“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.
1. 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, 2020, 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.
2. ‘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, 2020). 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 (2019) 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- language matters: note the difference between pedophile/map and child molester.
- 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.
map research summary. (2020). https://www.b4uact.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/b4_research_summary-1.pdf
parr, j., & pearson, d. (2019). non-offending minor-attracted persons: professional practitioners’ views on the barriers to seeking and receiving their help. journal of child sexual abuse, 28(8), 945–967. https://doi.org/10.1080/10538712.2019.1663970