Hidden away in a village in northern Germany, Ruby has lived a lonely and tormented existence. Just 25 years old, she has a horrifying secret that, if exposed, could see her ostracised, even killed.
Ruby is a paedophile.
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Ruby is an anomaly in a paedophilic world dominated by men; one doctor told me that only three of the 10,000 he’d treated were female. Rarer still, she’s managed to form a relationship with a man with similar urges. Last year, she met Sirius on an online forum for non-offending paedophiles. By chance, they lived in the same village.
I’d been talking to Ruby for more than a year, at that point, as part of an investigation into the murky world of paedophilia and to work out what can be done to curb child sexual abuse. Her pseudonym came from the Latin for Little Red Riding Hood: rubra cucullo. “People think I’m the little girl,” she told me. “But actually, I’m the wolf.”
With time, Ruby came to trust me, and invited me to meet her and Sirius. They were waiting for me on the platform when I arrived on my train from Berlin: dressed in black hoodies and loose jeans.
They stood petrified, mute. Ruby began to weep. Sirius, 27, couldn’t meet my gaze. I was the first non-paedophile aside from Ruby’s mother they’d told.
As we walked, and I talked, they gradually began to open up about their Age of Attractions (AOA) which both insisted they would never act upon. I’d been investigating paedophilia for more than a year, but their confession involved one of the most disturbing descriptions I’d ever heard.
Ruby went on to describe her unhappy childhood; her father made her feel unwanted, never expressing love or attempting to bond with her. She first realised something was off as a teenager, when she became aroused by Japanese animé depicting young boys.
She explained how being able to talk about her urges with Sirius had offered a reprieve from loneliness, and saved them both from suicide. Despite not fitting one another’s attraction briefs, they are now in love. During sex, which they have at least once a day, they take turns to pretend to be a baby.
Germany has a torrid relationship with paedophilia, having run a state-sponsored programme in the Seventies that deliberately placed paedophiles with homeless children. It remains a black mark on the nation’s recent history, one that stems from an astonishingly misguided push from some on the Left to include paedophiles in their support for LGBT rights. The reputation of the nation’s Green Party has never fully recovered.
Yet, somehow, a liberal strain continues to lace the country’s approach to paedophilia. In the UK, the US and Australia, reporting paedophiles to authorities is mandatory. Not so in Germany.
As a journalist who specialises in controversial subcultures, I stumbled across the Don’t Offend clinic in Germany while seeking my new topic.
Run out of Berlin’s Charité Hospital, the clinic invites what it terms “minor-attracted persons” to come in and talk without fear of being reported. In effect, it means letting known sex offenders back on the streets where they could abuse again. The clinic — which introduced me to Ruby — counters that this is the only way to get them to come in for therapy to learn to control their urges.
I met Maximilian von Heyden, a social worker and senior researcher at Don’t Offend. He admitted that it’s unlikely his patients will ever erase their urges. “But they come to therapy to improve their lives and try to cope with this better.”
I’m curious about whether he would let his children hang around with one of his patients. “I wouldn’t leave my children with someone I don’t know,” he replied. “We have quite a good success rate when it comes to establishing behavioural self-control, but we don’t succeed all the time, so there’s always a risk. In general, if I have a good relationship with a patient and he’s opening up and telling me about his sexuality… I’d probably be more cautious.”
He tells me that the clinic has discovered that around 4% of the general population have an attraction towards minors. And, like most researchers in his field, Von Heyden, he states that research and clinical experience point towards it being stable throughout life. However, a small minority, including those behind the UK’s Stop It Now! programme, maintain that it is a curable illness. The difference in opinion is stark, and shows just how far we are from a thorough understanding of paedophilia.
Donald Findlater, director of Stop It Now! told me: “Von Heyden is trying to take over the world with [Don’t Offend]. They’ve spent years touring the globe and convincing politicians in Germany their version of the world is correct. They’re very clear that it’s a sexuality.”
“I’m saying it’s not. It’s part of a learned behaviour that’s come often from adverse childhood things that happened to them. It therefore has the capacity to change, unlike homosexuality and heterosexuality that tend to have a strong biological component.” Findlater also points out that Don’t Offend doesn’t record the names of their patients, so has no way of knowing how successful it is at curbing child abuse; other sexologists in Germany have also attacked the way the clinic labels patients so rigidly with the condition.
But, for the most part, it has escaped criticism in Germany, where its adverts adorn the insides of metro carriages: “Don’t be an offender. Get help.” It appears the lack of mandatory reporting and empirical evidence is a loss that many Germans are prepared to take in the battle to curb child abuse.
The clinic separates paedophiles into four types. There are those who would never offend, and don’t need help. There are others who are psychopaths; realistically; little can be done about them. There is also a subsection of OCD sufferers who falsely believe they’re attracted to children, to the point of inventing false memories of having been abused. The clinic will send them to OCD specialists.
But where it clams to make the biggest impact is with the fourth type: those paedophiles who let biases sway them. Von Heyden said: “Working on cognitive biases is a big part of what we do. They think: ‘Oh the kids want it, they love it, they tease me.’ But they have to realise normal behaviour from children isn’t sexual and even if does seem like the child is teasing you, it doesn’t mean you’re allowed, as an adult, to follow that impulse.”
Does it work? For Ruby and Sirius, it appears that talking to one another about their urges has helped them to keep them under control. But until they collect sufficient data, it is impossible to know if the clinic’s claims are true.
And so we’re left with a debate that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. On one side of the argument are those who point to the fact that Don’t Offend has enquiries from prospective patients from all over the world, with many moving to Germany for the therapy. On the other, there are those who’d rather point to the message recently scrawled outside von Heyden’s office: “Hang the Paedos.”