The guy next door
I first met Matt* at a county jail when, as a psychiatrist-in-training, I was undergoing my forensic psychiatry rotation. He was 27 and married, about 5’8” and of average build. He was well-groomed, clean shaven, mild-mannered and soft-spoken. While interviewing him, I learned that he had molested several underage girls and boys, his youngest victim being age 10. Sitting next to him, it was very hard to believe he was a sexual predator. First, I felt he must have been the ‘wrong guy’, given my preconceived notion about what a sexual predator would look like. Checking and rechecking his jail file confirmed that he was the right person.
Matt opened up to me rather readily and expressed his dismay that he could not stop from engaging in sexual acts with young children. He described that he grew up on a farm and experienced sex at the early age of 12 when one of his uncles cajoled him into the act. Thereafter, he had a series of adult sex partners while still underage. He believed that was how adults showed love to kids.
Around age 17, he began fondling his younger cousins. Later, he found himself prowling on neighborhood kids, both boys and girls. These encounters gave Matt a sexual thrill and a sense of power and control.
As the spiral of increasingly deviant sexual behavior progressed, Matt felt trapped and hopeless. He had now turned into an adult and knew the illegal and immoral nature of his behavior. When he met his wife Jen, who was also a victim of childhood sexual abuse, Matt believed that getting married might help him ‘get rid of his demons’. So, he got married at the age of 22.
I happened to meet Jen because she too was serving a sentence at the same jail for child molestation. I could not help but notice that at age 26, Jen looked more like a 15 year old girl. It was tempting to wonder if this marriage was a way for Matt to ‘legalize’ his urges to be intimate with children.
Unfortunately, for Matt, the marriage to Jen had made things worse. He now had found a ‘partner in crime.’ Matt and Jen began abusing children together, shortly after their marriage. To make matters worse, Matt began abusing alcohol and drugs to lure his victims and to heighten his sexual arousal, as well as numb the horror of his crimes.
Matt fell into an abyss of hopelessness and began having nightmares and flashbacks related to his own childhood abuse. He became increasingly depressed and suicidal. He told me he wanted to change his behavior, but did not know how. He asked me if there was any hope for him. Matt was treated for his mood disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and was referred to a sex offender program.
What is a sexual predator?
Predator is a legal term to describe adults who sexually prey on children. In psychiatric treatment settings, the term pedophilia is used. The legal system makes a distinction between habitual sex offenders and predators, but for the purposed of this article, we will consider these two terms interchangeable.
How can we spot a sexual predator?
In fact, there is no prototypical profile that fits all predators. Let us simply look at some names from the popular media who have been accused of predatory behaviors. Roman Polanski is an Academy Award winning director and Holocaust survivor who was charged with the rape of a 13 year old girl. Gary Glitter, a rock/pop singer was not only listed as a sex offender in England, but was permanently evicted from Cambodia for suspected child sexual abuse crimes. He was finally convicted and sentenced to jail.
And if you have watched the NBC show ‘To Catch a Predator’ by Chris Hansen, you have seen men of all colors, socio-economic groups, religious backgrounds and professions attempt to forge a sexual relationship with a minor.
Finally, if we look at some of the recent tragic rapes and killings of young girls such as Chelsea King, Alycia Nipp and others, the offenders seem to be from a variety of backgrounds.
What makes somebody a predator?
There are many factors which could lead to predatory behavior. Childhood sexual abuse, social isolation, self-esteem issues, relationship problems as well as need for domination and control all have been cited as possible contributing factors. Alcohol and drug abuse clearly seem to be a catalyst for such behaviors.
The internet has compounded the problem – allowing predators to remain anonymous to their victims. In addition to being able to misrepresent themselves to their victims, predators can now communicate and socialize with each other online, giving them free and unlimited access to each other’s sexually explicit materials and ideas.
The best way to understand pedophilic behavior is to look at the ‘addictive’ nature of these behaviors: just like a drug addict, a pedophilic predator may go to extreme lengths and take substantial risks (including breaking the law) in order to achieve gratification.
How to protect your children from predators?
Education and frank communications with children about normal/abnormal sexual behavior and about sexual offenders are paramount. You could do the following to protect your children:
• Encourage your children to pay attention to peoples’ looks e.g. hair color, eye color, body shape, height, tattoos, mustache, beard, ornaments, etc.
• Educate your child to the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’/secretive touching.
• Remind your child not to open the door to any stranger or to let anyone on the phone know they are home alone or to get in a car with a stranger, etc.
• Teach your children to yell ‘FIRE’ for help if they find themselves in a dangerous situation as it is more likely to bring faster attention.
• Teach children how to use 911.
• Teach children to refuse to be picked up from anywhere by people they do not know.
• Make sure children carry identification on them at all times.
• Monitor your childrens’ computer activities and teach them to avoid communicating with strangers online.
• Teach them to be open about any inappropriate sexual incident involving an adult.
Is there any hope for predators?
Contrary to popular belief that pedophiles cannot quit, many of them can fully recover. Since, pedophilia usually has a downward spiral course so that the sexual acts become more deviant, more bizarre and more forbidden, at times culminating into violence, the earlier the treatment is begun, the better the likelihood that the predator will recover.
Specialized, multidisciplinary sex offender treatment programs are the most effective. Treatment modalities include weekly group sessions, individual therapy sessions, pharmacologic treatment of any psychiatric conditions, homework, regular checkup with probation/parole officers, random drug screens, mandatory avoidance of places with large number of kids, etc.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Next week: Parenting The Unruly Child