You can’t turn around on the internet without encountering a falsehood about what pedophiles are really like. Most of these aren’t outright lies but rather misunderstandings based on years of misinformation and errors perpetuated by the media or by advocacy groups with a vested interest in demonizing pedophiles. A big part of the problem is that these issues have been poorly researched, as well as the fact that much of the extant research was biased from the get-go (for example, extrapolations about all pedophiles based upon information gathered from incarcerated sex offenders). So let’s set the record straight! Here is what people need to know about pedophiles and their sexuality.
#1 – Pedophilia and child sexual abuse are the same thing – This is by far the most prevalent myth about pedophilia out there, as well as one of the most destructive, not just to pedophiles but to kids, since it takes the focus off the most problematic offenders. Pedophilia is not an action; it is a condition. That some pedophiles do abuse children does not change this fact. I’ll get back to this point, but first let’s define pedophilia. At base, it is an ongoing primary or exclusive attraction to prepubescent children, usually under age 12. It does not—or should not—be assumed that just because someone has this attraction they have offended against a child or looked at child pornography.
So, not all pedophiles are sex offenders against children. But the converse is also true: not all sex offenders against children are pedophiles. This may seem like a strange thing to say, but it is nevertheless true. Several studies (I named two in my second Salon article that were published last year, one by Kesicky, Andre & Kesicka, the other by Nationaal Rapporteur Mensenhandel en Seksueel Geweld tegen Kinderen) show that the majority—somewhere between 60–80%—of sex offenders against kids are actually situational offenders who abuse kids for reasons other than attraction. Often (about one-third of the time) these are people who are related to the child either through blood or through marriage. Fathers and stepfathers are a common culprit. There are lots of reasons a situational offender will offend, but that’s a discussion for another time.
#2 – Those people who kidnap, rape and murder children are almost always pedophiles – Quite the opposite, actually. In Kenneth Lanning’s seminal article for the FBI called Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis, he points out the following: “In spite of a few notable exceptions, most of the sexually motivated child murderers profiled and assessed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have involved situational-type child molesters who display the morally indiscriminate and inadequate patterns of behavior. Low social competence seems to be the most significant risk factor in why a child molester might abduct his victims (Lanning, 53).” [Emphasis mine] Did you catch that? Pedophiles aren’t generally responsible for the worst kind of offense, the one that understandably terrifies parents everywhere: the abduction/rape/murder scenario. These are mostly crimes of opportunity committed by people with poor social skills and no moral compunctions, not people who have an ongoing attraction to children.
#3 – All pedophiles are ticking time bombs—even if they haven’t offended yet, they eventually will – Well, I can pretty much disprove this one on my own. I have been a (nearly exclusive) pedophile since I was an early adolescent; I am now almost 43. So I have been a pedophile for about three-quarters of my life, about 30 years altogether, and I have yet to sexually abuse a child. I had a near miss at age 18, but I soon distanced myself from that situation and that was that. Even in that case, the child was doing things that increased my temptation and sexual frustration to abnormally high levels. I am not blaming her; she could not possibly have understood what she was doing or the effect it was having on me. But that doesn’t change the fact that it presented a problem for me at a time when I was arguably the most vulnerable to acting out anyway, being young and naive and having no support network or anyone I could really talk to about my dilemma. But it passed without incident, and everything since then has been no sweat.
The assumption that pedophiles are somehow different from other people with respect to our ability to control ourselves is really an example of special pleading, in this case that simply being attracted to children makes one almost sexually rabid, unable to resist temptation. This argument is absurd, but given that there are few non-offending pedophiles willing to publicly identify themselves because of the massive stigma, it is somewhat understandable. Most people can only go by what they see, and since the only pedophiles they have any routine exposure to are ones they read about in the news, meaning those who have already offended and been caught, the picture looks bleak. Even so, there are countless pedophiles who never offend and will never identify themselves, which severely skews the numbers.
#4 – Child molesters have high recidivism rates – This one is related to #3 and is based on the same assumption that all pedophiles have poor impulse control. But it’s just flat wrong. As Paul Heroux, a state representative from Massachusetts, said in an article published in Huffington Post in 2011, Sex Offenders: Recidivism, Re-Entry Policy and Facts, “Contrary to popular belief, as a group, sex offenders have the lowest rate of recidivism of all the crime categories.” He isn’t kidding. Recidivism rates for other types of crimes range from around 13% (robbery) up to nearly 34% (larceny), whereas reoffend rates for sex offenders hover around the lower single digits. The article cites 2.5% for rape, arguably the worst of all sex crimes. The numbers are similar for all sex offense subcategories, averaging out at around 2%. Notable forensic psychologist Karen Franklin, on her blog In the News: Forensic Psychology, Criminology & Psychology-Law, has scads of articles about how low recidivism rates are for sex offenders and how the system routinely overestimates the danger of individual offenders by using bad science.
5 – Pedophilia is a choice, not a sexual orientation – Come on, does anyone really believe that pedophiles would choose to belong to the most despised status in the modern world if there was no real attraction there? This also taps into point #1, the belief that pedophilia is synonymous with sexual abuse. I have never offended against a child in my life. I certainly wouldn’t have outed myself and attached that label to myself if I wasn’t genuinely attracted to children. What would be the point of that? To enjoy all the wonderful persecution, name-calling, threats of violence or urges to kill myself? To be thought by millions of people who don’t know me as someone who rapes kids or plans to?
Someone on Twitter actually suggested that I outed myself as some kind of social insurance when I eventually do offend, as he was sure I would. So, how exactly would that work in an environment where a solid majority of the public is actively hostile toward pedophiles? If anything, I would just be sealing my fate; I mean, look at all the evidence the state would have to label me a dangerous person. I openly admit I am attracted to children. I mean, it’s right there on the internet for everyone to see! If I was arrested for abusing a child, it would be a pretty slam-dunk case against me, wouldn’t it? Even if I was perfectly innocent, I wouldn’t have much of a chance with all my confessions out there that could be used as evidence of my guilt. So what would I gain by confessing to an orientation I didn’t actually have if I were a sex offender?
At any rate, some people are bothered by the idea of attaching the term ‘sexual orientation’ to pedophilia, because they fear that it will eventually be used to justify sex with kids. This is an understandable (if not terribly realistic) fear, but one has to understand that there is truth and there is politics, and the two are not the same. It’s true there is a political aspect to the term in question, but more importantly, there is a scientific aspect to it, and as many researchers are now finding, pedophilia behaves precisely like any other sexual orientation: it begins in childhood, there is often an emotional component to it, it seems to have a biological origin, etc. So, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck . . . Sure, the DSM V does not use that label, but it’s hardly the final arbiter. The people who put it together are notoriously fickle in the face of political and social pressures. Let’s remember that the DSM folks once considered homosexuality to be a mental illness too. Because of the huge ongoing taboo, pedophilia currently holds a similar status in the mental health community, but this too shall pass.
6 – Pedophiles can’t get an adult partner, so they turn to kids – One of the biggest myths out there is that pedophiles can’t get a date, so they turn to kids because they are easy to trick or overpower. There are people who abuse kids for precisely that reason, but they aren’t usually pedophiles. Lanning identifies them as morally indiscriminate and/or socially inadequate situational offenders. Some are outright psychotic. Pedophiles, by contrast, can fall anywhere on the personality or sociability spectrum. They can introverted or extroverted, shy or outgoing, insecure or self-assured, etc. Many are able to meet and date adults just fine. I dated briefly as a young man, but my relationships never went anywhere because there was just no sexual chemistry between me and the women I dated, so I gave up. Other pedophiles have some attraction to adults, and many even marry and have children of their own.
7 – Pedophiles who abuse kids always do so by force or trickery – This one goes hand-in-hand with a myth about children, which is that they are incapable of willingly participating in or initiating sexual behaviors, that they never enjoy sexual contact and always resist any advances. This is absolutely false. Even though they may not understand fully what they are doing and are legally unable to give consent, kids are capable of doing so anyway and even enjoying some sexual activities on their own level. Many people who handle prosecutions involving child pornography are often shocked at how often children are smiling and seem to be enjoying themselves in such images. About 15% of all child pornography is actually produced by kids themselves (frequently through sexting), with little or no adult involvement.
Therefore, if kids do consent to sex, the pedophile or offending adult may not have coerced or tricked them at all. Maybe they simply asked, and they child said, “Sure, let’s try it.” Or perhaps it was even the child’s idea. None of this, of course, excuses adults sexually abusing children. The adult, after all, is the responsible party and should know better. Moreover, there is no guarantee that if a child willingly participated and even enjoyed the sexual contact there will be no emotional or psychological problems for them later. There often is. It is simply not a risk any adult, pedophile or not, should ever take with a child’s life. The risks and consequences are immense all around.
8 – When pedophiles are nice to kids, it means they are grooming them for sex – In some cases this is true, but in many cases it isn’t. Pedophiles often simply enjoy the company of children, even if there is no possibility or expectation of sex. I myself have spent countless hours entertaining kids, doing artwork with them, watching television with them, etc., and never did I do this in order to break down a child’s inhibitions to make her susceptible to sexual contact. Many non-offending pedophiles are like me, and I’ll wager that even offending pedophiles aren’t always trying to get sex from kids just because they’re nice to them. We are wired to enjoy the company of children; it is part of our makeup. Likewise, not all sexual contact between adults and kids was planned. Sometimes it just develops organically. Again, none of this excuses adults from engaging in such behaviors. But it is counterproductive and misleading to pretend like kids are always coerced, tricked or groomed into sexual behaviors. This is just not reality.
9 – All pedophile activists are just trying to justify legalizing sex with kids – Not so. There are two major camps of pedophile activists, pro-contacters and anti-contacters. Pro-contacters may or may not abuse children, but they all have one thing in common: they want to see a day when the age of consent is lowered or removed altogether to accommodate their sexual preferences. But there are also anti-contacters, pedophile activists who do not want to see the removal of age of consent laws but are working toward other goals like decreasing the stigma attached to pedophilia so that pedophiles will feel happier and healthier and thus less likely to offend, or will be more likely to seek treatment if they need it, educating the public, etc. I fall into this category. While it’s true that I once characterized myself as a pro-contacter and debated from that position, it never truly felt right to me and I eventually renounced it. There were a few hiccups along the way, but ultimately I have arrived at the anti-contacter position once and for all, having removed myself from the pro-contacter forums I used to belong to. I guarantee that this will remain my position for the remainder of my life, now that VirPed exists and can offer me the support I need by like-minded pedophiles.
10 – Even non-offending pedophiles who have sexual fantasies must be fantasizing about raping kids – This logic arises from the myth that children are incapable of enjoying or agreeing to sex, and since that’s supposedly the case, pedophiles must be fantasizing about raping or forcing themselves on children and causing them pain. The fact is, not all pedophiles are sadists. I’d imagine very few of them are, actually. Personally, my fantasies revolve around kids being fully able to consent and enjoying whatever we do. I’m attracted to the child’s form and personality, not to the notion of causing them extreme pain or discomfort, and I want them to be happy even in my fantasies. The idea of hurting them is actually a huge turn-off to me. But even if non-offending pedophiles do fantasize about such things, what ultimately matters is that they don’t act on it. What goes on in their heads is nobody else’s business as long as it remains there. You can’t punish people for their fantasies; that would be a thought crime, and this isn’t Orwell’s 1984, is it?
11 – Pedophile forums are all about pedophiles sharing tips on how to abuse kids or download child pornography without getting caught – This is simply ridiculous. Every pedophile board I’ve ever belonged to, whether pro-contacter, anti-contacter or mixed, had strict rules about what could and could not be shared or posted on their forums. This may simply be a matter of self-preservation for many of them, since it would be easy for cops or vigilantes to infiltrate those boards by pretending to be a pedophile and then confiscate that board’s logs when they saw illegal activity being conducted, effectively ending that board’s presence on the web, but whatever the case, in over ten years of posting on those boards I never once saw anyone give advice on how to abuse kids or collect child porn. It just didn’t happen. Perhaps there were some members who met outside of the forum and did so, but it couldn’t have happened on any scale that opened the board to legal scrutiny.
No, the reason these boards exist is simple: pedophiles need support too. They need to talk to people who share their attractions and understand what they might be going through. Living in isolation is dangerous and actually more likely to cause pedophiles to offend. We need support networks just like anyone else. For those at VirPed, our support network is also our circle of accountability. We bounce things off each other, let each know when some behavior might be problematic later, and so on. And even for past offenders who just want to get their lives straightened out, evidence shows that the best way to assure they don’t reoffend is a circle of support and accountability.