“Pedophile”, the instant we hear this word a lot of references from the media come up and we have this image of a ‘monster’ who has committed a crime of child sexual abuse. However, this use of the term pedophilia is in fact wrong. Pedophilia is a clinical term, and not the description of a criminal profile. In fact, many people who have pedophilia never commit a crime against children, and in turn, many people who sexually abuse children are not even pedophilic. Let us clear this up for you:
How experts define pedophilia (and hebephilia)
The medical coding system of the World Health Organization (WHO) defines pedophilia as a “sexual preference for children”. More specifically, pedophilia describes the sexual attraction towards the body scheme of prepubescent children who are in the stage before pubertal development – for instance, they have no pubic hair, and in case of girls no developed breast. Researchers estimate that approximately one in 100 men experiences sexual attraction towards children.
Pedophilia is just one type of sexual preference that is associated with minors, another term that is completely new for most people is ‘’hebephilia”. Hebephilia describes a sexual attraction towards children who are at the beginning of their pubertal development, hence hebephilia is a sexual interest in the body scheme of early-pubescent children, who show signs of pubertal development like the onset of pubic hair and breast development.
Pedophilia and hebephilia are aspects of the sexual preference, which manifest during puberty, and which is – and this is important – not chosen by the person and not changeable. One could say that pedophilia and hebephilia are rather a result of fate than of choice.
Understanding that one is sexually attracted towards children can cause intense distress
Many people with pedophilia/hebephilia first notice their sexual attraction towards children and/or young adolescents when they themselves are teenagers. Discovering that one rather feels sexually attracted towards younger kids and not towards his peers, unlike others his age can be a quite disturbing experience for the teenager. The societal stigma attached to pedophilia – namely that people with pedophilia are monsters and should be locked in jail even if they have never touched a child in their lives – adds to feelings of shame and self-hate. Also relieving distress by talking to friends or family about one`s sorrow is most of the times not an option for someone with pedophilia – too big is the fear to be judged or even hated than helped.
For people with pedophilia, these increased distress levels and feeling of isolation can actually be a risk factor for impulsive behaviours and sexually acting out against children. Hence, psychotherapeutic treatment can help to interrupt this vicious cycle.
Treatment can help people with pedophilia to lead an offense-free and satisfying life
“I somehow always knew that I need help – but for the longest time I did not dare to talk to anyone about this issue – the taboo around it was just too big”, describes the participant of a treatment programme for people with pedophilia and hebephilia in Germany. Another says: “Since the beginning [of the treatment] it had a really relieving effect to be able to talk openly about this tabooed topic without being rejected or judged for my sexual preference.” Accepting one`s pedophilia/hebephilia is the first and a crucial step in the treatment: only when one accepts that their sexual preference for pre-and/or early-pubescent-children is both unchangeable as well as persisting, a person will be able to understand for example what their personal risk situations are and how to tackle with their sexual impulses in a way that no child gets hurt. Treatment also helps to cope with stress in a healthy way so that participants do not fall back on using masturbation or sexualized behavior to deal with negative feelings. Sometimes medical treatment which can drastically reduce one`s libido can also be an option – of course only if the concerned person wants this medical option. Treatment for people with pedophilia and/or hebephilia not only aims at preventing child sexual abuse but also to prevent the use of child sexual abuse images (so-called “child pornography”). The production and consumption of child sexual abuse images are a rapidly growing problem worldwide and a considerable number of people with pedophilia and hebephilia turn to watching child sexual abuse images. Children are being exploited in one or the other way, let it be to produce these images or be it the mere act of accessing the content reinforces this abuse cycle. Hence, refraining from the usage of child sexual abuse images is often a treatment goal in therapy.
Pedophilia is a disorder, not a crime
Pedophilia describes the sexual attraction towards prepubescent children, and hebephilia describes the sexual attraction towards early-pubescent children. Pedophilic or Hebephilic sexual preference is not criminal by nature neither are people with pedophilia or hebephilia destined to abuse. Psychological and even medical treatment can support people to deal with their sexual interest in children in a way that they can live fulfilling lives and not act out against children, neither in real life or online by watching child sexual abuse images.
If you feel sexually attracted to children and/or young adolescents, you can find free and confidential help online: troubled-desire.com.
References to research articles
Dombert, B., Schmidt, A. F., Banse, R., Briken, P., Hoyer, J., Neutze, J., & Osterheider, M. (2016). How common is males’ self-reported sexual interest in prepubescent children? The Journal of Sex Research, 53(2), 214–223. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2015.1020108
Jahnke, S. (2018). The Stigma of Pedophilia: Clinical and Forensic Implications. European Psychologist, 23(2), 144–153. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000325
Seto, M. C. (2008). Pedophilia and sexual offending against children: Theory, assessment, and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.