4 things you should know about pedophilia

A group of people sit in a circle, seemingly participating in a support group.

Editor’s note: To honor indigenous peoples, the author uses a lowercase writing style except when speaking about indigenous rights and issues. For more information, please visit the author’s profile.

“child sexual abuse (csa) is possibly one of the only offenses where people collectively “feel the response before they deliberately consider the issue”. this reaction will often extend to pedophilia too, despite the latter being a mental disorder rather than a criminal offense.”

jennifer parr and dominic pearson

there aren’t many spaces to have honest conversations about child sexual abuse (csa), and there are even fewer spaces to discuss pedophilia. for most, it’s upsetting to even think about, and little wonder. statistics on the rate of child sexual abuse vary widely depending on how it’s measured. nevertheless, whether one feels strongly about protecting children; was sexually abused as a child; or knows someone who’s been abused, it’s a topic that hits close to home for many.

as the quote above suggests, csa and pedophilia are topics that we collectively feel as a culture before we deliberately consider the issue. it’s a visceral response: in the public realm, reactions to pedophilia range from disgust to outright violence. as you read this article, i invite you to notice what comes up in your body – whether it’s tensing, withdrawing, perhaps your heart beating faster. just notice what happens. take a breath. and then read on. as visceral as the impact may be, our collective response to pedophilia must be considered, for reasons i will outline below.

before i go on, let me be clear in my intentions: advocating for education and understanding with regard to pedophilia in no way condones csa. there is no scenario in which the sexual abuse of children is ok, and children cannot consent. what i’m speaking of is a culture in which we’re able to distinguish pedophiles from abusers, and support them accordingly.

pedophilia is not a moral failing

there are many theories as to how pedophilia emerges in an individual, yet how does one explain something as complex as attraction? it is a blend of many factors, from brain chemistry to life experiences. certainly, researchers have sought to find definitive answers, and the “results are usually weak and correlational rather than causal” (map research summary, p.7). what we do know is that most people who are attracted to children come to understand this at about the same stage that others recognize their own sexual preferences: in late childhood or early adolescence.

there is no reparative therapy that works to ‘fix’ pedophilia. like other forms of conversion therapy, attempting to do so causes more harm than good. most folks who are attracted to children don’t choose it, and many wish it were not the case. public rebuke serves only to drive the issue farther underground. when it’s relegated to the shadows, it becomes harder for individuals to receive help and support which not only prevents csa, but also allows folks to live with dignity and respect.

‘pedophile’ is not synonymous with ‘child molester’

on the subject of pedophilia, one of the biggest misconceptions is the notion that it’s synonymous with child molestation. a very simplified definition of pedophilia describes an emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to children. pause now. take a breath. notice any visceral reactions that you have to these words. note what you’re feeling. and then read on.

the above paragraph describes attraction; it does not describe the crime of child sexual abuse. as a matter of fact, pedophiles comprise a minority – not the majority – of those who commit sexual offenses against children. yes, you read that right. most people (between 50-75%) who sexually harm children are not preferentially attracted to children (map research summary). how does that make sense? like sexual assault in the adult population, child sexual abuse is not primarily a crime of attraction; it’s one of power, control, and opportunism.

pedophile is an outdated term

pedophilia is one of the most stigmatized words in the english language. because it has become synonymous with child molestation in the popular imagination, the notion of a pedophile conjurs images of a person capable of doing what, for many, is the most heinous and unthinkable act: sexually harming a child. the visceral reaction this elicits can be hostile and even aggressive: “they deserve to be tortured,” say some. “death is too easy,” say others. it’s a nervous system response to fight. however, when we’re primed for fight/flight, we can’t think clearly. executive functioning just isn’t available to us when our nervous system is in sympathetic response.

why does language matter here? in common parlance the word pedophile is, almost without exception, used interchangeably with the term child molester. though technically accurate in describing an attraction to minors, it’s almost impossible to parse out this definition from its cultural meaning. therefore, the term pedophile has been replaced more recently by the term minor attracted person, or map. while descriptively accurate, it does not carry the stigma of the word pedophile. to make it very clear: map and pedophile may be used interchangeably, and neither are directly synonymous with child molester.

your visceral response won’t prevent child sexual abuse; here’s what can

recognizing the difference between pedophilia and molestation, how do we as a culture work to support maps, while also preventing child sexual abuse? the answer is really twofold: including and supporting maps within the broader society is a social justice issue in its own right. if we only help maps in an effort to prevent csa, it fails to take in the whole person. maps have a right to dignity, inclusion, and respect because they are human. they deserve this to the same degree as anyone does.

parr and pearson outline a three-tiered public health model of csa prevention. the primary level focuses on preventing abuse before it starts, often through education of children, parents, teachers, and the community. as a sexual health educator, it’s one of the reasons why i advocate so strongly for comprehensive sexual health education starting from an early age. children who know the proper names for their genitals, for example, implicitly let folks know that they have an adult with whom they talk. that alone is a preventative measure.

the third level is reactive. after abuse has taken place, this approach is on preventing further harm. it happens through initiatives such as treatment programs for convicted offenders.

it’s at the second level of prevention where there’s a lot of room for growth in our collective response. here, there’s “a targeted approach with individuals ‘at-risk’ of perpetration, for example by providing anonymous helplines or confidential treatment groups to those struggling with their attraction to children” (parr and pearson, p.6). as a society, we’ve not yet done much to intervene here. how can we, when we’re unwilling to even have a conversation about the fact that some folks are attracted to children? it’s only when we deliberately consider the issue that we can contemplate an intervention such as this.

ignoring that some people are attracted to children doesn’t alter the fact of it; nor is a visceral response to the issue constructive. what’s required is reason, and a level of compassion. not only does it speak to a more humane society, it also addresses the subject more comprehensively. if you’re to take anything away from this article, here are the key pieces:

  1. notice what happens in your body when the subject of pedophilia is broached. consciously work to regulate your breathing and ‘slow your roll’, so to speak. it will help you to consider the subject more deliberately.
  2. not all people who are attracted to children commit the offence of child sexual abuse. in fact, the majority of abusers are not primarily attracted to children.
  3. language matters: note the difference between pedophile/map and child molester.
  4. societal inclusion and support for maps is a social justice issue in its own right; a positive side effect may also be prevention of child sexual abuse.

Notable Replies

  1. To honor indigenous peoples, the author uses a lowercase writing style except when speaking about indigenous rights and issues.

    There’s got to be a better way to do this than deliberately making your articles harder to read.

    the term pedophile has been replaced more recently by the term minor attracted person, or map. while descriptively accurate, it does not carry the stigma of the word pedophile.

    I’d argue it carries even more stigma now. Anyone who uses it gets accused of “normalizing pedophilia”, whatever that means. I also don’t think it’s meant to replace pedophile, but more so to act as a catch-all to include those who are preferentially attracted to non-prepubescent minors.

  2. I agree. MAP is just an umbrella term to group pedophilia/hebephilia/ephebophilia instead of mislabeling the latter as the former. And yeah, I’d say that the “destigmatization” thing backfired. Like how the term “retarded” replaced the terms “idiot”, “imbecile”, and “moron” (which all used to be medical terms), only for the former to become an arguably worse insult than the latter…

  3. Avatar for elliot elliot says:

    Yeah, while I generally agree with the major points of the post, I took issue with the quote referring to pedophilia as a disorder and the claim that MAP either replaces or destigmatizes pedophile.

    Prostasia recently added an FAQ explaining our reasoning behind the term:

  4. I disagree.

    Unless there’s a major accommodation issue I’m missing here, this is written and formatted the same as any other informative blog post, with the exception of one cultural difference in grammar. At worst, it’s the text equivalent of “hearing someone with a different English dialect give a lecture”; I’d even argue that, given most dialects have additional vocabulary hurdles (see: “chips vs fries”), this is a much more subtle culture quirk.

    Like… it wouldn’t be ethical to ask a person with a Northern Irish dialect to “drop it” for an American audience, yeah? That doesn’t mean it can’t be difficult for some – plenty of people have enough issues processing audio that an accent they’re not familiar with could prevent them from learning anything – but it’s ultimately on the Americans to choose whether they want to sit and listen.

  5. Anyway; I appreciate seeing more posts that can act as an accessible gateway toward discussing legitimately useful CSA prevention. I also appreciate some of the disagreements with both the quote and the terminology definitions.

Continue the discussion at forum.prostasia.org

Participants

Comments

  1. I’m sorry WHAT!!!!!!!!!! I fell like a uneducated bafoon right now and I probably am
    But adult who are attracted to children is definitely a sickness and in my 59 yrs on this earth in my experience 9 out of 10 end up acting on these sexual urges
    And this I know because I spent 2 yrs in prison in Ohio in a prison were convicted pedophiles spend there last 2 yrs in all manners of therapy and classes before they can be released back into the free world
    I’ve spent many a night listening to there stories of how it started out as just a attraction to young boys and girls
    And how there sexual attraction was more powerful than the threat of prison and a life of persuasion wasn’t enough to stop them from acting on these “attractions” many a night they have told me that given that opportunity to act on these urges far out weight the threat of prison and that they if not strictly monitored would more than likely repeat there offenses again if the opportunity were to arise again many have told me that they had had sexual fantasy’s for many many yrs before they had actually sexually molested a child and never once had they called them selfs anything other than a pedophile
    I’m sorry I have to disagree with your attempt to justify an adult who’s attraction to child should be called anything but what they are I’m not a racist at a homophobic hater my brother is very gay and I love him and all his tribe as he calls them not my words my wife is a very beautiful strong woman of color and she to has read this article ( which is very beautifully wrote with all the proper grammar and big words)
    She is as appalled as I am that we should consider being more sensitive to a adult who attraction to children may or may not lead to CSA god did it intended for this to be it’s wrong I have raised children and I have friends who were abused by persons who started out only being attracted to children and then abused those children
    So please spare me this sensitive BS
    And I realize my grammar is pry that of a 10th grader but I payed in bed at night at the age of 9 threw11 listening to one of these people abusing my sister and was to afraid to help or tell a soul
    So no I will not let this nonsense go with out giving you my truthful feelings on the subject I’m sure you are a very prestigious and respected person but I respectfully disagree with you sorry
    Btw I was in prison for not paying child support and those men were not ashamed of being attracted to children and there were many many many of them and it’s terrifying that a educated person like you would defend people who have these urges even if they haven’t YET acted on them because believe me they will and some poor child’s life will be forever scared as is my sisters shame on you and shame on me for even responding to such foolishness you are suggesting in this article I found this because of a TikTok video my young niece saw and was asking me what the person was talking about
    Please feel free to respond but doubt there is much you could say to change my mind
    I tried to be respectful as I possibly could be while writing this I just can’t wrap my head around this whole idea you are trying to convince people that’s it’s just ok
    Please help me understand what it is you are try to accomplish
    Respectfully Christopher

    1. thanks for your comments, christopher, and for wanting to be respectful in your relaying of your perspective. my goal is to not have everyone agree. my goal is to increase safety for all people – children first and foremost. by not talking about the fact that some people are attracted to children, we are not making society safer for children. and by not making it safe for non-offending pedophiles to come forward to get help and support, we are also not making society safer for children. simply put, we need to be able to make a distinction between attraction to children (a mental disorder but not a crime) and molestation (a crime). and we need to understand who offends: over 50% of those who commit acts of child sexual abuse are NOT primarily attracted to children. these are often crimes of power, opportunism, and the like.

      as it stands, the only people who receive rehabilitative support are those who have already committed the crime of child sexual abuse. my vision of a safer society (not just mine, but many of the leading researchers in the field) is of support that intervenes much earlier, before anyone has been harmed. and in order to move towards that vision, we need to be able to have difficult conversations like this one, that begin by acknowledging the problem. ok, so now we’ve acknowledged it. now what? this is where the conversation begins.

  2. I honestly feel it’s very naive of you, this article writer to believe you are actually helping here. You clearly have academic knowledge but real life with these matters, I don’t think so. You seem like a nice person but from where I’m sitting, almost the entire academia circles are about how to punch up and get noticed but throughout your peers. With all the lower case writing, you caught a big fish there. Well done and I mean that from a marketing point of view as I get it. When it comes to the original issue, I wonder have you ever questioned why there is more influence now on the normalization of child sexual attraction -your justification is to not drive those affected underground which I see but there is a wider perspective here getting lost – than ever before. Not so much talk about how to help kids suffering in trauma right at this moment though. Also, and here is what makes me feel like your a bogus person – set up to look like a woman but in fact a man -, nowhere have I read about this being a sickness. It all points towards accepting these child attracted folks (look I’ll make up a fancy abrv. to make myself feel more important; caf) yes, they exsist and I understand we must accept this but where in your article does it state that this is a sickness? It’s a sickness! Animals do not mate with their own species until it’s biologically ready. This being a part of the academic club that you are not relating with, obviously. It’s clearly a mind altered, damaged yet we must all accept them because their feelings will be hurt and they won’t want to talk to anybody about it and then blah blah? Makes little sense towards positive change in my eyes. It’s a sickness. Plain and simple. I know its a growing epidemic and they just want to be included in society but they need serious help and your part of the academic arena that is there to learn how to help and this is the sort of naive, immature learning that you are doing. It’s no wonder people take to the streets in protest.

  3. You’ve confirmed my point. Thanks.
    I hope you can look back on your life and feel you’ve done at least one thing for positive change.

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