Dear Dr. Saltzman,
A close male friend of mine has confided various fetishes to me over the past several years. Some of them were a little offbeat, but nothing alarming. There had been things he had refused to talk about though.
I'd let him use my computer several times recently, and I later checked the history of sites visited. Several of the sites were image sharing sites, where users can post and request images according to the theme of the particular board. One of the boards he visited was for girls, and apparently he had saved several images of girls in the 11-13 year old age range. None of the images were child pornography, per se, and more like modeling photos, but they really set off my radar.
I later confronted him about it, and he confessed to an early sexual experience that really imprinted on him. I warned him about the possible outcomes regarding saving these kinds of images, specifically about government agencies that can and do trace photos and prosecute those that download them. Several days after this conversation, he said he'd followed my advice and had deleted these photos and was trying to get over this particular fetish.
I have two children, one of them a daughter around the age of 6. I have had several open-ended conversations with my daughter about the adults she is around, who she likes, if anyone has ever touched her in a way that makes her feel strange, and if any other adult has taken photos of her when I'm not present.
My friend is fairly reserved around my children. He only hugs them if they hug him first, and generally avoids physical contact with them. He swears he would never molest a child and is harmless.
Given the outcomes of the conversations, my friend's behavior around the children, and the steps he has taken to regain my trust, I'm confident that nothing has happened, or ever will happen. But I'm also a mother, and I need to consider the best interests of my children.
My daughter enjoys being around this person and considers him an uncle. I feel she would be upset if he was no longer a part of our lives, but on the other hand, I wonder if I can truly trust my friend around my children or not. After all, she will grow up and be a part of that age group someday.
I really need an outside perspective on this situation. Can you offer any advice?
This is a very difficult question, particularly since I do not know the man in question and have no way of interviewing him; however, I will share a few general comments which perhaps could help you in making a determination.
In the first place, your friend's interest in pubescent girls is not properly a fetish. A fetish is usually understood to refer to sexual arousal brought on by an object, body part (instead of the whole body or the whole person), or a particular kind of scenario or situation not ordinarily considered as being sexual in nature. Although there are other theories, fetishes are most commonly understood to arise early in childhood as the result of an object (which is sometimes called the transitional object) coming to stand for the sexuality of the maternal body. As the child matures, the mother's body becomes more and more off limits to the child (at weaning, for example), and some children then find satisfaction in handling objects related to the mother—her shoe, for example. If this persists, the child, now an adult, may find that full sexual response is not possible unless the desired object is at least part of the sexual scenario. Then we would say, to stay with the example, that the adult has a "shoe fetish." In fact, the subject is far more complex than that, but this should give you an idea of what a fetish is.
Now, interest in pubescent girls is not properly a fetish because a girl of that age most certainly can be a sexual object in the usual sense. Of course, in many countries (but not all) the law does not permit sex with girls of that age, but that is only a legal determination, not a psychological one. In other words, a man's having sex with a girl of thirteen may be defined as statutory rape (as the the present case of Roman Polanski), but it probably should not be called fetishistic since from a certain point of view, and certainly across many historical and cultural epochs, sex like that--unlike fetishistic sex--has been considered and continues to be considered normal. And this issue becomes even more clouded if we consider that a girl of thirteen, whatever her level of emotional maturity, may be quite adult physically, and sometimes be willing to engage in sex, which for her would seem to be consensual notwithstanding a legal definition which might preclude her, legally, from giving her consent to an older person. [Before the letters start pouring in, let me state right here and now that I am not advocating sex with young girls--I seek here only to put the subject in psychological, not ethical, perspective.]
Further, although the legal system likes to define pedophilia as sexual desire towards a child who has not reached the age of consent, I think this is a poor use of the word. It is better, in my view, to reserve the word pedophile to describe a person—either a man or a woman—who is sexually attracted to prepubescent children of either sex, because that kind of person has a different type of psychology from a person who is attracted someone who already has reached puberty, and thus is sexually, if not yet emotionally, mature. To be clear, sexual desire of an adult for a thirteen year old should not, in my view, be considered pedophilia, and, although having actual sexual contact with a person of thirteen may be prohibited by law, and may be considered wrong, immoral, or unethical, I would consider such an action neither fetishistic nor pedophiliac. However, if an adult has sex with a thirteen year old child, it would not be improper within the cultural milieu of the United States, including Kentucky, to call such a person a child molester, so let's use that term for your concerns about your friend: is he likely to be a child molester, and possibly to molest your children?
Now, people don't just "get over" strong sexual desires of whatever stripe just by wishing or hoping. Our sexual preferences are deeply rooted, powerfully motivated, and extremely resistant to change. If a man likes to look a pictures of young girls (and presumably masturbate to them), it is not at all unlikely that sooner or later he will find a way to have actual sex with a young girl. In other words, it is not unlikely that eventually he will molest a child, and if this happens, most likely the child will be one who knows him well and trusts him. Of course, not everyone who indulges in sexual fantasies about children will end up molesting them, but certainly some will, and who that will be is impossible to predict. And even if such a person seeks psychological help in advance of any molestation, the treatment of such people is notoriously ineffective. For example, Gail Ryan, of the University of Colorado's National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect, said, "I don't think we're prepared to say that anybody is incurable, but they may not be treatable with the current methods we have at our disposal." [New York Times, January 1, 1990]
As I said, Rebecca, I cannot speak to the details of your present situation, but, based on my experience, your friend will not just "get over" his interest in young girls, and might even find himself molesting a child more or less against his will, so I suggest you take that into account in your decision process. Perhaps a middle ground here would be to continue the friendship, but never leave your children alone with this man. Ever. But, as I said, since I do not know him, that is only speculation.