Ender was 14 when he realized something was up.
He’d known he liked boys from a young age. This was in the ‘80s, before homosexuality was widely accepted in society, and Ender grew up in a Catholic family. The prospect of being gay was dangerous enough. But the problem wasn’t just that Ender was gay, it was that as he got older, the boys he found himself attracted to stayed the same age.
Ender is a prominent member of the online “virtuous pedophile” community (or, as Dan Savage has called them, "gold star pedophiles"), a network of both adults and youth who are attracted to children but are committed to never, ever acting on those attractions. They are pedophiles, but they aren’t child molesters. While his attractions have made his life difficult in plenty of ways (society doesn’t generally look well upon pedophiles, whether they have ever touched a child or not), contrary to the popular belief that pedophiles have uncontrollable urges, Ender says that’s not actually true in his case. And it’s not true for many other virtuous pedophiles either.
“Not abusing a child has never been a battle,” Ender told me. “It’s literally the easiest part of being a pedophile. Not even when I was a teenager full of hormones and poor judgment was I ever even remotely tempted to attempt something with a younger boy. For some reason, I intuitively knew it was something I couldn’t act on. I never needed anyone to tell me it was wrong and I was never even tempted or close to actually doing anything with a boy.”
But not acting on the attractions doesn’t mean they go away, and there are few outlets for Ender and other non-offending pedophiles to find support. In the U.S., therapists are obligated to report their clients to authorities if they think there is a chance the client will abuse a child. But even if there’s no chance that a child is in harm’s way, just disclosing the attraction can be a risk: “Therapists are human beings and are affected by social stigma as much as the general population,” Ender told me. “Some believe we’re monsters that are going to inevitably abuse a child.”
In 2014, the public radio show This American Life aired an episode about Adam, a teenage pedophile who, after much struggle with his attraction, sought out a therapist. After Adam disclosed his attraction, the therapist reacted how you might expect: She was appalled and immediately told the boy’s mother.
Adam got lucky. His mother, though upset, didn’t disavow her son or kick him out of the house, and, like Ender, Adam found solace and support online, one of the few places pedophiles can anonymously discuss their problems. These forums aren’t places to trade kiddie porn or solicit sex (there are strict rules against this); they are places where pedophiles can talk honestly about how to deal with their attractions and exist in a society that views them as subhuman. But these online communities don’t always last. Message boards and forums have been targeted and shut down by hackers, and this week, an online community run by Ender with over 400 members was shut down by Discord, the company that hosted their server.
In a message to Ender, the Discord Trust and Safety Team said that the group had “been flagged by the Discord community for violations of our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines.” They abruptly disabled the server, and Ender responded with a lengthy email, detailing who he is, what the community is, and why the space was so valuable. “I can say with total certainty that our server did not breach Discord's terms of service or community guidelines in any way,” Ender wrote, and referenced the community rules, which prohibit sharing images of children, discussing unadjudicated illegal activities, and, the first, and possibly most important rule: “You must be committed to never engaging in sexual activity with a child.”
While much of society may assume that pedophilia is the result of childhood trauma or a moral failing, according to current research, it more likely has a biological basis. (This isn’t true, however, of all child molesters, who may have an array of motivations for their crimes besides simple attraction.) Sex researcher James Cantor has done neuroimaging studies of the brains of people with pedophilia and found that there are significant differences in the white matter of brains of pedophiles and non-pedophiles and that there is some “cross-wiring” that occurs in the brains of people with pedophilia. While acting on an attraction to children may be a choice, the attraction itself is no more a choice than being straight or being gay.
Despite an increasing understanding of the biological roots of pedophilia, society hasn’t exactly embraced pedophiles as victims themselves. A well-founded fear of what would happen if they were ever found out keeps pedophiles in the closet, and before Ender found online support groups, he thought he’d take his secret to his grave. Through talking with other pedophiles, however, he came to see that some people are able to successfully come out to loved ones. And so, after ten years of marriage, he wrote a letter to his wife, telling someone he loved, for the first time, the truth.
She was shocked, understandably, but also understood that her husband had never and would never harm a child (including their own children). She accepted him for who he is. (Ender says that while his sexual attraction is exclusively towards boys between the ages of 8 and 12, he loves his wife and they have a companionate marriage.) Later, he came out to both his priest and a therapist, both of whom have been supportive as well, but it’s the peer support group on which he leans the hardest. And support groups aren’t only good for pedophiles themselves: They also help protect children—both sex researchers and pedophiles say that the pedophile with no support is more likely to become a child molester than the one who can talk about his or her feelings.
After Ender appealed to Discord, the company responded, and it wasn’t what he wanted to hear: The community was still banned, and banned permanently. They will likely rebuild (they’ve found a temporary server on another service), but, still, Ender worries for fellow pedophiles. He’s known several community members who have attempted suicide, and when an active member of the community disappears, he always wonders if they’ve taken their own lives.
“It’s important for people to realize that literally anyone can be a pedophile and that there are literally children every day discovering that they have these kinds of feelings,” Ender says. “When these kids start discovering this about themselves, they go out on the internet to learn about what’s happening to them, and are terrified to discover that everyone thinks they’re worthless, scum, subhuman, and that they deserve to die a terrible death or be physically castrated and dismembered in a public square.”
But pedophiles aren’t monsters. They’re people—people with an affliction no one would choose. “I’m a grown man with a thick skin but young boys and girls are incredibly vulnerable to these societal messages and often fall into deep bouts of depression, have suicidal feelings and very often actually attempt (and often succeed) to kill themselves,” Ender says. He wants to prevent these unnecessary deaths and the harm that radiates out from them. But every time their support groups get shut down, saving virtuous pedophiles gets harder and less likely to happen.