On Valentine's Day last year, the Parliament of Canada's Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights held a session in which MPs debated whether they should institute mandatory sentencing laws against sex offenders of two years.
There to speak were Dr. Vernon Quinsey, then from Queens University, and Dr. Hubert Van Gijseghem, a retiree from the University of Montreal. Naturally, the subject of therapy entered the discussion, to which Van Gijseghem said,
"When we speak of therapy or when individuals get therapy and we feel as though everyone is pacified, the good news is often illusory. For instance, it is a fact that real pedophiles account for only 20% of sexual abusers. If we know that pedophiles are not simply people who commit a small [offense] from time to time but rather are grappling with what is equivalent to a sexual orientation just like another individual may be grappling with heterosexuality or even homosexuality, and if we agree on the fact that true pedophiles have an exclusive preference for children, which is the same as having a sexual orientation, everyone knows that there is no such thing as real therapy. You cannot change this person's sexual orientation."
There is a natural aversion to pedophilia in the United States and worldwide. But is that discomfort helpful? It has led to serious consequences for pedophiles - starvation and murder in prison, being forced out of neighborhoods by vigilante neighbors, even living under bridges like real trolls in an area of Florida for a period of time - and all for something that some researchers, most of them out of Canada, say that they cannot control. Because they say that it is a sexual orientation, no matter the amount of therapy, prison time, or beatings will change them.
Dr. James Cantor, the Head of Research in the Sexual Behaviors Clinic from Canada's top mental health and teaching hospital, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, spoke to Gawker about his research into the brains of pedophiles. He began looking for brain variations in pedophiles because of a number of clues. He'd found that, compared to sex offenders who had victimized adults, or teleiophiles, pedophiles' IQs were, on average, 10 points lower - in fact, the lower the IQ, the younger the child that pedophiles tended to victimize.
Further research led to discoveries that pedophiles tended to do poorly on memory tests. They also tended to be shorter in stature than teleiophiles, as if the whole body was not formed correctly. They were more likely to have failed grades in school, and to have suffered from head injuries before the age of 13.
Perhaps most striking of all, pedophiles were less likely to be right-handed. The handedness was a particularly huge clue, because in most people, the left hemisphere of the brain develops faster and earlier than the other hemisphere, causing people to be right-handed. But if there are changes in-utero, like nutrition or stress, the brain stops growing, and the other part of the brain starts to compensate.
In general, 8 to 12 percent of the population is left-handed or ambidextrous. In the pedophiles that Cantor studied, a third of them were.
All of these patterns caused Cantor to begin looking at early brain growth, in particular. One theory suggested that pedophiles had issues with their temporal lobe, which controls our most basic survival motivations, or the four F's: "feeding, flight, fighting, and fornicating". Another theory suggested that pedophiles had problems in their frontal lobes, which controls self-control. But Cantor was suspicious of that idea, because he did not think that pedophilia was linked with control. "If you ask any guy on the street how he controls his desire to have sex with children, he'll look at you like you have three heads," he says. "Most men don't have that desire to control."
Cantor's scans have shown that the issue with pedophiles stems rather from the white matter, or the signals connecting different areas of the brain. In pedophiles, it is as if their signals are crossed, he found. While most people see children have protective instincts, pedophiles have sexual instincts instead.
Even if those sexual instincts exist, many men live their entire lives wanting to have sex with children, but do not. Some believe that we could become better at controlling pedophilia if the taboo about admitting a desire for children was lifted.
In Germany, for example, there is Prevention Project Dunkelfeld, which, like a suicide hotline, offers counseling for people who struggle with thoughts of child molestation. Canada also has Circles of Support and Accountability, a league of volunteers who help convicted sex offenders rejoin society.
Some Circles exist in the United States as well, but there are not nearly as many as in Canada. A California psychotherapist named Dawn Horowitz-Person, who specializes in treating sex offenders, believes that we can learn to help pedophiles control their behaviors like we do with alcoholics.
The good news, though, is that, if researchers can figure out how the brain's wiring becomes crossed, scientists could figure out ways for mothers to minimize their chances of giving birth to pedophiles. Currently, Cantor and others are examining factors like poor health care, nutrition, and exposure to toxins.
Cantor also says that the best advice for parents to keep children safe against molestation is to be aware that the biggest danger is not strangers, as the rhyme says. Most children are molested by people they know. "Not talking to strangers is a good lesson for children," he said, "but then their guard is down to where the actual danger is."