11/22/2011 03:59 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

The Victim-molester Metamorphosis: What We'd Rather Ignore

One of the biggest things that stands out to me in the reaction to the alleged atrocities at Penn State (other than the fact that People magazine had the gross lack of judgment to call it a "sex scandal" -- child rape is to a "sex scandal" what mass murder is to professional wrestling -- is how little the public understands about pedophilia. Justifiably, of course, there are many who don't want to understand, or believe they can't understand. But among the things we choose not to face is one thing that, in many ways, helps perpetuate the cycle.

One of the risk factors for becoming a sexual abuser of children is having been victimized yourself.

That's right. Someday, these poor, innocent boys -- who have had unspeakable brutality inflicted on them through absolutely no fault of their own -- will carry a significantly higher risk of harming others. Hopefully, for them that cycle can be stopped, but research shows that a great number of adult sexual abusers report being sexually abused themselves as children. And as such children start to make the transition from victim to abuser, at some point in that murky period we as a society will turn on them, drive them underground and actually increase the risk of it happening.

If the allegations are true, then there is no doubt that Jerry Sandusky, at this point in time, deserves the vitriol. Many people might read this and believe that I'm excusing his behavior, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Diseased mind or not, he was a grown man capable of getting help, and morally responsible not only to do so, but to find a way to stop inflicting harm, even if it meant locking himself in his house. And the actual harm he allegedly inflicted was unimaginable. (I find the actions of those who knew and did not contact the police to be despicable and morally bereft as well.)

But my concern, as a clinical psychologist who teaches about the types of psychopathology that are beyond polite dinner conversation, and who has treated scores of very troubled young adults, is that our sticking our heads in the sand has a role in perpetuating this abuse cycle. We have the power to help extend (indefinitely, in an ideal world) the period of time between being an abuse victim and creating other victims at your own hand. But the only way we can do this is to encourage people to actually seek help, which we make more difficult for several reasons.

One significant problem is that our society makes no differentiation between being a "pedophile" and a "child molester." Some of the most brilliant and nuanced pieces about the tragedy at Penn State -- written by the likes of Maureen Dowd and Mike Wise -- use the words synonymously, without understanding that technically, a pedophile need not have sexually touched a child at all. They merely must carry the disturbed sexual attraction. In fact, by clinical definition, it is sufficient merely to have these deviant sexual attractions to prepubescent kids -- no doubt a tremendous and serious pathology -- and be termed a pedophile while never having come close to committing abuse. But the general public doesn't recognize that there are such people, in fact untold numbers of them, who are fighting the good fight never to do harm: who have sought help, recognized their own disease (again, often brought on by their own victimhood as children) and are trying their hardest with the help of therapists to not keep the pain going by inflicting it on someone else. (The 2004 film The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon, speaks to this netherworld.)

Should these people live near schools or parks? Of course not. Should men such as these (and yes, they're almost always men, for a variety of reasons) start programs for at-risk youth? Absolutely never; that's beyond reprehensible. Does treatment always work? Unfortunately, far from it. But which would we rather live in, a society where a deviant thought is viewed just as perverse as having amassed a roster of victims, discouraging someone from daring to speak that thought to a therapist -- and therefore never getting a shot at preventing evil actions? Or would we choose the society where we understand that serious mental illness such as pedophilia often has its roots in childhood trauma, and it is of the utmost importance, in order to stop the cycle, to get those people into treatment?

Many of us have our hearts broken and are outraged by what we've read about what went on at Penn State. But an equally important reaction is to ask the question: What happens to these boys now?

Recovery can be ugly, and might include some disturbing thoughts and urges that even trained therapists don't always want to hear. But by turning away, and by continuing to ignore that many sexual predators were victims who fell through society's cracks and never got help, we only make it more likely that others won't get help as well. When we refuse to acknowledge the well-trodden path in the metamorphosis from abused child to abuser, the evil of Sandusky's alleged actions will only grow exponentially, because these victims won't ever get a fair shot at breaking the cycle. The more we pretend that being a victim and being a predator are always mutually exclusive, the more we will drive these people underground and away from help, which will create -- if the allegations are true -- a whole new crop of Jerry Sanduskys among the next generation.

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