Helen Elliott, Lecturer in Psychology & Counselling at Bishop Grosseteste University (BGU), presented her research at the International Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders (IATSO) in Vilnius, Lithuania last month.

The premise of Helen’s research is to support initiatives to inform possible prevention of sexual crime by individuals in the community who have a sexual attraction to children. Carried out in partnership with Rebecca Lievesley from Nottingham Trent University the project is also designed to promote a public-health approach to working with this group, who are stigmatised and ostracised, and suffering psychologically because of this.

Whilst preventative efforts to stop the sexual abuse of children are on the rise, along with more individuals are actively seeking treatment before they offend, much of the information that goes into these measures is informed from individuals who have already been convicted.

Helen’s research aimed to address this gap in knowledge by exploring the experiences of those living in the community, with a sexual attraction to children, who do not want to offend. Offering them a chance to tell their story in an open environment to better inform the support measures available to them and thus prevent potential sexual crimes.

The project’s findings highlighted core themes regarding isolation and fear, particularly in relation to the huge stigma associated with this attraction, and how highly prevalent shame-based narratives during formative teenage years led to the living of a "double life" for those attracted to children.

Presenting the research at IATSO on 29 August, Helen made a number of important recommendations including:

  • Therapies should be more accessible for adolescents who are beginning to feel different from their peers and confused about their feelings towards children.
  • This attraction needs to be acknowledged within educational contexts and by those working with children, creating a more informed and comfortable dialogue around sexual health.
  • Delivering sexual health education from a ‘pragmatic’ and ‘sex positive’ standpoint (as is common in the Netherlands) as opposed to a ‘sexual abstinence’ stance.
  • Importance of clear reporting rules to enhance engagement in support services.
  • Education to reduce stigma among professionals.
  • Consider friends and family within prevention services – support for individual’s support network = indirect support for individual.
  • Issues around wellbeing and the health needs of this group are being missed and require full focus – anxiety, depression, shame, and stigma.

The conclusion reached by Helen and her colleagues was that whilst the conflation of a minor-attracted person and an adult child molester continues, so do the subsequent harmful consequences. This includes hindering disclosure, which could manifest into poor mental health outcomes, or risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, with individuals believing that the only path in life is giving into one’s sexual desires. With one-third of child sexual abuse being committed by those under 18, we need to question whether some young people could be finding themselves with this attraction and unaware of its implications or how to manage it.

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21st September 2018