When championing the rights of sexual minorities, one is unlikely to challenge the tolerance of a progressive audience. For reasons that may at first appear obvious, this attitude does not generally extend to pedophiles. Then again, why should it? In light of sensationalistic media portrayals, even a sophisticated theory of mind is liable to malfunction when applied to so maligned a group.
The truth is that pedophilia is significantly more complex than most people realise, or are perhaps willing to admit. Our current understanding, even among many experts, borders on pseudoscience. But before going any further, we should try to establish what pedophilia is and what it isn’t.
Pedophilia is often framed as an adult mental disorder and, in simple terms, can be defined as a primary or exclusive sexual preference for prepubescent children. It is frequently conflated with hebephilia (primary or exclusive adult sexual interest in pubescent 11-14 year olds) and ephebophilia (primary or exclusive adult sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents), but attempts to create a more precise definition have led to less than satisfying results.
For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-5), defines the diagnostic criteria for “Pedophilic Disorder” as follows:
- Over a period of at least 6 months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).
- The individual has acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.
- The individual is at least age 16 years and at least 5 years older than the child or children in Criterion A.
The number of problems with the above criteria defies a reasonable word limit, but their vagueness and arbitrariness raise an immediate red flag. Perhaps most troubling is the lack of a clear distinction between “pedophile” and “child molester.” This is particularly egregious because it reinforces the already pervasive myth that the terms can be used interchangeably. Dispelling such damaging misconceptions becomes even more difficult when the major authority on psychiatric diagnosis aids in their perpetuation.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but a significant percentage of child molesters are not sexually attracted to their victims, nor are they necessarily attracted to their victims’ gender. As is the case with adult rape, factors that go beyond sexual gratification are often at play, such as personality disorders, alcoholism, poor self-esteem, intimacy issues, etc. Much of our current knowledge about pedophilia is the result of an unfortunate sampling bias. Studies have largely focused on convicted child sex offenders, which has all the epistemic value of basing our understanding of heterosexuals on studies of convicted rapists. That caveat aside, the number of pedophiles who do sexually abuse children undoubtedly remains a significant issue. The problem we face is that the current social and moral climate makes these offences infinitely more likely to occur.
The tabloid media, especially in the United Kingdom, is largely responsible for engineering the toxic discourse surrounding pedophilia. Publications like The Sun and The News of the World effectively turned the issue of child sexual abuse into a moral panic, whipping the British public into a state of paranoid hysteria at various points throughout the 1990s and 2000s—particularly after the murder of 8-year-old Sarah Payne and the disappearance of 3-year-old Madeleine McCann.
Pedophilia seemingly came to be associated with every crime involving a minor. Words like “monster”, “beast”, “sicko”, “vile” and “evil” were casually thrown around in the tabloids. One would be foolish to expect an overabundance of nuance from the mainstream media, but the bewildering extent of their disseminated ignorance meant that even pediatricians were being targeted by packs of marauding ignoramuses.
It should come as no surprise, then, that few pedophiles are eager to volunteer this information on their Tinder and OKCupid profiles. An individual could boast the looks of Zac Efron, the charm of George Clooney, the wealth of Bill Gates, and perfect impulse control, yet public knowledge of his pedophilia would almost certainly doom him to a life of infamy and relative social isolation. As a consequence, revelations of this sort tend to come hand in hand with a victim. Circumstance dictates that those with a well-calibrated moral compass suffer in silence, managing their urges and attempting to live as normal a life as can be expected. Unburdening themselves and opening up to someone is a potentially life-destroying gamble. In many countries, even psychiatrists cannot guarantee privacy if they suspect that their patient may harm a child—a legitimate concern that cannot be easily dismissed nor remedied.
Some of you may have felt the strong urge to pelt the screen with assorted fruits and vegetables when I categorized pedophiles as a sexual minority earlier in the piece, perhaps fearing that such language is legitimizing. However, there is increasing support for the idea that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, and not a mental illness. Unlike hebephilia, the relative lack of ambiguity certainly makes it much easier to pathologize—few prepubescent children look like they meet age of consent laws, after all—but the notion that a sexual preference can suddenly be defined as a symptom once an individual reaches a certain age reveals a startling lack of nuance in our understanding. In fact, it is debatable whether pedophilia even meets the DSM-5’s own definition of a mental disorder, given that the mental distress it imposes on the individual is not independent of his cultural context.
One hesitates to make the comparison for fear of being misinterpreted or misrepresented, but parallels between homosexuality and pedophilia can clearly be drawn. Indeed, as recently as the 1960s homosexuality was viewed as a mental illness within psychology, and it was clearly defined as such in the first and second editions of the DSM. Of course, the crucial difference between homosexuality and pedophilia is that non-consent is implicit in the physical expression of the latter. Pedophilia cannot be physically expressed legally or ethically, but this does not necessarily mean that it is pathological. Bizarrely, a sexual attraction to prepubescent children in absence of the mental distress this would cause most individuals with a sound moral framework has been omitted as a mental disorder from the DSM-5. The irony is that a lack of inner moral turmoil in such an aberrant context is much more suggestive of underlying pathology. But I digress.
It is often argued by anti-gay campaigners that homosexuality is a choice. Even if this argument had any moral relevance, it has been thoroughly debunked. One no more chooses to be gay than one chooses to be straight. Inconveniently for many people, this fact applies equally to pedophilia. Most of us are simply fortunate not to be pedophiles. The absence of a sexual attraction towards prepubescent children is not an achievement you or I deserve credit for, nor is the existence of that attraction something a pedophile can be blamed for. We should instead be judged on that which we do control: our actions—let’s avoid the rabbit hole of free will and determinism for simplicity’s sake.
Unfortunately, if child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church has taught us anything it is that the repression of one’s sexuality in combination with mental isolation is a recipe for a ticking time bomb. Impulse control is not infinitely elastic, and so some percentage of these individuals will eventually tap out and give in to their impulses. Our need to demonize pedophiles, irrespective of their actions, has made us complicit in creating the mental isolation that makes child molestation more tempting than self-restraint. It is cruelly ironic that society’s contempt and intolerance for these individuals only serves to create more victims.
A fuller understanding of what pedophilia is, rather than what it has been portrayed to be, does provide the room we need for tolerance—and even some degree of sympathy. One need only grasp the implications of our continued ignorance to understand that tolerance is not only right but necessary.
A version of this article first appeared on The Psyched Blog. You can view it here.