What can be done against pedophilia?
To accompany David Goldberg’s first-person essay, “Me, pedophile, “I asked James Cantor, Ph.D., an international expert on pedophilia, to answer some common questions. Dr. Cantor is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto and Editor-in-Chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. (We’ve known each other for about 7 years thanks to our common academic interests.)
How is pedophilia generally defined?
Pedophilia is sexual preference or a strong sexual interest in children. The term generally refers only to sexual preference / interest in prepubertal or precocious pubescent children.
Sometimes people like David Goldberg, the author of the essay, are considered or referred to as “gold star pedophiles” or “good pedophiles”. Can you explain what these seemingly incongruous terms mean?
It is extremely important not to confuse pedophilia – that is, sexual interest in children – with actual pedophilia. Not all people who have sexual attractions for children act on these attractions. People who are pedophiles but who work to remain single their entire lives are increasingly recognized as needing and deserving all the support that society can give them.
What do you think David means when he says people are “too afraid of legal and social consequences” to ask for help?
Many jurisdictions have enacted mandatory reporting regulations for psychologists and other health care providers. Therefore, when a person who believes to be a pedophile presents for consultation or therapy, the psychologist may be compelled by law to report the person to the authorities. This, of course, can result in the loss of the job, the family, and everything else in the person. So these people just stopped coming, and instead of asking them for help, now we have pedophiles going around the society who are not getting any support.
What evidence do we have that pedophilia is a sexual orientation?
“Sexual orientation” means different things in different contexts. When they say “sexual orientation” most people are talking about an innate and unchanging sexual interest. No one chooses to be sexually attracted to children, although people choose whether or not to act based on their sexual attractions. Therapists have been trying for a very long time to turn pedophiles into non-pedophiles, but no one has presented objective evidence of a lasting change in sexual interests. People can learn to control themselves, take drugs that lower libido, and people can learn to live healthier and more productive lives, but we don’t seem to be able to change pedophilia itself.
What do we know about the origin of pedophilia?
The best current evidence suggests that pedophilia results from atypical wiring in the brain. This area of research is still very new, but it appears that there is what might be considered “cross-wiring” in brain anatomy, responsible for the control of natural social instincts or behavior. Although learning occurs after birth, humans are pre-wired to recognize and respond to certain stimuli. It appears from research to date that stimuli that typically elicit nurturing and protective responses in most adults rather elicit sexual responses in pedophiles.
So are pedophiles “born that way”?
In studies, pedophiles show signs that their sexual interests are linked to the structure of the brain and that at least some differences existed in their brains before birth. For example, pedophiles have very high rates of non-right-handedness and minor physical abnormalities. So, although pedophilia should never be confused with homosexuality, pedophilia can be meaningfully described as sexual orientation. Scientists more specifically called it an “age orientation”. However, caution must be exercised in order not to confuse the scientific use of the term “sexual orientation” with its use in law. Because the term “sexual orientation” has been used as a shorthand (or a euphemism) for homosexuality, there are laws and policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.” These were probably not intended to refer to pedophilia.
Is it reasonable to be afraid that if we recognize pedophilia as a sexual orientation, we will have to view it as socially acceptable?
It is reasonable that questions of social acceptability be directed towards behavior. People are responsible for their behavior, not their thoughts or sexual attractions. For example, we very readily recognize that a typical heterosexual man, while walking down the street, will find some women sexually attractive. However, we would not conclude that it is socially acceptable for him to coerce one of these women into having sex. Thinking about pedophilia as an innate characteristic that a person has not chosen and cannot change can help society find a rational response to the problem – one that can help prevent sexual assault on children.
Can anyone be cured of pedophile desires? For example, can a pedophile continue to have no sexual desire or a fundamentally different sexual orientation?
The best treatments we have for pedophiles help them develop the skills they need to live healthy, crime-free lives and, in some cases, to block their sexual urges (if they think it would help). We have yet to find a way to convert pedophiles to non-pedophiles that is more effective than the many failed attempts to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexuals.
What treatments are available for pedophilia?
In my experience, pedophiles are most likely to commit their offenses when they feel that they have nothing to offer them in their life and therefore have nothing to lose. People are more likely to do the most desperate things when they feel the most desperate. Sadly, much of today’s social systems are dramatically increasing rather than decreasing the sense of hopelessness of these people.
Traditional treatments for pedophiles have largely been based on treatments originally designed for addictions, using a model called Relapse Prevention. It was very difficult to assess the effectiveness of the model (or any other model) because we cannot randomize people into treatment and placebo groups.
However, my greatest hope is less in treatment than in prevention. Although many people imagine sex offenders to be insatiable predators or time bombs, only 10-15% of sex offenders commit new offenses. I think we can prevent a much greater number of victims if we put more energy into early detection and provide support before the first offense, rather than just relying on increasingly stronger penalties after the fact.