JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — 'Sex offender.' The words are charged with meaning – and for some, automatically evoke the very worst child sex crimes, like the rape and murder of Somer Thompson or Cherish Perrywinkle.
In reality, a relatively small percentage of sex offenders are actually "pedophiles," a clinical term which denotes a specific attraction to prepubescent children. And despite the horror the word conjures, not all pedophiles are criminals.
A small but growing Internet support community has adopted the moniker "virtuous pedophiles," and define themselves as people who are sexually attracted to children, but determined not to act on those desires. A British documentary called "The Paedophile Next Door" recently profiled "Eddie" – who didn't disclose his last name, but agreed to appear on camera, despite concerns of retaliation.
"I much prefer not to have these feelings and these attractions," he said. "But I have them, and that's difficult. A lot of people assume because I think or feel that way, I'm automatically going to abuse a child … I don't think I'm capable of that kind of thing."
First Coast News reached out to Ethan Edwards, founder of the online group "Virtuous Pedophiles," and communicated with him at length, via Google Chat. He provided only limited information about his personal life: He claims to live in Pennsylvania, and is in his late 50s. He is divorced, but was married for much of his life, and raised three daughters. He insists he never has, and never will, have sexual contact with a child, but he identifies as a pedophile.
Despite his attraction to children, he says that alone is not enough to make him break the law and destroy a child. "It requires a significant dose of an antisocial personality to break one society's very strongest taboos — aside from the huge legal consequences," he wrote. "I liken it to the chance I might murder someone if I got angry at them. We all know what anger is, but most of us know the lines. To be clear," Ethan added, "I figure my chance of murdering someone is as low as of any normal person."
Edwards isn't sure why he is a pedophile, although he agrees with the general worldview that something is deeply wrong with him. He offers a trauma his mother suffered while pregnant with him and a youthful head injury as possible reasons for his condition. But he understands that most of society blames him for his pedophilia. "I'm mostly used to being vilified," he says. "I don't take it personally, so much."
The concept of non-offending or "non acting" pedophiles is a topic that has gotten increased attention — including articles in the New York Times — and even some sympathetic portrayals. The public radio show "This American Life" ran a segment called "Tarred and Feathered," in which reporter Luke Malone interviewed Adam, a young man who started noticing signs of his affliction at age 11. Before seeking therapy, he did view child pornography. But Adam says he has since stopped, and claims to have never acted on his desires.
Dr. Jill Levenson is a Florida therapist who has spent years researching and treating sex offenders. She says pedophilia is as innate and unchangeable as any hardwired sexual orientation. She says most pedophiles discover their feelings in adolescence, but some are able to keep from acting on it – even if it means a life of abstinence.
"Pedophilia itself is a disorder that can't really be cured, so to speak," says Levenson, "but so are a lot of mental health or medical disorders, like schizophrenia or diabetes."
Levenson says that while the virtuous pedophile movement is new, there have always been pedophiles who manage to resist committing crimes. "They know that it's wrong and they don't want to harm children."
But others are skeptical. Jacksonville attorney Jay Howell is a former sex crimes prosecutor and the founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He says his experience makes him wary of any self-declared support group for pedophiles.
"I think it strains credibility for most people to say: Here's someone admitting they are sexually attracted to children but saying, 'I have not acted out on that,'" he says. "There isn't any cure for this — nobody has found a way to remove it from the fabric of a human being."
At the same time, if such groups help prevent crimes, he thinks they have value. And with 300,000 child sex abuse cases each year in this country, prevention alone could be a powerful cure.
"We've got to find some treatment for them — some barrier, some way to restrain those instincts," says Howell, "because there are so many of them out there among us."