On Tuesday night, The Current hosted what their editor in chief referred to no fewer than three times as a “groundbreaking” discussion about the psychology of pedophilia. Thrilled just to be invited, Bwog’s own Editor in Chief Taylor Grasdalen attended to learn more. Trigger warning: mild discussion of sexual abuse.
I’ve never given pedophilia much thought. To attend a 90-minute lecture and panel on pedophilia, then, probably totals all the time I had ever prior given the disorder. “Pedophilia,” defined: “sexual feelings directed toward children.” The panel, introduced by The Current‘s Joshua Fattal, CC ’15, was comprised of Luke Malone, journalist with Matter and This American Life and Columbia Journalism School ’13; Elizabeth Letourneau, Director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and James Cantor, from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. These three offered a surprising diversity in their training and opinions — particularly useful in this conversation — though they wholeheartedly consense in teaching “society” and “culture” to see pedophilia as something biological and entirely separate from status as sexual offender.
Only this way, we learned, can we become more empathetic. We’re generally not inclined to empathize with pedophiles, but Cantor’s research and description of those affected as having developed their disorder in utero — and Letourneau’s and Malone’s own research and reportage — leads change here. Cantor proposed homosexuality as apparently analogous to pedophilia, that it’s something one is born into, but diverges in action; where gay men (and gay women, too, though the stress was on men) can safely act on their sexuality, pedophiles cannot. Upon action, they do become sexual offenders. There’s no doubt, as Letourneau explained, that harm is done when children are party to sexual acts. But we see pedophilia synonymous with sexual offense, and this view compromises our ability not only to treat but to prevent offense, the “action” and fulfillment of pedophilic fantasies, the harm.
Malone, in his thesis at Columbia, wrote about teen pedophiles and what Letourneau calls the self-directed “dreadful terms” that young pedophiles use for themselves. There’s “awful internalization,” again paralleled by the panel to homosexuality with its radical self-loathing, depression, thoughts of suicide, thoughts that “I am a monster.” No one would choose this. Cantor’s work over the last decade has involved diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), also called a diffusion MRI, with which scientists like himself may map and read brain tissue and its changes when stimulated. Recently accepted for publication (and received with applause by this crowd), his research concludes that there’s no single “sex center” in the brain but a network that together decides, ultimately, “what’s sexy” to the individual. These factors in the brain include face recognition, motor control, and reaction suppression.
Suppression of reaction is important to pedophiles in more than the context of a research laboratory. Letourneau discussed her dream of an intervention program, believing that there might be a window in adolescents’ life where their “brain plasticity” could allow preventive treatment, though estimates its cost between one to two million dollars. The trials, the programming, the implementation. It would primarily be done online, with some therapy supplement. There’s also the potential of actual treatment for pedophiles who have already offended and been caught, people in prison, people whom Cantor currently characterizes as recipients less of justice than of vengeance (at least in the American “system,” he says).
The panelists left little room for interpretation of pedophilia as something other than “predisposition” (per the event’s title), but whether it’s “perversion” seems to involve one’s actions and ability to suppress his feelings. One member of the audience, during the brief Q&A, asked whether the panel understands pedophilia as more romantic or more sexual. Cantor and Letourneau agreed that very few pedophiles — and even sexual offenders — see their feelings or actions as harmful, often walking the line between romantic love and paternal love. But again, Letourneau reiterates that there is no way for a pedophile to act upon his (again, this discussion male-centric) “urges” without causing harm. Whatever “love” the individual sees in his behavior (or mind, though scientists and researchers like these are mostly able to study only those incarcerated for their actions due to rare self-reporters) is irrational. This is not to say that they don’t know their actions to be wrong, but that they generally believe their intentions to be good.
Malone, unofficial host of the discussion, finally prompted Letourneau and Cantor: “What more could be done?” Elizabeth Letourneau sees a need for prevention via early intervention, and a change in public attitudes. This conversation is dated as recently to the recent Jerry Sandusky controversy, where we have begun to learn — as presented in the media — that child sex abuse really is preventable, with effort. James Cantor, too, discussed this and the costs of not seeking prevention; the average inmate costs the United States $25,000 per year, and as much as $100,000 for someone incarcerated on sexual offense charges. These costs mount as sexual offenders are often targeted by their peers in prison. By reforming, intervening, and perhaps rehabilitating rather than imprisoning for life those even mandatorily reported, such funds could go to research and make the cycle less costly, and less painful. The average child sex abuse victim “costs” some $360,000 in his or her lifetime — for therapy, their own harm or spurred abuse, their own difficulties down the road. So much money might be better directed elsewhere.
It’s predisposed, that’s almost certain. But that it makes one perverse and sexual crimes inevitable — this is less likely, and this is where we must turn our attention.
@Baldur Anon is correct and Letourneau is wrong. There is no evidence that sexual activity – in and of itself – harms children. Societal reaction to child sexuality seems to do most of the harm. In the Rind study, respondents who were never found out did not experience significant negative results, but those who WERE discovered … well, that’s another story.
The discussion about the costs of treatment present another fact: there is considerable financial incentive for prison guard unions, police officers, lawyers, psychologists, therapists, etc. to lie and claim that pedophilia is an illness and a problem. In fact, it is neither. Pilip Ney, Tak Fung, and Adele Wickett (1994) presented evidence (though not recognized by the authors themselves) that *consensual* adult-child sex actually reduces harm from other types of abuse. In seeking to eradicate pedophiles, society is attempting to put out fires by killing all the firemen.
It is also noteworthy that pedophilia, as the driver of the evolutionary processes of neoteny and self-domestication, appears to be responsible for the rise of human intelligence and civilization. The current anti-pedophilia impulses of western civilization are ultimately suicidal at the level of our species.
Some more resources here:
@Anon Professor Tromovitch and the psychologist Bruce Rind (of Temple University) in 1998 published an article written together with based on a peer-reviewed meta-analysis of 59 studies which used the self-reported experiences of child sexual contact with adults by 35,703 college students. A substantial majority of the people in this study did not report any harmful effects of (non-coercive) sexual experiences (as opposed to victims of coercion), and a substantial minority even stated these intergenerational sexual contacts and relationships had a positive effect on their life. This article was published in the Psychological Bulletin, the prestigious, official journal of the American Psychological Association (APA).
Predictably, this caused a storm in the mass media and in the political elite. Apparently for the first time in US history, both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate condemned this scientific paper and threatened to withdraw funding from the APA, so the APA apologised for publishing it. 12 past and present presidents of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex sharply protested against the APA’s response to the public and political pressure surrounding the study, stating that it “cast a chill on all such research”. The American Association for the Advancement of Science refused APA’s request to review the study, stating they saw “no reason to second-guess the process of peer review used by the APA journal in its decision to publish” and that they “saw no clear evidence of improper application of methodology or other questionable practices on the part of the article’s authors”.
More recently, the Harvard lecturer Susan Clancy came to the similar conclusions in her book “The Trauma Myth”. In the 1970s and 1980s, Donald West, Professor of Criminology from the University of Cambridge, advocated the abolition of the age of consent in scholarly books. See also Professor Richard Green’s article (he is a psychiatrist from Cambridge University and UCL) “Is Paedophilia a Mental Disorder”.
In the words of Karin Freimond (“Navigating the Stigma of Pedophilia:
The Experiences of
Nine Minor-Attracted Men in Canada”, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Frasier University, 2013): “Many adults who are attracted to minors experience intense suffering as a result of contemporary attitudes about them and current methods of relating to them. Even when no crimes have taken place and no sexual interaction with people below the age of consent has occurred, people who are sexually interested in children and adolescents encounter incredible stigma. They experience fear about the possibility of their desires becoming known to others, and they cope with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. These individuals are often completely alone in dealing with their feelings, as they may be too worried about the negative consequences that could arise from talking to loved ones. Further, they may feel restricted in seeking help from therapists, as mandatory reporting laws in many jurisdictions require counsellors to report their clients to the police if they express sexual interest in children. If the nature of their sexuality is revealed, these people are at risk of experiencing physical violence, losing relationships with their friends and families, being fired from their jobs, and encountering financial destitution. The situation facing this population is troubling, and researchers argue that a new, more compassionate approach is needed in order to help people who are attracted to children lead more positive lives (see Cantor, 2012; Goode, 2010).”
Much more pleasurable to dehumanise all the paedos regardless of their behaviour, to cage them or drive them to suicide. As Felix Guattari wrote (“A Shock to Thought: Expression After Deleuze and Guattari”), there is a certain “Jewishness” about paedophiles which provokes a “racist” reaction.
@Gary Gibson I am a life coach who has dealt with hundreds of men and women with pedophilia through the Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention (i-ASAP.org). I do not “cure” pedophilia but can help you minimize and manage any risk that you might sexually interact with a child.
@ThatOneGuy And again we see people blithely compare homosexuality to pedophilia. Why not flip it around this time, and point out that it’s just like HETEROSEXUALITY. Heterosexuality is, after all, inborn. No one asks heaters if they choose to be that way. This way us gays can get a break from getting grouped / compared to the kiddy diddlers every once in a while. It’s truly insulting that in 2015 we still have to deal with this type of stigmatization. Merely the framing of the comparison portrays us as abnormal and deviant. Super tired of it.
@ThatOneGuy heteros* not heaters – damn autocorrect
@LynTod Seriously? When are we going to stop portraying pedophiles as victims? Taking them out of prison isn’t going to help anyone; if anything, it’ll only give them more opportunity to abuse children. Pedophilia is a disorder. Pedophiles are essentially attracted to the rape of children. It is not natural or justifiable to have sexual feelings for children.
By insisting we be more sympathetic to pedophiles, we are only contributing to the further abuse of children. Frankly, I’m disgusted by anyone who can ever prioritize a pedophile over a victim. Saying that money dedicated to an abuse victim’s therapy can be “better directed” to pedophiles is a terrible statement. Yes, pedophiles should be in therapy. However, pedophile therapy isn’t going to immediately stop all child sex abuse from happening. Not all people who sexually molest children will be cured by therapy; as I said before, pedophilia is attraction to the rape of children, the exercise of power of them, and not many child abusers are going to fit into the “general concept” of pedophiles.
You can’t be “born” into pedophilia. Pedophilia is not a sexual orientation. A sexual orientation like heterosexuality or homosexuality (which, by the way, is not in any shape or form the same as pedophilia.) requires consenting partners… Children cannot be consenting, they are victims being groomed and controlled by an adult. Nobody is born wanting to molest children. It’s a mindset and an illness. In order to be “attracted” to a child, you need to have a warped mindset. Any normal person will recognize a child as a CHILD, not a sexual object. Pedophiles are condemned for a good reason. Saying otherwise and trying to paint these people as victims to their own desires is not going to help the problem, it is only going to make it worse. Especially when you suggest that money going into pedophile therapy will put less sex abuse victims in therapy. These victims of abuse deserve our attention and help more than anything else. Pedophile therapy is not going to solve everything.
Should we work to stop pedophilia? Yes. But this article is not taking a step in that direction.
@Kate “It is not natural or justifiable to have sexual feelings for children.”
I’m not sure why anyone would need to “justify” having a mental illness, considering it isn’t a choice. Schizophrenia isn’t natural or justifiable, either. That doesn’t mean schizophrenics are bad people.
“You can’t be “born” into pedophilia.”
As James Cantor discussed, there’s substantial evidence that pedophilia is at least influenced by prenatal factors (e.g., pedophiles are more likely to be left-handed).
“Saying that money dedicated to an abuse victim’s therapy can be “better directed” to pedophiles is a terrible statement.”
The point was that primary prevention of sexual abuse is preferable to secondary treatment, because it means there are less victims of abuse.
@Anonymous “Schizophrenia isn’t natural”
What? Where do you think it comes from?
@I. I agree with J’s comment. The idea that pedophilia is an illness first and foremost is totally unfounded – why are most pedophiles men? Unless these researchers are suggesting there is a gene found mainly in men that triggers these thoughts, something I highly doubt can be scientifically supported. Why are most pedophiles opportunistic in their assaults, and not simply attacking the first child they see? They are calculated in their assaults, proving pedophilia is *not* a terrible illness that they cannot control. Although even if it were, that does not oblige anyone, especially those who were sexually abused as children, to empathize with pedophiles. Someone who feels guilty over fantasizing about violating a child is not equitable to someone feeling guilt over homosexuality. The latter harms no one, and the former can destroy someone’s mental health.
Like J. said, pedophilia is likely the product of socialization. It is about attraction to power imbalances. Therapy will not necessarily cure this, many pedophiles may even use their experience with therapy as a way to deflect from later accusations of assault. Additionally, pedophiles have been reported to break down crying and guilty right before assaulting a child. It can be a manipulation tactic, and this supposed guilt must not be taken at face value. While someone with pedophilic thoughts who does not want to act on them should certainly attempt to cure themselves, they should also understand that no one owes them sympathy, and that the guilt they feel is just a sign that they still have some semblance of a conscience.
@Kate “The idea that pedophilia is an illness first and foremost is totally unfounded – why are most pedophiles men?”
Every mainstream psychological organization in the world agrees that pedophilia is a mental illness. Many mental illnesses have gender biases, e.g., autism.
“Why are most pedophiles opportunistic in their assaults, and not simply attacking the first child they see? They are calculated in their assaults, proving pedophilia is *not* a terrible illness that they cannot control.”
Sexual behavior towards children is controllable. Sexual attraction is not.
“they should also understand that no one owes them sympathy”
Human beings who have harmed no one deserve to be treated with respect, period.
@Jessica “Many mental illnesses have gender biases, e.g., autism.”
Perhaps mental illnesses are only gender biased in diagnosis, not existence. Experts have agreed that autism is under-diagnosed in girls, indicating that the gender makeup of those with autism might be much closer to even than diagnosis statistics would suggest. (Source: www . theguardian . com /lifeandstyle/2009/apr/12/autism-aspergers-girls — take out the spaces because Bwog doesn’t allow links in comments.)
@simgiran “By insisting we be more sympathetic to pedophiles, we are only contributing to the further abuse of children.”
How so? You present no argument, no evidence. For example James Cantor said in article on the Atlantic: “In my experience, pedophiles are the most likely to commit their offenses when they feel that they have nothing going for them in their lives and that therefore they have nothing to lose. People are most likely to do the most desperate things when they feel the most desperate. Unfortunately, much of the current social systems greatly increase rather than decrease these people’s feelings of desperation.” Another thing is that with current attitude those pedophiles, who have problems controlling their urges are afraid to seek help. How is that preventing abuse of children?
You claim pedophilia is not a sexual orientation because a sexual orientation requires a consenting partner. Whether pedophilia is a sexual orientation or not depends on how we define the term sexual orientation. I don’t think it’s good to have an overly loaded term. For me a sexual orientation means a lasting pattern of sexual and romantic attraction towards a certain group. And using such definition pedophilia is a sexual orientation.
Next, I don’t think the dogma of child that cannot consent helps anything. Children can’t give an informed consent, that’s something different than plain consent. A child can find a sexual activity pleasurable. Yet there is a significant risk of significant harm to the child, that’s a reason why it’s wrong to engage in a sexual activity with a child. Why do I even deal with this? First with just repeating the dogma “child can’t consent” it can easily lead some pedophile to think if he doesn’t force the child to sexual activities the activities can’t harm the child. Next it can contribute to secondary victimization of sexual abuse victims.
No one claims a therapy of pedophiles will solve everything. However, it might help prevent so many cases of sexual abuse, that it would be money saving as a result of preventing costs for imprisonment of offenders, therapy for victims, loss of productivity of victims etc. And in such case the money saved might be given for example to help victims of abuse. I don’t know if some therapy can be that cost-effective. But to find out one needs to start somewhere.
@simgiran This was supposed to be a response to comment of LynTod from March 25, 2015 11:09 pm
@lol Consense is definitely not a word! In fact, as I write it in this comment box, the red squiggly line of truth is staring at me lol
@J. Not all child molesters are concept of The Pedophile. Many (I think most, I’ve read? This was MY personal experience with my own abuse as a child, also) are adults that take advantage of their minor relatives, but are functioning adults otherwise with attraction to fellow adults. Pedophilia is more about an attraction to power imbalance. I think it’s confining to be say pedophilia has to be a mental illness itself, or that all child molesters are pedophiles. It might be a mental disorder for some, but a perversion for others. It is not like homosexuality, as pedophilia can be gotten over, cured. (I had intrusive feelings, I think, as a result of trauma in attraction to youth, but I made myself get over it. I don’t want to flippantly say, “It ain’t hard” but … it wasn’t hard for me.) I extremely doubt most pedophiles don’t know they actions are harmful, and if they do, they’re mentally ill in addition to being pedophiles. I think child molesters should go through therapy, but the idea of letting them out of prison makes be cringed and terrified for children (whether that be them abusing children or supporting the child porn industry by watching it.) I also don’t feel sympathy for pedophiles and don’t see why I should. There’s nothing that can prove to me they can’t help it and even if there was that doesn’t stop me or anyone from being scared of , say, a psychopath. Lastly, the statement “The average child sex abuse victim ‘costs’ some $360,000 in his or her lifetime — for therapy, their own harm or spurred abuse, their own difficulties down the road. So much money might be better directed elsewhere” is concerning to me, feels insensitive. I guess you’re getting at if there was more pedophile therapy there would be less therapy for abused kids (because there would be less of them?) I feel that is reaching and oversimplifying things. I also think a plenty of money should go towards helping abused children, more than anything else. Abused children should always come because the men who have thoughts of harming children. You start this piece with “I’ve never given pedophilia much thought” so I honestly have to wonder if you are the best to be writing an article about this, I have to wonder about this for the people in the room–something about a group of people who are neither survivors, victims, or even pedophiles, to our knowledge, in a room discussing the systematics of pedophilia and child molestation honestly reeks to me. I’ve just always had an instinct against people talking for things they’ve never experienced.
Mostly what I want to emphasize basically is: No, no one owes pedophiles empathy or sympathy, ESPECIALLY survivors and victims of sexual child abuse. If you do, that’s you, but that’s not me and I should not be guilt-tripped or shamed for it. And I, nor anyone else, should be obligated to. Again, this is not a fair comparison to homosexuality, as homosexuality and homosexual thoughts are, on basis (as in, when not touched with rapist thoughts or pedophiliac thoughts), are not harmful. Meanwhile, pedophilia involves sexually exploitative, dangerous, unhealthy thoughts on basis.
I had a hard time condensing my thoughts, but hopefully this was understandable.
@J. Also, couldn’t pedophiles being mostly men further point in the direction that pedophilia comes more often from socialization of toxic masculinity (i.e. attraction of power imbalance) than a mental disorder? Similar to the rapist mindset–not a mental disorder, but a socialized attraction to dominance.
@Creasy How far should sympathy and empathy going? Noone says that pedophiles are better persons than average if they don’t offend – there is no medal or prize for not abusing children. But a person who is attracted to children and don’t act on it is not a monster, evil or satan himself. Persons with an attraction to children are humans as well, should be threated as humans as well and if they don’t offend, they should not be in jail or something like this – that’s all.
Rape fantasies or thoughts on sex with children might be disgusting – but thoughts alone don’t harm anybody. There are no thought crimes and we don’t need thought police.
@SEAS '15 That person did not say they should be in jail. They did not claim to want to police thought. Don’t be obtuse. They made some great points about power imbalance and societal expectations of men, but you seemed to have glossed over that to play the devil’s advocate.
@Kate “There’s nothing that can prove to me they can’t help it”
That puts you at odds with every scientist who has studied pedophilia, including the two who spoke at this event. Even ignoring the many studies that have found sexual attraction to children to be immutable, it’s ludicrous to believe that someone would choose such a stigmatized preference. People can control their sexual behavior, but they cannot decide what arouses them.
“something about a group of people who are neither survivors, victims, or even pedophiles, to our knowledge, in a room discussing the systematics of pedophilia and child molestation honestly reeks to me.”
James Cantor is probably the prominent researcher of pedophilia today, and Elizabeth Letourneau directs an anti-abuse organization. I trust that form of experience over gut instinct and anecdotes.
“couldn’t pedophiles being mostly men further point in the direction that pedophilia comes more often from socialization of toxic masculinity (i.e. attraction of power imbalance) than a mental disorder?”
No. It is likely the same reason that women rarely have foot fetishes. Male sexual development is simply more prone to abnormal fixations.
@simgiran I am not sure I understand you well. A lot of child molesters aren’t pedophiles, that’s a good and important point. Their motivation for molesting children are different than being attracted predominantly towards children. It can be seeking power imbalance, seeking an easy target etc. However, that’s not pedophilia.
Pedophilia is the sexual orientation of pedophiles, the genuine erotic attraction towards children. A lot of pedophiles are attracted dominantly towards children of one sex. Why would be that if what attracted them was power imbalance? Also pedophiles tend to see children as partners, as equal to them. I’ve talked to some pedophiles hypothetically about adopting the child they like. And frequently I was told they wouldn’t want that, that it would be a different kind of relationship, that they wouldn’t want to have the authority over the child.
More and more sexologist agree pedophilia can’t be cured, at least not with current state of knowledge. I’ve heard about people with obsessive sexual thoughts about children that got cured, but they had OCD, not pedophilia. Maybe it was your case?
You say you are against people talking about things they’ve never experienced. Well a great majority of people never experienced being a pedophile, yet they talk about pedophiles. Or if you mean experience with a pedophile, how can the person that has some experience know how much the experience is representative for all pedophiles.
@FreshPrinceOfDarkness Very interesting article. Thanks for the report.
@HV Error in second to last paragraph. Should be “Malone, unofficial host”