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Pulling Pedophilia Out of the Dark

In order to combat the pernicious effects of pedophilia, we must address it seriously by taking those individuals who want to seek treatment for their condition seriously.

When “Adam” told the psychiatrist he was a pedophile she told him he was wrong, that he must be mistaken. But Adam knew he was, sexual thoughts about young children — children around the age of three — started plaguing Adam around the same time he started watching porn at the age of 14. “It was a little while later as I started watching this stuff more and more that I realized that I was getting older and that the children I was interested in weren’t getting older to follow along with me, but they were actually getting younger…it wasn’t just some phase I was going through,” explained Adam. These disturbing thoughts persisted for months and then years. According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders) Adam is definitely a pedophile. While Adam never acted on his impulses he developed an addiction to child pornography and by the time he was 16 he knew he needed help.

Adam revealed his story to the world for the first time with the help of reporter Luke Malone on an episode of This American Life, “Tarred and Feathered.” Adam is not alone–he started an online support group for pedophiles who have never acted on their thoughts and want help. The problem is that there is very little help available.

Research on pedophilia is lightyears behind research on other mental illnesses and sexual disorders. In 2007, a study published in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment found that pedophiles are disproportionately likely to be at least two centimeters shorter than the average man and have a lower IQ, as well as three times likelier to be left handed. This research is often cited, despite the fact that it wreaks of the correlation-causation fallacy.

The fact that medical professionals are left with such primitive studies — another study found that men who were knocked out before the age of 13 were more likely to be pedophiles — is testament to the need for more research on pedophilia. But because of the societal disdain for the disorder, institutions are unwilling to fund pedophilia studies. As a result, there is very little known about the disorder. Consequently, psychiatrists like the one who first saw Adam are left grasping at straws. People like Adam who believe they are pedophiles and want to seek treatment have very little recourse and eventually may pose a danger to children. Furthermore, the lack of research on the disorder means there is no progress being made on possible treatments. Even if as a society we abhor the idea of “helping” pedophiles, it is important that we increase our research on pedophilia if, for no one else, kids who risk falling victim to pedophile child molesters.

First, it is important to distinguish between child molesters and pedophiles. According to Oregon’s Sexual Assault Task Force, only “a small percentage of those who offend children would be considered “pedophiles” and would be described as having a sexual preference for undeveloped bodies without secondary sexual characteristics.” Pedophiles are characterized by a sexual arousal to and desire for romantic involvement with children, whereas child molesters are not necessarily sexually attracted to their victims and tend to act violently and have underlying personality disorders. A pedophile child molester is a pedophile who molests children—for the purpose of this article, referring to someone as a pedophile rather than a pedophile child molester means that there is no indication that they have molested a child. Not all pedophiles molest children and not all child molesters are pedophiles.

Speaking to This American Life, Elizabeth Letourneau, a leading sexual abuse psychiatrist, called research on pedophilia a “giant black hole in science.” Letourneau has been called a “pedophile sympathizer” for simply wanting to study pedophilia to help prevent child sexual abuse. The field of study on pedophilia is so far behind other sciences that there is still little agreement amongst psychiatrists about the basic definition of pedophilia. Some psychiatrists consider it a sexual orientation, although the DSM-5 no longer characterizes it as such, while others consider it an addiction. Until psychiatrists can come to a consensus on what the disorder of pedophilia means a consistent therapy cannot be applied.

The treatment and research of pedophilia is further complicated by the passage of legislation in 1990 that requires psychiatrists to report anyone they believe poses a threat to children to Child Protective Services. This puts psychiatrists in a tough spot: If faced with someone like Adam, a self-identifying pedophile who has by his own account never harmed a child, do they report him or offer treatment? Not only does the legislation hinder treatment, but it hampers research as well. Few people will want to participate in a study if they could end up facing criminal charges, and researchers could be put in a situation where they have to decide on whether to report their subjects or not. Consequently, most studies are conducted on convicted pedophiles.

According to Judith Herman, a psychologist at a sexual abuse clinic in Boston speaking with the Daily Beast, convicted pedophile child molesters make up only 5 percent of pedophiles — they are the outliers. So, not only are sample sizes very small, but they are also composed of the small percentage of pedophile child molesters who do get caught. Because most pedophile child molesters (according to Judith Herman, 95 percent) will not be convicted and are therefore unlikely to be research subjects, the vast majority of pedophiles, pedophile child molesters, and their characteristics are left out of the scientific literature and findings. Not only do the small sample sizes make it hard to come up with highly accurate data that can be broadly applied, but they are also conducted on the outliers and there results may, therefore, be misleading.

Even for those who may not have committed an act of pedophiliac child molestation, the social stigma around pedophilia in combination with the fear of being reported compels many pedophiles like Adam to lead closeted lives. Adam and other men in his online support group described feelings of anxiety and depression in face of their pedophilic thoughts. Although the lack of research makes this yet improvable, it is possible to imagine that many pedophile child molesters may have harbored pedophiliac thoughts for some time before acting. Talking with the LA Times, Dr. Fred Berlin, head of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit, called most pedophiles “tortured souls fighting like heck not to do this. We do virtually nothing in terms of reaching out to these folks. We drive it underground.” Research into pedophilia could give psychiatrists the tools to help pedophiles battle their urges. In driving pedophiles underground, not only do we do a disservice to individuals suffering from the disorder, but we perform a disservice to children. If it weren’t so difficult for pedophiles to seek help, and if more were known about the disorder, it might help protect the thousands of children who fall victim to sexual abuse by pedophiles every year.

The potential for decreasing pedophiliac assaults through research into the disorder would also make a considerable dent in the overall number of yearly rapes and assaults in the United States.  Fifteen percent of sexual assaults victims are under the age of 12, and 30 percent of these fall between the ages of four and seven. Three percent of American men have sexually offended against a pre-pubescent child and, as reported in This American Life, 1 to 2 percent of men display pedophiliac desires — meaning there are between 1.2 million and 3.4 million pedophiles in the United States. A long-term study by Dr. Linda Grossman, published in the Psychiatric Services Journal in 1999, found that the average pedophile child molester commits an average of 281 acts with 150 victims. Needless to say, the statistics show that research and the development of potential treatment for pedophiles could have a huge impact on child molestation and rape.

More research into pedophilia also could help combat child pornography. Child pornography sites generate about $3 billion a year, and the industry is rapidly growing. Like Adam, many pedophiles are addicted to child pornography. One account by David Goldberg published by the Atlantic is revealing. Goldberg is not unlike Adam; he was convicted for possession of child pornography and identifies as a pedophile but has never molested a child. In the article Goldberg writes: “I had never asked to be cursed with this sexual attraction, and I had never hurt a child. In fact, I was always a good role model as a coach, and an upstanding citizen throughout my days. It was the nights that were a problem.” Increasing research into pedophilia could provide information that could develop ways to treat the child pornography addiction of many pedophiles and end their patronage of child pornography websites, one that both Adam and Goldberg report feeling deeply ashamed about.

From the limited research that has been conducted, mainly by psychiatrist James Cantor at the Center for Mental Health and Addiction in Toronto, there are indications that pedophilia may be biological. Brain scans conducted in 2008 found that convicted pedophiles had less white matter than convicted criminals with no history of sexual crimes. However, even studies like these are extremely limited — the 2008 study was conducted on a mere 65 convicted pedophiles. While these small studies provide a starting point they are not nearly large enough to make substantial claims about pedophilia.

In speaking to This American Life, Letourneau mentioned that after 25 years in the field she had never spoken to a pedophile who hadn’t abused a child, reporter Luke Malone put her in touch with Adam and his online support group. Letourneau started to realize that there were patterns in these young men, who identify as pedophiles but have never abused children. Malone explained on the podcast that these were “patterns that she can use to inform a treatment plan that she’s getting off the ground.” Letourneau believes that for some portion of pedophiles their attraction to children might be changeable early on by engaging with peers more often, but Adam believes there’s no hope for him. Treatments such as prescription anti-depressants or medication that lowers testosterone levels to decrease erotic desire are sometimes implemented to treat pedophilia, but Grossman’s 1999 study concluded that although “treatments for sex offenders do exist, and the outcome data are not uniformly discouraging. They are…complex, difficult to interpret, and cause for cautious optimism at best.” Psychiatrist James Cantor, the researcher who conducted the 2007 study that found that pedophiles are likely to be shorter, believes that “pinpointing the point when things go awry” is the key to preventing pedophilia. Adam and his online support group might represent an important stage of the disorder — the point between erotic desire and action on these desires — that researchers like Letourneau and Cantor could use in their studies.

Adam and the group he has formed likely are statistical oddities, complete outliers among pedophiles. However, they reveal something important about the disorder: We don’t know nearly enough about it. Because we know so little about pedophilia it is hard to know whether Adam and his friends are in fact outliers, and how many people might harbor pedophiliac thoughts and (hopefully) never act on them. It is important that we increase research on pedophilia so that we don’t abandon it in a dark corner of science. While pedophilia represents one of the darkest faces of human nature we must study it to keep kids from falling victim to a lack of research. As Grossman’s 1999 study concluded, “If mental health professionals and society at large are to accept the challenge of promoting treatment for sex offenders, vigorous ongoing research efforts are mandatory.”