Today, Luke Malone published a story on Matter, a publication of Medium, with the headline “You’re 16. You’re a Pedophile. You Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone. What Do You Do Now?” Fortunately, that “you” in that headline is probably not you, although it could be, and is also not Luke the writer; it’s a story about a group of young pedophiles who’ve come together to prevent themselves from offending and from using child pornography. It considers the apparently radical idea of treating potential sex offenders before they hurt people — treating pedophilia as both a public and mental health crisis, where we’ve previously only addressed it as a criminal justice topic. This will upset some people. I talked to Luke about the making of this story.
Choire Sicha: I think it’s fair to mention that this story began its life as your Columbia journalism school thesis. So, like any reporter, you were on the hunt for a meaty or captivating story, and somehow you thought… I KNOW, LET’S GET TO KNOW SOME PEDOPHILES, SOUNDS GREAT. Is that a fair description of your experience?
Luke Malone: Ha, not quite, there were a few steps before I got to that stage. Knowing how rare it is to get the opportunity to work on one single story for the better half of a year, I wanted to try something ambitious. I was looking high and low for story ideas, and had a few things bubbling away. One day I was reading about the Jerry Sandusky trial; he had just been charged. The comments at the bottom of the article were all so vitriolic. I mean, that’s to be expected, but people were really going to town. It reminded me that pedophiles are the most hated group in all of society. It got me thinking about how all this starts; when do you first develop feelings towards little kids and do all pedophiles want to act on it? I started looking around and found that an attraction towards kids usually develops in the early teens, and there are a large portion — perhaps the majority — that don’t want to act on it. It seems obvious to me now, but I had never really thought about it before.
Choire: Vitriol in comments? I’m stunned. Do go on.
Luke: I thought how harrowing and confusing it must be to be, say, 13 and realize you’re attracted to children. Well, much younger children. With no frame of reference, no one to turn to. As a gay guy, I can relate in some small way to that confusion and dread. There was no It Gets Better when I was coming up. I started looking around to see if there was anywhere that these guys, and sometimes young women, could get help or therapy to deal with this massive thing. And there’s nothing. Zilch. There are even laws in place that make it tricky to see a regular therapist. I eventually found out that Professor Elizabeth Letourneau, who works out of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, was in the early stages of launching The Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse and I was like, ‘Yes! Here’s my story.’ I approached my thesis advisor, Gerry Marzorati over at The New York Times — who was great, by the way — and he was like, well, this is a 1,500–2,000 word story at best. It’s not going to carry a 10,000 word narrative. I was bummed, but he was completely right. It was then that I said to myself, well, let’s get to know some pedophiles. Some young ones who have not and do not want to act on their desires.
Choire: I’m glad to know you did actually did say Let’s Get To Know Some Pedophiles.
Luke: Well, maybe not out loud.
Choire: Fair! And you did find them. Here’s a minor question: in your search for pedophiles, did you run into any anxieties about Internet searching? Like you were going down some rabbit holes and in America (and some other places), the things we can look at online can be legally dangerous.
Luke: My God, yes! To this day, I’m certain I’m on several watch lists.
Choire: Oh neat.
Luke: I had to do my research and figure out where, as a journalist, I’m allowed to go and what is completely off limits. Anywhere that there is child porn is a no brainer. But I ended up talking to a lot of teenage pedophiles, and we had to be really careful about where those conversations went. Discussing sex with minors is a no-go, so it was tricky to cover the ground I needed to. But I figured it out. Going forward, any other story will be a piece of cake.
Choire: Oh right. Not only could you see things that are Not Okay, you could have conversations that essentially cast *you* as a pedophile or a pedophile recruiter. Yikes! So, eventually you made contact with some folks. Were you more anxious about the first contact, or about your first face to face meeting? (I realize I am projecting here, because *I* get anxious about these things. Maybe you didn’t!)
Luke: More about getting to the stage where a face-to-face meeting was possible. These guys, though they desperately want help and someone to talk to, were understandably skittish at first. I had to talk to them online for months, gaining their trust and convincing them that I wasn’t there to out them or hurt them in any way. This involved chatting to them for hours almost every day, literally hours, and then progressing to phone calls and then arranging for me to fly out and meet them in person. We all already knew each other so well, and I was so antsy to get face-to-face interviews in the bag that I was champing at the bit to meet them in person. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t weird and awkward at first: “Hello stranger, let’s sit in your car or in a park or cafe and chat about your deepest darkest secrets for the next five days. Let’s roll!”
Choire: Wow. It’s like the opposite of Internet hookups. Err, sorry. I make jokes about things that make me uncomfortable! ANYWAY. Who were the first people, besides at Columbia, who you told about this? And how did they take it?
Luke: This one is a doozy. People would eventually find out what I was working on, and the questions would come thick and fast: How did you find them? How can you stomach it? Why are you defending pedophiles? It was really telling about a person if they asked that last one. I get it, pedophiles get a bad rap and in many cases rightly so. But I found myself trying to convince people that there are plenty who don’t want to act and really want help not acting on their attractions. Which, side bar, would be a big ask of anyone. Imagine if you were told at 16 that you could never have sex in a way that was appealing to you, Okay, thanks, bye! There’s obviously a reason for that, but it makes no sense not to help them out. Anyway, most of my friends got it but a few were like, “Okay, but at the end of the day you have to put the kids first.” I would reply that talk of preventive therapy was putting both teenage pedophiles, who are essentially kids themselves by the way, and their potential victims first. It’s win win. But they’d think about it for a minute and reply, “Yeah, I get it, but we have to put the children first.” It was all very Helen Lovejoy.
Choire: Haha “pedophiles get a bad rap.” Yeah… that’s… crazy.
Luke: I was telling a friend about it over dinner at a bar one night and the bartender overheard. He was into the discussion at first but then turned on me and we ended up having this big argument. After bickering quite loudly for five or ten minutes until I was like, shut up and let me eat my food. And please don’t spit in my vodka soda. Then there was the Columbia professor — I need to point out that this was not a J-School professor, the J-School were really supportive of what I was trying to do — who I went to ask for some advice. He was a total asshole about it. All but accusing me of supporting pedophilia and suggesting that it’d ruin my career. He then filed a complaint with the J-School, suggesting that they stop me from doing it. Luckily, they looked into what I was doing, gave me the thumbs up and sent me on my way. You can never underestimate how worked up people can get about this. Some people for very good reason, others just get pulled into the hysteria that surrounds it.
Choire: WOW. I can’t believe someone tried to bust you at your own school. I mean, I can, I guess. One thing you talk about is that America has a really tangled history of conflict of public health and criminal justice. We see this in drugs, in HIV prevention, and in psychiatric treatment as well, including for people who do not want to be sexual offenders. (I mean it always cracks me up that suicide has historically been illegal.) You’re Australian. Do you think being a foreigner here impacted the way you thought about this stuff in the U.S.?
Luke: In my opinion, many countries around the world don’t handle therapeutic intervention for pedophiles very well. What makes this particularly notable in the U.S. is that you have this decentralized state system that makes a lot of things, including psychiatric treatment and criminal justice, such a slow road when it really doesn’t need to be. It made my research particularly challenging in that I couldn’t just read up on a handful of laws, I had to see how these laws played out in every state. I can only begin to imagine the nightmare this creates for policymakers.
Choire: Yeah, we are crazy with our state laws and our county laws and our city laws and it’s total mayhem. America is great and hilarious.
Luke: Such a beautiful and advanced and, in many ways, completely backwards country.
Choire: Oh yes, we’re magical. On a more wonky journalistic note, did you and your editor at Medium, Mark Lotto, ever consider a warning to readers at the top of the story? Something perhaps like a trigger warning? I mean presumably it’ll be evident from the headline, but the story does contain a HORRIFICALLY GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION OF SOMETHING HORRIFIC that made me want to throw the computer across the room and also made this piece nearly impossible for editors to even look at.
Luke: Ah, the good ol’ trigger warning debate. I feel like out of all the questions you ask, this will get me in the most hot water. Mark and I are yet to have this discussion, and I don’t feel thaaaat strongly about it one way or the other so I’m happy to defer to him. But, at the same time, I think trigger warnings have a tendency to be overused. It’s all so subjective, but sometimes they are applied to material that may not necessarily be triggering, it just wades into territory that makes people uncomfortable — and that’s not the same thing. I also feel that trigger warnings are often condescending. If you have a headline that reads “Child rapist abused 40 victims,” should that get a trigger warning? I mean, if you can’t figure it out from the title alone…. There’s a little too much hand holding when it comes to this area. Though, having said all that, if there ever were a story that deserved some kind of heads-up it is this one. That scene is as rough as it gets.
Choire: I find this story quite disturbing and I think it’s (of course!) okay if people have to set it aside or avoid it. Not that they need my permission or approval! But you know. That’s a good choice for some people! On another level, I think it’s really important for people to know that not only do these guys exist, both in the good and bad of them, but also that this child pornography exists. For people like me, who’ve never seen child pornography, it’s very ephemeral as an idea. Like I assume there’s probably some stuff out there, but when you listen to these guys, who are accustomed to searching it out, it’s LITERALLY ALL OVER THE INTERNET AND IT’S WORSE AND MORE GRAPHIC THAN YOU MIGHT THINK AND OH MY GOD THAT’S AWFUL. I realize that wasn’t really a question.
Luke: I can answer to it. I agree that this story isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine. No one is under any obligation to learn more about how pedophilia develops and is managed by this group of well-meaning guys, and I’m referring solely to the people in the piece here. Though if it’s an area that you feel strongly about one way or the other — which, to be fair, is most of us — then I’d recommend it. The story of the young, non-offending pedophile is one that hasn’t been told before and if you want to talk seriously about preventing child sexual abuse then bringing them into the conversation is vital. They’re not boogiemonsters, they are kids who want to have sex with younger kids. It’s a sad reality, but they are going to grow up to be men who are attracted to little kids. It seems insane to me that they are brave enough to put up their hands and ask for help but we, as a society, essentially tell them, “Nope, no therapy for you! Go away and rape a child and then you will enter the criminal justice system and then we can deal with it.” By then the damage is done. We need to start intervening before abuse occurs, for everyone’s sake. Despite the child porn and the ugly truths that this story details, there is a lot of optimism coming through. These are young guys who want help, and there are therapists and researchers who want to help, they just need policy and funding that allows it. In fact, a radio version of this story appeared on This American Life a few months back and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did all these teenage pedophiles contact me asking where they could get help, there were a lot of abuse survivors who reached out and said that while it was hard for them to listen to they were grateful that the topic was being addressed in a way that signaled real change. A much more logical interventionist approach to reducing the incidence of child sex abuse.
Choire: One question about them: how did you prepare them for publication? It’s one thing to finally agree to talk to a reporter, and get to know someone. And now… it’s going on the Internet. Do you think they’re ready to be talked about?
Luke: Man, I hope so. They certainly know it’s coming, I still speak with Adam every week or so. They are nervous, but this issue is clearly very important to them. They know that in order to convince the general public that non-offending pedophiles are out there and deserve our help, someone needs to speak out. I’m not sure if they knew that it would become this big when we first started, but they’re on board. We’ve done everything we can to protect their true identities and I don’t think that will be an issue. It’s more seeing all of these naked truths about yourself out there in the world. Adam and the rest of these guys opened up in the most intimate of ways. They were beyond generous and for that I will be forever grateful. But seeing it out there for all to see? I told them that they’re going to see the best and the worst of themselves on display and they will most likely hate it when they first read it. But once the cringing and panic settles down they’ll realize that it’s what I hope is a true representation of their experience. And an important one to share.
Choire: Which leads me to my final question. How legally prepared are you for publication? Like, what happens in the unlikely but presumably possible event that someone decides they want to seize your computer?
Luke: Seize away. I’m confident I didn’t cross any legal or ethical lines during the reporting process. And apart from Adam’s admission of past child porn use — when he was himself only 14 I might add — these guys aren’t doing anything illegal. It’s not against the law to be attracted to kids. It’s against the law to act on that attraction. This is really what this piece all boils down to. These guys don’t want to act on their desires, and they just want help staying on track. Besides, in terms of someone taking my computer, as I mentioned before I’m probably on all sorts of lists. They’re probably reading this right now. Hi guys!