One method that gained popularity in the 1980s was so-called drama therapy, wherein child molesters and other sexual predators are forced to undergo a mock rape themselves — without penetration. This method has come under fire from some psychiatrists who note that many people who commit these crimes were victims themselves before they ever became molesters.
In Florida, a judge can order a sexual offender to be "chemically castrated" with doses of a drug called Depo-Provera. It has been shown to be effective with some kinds of sex offenders, according to Chris Slobogin of the University of Florida Levin College of Law. After a second offense, the treatment is mandatory.
Perhaps the most widely accepted method is "cognitive therapy," in which psychiatrists try to change the offender's thought processes with regard to sex crimes. The therapy is based on a belief that many potential molesters are influenced by situations they find themselves in. It works on limiting the person's likelihood of acting on impulses he might feel in those situations.
No matter what therapy is used, though, sex offenders need to be kept under supervision to ensure that they do not repeat their crime after they are returned to society, according to the NIC's Wolahan.
"Housing sex offenders together seems to work," he said. "These people are master manipulators. They squeal on each other."
‘Stop Me Before I Molest’
In some states, programs have been instituted to try to stop molesters before they victimize children, by education campaigns to drive home the idea that sexually abusing children is wrong. These programs also offer potential molesters connections to counseling services while at the same time teaching children and other concerned adults the warning signs and steps that can be taken to intervene.
STOP IT NOW! has pilot programs being tested in Vermont, Minnesota and Philadelphia that reach out to would-be molesters, their friends, families and potential victims.
While the organization, founded 10 years ago, addresses issues of what to do with sex offenders once they have gone through the legal system, its focus is on prevention, educating the public about child molestation and incest, and trying to foster the understanding — even in would-be offenders — that these are bad things to do, Klein said.
The group offers a hot line number for people to call for information if they suspect someone is at risk or feel that they themselves are suffering from a compulsion to molest a child, she said.
What might sound like a pipe dream — getting people to call and say "Stop me before I molest!" — has been getting results, though, according to the organization's Klein.
"A lot of people from law enforcement have started to understand the value of what we do," she said. "There are now people from district attorneys' offices and members of police forces who sit on the advisory boards of these pilot projects."
Johns Hopkins' Berlin said such joint efforts between law enforcers and therapists could offer the best hope of limiting pedophilia.
"Pedophilia is a mental disorder — no one would choose to have relations with children," he said. "If you have almost any other psychiatric disorder, you know where to go for treatment. There's almost nowhere to go for treatment for pedophilia. To me, if anything has been ignored, it's that side of it.
"The attorney general ought to be involved, but the surgeon general ought to be involved, too," he added.
But preventing future offenses isn't the only concern. Lawmakers, says Alabama Rep. Black, are often more interested in dealing with crimes that have already occurred.
"This isn't about deterrence," he said. "It's about punishment."