Have you ever read news like “French soldiers accused of paedophilia in custody in France”? This headline is an example of how people share a common misconception by mixing up pedophilia and child sexual abuse.
Articles like this are actually about cases of child sexual abuse. But that does not necessarily mean they are also about pedophilia (which is the sexual preference for children)! That is because pedophilia and child sexual abuse are two different matters. And here is why:
Child sexual abuse is an act, a behavior. In contrast, the term “pedophilia” or the phrase “sexual attraction towards children” describes a sexual preference. Sexual preference is mostly shaped by sexual fantasies, not by sexual acts. In fact, the sexual behavior of a person does not have to coincide with their actual sexual preference. Think of a homosexual woman who is living in a society which does not permit sexual relations between people of the same gender. This woman might get married to a man, have children, and die without ever having had sex with another woman – but that does not change the fact that her fantasies were about women and that she had a sexual preference for women.
Which sexual fantasies a person finds arousing is not something decided by choice. So is the case for people with pedophilia – their preference is a destiny, not a choice. In fact, if people were left a choice whether to be pedophilic or not, most probably no one would choose to be attracted to kids instead of adults.
In a similar context, we can understand that experiencing sexual attraction towards children does not necessarily mean that a person will act on those attractions and commit child sexual abuse; they can stay offense-free their whole life by keeping their “sexual impulses on the fantasy level for a lifetime”. To help people with pedophilia to stay offense-free is the goal of treatment projects like “Don’t Offend India” or “Kein Täter werden” which is German for “Don’t Offend”.
Furthermore, when we look at people who were convicted of child sexual abuse, we find that more than half of them actually do not even have a sexual preference for children (Seto, 2008). It means that a person might have sexual fantasies about adult women, but sexually interacts with a child as a surrogate for an adult of their preference. This can have a number of reasons viz. low intelligence or personality disorders.
To sum it up: People who abuse children are not necessarily pedophilic, and pedophilic people do not necessarily abuse children.
In other words: pedophilia is a preference, and child sexual abuse is a crime. And we do believe it is extremely important not to confuse pedophilia with actual child sexual abuse.
Thanks for reading this article – we hope it helps you to be able to discrimate between a legal case of child sexual abuse from the preference “pedophilia” the next time you read about “pedophiles” in any article!
Jahnke, S., Schmidt, A. F., Geradt, M., & Hoyer, J. (2015). Stigma-Related Stress and Its Correlates Among Men with Pedophilic Sexual Interests. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(8), 2173–2187. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0503-7
Seto, M. C. (2008). Pedophilia and sexual offending against children: Theory, assessment, and intervention. American Psychological Association.