Explaining Pedophilia

Last Editorial Review: 3/22/2005

What Is Pedophilia?

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

The ongoing Michael Jackson child molestation case has put pedophilia in the national spotlight once again. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- all the headlines surrounding the case, as well as lurid accounts of child molestation in the Catholic Church, many people still don't understand what this mental illness is all about.

The biggest misunderstanding many people have is that pedophilia and homosexuality are one and the same. But to say that all homosexuals are pedophiles, or that all pedophiles are homosexual, is like comparing apples to rat poison. "They certainly are two distinct things," says James Hord, a psychologist in Panama City, Fla., who specializes in treating sexually abused children.

Hord explains that while some pedophiles may prefer boys over girls, or vice versa, it's not so much about gender as it is about age. For homosexuals, Hord says, sexual preference is "simply not linked to the age." If a man, for instance, is attracted to other adult males, he is a homosexual. A man who is sexually attracted to male children is not considered a homosexual: He is a pedophile.

Insecurity at Heart of Pedophilia

As with all things sexual, however, it's not always so simple. Heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women may become sexually attracted to children even though they're also attracted to adults. When this happens, it's usually because of insecurity or stress in an adult relationship, says Anthony Siracusa, a psychologist in Williamstown, Mass., who specializes in treating abused kids and sexual offenders.

These people, Siracusa says, are called "regressed offenders" because they have literally regressed: They lose the social skills they need to deal with other adults, which makes children more attractive to them. Regressed offenders may "bounce back and forth" between normal sexual relationships and criminal relations with children.

Insecurity, Hord agrees, is at the heart of pedophilia. Typically, pedophiles have trouble relating to people their own age. They need to feel they have power and control in a relationship, which is easy with children. One pedophile, "PwC," attests to this, writing on a pedophilia Web site:

"I'm 21 years old, and a virgin, I've never even kissed a girl. I have no job, and can't keep one. I'm frustrated that I'm a virgin, and it seems very unlikely that I'll ever get the kind of woman I want, and I'm desperate, because I need love. I never have molested a little girl, never! I want to though, I'm truly desperate. I want to hold a little girl in my arms, and tell her I love her, and that I'll keep her safe, and protect her, that appeals to me greatly."

This man is remorseful, but there are plenty of pedophiles who are not. Men and women who molest kids "for sport," as Hord puts it, are the most dangerous. They are also the ones who try to justify their sexual preference, arguing that pedophilia should be "normalized," just like homosexuality has been.

Homosexuality was, in fact, listed as a mental illness in psychiatry's main reference book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, until the third edition came out in 1980. This edition included a category for homosexuals who were troubled by their sexuality and wanted to change it. All mention of homosexuality, however, was purged from the manual by 1987.

"It was well overdue," Siracusa says.

According to a 1994 statement from the American Psychiatric Association, the change came after decades of research showed that "a significant portion of gay and lesbian people were clearly satisfied with their sexual orientation" and showed no signs of mental illness. "It was also found that homosexuals were able to function effectively in society, and those who sought treatment most often did so for reasons other than their homosexuality."

Mental health professionals agree that pedophilia should never be considered normal, because it is truly a disease. None of the things that make homosexuality a normal variation of human sexuality apply to pedophilia.

Sadly, there is no "cure" for the disease. Therapy combined with drugs like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which includes Prozac and Paxil, works well for many people with other mental illnesses, but it doesn't work for most pedophiles. The best doctors can really hope for is to help keep pedophiles from acting on their urges.

More Than Innocence Lost

The first thing that jumps to mind when we hear about a child having been sexually abused is the "loss of innocence." But that's our reaction, not necessarily the child's.

Although you may shudder to hear it, the fact is that young children may enjoy the experience. It's not until later in life, as they mature sexually, that these kids realize what happened to them was bad, and they begin to have problems.

"All cases result in some harmful effects," Hord says, even though problems may not show up until years or even decades after the abuse happened.

Abused kids are hurt in different ways depending on whether the abuser was a stranger or a beloved figure in the child's life, like a parent. "To treat those two children the same is just nonsense," Hord says. In cases where a parent commits sexual abuse, "We have a very confused child," he says.

Children who are molested by loved ones often feel tremendous guilt for having reported the abuse, which is not typically the case when the offender is a stranger. When abuse happens in the family, "The child is groomed into that circumstance," Siracusa says. As it goes on over time, he or she accepts it as the norm, and it becomes a matter of balance in the family. The child wants to be good and help keep the family running smoothly. Once the child realizes that the sexual relationship is wrong and tells someone about it, "They've now unsettled the balance," Siracusa says.

Often, "The family feels victimized by the child's disclosure," he says. The guilt-ridden child may then take back the statement, denying that anything ever happened. This causes even more problems for everyone involved.

Signs in Child's Behavior

Hord says that when he's dealing with these children in therapy, he tries not to focus on the abuser any more than he has to. It doesn't help the child, he says, to explain that this beloved adult is a criminal, a monster, or a sick person. "I try not to offer any more explanations than the child demands," he says. "The child will develop an answer that makes sense to the child."

In the long run, sexual abuse during childhood can lead to just about any kind of mental problem, including depression, alcohol or drug abuse, and anxiety disorders. Some, but not all abused children go on to become pedophiles themselves. Right away, abused kids may have trouble sleeping and eating. They may revert to thumb sucking and bed wetting. They may act out or withdraw. But to read a list like this can be misleading, Hord says, because all these things might be caused by something else.

According the American Psychological Association, there are clearer signs: Abused children may know more about sex than you have taught them, or they may have an "inappropriate" interest in sex for their age, which may include acting out sexually with others. (Experimenting with masturbation is normal, however.)

If a child tells you that he or she has been sexually abused -- although probably not in those words -- that's the clearest sign of all. Children rarely lie about it.

Most kids who are molested know the perpetrator, so "don't take candy from strangers" doesn't always apply. You have to tell your kids that no adult should touch them -- or ask to be touched -- in any way that's confusing or scary. Teach children to say, "no," and to tell you immediately if it happens. You should also teach them that no adult should ever ask them to keep a touch or a kiss secret.

The Kidscape Charity for Children's Safety, in London, interviewed 91 pedophiles about their methods for choosing child victims. The researchers found that pedophiles are skilled at charming children into their trust, plying them with gifts, and taking them on fun outings. They "often target single-parent families where mothers might be especially grateful for help with looking after the children." Nearly one-half of the pedophiles the researchers spoke to met the children they molested through babysitting.

You should be suspicious of someone who seems overly interested in your kids, especially if they're always angling to be alone with them.

If you suspect that someone you know may be a pedophile, you can check your state's criminal records. The Safeguarding Our Children organization has a page of links to state sexual offender registries online at www.soc-um.org/register.html.

Despite the fact that most cases of sexual abuse involve an adult the child knows, kids are sometimes assaulted by strangers.

One thing you can tell your kids is never to get close to a car if someone stops and asks for directions, lest they be snatched. It's also important to teach them that they will not be punished for breaking a rule if someone tries to molest them while they're breaking it. According to Kidscape, "One child was walking in a park when told not to and was molested -- she was afraid to tell because she had broken the rule about being in the park."

Some pedophiles troll the Internet, so you should make sure you know what your kids are doing on the computer. Tell them never to meet privately with anyone they have met online and never to give out personal information, like where they live.

Children should also know what to do if they get lost. It's helpful to give them a prepaid calling card to use if this happens: They should memorize their phone number and address. Tell them to call the police if they can't find you or reach you on the phone, and never to accept a ride or wait alone with an adult they don't know. If you're coming to fetch them, tell them to wait in a store or restaurant -- someplace where there are plenty of people around.

Originally published April 8, 2002.

Medically updated March 21, 2005.

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