Stigma. What is it? What does it do to pedophiles? Is it helpful? Should we embrace it to protect children? These are the questions I was asking, some of which I already had an answer for, as I approached a new wave of research, reading, partly for updating my website (www.csaprimaryprevention.org) and partly for this very blog post.
This blog post will not be like others I have done on research, which have traditionally been dry and boring, as research often is. Instead, I would like to illustrate three scenarios for you to consider, based on what I have read, some of which I have experienced in the last month.
Scenario One: How Most People View Pedophiles
This scenario is one you will identify with strongly. While it does not, of course, represent how everyone sees pedophiles, it does account for the popular opinion.
Pedophiles are dangerous people (if we can even call them that) who will inevitably harm a child, if they have not already done so. Many of them choose their sexual attractions, which can be more accurately described as urges. Many people would agree, though not the majority, that pedophiles are better off dead or incarcerated because they pose a clear danger to children.
Pedophiles always have an agenda, usually to lower the age of consent or normalize the sexual abuse of children. You should always assume a pedophile is lying if they claim to want to protect children, because they are just trying to lure you in just like they do with children. All pedophiles are the same.
Scenario Two: How Most Researchers And Mental Health Practitioners View Pedophiles
This scenario is also one that will be easier to identify with. While this view does not, of course, represent every researcher or practitioner (particularly those with specific training), it does represent the majority opinion.
Pedophiles are people with a mental illness that they cannot control and did not ask for. They are to be pitied, and treated, as they pose a risk to children if left untreated. Pedophiles need therapy to help them control their urges, but I do not have the qualifications to treat them. I simply do not know enough, so the best I can do is refer them to someone else. I do not want to have to report them to the police if they come into my office, and I am not sure if I need to. I hope there are therapists out there who can help them.
As a researcher, the topic of pedophilia fascinates me, and there is so much I could investigate. At the same time, I need a paycheck in order to pay the bills and covering that topic means taking on the stigma associated with it. That stigma would reflect not only on me, but on my institution as well. I will pass on researching this area.
It is at this point, I must check in with you. How are you doing? Are you sick to your stomach? Enraged? Scared? You should be. You have every right to be. If either of these scenarios are true, then it paints a bleak picture. People with a sexual attraction not only exist, there is little we can do for them. They should be jailed, killed, or at the very least castrated. At this point, you probably believe that.
So, it is here that I need to challenge that immensely. This is where you need to take a few deep breaths and ask yourself, “What if both of those scenarios are not correct to the realities that pedophiles face? What if I’m not as informed as I think I am?” Up until now, I have given you a picture of how people see pedophiles. I have not given you a picture of what current research says about pedophiles, or what mental health practitioners whose ability lies in treating pedophiles have to say.
Scenario Three: The Reality Of Pedophilia And Pedophiles
Again, this is where we start to get tricky and I start challenging what you think you know about real pedophilia. There is a very good chance (particularly if you live in the UK) that you have read a few dozen media articles where someone convicted of a sexual offense against a child is referred to as a pedophile. What you must understand first is that media articles often do two things: Misuse the words “pedophile” and “pedophilia,” to mean people who act on their attractions, rather than just having the attraction, and overrepresent the actual rates of sexual crime in general. More on this in scenario four, so for now, let us covers scenario three.
Sally is 16 years old. She has known for about the last year that she is a pedophile. She is attracted to boys, from about age 3-12, although that attraction is less around both extremes. She knows she can never act on her attractions because her best friend was very traumatized by being abused by her older brother, who still has not gone to jail. She knows what kind of damage it can do to a child to be sexual with them. She gets irritated every time she sees or hears the word “urges” associated with pedophiles, because it sounds foreign to her. She does not have urges, she has attractions which come up a few times during the week and are easy to manage.
What is not easy to manage for her is the negativity she feels from having these attractions. She knows she can never tell even her best friend about her attractions because of how much that would hurt her to hear. She does not think there is any help available for her, and has contemplated killing herself because she believes her attractions make her a monster. She did hear last week about Virtuous Pedophiles, supposedly a group of real pedophiles who are committed to never acting on their attractions, but she is not sure if she should check it out. It could be a trap. At the same time, she wants desperately to hear that she is not alone.
Scenario Four: What the Research Says
In the UK, the picture the media paints of sexual crimes is 9 times their actual rate. No, really. On the left are actual crime figures, and on the right are crime figures one would expect from reading British media stories about crime:
By contrast to what you have heard in the media, real pedophilia is the sexual attraction to prepubertal children, which is different from pedophilic disorder, which is the internalized shame and distress that can come from having pedophilia. Pedophilic disorder is also a diagnosis when someone has harmed children, whether via imagery or with a contact sex offense (rape/molestation), though the research shows that at least half of pedophiles do not commit any crime towards children at all (more research needed for exact numbers).
Real people with pedophilia are often accused of wanting to engage in sexual activities with children, but to hear actual pedophiles tell it, they know that sexual activity with children is wrong already and have no such desire. In fact, several pieces of research show that many real pedophiles do not harm children, and most who sexually abuse children are not attracted to them. In fact, the scientific community is now accepting the idea that the sexual attraction to children is best understood as a sexual orientation, “…which, akin to homo- or heterosexuality, starts early and remains stable over the course of life.” (Jahnke, 2018) While that concept may be offensive, it only speaks to the attraction, not to behavior.
There was one consistency across every study I read, and several studies cited many other studies that agreed with this: Stigma interferes with people with pedophilia getting help by pushing them towards the very risk factors of sexually abusing a child, such as social isolation, emotion-focused coping, and poor mental health. The conclusion across all studies is clear: The stigma that real pedophiles face, and the assumptions the public makes about them, is contributing to the continuation of sexual abuse, and reducing the stigma will help reduce sexual abuse.
Pedophilia is not a choice, which is another point made in all research I studied for this article. Several studies said that pedophilic people have little trust that mental health professionals would treat them respectfully, and at least three studies held stigmatizing information about real pedophiles.
One study from 2016 misquoted the DSM-5 (a diagnostic manual for mental health disorders) as saying that, “Pedophilia is broadly defined as a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubertal children, which causes harm, distress, and/or feelings of guilt and remorse,” which is directly contrary not only to the text of the DSM-5 itself, but several other pieces of research cited in the article.
If there is one thing that is clear from this research into the stigmatization of real pedophiles/people with pedophilia, it is this: Not even therapists or researchers are immune to stigmatizing attitudes towards real pedophiles. Why, then, should pedophiles come to you for help? If even researchers cannot get it right, if not even therapists who are trained to have empathy for their clients can treat pedophiles respectfully, can anyone blame pedophiles for standing up to that stigma? Should we lay down and take it?
TNF is a child sexual abuse prevention advocate and also the founder of www.csaprimaryprevention.org.
This blog entry discussed several pieces of research. Rather than taking the more traditional academic approach and citing specific page numbers about the research, I will do two things. First, you can go here for a complete list of page numbers and quotations from the research. Second, here is a full list of the research I read:
Harper, Craig A., and Todd E. Hogue. “The Emotional Representation of Sexual Crime in the National British Press.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 34, no. 1 (January 2015): 3–24. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261927X14544474.
Harper, Craig A., Ross M. Bartels, and Todd E. Hogue. “Reducing Stigma and Punitive Attitudes Toward Pedophiles Through Narrative Humanization.” Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, December 14, 2016, 107906321668156. https://doi.org/10.1177/1079063216681561.
Imhoff, Roland. “Punitive Attitudes Against Pedophiles or Persons With Sexual Interest in Children: Does the Label Matter?” Archives of Sexual Behavior 44, no. 1 (January 2015): 35–44. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0439-3.
Jahnke, Sara, and Juergen Hoyer. “Stigmatization of People With Pedophilia: A Blind Spot in Stigma Research.” International Journal of Sexual Health 25, no. 3 (July 2013): 169–84. https://doi.org/10.1080/19317611.2013.795921.
Jahnke, Sara, Kathleen Philipp, and Juergen Hoyer. “Stigmatizing Attitudes towards People with Pedophilia and Their Malleability among Psychotherapists in Training.” Child Abuse & Neglect 40 (February 2015): 93–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2014.07.008.
Jahnke, Sara, Roland Imhoff, and Juergen Hoyer. “Stigmatization of People with Pedophilia: Two Comparative Surveys.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 44, no. 1 (January 2015): 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-014-0312-4.
Jahnke, Sara. “The Stigma of Pedophilia: Clinical and Forensic Implications.” European Psychologist 23, no. 2 (April 2018): 144–53. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000325.
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