We’re re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year’s best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
I was born without my right hand. As a child, this deformity quickly set me apart from my peers. In public I wore a prosthesis, an intimidating object to other youngsters because of its resemblance to a pirates hook. Even so, I wore it every day; I felt inadequate without it. I was shy, uncoordinated and terrible at sports, all of which put me on the outs with other boys my age. But I was good at drawing and making up stories for my own entertainment, and I spent more and more time in my own head, being a space adventurer or monster wrangler or whatever character I could think up. These would ultimately prove to be useful skills, but for now they only served to further alienate me from other kids. On top of it all, I still struggled with bladder controllikely due to my heaping pile of insecurities, to which this problem only added morewell into my elementary school years.
But none of this would compare to the final insult the universe would deal me. Ive been stuck with the most unfortunate of sexual orientations, a preference for a group of people who are legally, morally and psychologically unable to reciprocate my feelings and desires. Its a curse of the first order, a completely unworkable sexuality, and its mine. Who am I? Nice to meet you. My name is Todd Nickerson, and Im a pedophile. Does that surprise you? Yeah, not many of us are willing to share our story, for good reason. To confess a sexual attraction to children is to lay claim to the most reviled status on the planet, one that effectively ends any chance you have of living a normal life. Yet, Im not the monster you think me to be. Ive never touched a child sexually in my life and never will, nor do I use child pornography.
But isnt that the definition of a pedophile, you may ask, someone who molests kids? Not really. Although pedophile and child molester have often been used interchangeably in the media, and there is some overlap, at base, a pedophile is someone whos sexually attracted to children. Thats it. Theres no inherent reason he must act on those desires with real children. Some pedophiles certainly do, but many of us dont. Because the powerful taboo keeps us in hiding, its impossible to know how many non-offending pedophiles are out there, but signs indicate there are a lot of us, and too often we suffer in silence. Thats why I decided to speak up.
The Discovery of an Alternate Sexuality:
Many gays begin to recognize their sexual preferences sometime around puberty, if not before. For me it was the same. I was about 12 when the first inklings of a sexual preference bubbled up in me, though at the time I thought little of it. As I turned 13 it occurred to me that what I initially took as a phase had begun to solidify into something more troubling. Even so, at this point I could still convince myself that I was within the realm of normalcy. Then something happened that all but removed my ability to continue this self-denial: my Eureka Moment.
One day, as I was sketching in my grandparents living room, a neighbor of theirs came to visit with his seven-year-old daughter in tow. At first I hadnt noticed her because she was quiet. I only heard my grandpa and his neighbor chatting in the kitchen while I sketched. Soon the little girl walked into the dining room and stood at the archway entrance to the living room, watching me draw. I can still see her today in my minds eye: dressed in blue jeans and a nearly matching denim jacket, with pristine blue eyes and a halo of wispy blond curls framing her face. She seemed somehow larger than life and almost ancient in the way she stood so perfectly still. Then, just like that, she was gone; she and her father left. That singular moment, though it could scarcely have lasted more than a few minutes, has become seared into my memory.
He Touched Me:
So how had this happened? Well, I have a pretty good idea. When I was seven years old, I was fondled in the front yard of my grandparents home by a man I barely knew. It was a one-time event in my life and not a particularly traumatic one. A man Ill call Hans, a German who was acquainted with my uncle and aunt from when they lived in Nuremberg, had come to visit America. He spent a day and a night at their place, and they lived next door to my family along with my grandparents, who shared their two-story brick house. That day, the man lingered in the house with my grandma, who was stuck with him while everyone else had gone to work, and as neither could speak the others language, it quickly became uncomfortable for both.
Grammys solution was to send Hans outside with one of the grandkids. As I happened to be in the room at the time, I was assigned the task. Take him out and show him Papas garden, she told me. Tell him the names of the vegetables. Hed probably enjoy that. I agreed. Besides, even though I knew not a whit of German, I was very much at ease in Hanss presence. He was painfully thin, with a messy mop of hair and large glasses. I should point out that the men in my life, including my father, were gruff blue-collar types who could intimidate me. Hans was different: gentle, soft-spoken and appealingly awkwarda lot like me!
I took the mans right hand with my left (my good hand) and led him out into the garden, which took up most of the front lawn at my grandparents place. I escorted my new friend down the rows of veggies, calling out each one as we passed it, and Hans would gleefully parrot the names. This went on until we made our way through the entire garden. I was proud to find myself educating an adult rather than the other way around. When the English lesson was over, Hans plopped himself down on a patch of earth near the garden and patted the spot next to him, indicating he wanted me to sit there. I did. I couldnt believe this peculiar man I barely knew was so eager to connect with me, the weird little kid nobody liked. It felt good.
For long minutes we simply enjoyed each others company. Then, out of the blue, Hans slipped a hand into my shorts, even though we were only about 30 feet from the poorly paved country road that meandered through this stretch of country. This went on for several minutes. I was confused but not frightened or troubled. The only thing I could think to say while this was happening was Peepee, continuing the English lesson with my pet name for my genitalia even in the midst of my own abuse. Hans chortled and repeated the word: Peepee. Eventually this came to an end, and Hans, having gotten what he wanted, shooed me away. I cant imagine why it didnt occur to him that I would immediately rat him out; maybe he knew and just didnt care. Anyway, he could hardly ask me not to, could he? I raced back to Grammy and promptly informed her of what had happened. She deliberated over what to do, in the end asking me to keep it a secret from everyone, including my parents, and ordering me to stay away from Hans. No authorities were called, and life went on as usual. Hans stayed that evening with my uncle and aunt and left the next day. I never saw him again.
Its easy to assume that pedophilia is always the result of some early sexualization or abuse, and certainly there seems to be a connection in some cases. However, evidence suggests theres no magic bullet that pedophilia can be traced back to. For every pedophile who was sexually abused as a child theres another who wasnt. Likewise, most abuse victims never manifest pedophilic desires. Some researchers surmise that pedophilia can be traced back to genetics. Others believe the cause is congenital, and still others that its environmental. Personally, I think the ultimate cause is likely some combination of those, and that it varies from person to person.
Another issue is the role feelings of inadequacy play in forming our sexuality. Pedophilia may not arise from such fears (otherwise thered be a lot more pedophiles), but those fears can certainly reinforce it. I think its safe to say that many pedophiles have deep-seated feelings of inferiority in one way or another, or at least we did when our sexuality was forming, and this becomes a downward spiral during puberty and beyond. Anything can be the trigger of this: disabilities, weight issues, or just general feelings of unattractiveness to peers. These feelings can be influential on ones developing sexuality, such that even the severe cultural taboo is not enough to override it. Indeed, the taboo itself can negatively influence these vulnerable children.
I recall an event from when I was 11, sitting in the family jeep with my dad and his friend Andy when a news piece on the radio reported the sexual abuse of a girl, to which my dad said to his friend something like, They should take people like that and place weights on top of their genitals until they smash. Pretty horrific imagery for an 11-year-old to process, and I couldnt help but sympathize with the abuser. After all, I could recall my own molestation perfectly, and I hardly felt it warranted that kind of response.
The bile has only multiplied since then, and I believe all that hatred just serves to reinforce pedophilia in youngsters predisposed to it. Its a form of cognitive bias called the Backfire Effect or polarization. Everyone does this to some extent. When challenged on deeply held beliefs, no matter how uncertain or incorrect they may be, we tend to dig in our heels. With sexuality, that effect is likely magnified because theres a physiological component, a drive every bit as powerful as belief. In essence, your brain knows what it likes and isnt going to take no for an answer. For that reason, the nature or nurture question with respect to sexual preference is ultimately irrelevantit becomes all but hardwired soon enough, until its all you know. And its self-reinforcing, no matter how much you wish to dig it out. Eventually it all tangles together with the rest of who you are.
Things went along OK until I was two years away from graduating college. I began to smoke pot, a drug Id experimented with after high school but didnt much care for then. I didnt like it the second time around either; it made me anxious more often than not. But I did it anyway, largely because many people I respected smoked it, and I wanted to be more like them. I was trying desperately to reshape my identity before I was thrown out into the real world. Id even begun working out, lifting weights and exercising to get in better shape. On the outside I mightve seemed pretty normal, but on the inside I was screaming in terror at the prospect of having to grow up and be normalwhich to me meant getting a real job, finding a girlfriend, eventually getting married and raising a family. Oh, I wanted to be normal, believe me, yet I knew myself well enough to know I wouldnt be able to carry that charade off for long, and every fiber of my being resisted the forced transformation.
After graduation I fell into the deepest pit of despair imaginable, one that lasted several years, and Ive only just begun to pull myself out of it. You cant experience that much blind terror and pain for that long without being seriously impacted by it. I still worked out every other day, so I was hurting constantly, since depression saps your brain of the feel-good chemicals that helps to counteract pain; but I felt something, and that was better than the emotional numbness that had overtaken me. Thus, my project to remake myself into a regular person a complete failure, I retreated inward like a kicked dog, often spending days on end in my bedroom. At the nadir of my depression I was contemplating suicide daily; some days I could think of little else. I found some relief in opiates, which I had to obtain illegally because doctors wont prescribe them for depression and anxiety. The occasional hydrocodone gave me a moment of respite from the agony I was going through. Id tried antidepressants, but they were a joke.
In the midst of that dark era in my life, I discovered an unhealthy pedophile forum. Nothing illegal was happening there, but many of its most influential members were pro-contacters, meaning they believed that sex with children was theoretically OK and supported the elimination of age of consent laws. That forum still exists and I wont name it here, but suffice it to say, I found myself taking up the same pro-contacter chants, if only to feel like I belonged somewhere. At the time it was all that was available in terms of an actual pedophile community, and I had nothing left to lose by joining the cause, misguided though it was, and even decided to out myself on that forum. Over the ensuing years, though, I was often at odds with the pro-contacters and flitted in and out of their clique; I wanted desperately to be friends with people who shared my sexual orientation, even if they held crazy beliefs, but I could never quite reconcile with their viewpoint.
Not long after I self-outed, a group of web vigilantes called Perverted Justice showed up. Youve probably heard of them; theyre the people behind the now-defunct TV show To Catch a Predator. I was no predator, but that mattered not one iota to these guys; they lumped me together with the child rapists and internet creeps just the same. As I was already out of the closet as a pedo, I was an easy target, becoming one of the first people they profiled on their Wikisposure page, a site devoted to outing online pedos whether theyd broken any laws or not. It has since changed hands but still exists online, buried in a dark corner of the internet, and yep, Im still on it. Not that I much care anymore. Perverted Justice had their day, but they eventually burned their own house down. Back when they were in full effect, however, they managed to make my already miserable existence that much more miserable. After their expose came out, I was fired from my job at Lowes.
But things are getting better. Slowly. These days I struggle with bitterness and apathy; its a constant uphill battle, and there are days I just dont feel like making that climb. I eke out a living (barely) on a freelance graphic design business, in a small town where too many people know who and what I am. Now I have a bachelors degree in journalism that Ive never used and Im living well below the poverty line, existing on food stamps and the couple hundred dollars I manage to scrape together every month, sometimes augmented with financial help from my parents if the bills get too high. I tried filing for disability over my arm and my emotional issues, but that was a no-go in my conservative Southern state. This is what a law-abiding pedophile has been reduced to in this society. At times Ive wondered why Ive even bothered to stay legal. Maybe prison would be better, even at the risk of getting shanked as a Short Eyes. At least then it would all be over with. But alas, I could never hurt a child. No matter what, some small part of me still holds out hope that things will go back to normal, or as close to normal as a celibate pedophile with little prospect of a future can get. Besides, like I said earlier, I just couldnt allow myself to foist this abomination onto another human being. So I simply endured. Until …
I was still caught up in the same nonsense at the pro-contacter forum last year when Ethan Edwards started posting at the forum. Actually hed been there for a while. I didnt take much notice of him at first, but when I realized he was the constant target of the pro-contacters attacks, I sympathized with him and began to pay closer attention to his posts, realizing that he was an anti-contacter like me. He was there to win over people who were either on the fence about the contact issue or didnt agree with the pro-contacters position but had nowhere else to go to talk about their sexuality. Until now. Ethan and his friend Nick Devin founded Virtuous Pedophiles on the notion that pedos needed an alternative to those other forums, a place where they can feel comfortable and get the support they need without the pressure to support sketchy views about adult-child sex.
I really cant praise this organization enough. Its been a lifesaver for me. I still get depressed and anxious sometimes, but Im improving. I feel better about myself and a little more hopeful about my future these days. I have other pedophiles in my life that Im actually proud to call friends, people I would trust my children with if I had any, knowing theyd be safe there. Many, like Ethan, have raised families of their own, or are still doing so. A large number of them are quite young. Despite the prevailing stereotype of the dirty old man, the average age of posters at VP hovers around mid-twenties. Im so glad that younger folks are flocking to Virtuous Pedophiles, where they can get the coaching and support that was not available to us older pedos at their age. Itll make all the difference as they settle into themselves and learn to accept who they are.
VirPed itself has become the go-to place for support for non-offending pedophiles and has been mentioned and endorsed everywhere from NPR, Salon and the Atlantic to the New York Times and Toronto Star. As its popularity increases, so too does its effectiveness. There are still holdouts, people who believe that pedophilic feelings should be crammed down into the most subterranean recesses of ourselves, never to be discussed in the open, but these folks are going the way of the dodo bird. Anyway, weve tried that. Take it from someone who has firsthand experience: it not only doesnt work, it tends to make things far worse. Please repeat this mantra to yourself: a repressed, unhappy pedophile is a pedophile at risk.
Those individuals who have the courage to come forward and lay claim to this affliction with the understanding that they only want to use their pedo powers for good should be commended, not hated and feared. You cant imagine how difficult it is to tell people youre a pedophile, even a non-offending one, and even if those people are other pedos. Truly, the very concept of a pedophile who neither molests nor wants to molest children is often anathema to peoples way of thinking. The long-held belief that pedophiles are destined to abuse kids is a tough one to overcome, yet many of us get just as upset asif not more upset thannon-pedophiles when we read accounts of sexual abuse, not only because we hate when one of the little people we love most suffers, but also because, whenever yet another pedophile is arrested, it reinforces the reigning paradigm of the pedo as ticking time bomb.
For better or worsemostly worsewe have this sexuality, and unlike with most sexualities, there is no ethical way we can fully actualize our sexual longings. Our desires and feelings, if we are to remain upright, are doomed from the outset. Indeed, whereas the majority of crimes can be bounced back from, society doesnt extend a mulligan to molesters. I understand why, but that doesnt make the burden any lighter to bear, particularly for those of us who have minimal or no attraction to adults. And for the pedos who are lucky enough to be able to form working relationships with adults, there are a new set of concerns: What if we have children? Will I be a threat to them? Can I ever share this fact with my spouse? Can I ever love and want her as much as I do a child?
So, please, be understanding and supportive. Its really all we ask of you. Treat us like people with a massive handicap we must overcome, not as a monster. If we are going to make it in the world without offending, we need your help. Listening to me was a start.