A popular misconception is that most child sex offenders were once victims themselves. The theory is based on the erroneous assumption that they’ve become pedophiles – those preferentially sexually attracted to prepubescent children – because of their victimization.
Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder in which an adult or older adolescent experiences a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children.
This is a tidy explanation for a minority of offenders. But for most victims of child sex abuse, this is not only untrue, it’s harmful. It can increase stigma and prevent people from speaking up about their abuse. Some victims may fear they will one day become an offender, or at least develop the desire to offend.
Pedophilia is not defined as a sexual orientation: it is classified as a disorder in the fifth and most current revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. To equate pedophilia with sexual orientation has been contentious, primarily because of the false belief that members of the LGBT community are predisposed to child molestation. Those who argue against civil rights for the LGBT community often cast those rights as a slippery slope to legalizing child sexual abuse or bestiality.
Although girls typically begin the process of puberty at age 10 or 11, and boys at age 11 or 12, criteria for pedophilia extend the cut-off point for prepubescence to age 13. A person must be at least 16 years old, and at least five years older than the prepubescent child, for the attraction to be diagnosed as pedophilia.
First, it’s important to understand that pedophilia and child sexual abuse are not the same thing. “Paedophilia” refers to an enduring sexual interest in prepubescent children, which may or may not be acted on.
Not all those who sexually abuse children are pedophiles, with many abusers acting opportunistically or due to something other than a sexual preference for children. This distinction isn’t always well understood.
Secondly, the reality of child sexual abuse is far more complex than any of the four explanations suggest. While it is a truism that anyone who abuses a child chooses to do so, it is not the case that people with pedophilia choose to have this sexual attraction.
Pedophilia was first formally recognized and named in the late 19th century. A significant amount of research in the area has taken place since the 1980s. Although mostly documented in men, there are also women who exhibit the disorder, and researchers assume available estimates underrepresent the true number of female pedophiles. No cure for pedophilia has been developed, but there are therapies that can reduce the incidence of a person committing child sexual abuse.
The exact causes of pedophilia have not been conclusively established. Some studies of pedophilia in child sex offenders have correlated it with various neurological abnormalities and psychological pathologies. In the United States, sex offenders who are diagnosed with certain mental disorders, particularly pedophilia, can be subject to indefinite involuntary commitment.