Paedophiles, abhorred figures in society, are in the spotlight ahead of a vote on May 18 on banning convicted paedophiles from working with children. Not many people are as familiar with their struggles as psychologist Monika Egli-Alge.
Director of the Forensic Institute of Eastern Switzerland (Forio) for the past decade, Egli-Alge gives expert assessments in civil and criminal cases and treats court-referred offenders. However, the majority of her patients are men with no criminal convictions who have come forward voluntarily for help.
swissinfo.ch: In today’s society, paedophiles are the untouchables. It is the ultimate stigma. What is the effect of this hatred on the individual?
Monika Egli-Alge: It has a tragic effect. It has the effect that those who are, let’s say, afflicted by the fate of having such a sexual preference disorder can hardly bring themselves to accept it. That is problematic because they try to suppress it, because what is not allowed to be, cannot be.
These people live in incredible shame, must deceive themselves for a long time – especially those who do not abuse, and they are a large group. They don’t find help anywhere because there is so little help, and that, only recently. It is almost not possible to overcome this shame and stigma because it has such a strong effect. We have people coming here [Forio] and no-one connected to them knows about it. These people have to live a permanent double life and are permanently dishonest. And that is a situation that a person with a normal psychological apparatus cannot put up with for long. It is unhealthy.
swisssinfo.ch: Should we think of paedophilia as a sexual orientation? Or how do you define the term ‘paedophile’?
M. E.-A.: It is a sexual preference disorder. The sexual orientation of these people is directed at children or adolescents and not at adults of the same age. This orientation can be more or less strongly ingrained and is usually permanent.
swissinfo.ch: We have heard that people who suffered abuse as children are more likely to abuse others later in life. In therapy is it possible to establish what ‘made’ the person a paedophile or is there sometimes no explanation?
M. E.-A.: No, there is no explanation for it. The current state of science and research is not able to explain why someone becomes or is a paedophile. It is not clear if this sexual orientation is laid down, from birth so to speak, or how it develops in the course of early sexual development in the child and adolescent. It is always very individual. Not all people who are paedophiles have themselves been victims of abuse; there is no proven correlation.
A vote issue
Swiss voters will decide on May 18 on an initiative brought by the Marche Blanche (White March) group of concerned parents. It would amend the Swiss constitution to ensure that “persons who are convicted because they have affected the sexual integrity of a child or a dependent person permanently lose the right to pursue a professional or volunteer activity with minors or dependents”.
The initiative needs a majority of the popular vote as well as the backing of a majority of cantons to win enough support to become law.
swissinfo.ch: Would you say there is a typical career path of someone who actually commits offences? Does it begin with exposing themselves or accessing child pornography? How does it develop?
M. E.-A.: There are no clear proven patterns, neither in life path nor in the offences career. These things are also very individual among people with paedophilia. There are also people who have this sexual inclination but who never carry out sexual assaults. They neither consume, produce nor distribute pornographic material, nor do they carry out ‘contact abuse’. It has been researched and there is no proven pattern of slippery-slope behaviour increasing from pornography consumption to acting out.
One cannot say that someone who consumes child pornography will later abuse children. There is no direct correlation.
swissinfo.ch: In that sense you’re operating to some extent in the dark if each new person can have a completely different background and psychological profile?
M. E.-A.: That’s true. One way of looking at it is that we are working in the dark. The other way of looking at it – the psychological approach – is that we deal with every situation, every case, every person individually. You can’t generalise but always try anew to understand what factors, what situations, what personality traits are relevant in an individual case, relevant to the crime or influencing risk.
swissinfo.ch: You are working in a forensic role. Are most of the patients who come to you people who have already committed offences, or do you also meet people who have never acted on their impulses?
M. E.-A.: Both. We have patients in the so-called visible field. That means they have committed offences, or consumed material and have been referred to us by the court system. But we also have men here in treatment who have never abused. They have come forward themselves because they notice that they have this inclination and want to do something to make sure they don’t abuse any children. Some 80% of patients currently undergoing treatment at Forio came of their own volition.
swissinfo.ch: Is there a tendency among paedophiles to play down their crimes to make them more acceptable to themselves?
M. E.-A.: That is typical for this sexual preference disorder. We call this self-justifying behaviour cognitive distortions. It is a psychological mechanism that makes these men trivialise their own acts and employ views, attitudes and behaviour towards the deed or the victim that minimise the deed and the damage. That does not have much to do with empathy, it has a lot more to do with cognition. Not wanting to see, making light of the issue and fooling themselves with these attitudes, which are very problematic.
One in four
In 2012, 1,203 people were charged with sexual activities involving children in Switzerland, according to the Federal Statistics Office.
The unreported incidence of child abuse is estimated to be much higher.
It is estimated that up to 25% of women and 10% of men in Switzerland have experienced sexual abuse during childhood.
This includes one-off incidents and non-contact offences, such as exhibitionism.
Two thirds of victims are girls, one third boys.
The age group most affected is 7-12.
Some children experience this form of violence just once, others suffer repeated abuse, sometimes over years.
(Source: Swiss Child Protection Association)
swissinfo.ch: And this is something that you work on?
M. E.-A.: Yes. This is a very important part of the treatment: to identify these cognitive distortions, to analyse them and to change them.
swissinfo.ch: The stereotypical paedophile is an unattractive middle-aged loner. How far is that from the truth?
M. E.-A.: Quite far. The numbers we deal with in the institute are not big enough to have a representative picture but it does correspond with what is shown in international research. We have men aged between 20 and 70 from all socio-economic backgrounds – married men whose wives don’t know, single men, men in same-sex relationships. Highly qualified, intelligent, everything. There is no pattern there, either.
swissinfo.ch: In life most people form sexual relationships in their own age group. The 15 -year-old falls in love with the 15-year-old, and when he’s 50, that same person is likely to be attracted to other middle-aged people. In that sense sexual attraction evolves over time. Is it possible for this to happen with paedophiles or is it a case of once a paedophile, always a paedophile?
M. E.-A.: It is just so; sexuality can change over the course of a lifetime but not with paedophiles because that is an orientation, a disorder of sexual preference. When 15-year-olds are interested in each other, that makes sense, there is no disorder. But we are talking about adults who are oriented towards children and that is something that is not changeable. That means we have to accept that it is so and develop coping mechanisms.