The roots of pedophilia

As many as 2,000 Roman Catholic priests have been accused in recent months of sexually abusing children. Other adults have been arrested through Internet sting operations targeting devotees of kiddie porn. Why do some adults have sexual interest in kids?

What exactly is pedophilia?

It’s a mental disorder characterized by recurring fantasies, urges, and sexual acts involving children 13 or younger. Pedophiles, by definition, lose interest once puberty sets in. Some pedophiles, says the American Psychiatric Association, limit themselves to voyeurism and collecting child pornography, while others cross into fondling and molestation. Researchers who’ve studied pedophilia estimate that between 1 and 6 percent of American men are pedophiles. Very few women, the experts say, seem to be affected.

What causes it?

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Scientists really don’t know. About half of all pedophiles were sexually abused by adults themselves, studies show. Psychologists theorize that in re-enacting their abuse, these pedophiles seek to gain a feeling of power and control that they lost as a result of being exploited in childhood. But that doesn’t explain the other 50 percent of pedophiles, with a sexual “orientation” toward children. “We don’t know if it’s because they were born that way or because they were damaged during their early psychological maturation,” says Dr. Frederick Berlin of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, an expert on sexual disorders. Berlin says many—but not all—pedophiles lack sexual interest in adults, and find children less intimidating. Some experts suspect hormonal or genetic irregularities; Robert Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California, has found that a number of pedophile priests have abnormal frontal temporal lobes. This may result in diminished judgment and reduced ability to control their impulses.

What traits do pedophiles share?

Most don’t resemble the grubby, drooling perverts of popular imagination. In the U.S., the average specimen is well educated, with no criminal record. A disproportionate number are religious, serve as leaders in their communities, and appear at least outwardly to genuinely love children. They often describe their relationships with words like “blissful,” “pure,” and “innocent.” Most refuse to see anything wrong with their behavior; they rationalize it by saying they are offering the victim beneficial “sex education” or by claiming that the child initiated the activity. They are also pathologically devious, going to extreme lengths to maintain access to children. Many seek out jobs as teachers, coaches, school-bus drivers, or camp counselors. Some will even marry single parents to prey on their offspring.

Are their different types?

Yes. Experts classify pedophiles in two broad categories. “Situational” pedophiles will accost almost any vulnerable class of victim. “Preferential” pedophiles generally restrict themselves to children of a certain age range and “look.” Within these two types, there are numerous subcategories. “Seductive” or “fixated” pedophiles tend to court victims gently, buying them toys, candy, and other gifts to win their confidence. The so-called “sadistic” variety, also known as “mysopeds,” may engage in equally elaborate schemes, but with an eye toward mutilation and even murder. The majority of pedophiles are actually “nonexclusive,” meaning that they experience some degree of attraction to adults.

What are some common myths?

Probably the most prevalent is that all pedophiles act out their attraction sexually. Researchers say most pedophiles hide their fantasies, putting themselves in proximity with kids but never acting out their wishes. Another myth is that most pedophiles are homosexuals. Most true pedophiles actually molest girls at a far higher rate than boys. In 1992 two researchers, Kurt Freund and R.J. Watson, estimated that pedophiles who prefer girls outnumber those who prefer boys by a ratio as high as 11 to 1. In the recent Catholic Church scandals, most of the victims seem to be teenage boys. This suggests that many of the priest abusers may, in fact, not be pedophiles, but homosexuals who find outlets with older teens or who are fixated on teens. Psychologists draw a distinction between pedophilia and “ephebophilia,” which is a persistent sexual attraction to teenagers.

Are there more pedophiles today?

Again, experts do not know. But many believe the World Wide Web has opened the door for many passive pedophiles to become more active. On the Web, they find a safe forum to indulge in their fantasies, find stimulating photos, and get reassurance from other pedophiles that their interest is healthy and normal. The most gruesome encounters take place in chat rooms, where pedophiles solicit sex from unsuspecting boys and girls. Law enforcement agencies are doing their best to crack down, in part because 36 percent of the arrests for possession of child porn also involve molestation. In fiscal year 1998, the FBI opened about 700 cases related to on-line pedophilia; two years later, that figure had roughly quadrupled. In a 1998 sting that spanned 14 countries, U.S. Customs arrested more than 200 suspected members of the Wonderland Club, a pedophilia ring whose eligibility requirements included having at least 10,000 images of child porn on one’s computer.

Can pedophilia be cured?

The most optimistic medical wisdom holds that pedophilia is like alcoholism—treatable but not curable. The disease is so deep-rooted that for years, doctors relied on desperation tactics like “aversion therapy”; pedophiles might be told to fantasize about sex with children and then break capsules of ammonia under their noses. Today, there has been some limited success in curbing pedophilia with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac. Injections of drugs like triptorelin, which block the male hormone testosterone, also appear to be effective. But most experts agree that controlling pedophilia is a lifetime occupation, and the American Psychiatric Association offers at best “guarded” prospects. “Running someone through a two- or three-year program,” says Tim Smith, a Seattle treatment specialist, “then leaving him to his own is doomed to failure.”

Pedophilia in antiquity

The ancient Greeks are often depicted as having enshrined pedophilia. The truth is more complex. Only the upper classes in city-states like Athens had the leisure and money to pursue boys. The rationale was that intimacy with leading members of society constituted a quasi-mentoring relationship, with the boys receiving the knowledge and experience they would ultimately need as fully functioning members of their city-state. Usually an older man would find a lover at the palaestra, the local sports academy, where boys trained in the nude. The preferred quarry were those who were at the ostensible height of their physical beauty, usually between the ages of 12 and 16. Suitors would court them with gifts like gamecocks and panther cubs. But the Greeks were by no means of one mind about the arrangement. Solon, the great lawgiver, passed strict laws against children being taken as lovers. In The Symposium, Plato reports that attitudes toward pedophilia varied widely. Those city-states “that are subject to the barbarians” generally held the practice “in evil repute.” By the time of his last work, The Laws, Plato had declared pedophilia to be unnatural and he urged its prohibition. The law, he said, must “insist that our citizens’ standards should not be lower than those of the birds and other wild animals.”

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