“It’s no use, he sees her / he starts to shake and cough / Just like the old man in / that book by Nabokov.”
When I first drafted this piece, I’d had a conversation on the phone app, Whisper, earlier in the day with a fool who argued that homosexuality and pedophilia were essentially the same thing, and that I should not “be mad” because he or she “could have mentioned bestiality” as an additional comparison. Although every respondent to the contributor’s initial post offered support for homosexuality and denounced pedophilia, I have to wonder why, in this day and age, anyone could possibly compare any consensual adult sexual interest to pedophilia. I was also curious how much the general public truly understood about pedophiles, so I did some research.
Pedophiles are one of the most reviled social groups existing today, and for understandable reasons. I agree that there is NEVER an acceptable reason to engage in sexual activity with a child. It is always abuse. Always, always, always.
However, the age at which a child enters adulthood is often debated under the law. In the United States, many of us would say that a person under 18 years of age is legally a child. Other people argue that children do not become adults until they can legally consume alcohol at age 21. Psychology research, on the other hand, suggests that the brain is not done developing until a person’s mid-twenties, at the earliest. Clearly, there is a lot of gray area on this issue.
So, why would someone choose to be attracted to children, knowing that, if they were to act on their desire, they would risk irrevocably traumatizing children, landing themselves in jail, and destroying their social, professional, intimate, and familial relationships?
Modern research suggests that not only is pedophilia exponentially more common among men than women — as are most paraphilias — but pedophilia may also operate like its own sexual orientation. Although the American Psychological Association has since changed its classification of pedophilia from an “orientation” to a sexual “interest”, the fact still remains that pedophilic interests cannot be eliminated, which, in my eyes, means pedophilia is an orientation.
While an exact cause of pedophilia has yet to be pinpointed, the current body of research suggests that a pedophile begins life progressing through the normal stages of sexual development. Somewhere down the line, however, his or her brain stops the typical progression of sexual attachment toward people of his or her own age group. This causes that person to fixate on one age group for the rest of his or her life.
Author Vladimir Nabokov provided a perfect example of this idea in the early chapters of Lolita, where protagonist Humbert Humbert as a child fell in love with a female playmate, only to have the girl die shortly after their budding romantic relationship began. As a result, Humbert’s interest never advanced beyond young girls. Rather than developing romantic attachments toward sexual partners of his own age, he could only fantasize about reliving his childhood love.
What I found most surprising when I first started reading about pedophilia is that pedophilic interests vary from pedophile to pedophile, both in terms of attraction and behavior. The same way that a heterosexual woman wouldn’t be attracted to every man in the world, pedophiles are attracted to certain children more than others.
Some pedophiles’ fantasies focus solely on children. Other pedophiles are opportunistic; they don’t necessarily seek children, but if children are available in a sexualized context, they are interested.
The typical pedophile is attracted to children whose sexes coordinate with his own sexual orientation — e.g., straight males would prefer girls, gay males would prefer boys, etc. He may also prefer specific physical attributes, like a certain hair color, racial background, or body type, the same way other adults prefer of-age sexual partners who are heavier or skinnier, taller or shorter, blonde or brunette, etc.
The good news is that not all pedophiles will ever molest a child.
Yes, some pedophiles will abuse children throughout their lives with zero remorse for the harm they’re causing, and when caught, they’ll blame the child, the media, or any other scapegoat for their own behavior, never taking any personal responsibility for their choices. These are most often the pedophiles we see depicted on television and in the media.
Other pedophiles will feel little remorse but are so concerned with the risk of punishment after potentially being caught that they won’t actually touch any children.
However, there is a small percentage of pedophiles who, despite their interests, feel genuinely guilty. They are tormented by their desires, like old Humbert Humbert, yet have few resources to which they can turn for help.
Not all pedophiles view each other the same way, either. For example, the pedophiles on Whisper who spoke with me indicated a strong preference for older children in their late teens. These men saw nothing wrong with their interests, even going so far as to justify their interactions as having been with children who were “old enough to know what they were doing”. But, when I asked of their thoughts about the guys who target infants, toddlers, and pre-adolescents? Those guys are the real monsters, they said.
The bottom line is that we need more research, particularly to investigate if there is a cause of pedophilia or if it is innate. We also need to channel research directives into empirically-proven behavior strategies to help people with pedophilic interests pursue satisfying, meaningful daily lives. When effective, therapy can teach pedophiles what behaviors to avoid and suggest different channels for sexual energy that won’t involve children.
Unfortunately, there is a shortage of therapists and other mental health professionals willing to counsel pedophiles, but I believe that pedophiles should have the same rights to counseling as anyone else, and I encourage anyone who needs help to seek it.
Sidenote: For anyone with pedophilic thoughts who would like to seek professional counseling but is afraid about being reported to the authorities, you have rights to client confidentiality. This post is a satisfactory summary of the current standards for when your mental health professional would and would not need to disclose your statements to Child Protective Services.