife or family about his attraction to boys aged 12 to 14. “And those of us who are unlucky enough to be sexually attracted to children can’t [make it go away]. But many of us can and do successfully resist our attraction.”

Clues pointing to a biological connection have emerged in research: paedophiles tend to be shorter, for example, are three times more likely to be left-handed and have less connective tissue in their brain. This suggests paedophilia is rooted in a genetic blueprint before birth.

Anne*, the mother of a man jailed for child sex abuse, always sensed her son was different in some way, but never in her worst nightmare imagined that he would hurt a child. “He was quieter,” she says. “But he had a normal upbringing. We’re a good family – I don’t know why it happened.”

With around half of child sex offenders having been abused themselves as children, some suggest this may play a role in later paedophilia.

But most victims don’t go onto become perpetrators and scientists cast some doubt on a direct link, although being abused as a child raises the risk of general criminal behaviour in adulthood.

“It could be that biology causes paedophilia but that environment makes a person more likely to act on that sexual interest and molest a child,” explains James Cantor, a psychologist and sexual behaviour scientist at the University of Toronto in Canada.

There is no known cure for paedophilia, although it can be controlled. But stigma prevents many from seeking professional help – and there are concerns strict Australian laws may prevent sex offenders being rehabilitated.

*Not their real names

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