First published 2015 with The Ethics Centre
In terms of ethical issues, few are less ambiguous than paedophilia. Sexual intercourse with underage children has long been both illegal in Australia, and widely recognised as an immensely unethical activity due to the physical and psychological trauma in incurs on said children. Even were such trauma not to exist, the enduring legal standard has been that children are inherently unable to provide informed consent for sex, meaning paedophilia is classified as rape, even should consent be obtained.
Over time, largely in the wake of the development of ‘childhood’ in our society over the last 300 years, our culture has grown to view paedophilia with particularly serious opposition; children are increasingly seen as vulnerable persons that need protection, and paedophiles as rapist that specifically prey on the most vulnerable victims available. This perspective has been both reflected in and reinforced by the media, which announce both convictions and even accusations of paedophilia with highly emotive language which rarely invites the audience see the perpetrator as human, let alone to empathise with them.
Based on opposition, it is no surprise that support has been growing in Australia for a publically accessible sex offender registry. Such a registry would make the names and locations of convicted and released sex offenders (including paedophiles) available for any citizen to access. The intention of this, at least in theory, is that parents, children and any other concerned citizen can better protect their children from danger.
While the registered offenders would all have been released from prison under tight parole conditions, having fulfilled their sentences and ostensibly rehabilitated, it stands to reason that those that have committed such crimes before are substantially more likely to reoffend compared to the average citizen. Ergo, being able to identify them and keep your children away from them is practically the duty of any responsible parent – and it therefore follows that denying this opportunity to parents would be highly unethical.
Why then have Australian governments failed to implement such a register?
To put it concisely; because they don’t work. Indeed, they actually threaten to make the situation worse.
The ultimate aim of a public sex offender registry is to protect children from sexual assault, or to frame it positively; to improve the safety of children. How could a registry, designed to inform parents of potential threats to said children, work against this? In two distinct ways:
Firstly, such a register not only makes rehabilitation of convicted paedophiles impossible, it also makes it pointless. Consider the seriousness of our cultural opposition to paedophilia; what community will be willing to give such a person a second chance in their neighbourhood? If rehabilitated paedophiles are enough of a threat that they need to be constantly monitored, then are they not also enough of a threat that they should be rejected from the community entirely?
At best, anyone seeking to start afresh and reform themselves in a community will be met with instant and constant suspicion. They will never be trusted without constant surveillance, employment will be extremely hard to find as their reputation would tarnish their employer as well, and social networks almost impossible to establish.
In the worst case scenario, the ex-offender is liable to find themselves actively harassed in an effort to make them leave the neighbourhood entirely.
What is the point of trying to rehabilitate when everyone already assumes you’re going to reoffend, and treats you like you already have? The default position of your neighbours is that you are not just going to fail at your rehabilitation – but that it won’t even matter if you succeed. A paedophile is a paedophile, and forever will be a paedophile.
This objection alone is not enough to dismiss the concept of a public sex offender registry however. Certainly it may make rehabilitation harder for many release paedophiles, but it will by no means make it impossible – just as with any other released criminal, those who are truly dedicated will endure the scrutiny and eventually redeem themselves to the community, while those that relapse will be quickly identified and re-prosecuted due to the increased community scrutiny.
The second objection is significantly more serious; by further reinforcing our cultural hatred for paedophiles, a public sex offender registry would seriously hamper any efforts to prevent paedophilia in the first place.
Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder. While it is easy and emotionally satisfying to describe is as simply ‘evil’, such a label fails to explain why a person would choose to expose themselves to the extreme risks inherent to paedophilia when numerous, accessible and legal alternatives are available. Either this choice is irrational, or it is not a choice at all and the attraction is beyond their conscious control in the first place – in either case, the term ‘evil’ becomes irrelevant.
As with any psychiatric disorder, the single most important thing when it comes to the prevention and treatment of paedophilia is early intervention. But early intervention in turn requires early detection; and early detection requires sufferers to present themselves voluntarily for treatment before they offend. But given the immense opposition to paedophilia in our culture – an opposition we are immersed in even as children due to the threat facing us – who would ever admit to being sexually attracted to children even to themselves, let alone to a third party such as a psychiatrist that might be able to help them?
Denial is a serious complication even for non-taboo issues such as physical health; sufferers prefer to ignore their symptoms in favour of seeking medical advice as it reduces their anxiety about the potential ramifications. Paradoxically, this only makes the condition worse as it continues to go untreated, until medical intervention is no longer effective. How much more appealing must this denial be for a condition as universally reviled, and as stringently taboo as paedophilia? And how much more appealing would denial become, when a public sex offender registry identifies even rehabilitated offenders and exposes them to vilification, discrimination and persecution by the broader public?
Ironically, the proposed register will actually increase the number of untreated paedophiles in society as those who could have been treated deny their conditions until they can no longer control them.
The ultimate objective of the proposed public sex offender registry is to improve the safety of children. Ironically however, the proposal will not only fail in this objective, but risks worsening the safety of these children by making the detection, treatment and rehabilitation of paedophiles impossible.
The desire to protect our children from the horrors of the world is a great goal for any society, but we must be constantly vigilant that our efforts will actually achieve this goal – it is only by understanding the horrors after all that we are able to overcome them.