Reading the news that former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle will plead guilty to possessing hundreds of pornographic images of children and having sex with underage girls, it is hard not to be horrified.
Indeed, the people investigating Fogle’s case could barely contain their outrage.
“This is about using wealth, status and secrecy to illegally exploit children,” U.S. Attorney Josh Minkler said at a news conference announcing the plea deal.
“I cannot think of anything more repugnant than sexually victimizing a child,” Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter later added. “Any and all resources have been and will be committed to seeking out who you are, no matter where you live or who you are.”
A man with fortune, fame and a heartwarming story, who had established a foundation in his own name to help children combat obesity, was seeking out sex with children — “the younger the girl the better,” he wrote, according to court documents.
In front of the federal courthouse in Indianapolis, a large crowd gathered Wednesday to gawk at the former TV personality. They taunted and jeered, hurled insults, voiced their disgust in the bluntest terms.
One person wanted to know, according to the Indianapolis Star, “Why’d you do that?”
It’s nearly impossible to comprehend what would drive Fogle to do what his lawyer acknowledges he did. Human sexuality is already complicated, and the desire to have sex with a child is considered so shocking, so perverse, that we aren’t inclined to try and understand it.
However justified, experts say, the righteous revulsion we feel when we hear about crimes like those alleged against Fogle is making it harder to explain them and prevent them from happening.
The science of sexual disorders, termed paraphilias, is far less developed than other areas of psychiatry, and there are few resources for treating potential abusers. There’s almost no way to identify child abusers before they commit a crime, at which point it’s already too late.
Meanwhile, penalties for sex crimes against children have gotten harsher and harsher — often in response to horrifying stories of violence and abuse.
“Right now, our society is more equipped to look at it as a moral problem than a medical or scientific problem,” psychiatrist Fred Berlin said. “But there is a biological basis for these cravings … and society is just giving lip service to that side of it.”
He added, “Nobody chooses to be attracted to children.”
Berlin is the director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University, where he works with sex offenders, among other patients. He says that there’s a lot we still don’t know about the role that hormones, the brain and environment play in sexual attraction.
Although the federal government began to prosecute far more sex offenders after the advent of the Internet — and subsequent availability of illegal child pornography — made it much easier to track down likely child abusers, research into factors that contribute to child sexual abuse has lagged behind. Scientists are only just beginning to use neuroimaging to identify what parts of the brain are responsible for sexual cravings, and clinical studies of child sex abusers are often hard to come by. Some of the most famous studies in the field — like a 2009 report by psychologists with the Federal Bureau of Prisons that found a connection between child pornography possession and the molestation of minors — are disputed because they focus on small sample sizes of imprisoned offenders.
And because there’s so much stigma associated with the issue, there are not enough pedophiles willing to self-report to figure out how many people feel this attraction but never commit an offense. Many states also have mandatory reporting laws that require therapists to report patients who discuss sexual fantasies or cravings involving children — in California, the law is so strict that hard proof is not required to make a report. The regulations are designed to protect children, who are typically unlikely to report abuse themselves. But critics say that they prevent potential abusers from speaking about their cravings before they commit a crime.
He added that it’s difficult to find researchers who are willing to devote themselves to studying these kinds of sexual disorders, and even harder to find funding for such research.
“We have a society that sometimes finds it difficult to deal with these issues of sex and so on, and that has led to us having less support for the kinds of research that would actually be very helpful,” he told The Washington Post.
What we do know suggests that pedophilia stems largely from the brain. According to psychologist James Cantor, a former editor of the journal Sexual Abuse and an expert on paraphilias, pedophiles have less white matter — the “cables” of cells that transmit signals across the brain — than the general population.
“There doesn’t seem to be a pedophilia center in the brain,” he told Gawker in 2012. “Instead, there’s either not enough of this cabling, not the correct kind of cabling, or it’s wiring the wrong areas together, so instead of the brain evoking protective or parental instincts when these people see children, it’s instead evoking sexual instincts. There’s almost literally a crossed wiring.”
Other studies have suggested that pedophilia is related to problems in the frontal or temporal lobes — areas of the brain involved with impulse control and sex. In one well-known case, a man became addicted to child pornography after undergoing a temporal lobectomy to treat his epilepsy.
“I still don’t understand it,” the man, identified as Kevin, told the podcast Radiolab. “It was me, but it was me with a complete lack of neurological control.”
Cantor, Berlin and others are quick to point out that not every pedophile becomes a sex offender. Berlin believes that the majority of people who are attracted to children don’t act on their desire. Unlike many European countries, the United States has few voluntary therapeutic programs for people with pedophilia, though support groups like “Virtuous Pedophiles” work to help people resist their attractions.
Likewise, not every sex offender is a pedophile. Berlin said that some child pornography downloaders consider themselves “collectors,” like people who collect stamps. They are not so much turned on by the images as obsessed with them. And some adults who molest children are attracted to the sense of power, or violence, or the ability to instill fear in another, rather than fact of their victim’s age.
Although the oft-cited 2009 Bureau of Prisons study made a connection between child porn and physical child abuse, researchers also say that not everyone who watches child porn is also a “contact” sex offender. (Though the production and consumption of child pornography is certainly abusive to children — it creates a demand for content, and victims can be traumatized again and again by the knowledge that pictures of themselves are still circulating.)
A 2011 review of research in the journal Sexual Abuse found that roughly half of online offenders admitted to a contact offense. The other half were “fantasy offenders,” study author Michael Seto explained to the New Yorker. They exhibited none of the antisocial traits characteristic of child abusers and most other types of criminals — lack of empathy, impulsiveness. Instead, their activity was confined solely to the dis-inhibiting world of the screen.
We don’t know if Jared Fogle was a pedophile. Prosecutors allege that he fell into the first category of child pornography watcher — online offenders who exploit minors in the real world as well. Prosecutors say he traveled to have sex with two teenagers, and solicited the girls to help him find even younger victims.
As part of his plea deal his lawyer described Wednesday, he will seek treatment for what his attorney termed “his medical problem.” The deal also won him a guarantee from prosecutors that they will seek a sentence of 12½ years or less — much lighter than what is meted out to most offenders, law professor Melissa Hamilton said.
“Federal sentencing guidelines for these offenders are harsh, and often when there is one of these highly publicized cases of abuse, they get harsher,” Hamilton, who teaches at the University of Houston Law Center, told The Washington Post.
She pointed to the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, which set up a national registry for sex offenders and allowed for the civil commitment (continued detention after a prison term is over) of sex offenders. The act is named for a Florida 6-year-old who was abducted from a shopping mall and brutally murdered by a serial killer.
Civil commitment — a procedure initially set up to protect inmates with mental illness who are deemed unfit to be released from prison — remains controversial. The policy is predicated on the logic that civil commitment prevents pedophiles from abusing more children. When it was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2010, the court ruled in favor of civil commitment.
“If a federal prisoner is infected with a communicable disease that threatens others,” read the majority decision, “surely it would be ‘necessary and proper’ . . . to refuse (at least until the threat diminishes) to release that individual among the general public, where he might infect others.”
The largest study of sex offenders conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that roughly 5.3 percent of those imprisoned for a sex crime are re-arrested.
The federal mandatory minimum sentences for sex crimes against children can be steep. According to Hamilton, judges disagree with these guidelines more often than those for any other crime.
It’s not difficult to see why the penalties for child pornography and sex abuse are so high. The idea of a child being exploited by adults is upsetting, and the testimony given by victims before Congress and at advocacy events is even more so. The collective social impulse in recent years has been toward harsher condemnation of sex offenders, not less (consider the movement against sexual assault on college campuses, the outrage about the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby). There are few activist groups advocating for reduction of federal mandatory minimum sentences for child abusers, as there are for drug offenders.
When the U.S. Sentencing Commission considered reducing the recommended sentences for sex offenses against children, the proposal was swiftly shot down in Congress
“What politician thinks that he or she could be re-elected if they sponsored a bill to undercut sentences for sex offenses against children?” Hamilton said.
The exploitation of a child is horrifying and saddening, a collective embarrassment for society, Hamilton noted. It implies that we cannot protect the thing that is most precious to us. And we have an understandable impulse to punish those who commit such crimes.
But many psychologists say that the emphasis on imprisonment rather than rehabilitation doesn’t protect victims.
“All of the attention is on known sex offenders and just heaping on the punishment,” Elizabeth Letourneau, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies child sexual abuse, told Slate in 2012. “This is said to be due to an interest in prevention, but it’s really about retribution. If people are really serious about preventing children from being molested or raped, it may very well necessitate the uncomfortable acknowledgement that some people are born as pedophiles.”
“All we do is drive it underground,” she added, echoing Berlin.
Berlin acknowledges that it’s hard to sympathize with men like Fogle. But he also pointed out that society once viewed alcoholism and drug addiction as disgusting and deviant, problems to be blamed on the person who suffered from them. Now most people agree that addiction is a medical condition, one that requires treatment beyond prison time. He thinks we should view sex crimes the same way.
“We need to condemn these behaviors but also to understand that fundamentally decent people can be struggling with urges and cravings they need help with,” he said.
It’s a message that will “ring hollow to many,” he acknowledged. But to one person, “It might make it easier to say, ‘I need help.'”
Correction: An initial version of this story incorrectly stated that the federal mandatory minimum sentence for an adult who has sex with a child under 16 who is also four years younger than the perpetrator is 30 years. That penalty only applies in cases of forcible rape or when the victim is unconscious.