My email box has become a wild place, full of new, exotic creatures. This influx of new email organisms comes courtesy of my podcast, Ask Science Mike. People send me all sorts of questions, and in doing so bare their inner life to a stranger. My show is about facilitating an open, honest conversation about science, faith, and life with thousands of other people.
A lot of these questions are very similar to one another. I get over one hundred questions a week about masturbation, for example. The similarity of many questions is not monotonous. Quite the contrary–I find it comforting that some many of us share the same secret fears and Things We Want To Ask But Are Afraid.
Among the herds of similar questions though, rarer sights can be found. The Unique Questions are often startling, and one of my favorite things about the show. There is no better gift you can offer someone who loves to teach than a brand new question.
I take great joy in turning information that took me months to research into a 5 minutes answer. I take even greater joy in offering solidarity to people who think they are alone. This comes at a cost. Sometimes the questions are dark in a way I'm not prepared for.
One such question floored me on this week's show. The return email address was fake–a truly anonymous message. It read:
I was sexual abused by multiple family members during childhood. This has caused a lot of problems in my life, but one is worse than the others. I am attracted to children. I have never molested a child, but I have sometimes searched the Internet for images of children. I am always filled with disgust when I do this, and I hate myself for what I am.
I know you’ll tell me I should get help, but how can I do that? If anyone knew this, I wouldn’t be able to keep a job, or have friends. I am so scared. Most of the time I want to die, and I have considered suicide.
What can I do?
There is a hysteria around pedophilia, and I am no exception to it. There are questions I get nervous about answering on the program, and no episodes are more nerve wracking for me than my "After Dark" shows. On the first, we talked about marijuana from a Christian perspective, the science of monogamy, and that crowd favorite–masturbation.
I was already planning to cover a question about polyamory on this episode. Polyamory is a pretty inflammatory subject, even among progressive thinkers. But polyamory is a product of consenting adults. Pedophilia is a predatory act on the most innocent among us.
My first instinct was to delete the email, and I almost did. But then I remembered a story I read a few months ago about a teenage who was sexually attracted to children but had never acted on it. I remembered that the young man (and it is most often men) wanted help, wanted to change, before he did anything, but he couldn't find it.
You see, we have a blindspot in our view on pedophilia. We don't know what to do with people who are attracted to children, but have never acted on it. We don't know how to help those who know they need help, and are responsible enough to avoid acting on their impulses.
For someone who accepts the mantle "Science Mike," I had a hard time finding good science on pedophilia. Research is sparse, and contradictory on possible root causes. Online resources about possible treatment all echo one theme: seek help. But anyone who seeks help for treatment of pedophilia from a mental health worker may run into mandatory reporting laws.
They can be reported, not for doing anything, but for having the potential to do something. They could end up attached to a crime they didn't commit.
I asked my Twitter followers if anyone knew of options for people who struggle with sexual attraction towards children. My followers are a helpful, knowledgeable bunch, but in this case, all I got was references to a fascinating episode of The American Life.
But one reader in particular sent me a note that inspired me to write this blog.
Hey, Science Mike. My name's Stefan. I tweeted to you earlier about the idea "crowdsourcing" help for the man who keeps his attraction to children in check. Something really got to me about that segment. It wasn't merely the horrifying scenario of the afflicted man. It was rather the obvious pain in your voice at receiving the question and not feeling like you could help that particular individual. It hurt hearing you talk about it, because I hadn't heard that note of hopelessness in your voice before; as if it echoed the pain of him being abandoned to his nightmare by everyone in his life; possibly coupled with the guilt over the involuntary disdain for someone with his described predilections.
I think everyone who listened to that segment could feel the same thing.
It strikes me how deeply christian the themes of this particular dilemma are. It parallels the whole drive to want to be able to lend "grace to the tarnished"; it mirrors the example of Jesus healing the lepers - i.e. the deeply unfortunate, and universally reviled and shunned.
Apart from praying for the individual, I suspect that taking the opportunity to show this person that there are potentially thousands of compassionate listeners of your podcast that are deeply concerned with his wellbeing; and in fact that there are a lot of people that admire his struggle, and specifically the nobility of his restraint, could in and of itself be a salve to this wounded individual. If there ever was a salient description of hell; that man is definitely experiencing it.
Think of what it would mean to a person like that, (and probably thousands with similar stories), to know that not only is he being prayed for, but that he, in a quite real and christian sense, is LOVED. Imagine the fortitude it must take to withstand this undeniable darkness that was essentially put into him: Leprosy of the Soul, or the closest non-supernatural equivalent of "demonic possession".
Just imagine how much a person like that, especially if he's nominally christian, would experience the knowledge that he actually can be loved. That his struggle isn't just a shameful one, but one that many people could actually find in their hearts to ADMIRE him for. There is True Grace in that. There is healing power in grace; it is a bulwark, a buoy.
There is truly a ministry in this; in following the example of Christ, granting grace to the leper, the "unclean". There is beauty and light to be wrested from even such horrible, unfathomable circumstances as this. It is christian in the deepest possible sense.
And, if this in the end turns out to be some kind of dishonest troll, it doesn't actually matter. These people exist. Their souls are wracked with pain. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of people like this; pedophiles that somehow keep true evil, true darkness, in check. And they do it alone, all the time living with the nightmare, and the deep, deep shame, and intimate knowledge and conviction that they are Unclean; that they are "spiritual lepers" that no one even wants to see, much less help, and to an even lesser extent, love.
They can be anonymous. But they don't have to be "alone".
He doesn't have to be alone.
In an average month, my blog is read by 10 times as many people than follow me on Twitter. So, I'm asking you, yes you, to help. If you know of any support groups or treatment options for people who wrestle with demons the rest of us can only image to leave it in a comment below this post. Likewise, if you can offer a word of encouragement or grace to those people who are attracted to children, but resist that attraction because they understand the consequences of such actions, please do so.
This isn't a hypothetical exercise. Real people struggling with this will read this post. Any help you can provide may not only help someone, but in doing so may protect a child, too.