In the media and in the public consciousness, pedophiles are often framed as archetypal monster figures, crudely drawn predators who have been caught after remaining undetected for decades. Few have considered what it means to actually be a pedophile, much less explored what it’s like to realize that you have an unwanted attraction to prepubescent children and how one navigates that with no formal support network.
Reporter Luke Malone’s Matter piece “You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?” offers a brave, contrary look at this seemingly incontrovertible subject: He investigates the plight of the non-offending pedophile—individuals who are attracted to kids but don’t want to act on it. It is told through the story of “Adam,” a young, self-identified pedophile who runs a support group for pedophiles in their teens and early twenties who want help battling their desires.
The story examines the laws and research hurdles that make it difficult for these individuals to come forward to seek help; most can’t turn to a therapist due to the very real fear of being reported. But Malone also explores the growing push for preventive treatment that would help not only pedophiles but their potential victims—a push that has been given renewed momentum because of this feature.
It’s an issue of great national and international importance. Around one percent of adult men meet the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia, which means there are at least 1.2 million pedophiles currently living in the U.S. There are likely more, but reliable statistics aren’t available for female pedophiles. While some do go on to offend, a surprisingly large number are doing everything they can to avoid giving in to their desires.
Malone’s article first took shape as his MA thesis at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which he then further reported and developed after graduation. From its inception to the final piece published on Matter, he worked on the story for almost two years. When he first made contact with Adam in 2012, the then-18 year old was understandably wary of journalists, so Malone spoke with him and other members of his group for hours every day for more than two months before they agreed to let him fly across the country to meet them. He then spent the next 20 months speaking with the young men, observing their interactions firsthand, and going through years of chat logs and messages on internet forums. It’s the first time that anyone—including journalists and researchers—has gained access to a group of young, non-offending pedophiles. The result is an empathetic, rigorous, often shocking, sometimes sickening, and achingly human work of journalism.
“You’re 16…” also highlights the work of Professor Elizabeth Letourneau, Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. One of the world’s leading researchers on pedophilia, and the only one in the U.S. focusing specifically on early intervention, she explained that so little is done to help pedophiles because it’s nearly impossible to get lawmakers and funders behind those efforts. In the U.S., there are funds available to prosecute sex offenders but virtually no federal dollars allocated to the prevention of child sexual abuse.
In her 25 years in the field, Letourneau has had plenty of access to convicted sexual abusers but had never spoken to a pedophile who hadn’t offended. Malone eventually introduced Letourneau to Adam and others in his support group and, as a result, she’s building the first treatment plan for young, non-offending pedophiles in the country.
Reader response has been nothing short of astounding. For many people, it was the first time they’d heard of non-offending pedophiles and they took to email, Facebook and Twitter by the hundreds. Abuse survivors and parents reached out to thank Malone for his solution-focused work, and scores of pedophiles asked how they could get help.
The piece has had the largest readership of any article in the history of Matter. It has since been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. It also formed the basis for a harrowing, heartbreaking episode of This American Life. Harvard’s Neiman Foundation included it in their “Stories We Loved: Some Favorite Narrative from 2014” list. Longreads included it in their “Best of 2014” list, and it has been covered and linked to by others including BuzzFeed, The Daily Beast, Quartz, Upworthy, Huffington Post, Jezebel, Oxford University’s Practical Ethics, and major publications in Mexico, France, Italy and Denmark. The article was also a National Magazine Award finalist in the Public Interest category.
As a result of his work, Malone was a keynote speaker at the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers’ annual conference. He has also twice been asked to discuss his work with a journalism class at Emerson College, and PhD and Masters candidates at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In March, he moderated a panel discussion about pedophilia and prevention—inspired by his work—at Columbia University. In April, he was the guest speaker at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse symposium at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In July, he’ll be a keynote speaker at Colorado State Sex Offender Management Unit’s annual conference.
Thanks to the widespread interest that has been generated by Malone’s reporting, several individuals have made private donations to fund Letourneau’s work and two foundations have asked her to apply for grant money to substantively fund her research. If either is successful, it will likely be the largest sum ever awarded to a U.S. researcher working in the area of primary prevention of pedophilia.
“It would be difficult to overstate the magnitude of the effect of Luke’s work on this area of science,” writes Letourneau.