Of Pedophilia and Child Molestation

As I’ve said multiple times in many of my posts, the terms pedophile and child molester are often indistinguishable in people’s minds, mostly because of the way they are irresponsibly conflated in the media. However, as I’ve also pointed out, the definitions of both terms — as well as the facts — fully support the notion that they are not the same thing. For one, someone isn’t a child molester unless they actually molest a child. And since there are plenty of pedophiles who never have and never will do such a thing, they simply don’t qualify for that term. Additionally, engaging in sexual activity with a child is not a criterion for determining whether someone is a pedophile or not. In other words, not everyone who has ever engaged in sexual activity with a child is a pedophile. Now, I understand how this last notion may be counter-intuitive, and it challenges people’s beliefs. In fact, when I state this point I often get replies like “if you do sexual things with a child you’re a pedophile by definition” or similar, which as I’ve already explained is factually incorrect. So let’s explore these different ideas in a little more detail.

Not all child molesters are pedophiles

What can possibly lead someone to engage in sexual activities with a child if they’re not sexually attracted to children, you may ask? Many child molesters are what in criminology is known as situational offenders, meaning their offense is outside of their typical preference or behavior. When applied to child sex offenders, a situational offender is one that doesn’t have a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to children — which is what defines a pedophile. Thus, these situational offenders are not pedophiles. What drives them to engage sexually with children if they’re not sexually attracted to them?

Situational offenders are often anti-social and abusive individuals in many other areas of their lives. Picture the alcoholic step-parent who frequently abuses — emotionally and physically — his partner and/or step-children. His estranged partner has denied them sexual access and they may turn to their step-children as a substitute for their typical adult partner. It is known that the vast majority of sexual abuse happens within the family, matching situations like the one I have described above. Parents and step-parents of marginal families are the typical perpetrators of such situational child sexual abuse.

I obviously don’t expect anyone to take my word for all of this I’m saying, so I’ll provide a few sources that talk about the concept of situational child sex offenders — as opposed to preferential child sex offenders:

Lynn Daugherty describes “regressed child molesters” as people who have wives or partners whom they are sexually active with, but who still abuse their own children. When this type of man comes under tremendous stress, he degenerates to touching or having sex with the child. The preferred sexual choice of these abusers is adult women, even finding them more stimulating than a child, but these men have poor impulse control and when extreme difficulties occur, they turn to children. These men are often controlling, and may feel that their life is out of control. The only way to regain power is to assault a vulnerable child who cannot fight back.
Former FBI Agent Ken Lanning, calls the difference between the two types of offenders, “preferential” and “situational.” Preferential offenders are most often pedophiles (preferring pre-pubescent children), and are the type of molester who will seek out children by becoming a football coach, camp counselor, Boy Scout leader, or a helper sick or disabled children.
Situational child molesters may be the kind of person who verbally abuses their wife, friends, or employees. They are also more likely to use force. The abuse of the child might only materialize in times of high stress. Therefore, it would be sporadic and impulsive. This type of perpetrator usually only chooses female children, and in the abuser’s mind, he feels the child is a suitable sexual partner because he can pretend that she is older than her true age. “Regressed child molesters” could account for why so many accusers in cases of repressed memory came from a middle or upper class home where everything appeared “normal” to outside observers.
Unlike pedophiles, situational offenders do not have a preference for pre-pubescent children. They are usually not aroused by child pornography but will still sexually abuse a very young child if the conditions allow it.

The entire article is worth a read.

Wiklund (1995) discusses the FBI’s division of child molesters into situational molesters and preferential molesters. The situational molester is not primarily attracted to children for sexual gratification.

Both of these sources mention the FBI as the author of the original distinction between preferential and situational child molesters. In particular, it was FBI agent Kenneth V. Lanning, author of Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis, in which he states (page 29):

In addition not all child molesters are pedophiles. In my experience, many child molesters are not pedophiles. A pedophile is an individual who prefers to have sex with children. A person who prefers to have sex with an adult partner may, for any number of reasons, decide to have sex with a child. Such reasons might include simple availability, opportunity, curiosity, or a desire to hurt a loved one of the molested child. The erotic imagery and sexual fantasies of such individuals are not necessarily recurrent, intense, and focused on children; therefore, these people are not pedophiles.

Most child molesters are not pedophiles

The above sources prove that it is well known and understood by anyone who knows anything about the topic of child sexual abuse that simply molesting a child doesn’t make one a pedophile, since it is recognized that many non-pedophiles molest children. However, another fact that is often met witch skepticism is that most (and not just some) child molesters are not actually pedophiles. In other words, most child molesters are situational offenders.

In order to prove this, I will present here a few sources and studies that show that the vast majority of child molesters are not pedophiles.

  • A study by Michael Seto and Martin L. Lalumière titled “A Brief Screening Scale to Identify Pedophilic Interests Among Child Molesters” found that only between 27% and 40% of child molesters were pedophiles. The wide variation depends on where they set the cutting point for a diagnosis of pedophilia. With a more permissive cut-off point, they concluded that 40% of child molesters are pedophiles (which means that even in this case more than half of all child molesters aren’t pedophiles). However at this cut-off point, 17% of their control group — random population of non-child sexual offenders — were categorized as pedophiles, which they found to be too high; Michael Seto estimates the prevalence of pedophilia in the general public to be around 1–2% of the adult male population. So they adjusted their diagnostic cut-off point until only 10% of controls fell under the category — which is still an exhorbitant number if compared with Seto’s estimate — in which case they concluded that 27% of child molesters were pedophiles (meaning that 73% or almost three quarters of all child molesters in their sample were not pedophiles).
  • Another study published in the Journal of the European Psychiatry Association found that only 16,2% of child molesters would qualify for a diagnosis of pedophilia, meaning that 83,8% would not:
Experimental sample consists of 146 forensic cases (all men), they committed child molestation in years 2005–2012. According to the criteria (DSM-IV-TR) for pedophilia, penile plethysmography (PPG), actual clinical and case history data were used for the diagnosis determination. Obtained clinical and sociodemographic data were statistically evaluated.
Only a small part (16,2 %) of sexual offenders against children meet the criteria (DSM-IV-TR) for pedophilia. There is significant difference in occurrence of other psychopathological features between groups of ‘pedophiles’ and non-pedophilic ‘child molesters’, i.a. alcohol abuse/dependence, sexual dysfunction, personality disorder, increased aggressiveness, mental deficit, etc.
  • Finally, the Dutch Government issued a report on child sexual abuse in 2014 which concluded that only 20% of child molesters have a paraphilia, meaning that 80% are non-paraphilic, but even more are non-pedophiles, since some of those had different paraphilias. It also says something very interesting: that violent sexual offenses against children are much more likely to be committed by non-pedophiles than by pedophiles. This clearly speaks to the very different motivations for offending between situational offenders — most likely frustration and anger, leading to a violent offense — and preferential offenders, or pedophiles— a misguided ‘love’ and the notion that the child welcomes the sexual experience. From section 2.5.5. on page 64 of the paper:
2.5.5. Are all offenders pedophiles?
No. Paedophilia is a stable sexual preference for children. It is one of the so-called ‘paraphilias’ or sexual preferences that differ from what is regarded as normal. Other paraphilias are exhibitionism and necrophilia. As shown in §, 20% of suspects who undergo a personality assessment are found to have deviant sexual preferences, including preferences other than paedophilia; in other words, 80% do not have deviant sexual preferences.
In short, far from all offenders are paedophiles. Twenty percent of the suspects about whom a psychological report is produced have a deviant sexual preference (including preferences other than paedophilia). Perpetrators of hands-on forcible offences are least likely to be paedophiles, while hands-on/off perpetrators are the most likely. Hands-off offenders most often have other deviant sexual preferences. What’s more, not all paedophiles are offenders (see also §

EDIT (15-june-2016): The intergovernmental law enforcement organization Interpol issued just yesterday a statement in which they express their intent to stand behind the newly developed “Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse”, also known as “Luxembourg Guidelines”, which are publicly available online. The following quotes can be found on the English version of this document:

On page 85, under the section “Subcategories of perpetrators of sexual crimes against children”:

Thus, the notion of “perpetrators of sexual offences against children” may be broken down into two broad sub-categories related to their behaviour: (i) preferential — individuals with a predisposition or motivation to sexually engage with children (“preferential offenders”); and (ii) situational — individuals who victimise children but “who do not have a true sexual preference for children” (“situational offenders”).

On page 87, under “Situational offenders”:

This category refers to individuals who do not display any distinguishable sexual preference for children or adolescents but who will engage in the sexual exploitation of children if and when they find themselves in situations where a child is readily available for sexual use. “Situational sex offenders” frequently molest readily available children to whom they have easy access, such as their own or those they may live with or have control over. Pubescent teenagers are high-risk, viable sexual targets. Younger children may also be targeted because they are weak, vulnerable, or available”. These individuals are not driven or motivated by sexual fantasies of children per se. It has been posited that the majority of perpetrators of child sexual exploitation fall into the category of situational offenders.

And on page 86, regarding the misuse of the term pedophile:

The terms “paedophile” and “paedophilia” continue to be overused and misunderstood, often seen as a label for a person convicted of child sexual exploitation or sexual abuse rather than as a term for a clinical condition. In some instances, states have wrongly characterised in legislation all persons with paedophilic disorder as criminals, defining a “paedophile” as “a person who has at any time been convicted of a sexual offence respecting a child”. Such legislation propagates the misconception that child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse is perpetrated exclusively by paedophiles or that anyone diagnosed with paedophilic disorder is or has been engaged in such acts. In truth, while some perpetrators of child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse suffer from the clinical condition of paedophilic disorder, many more perpetrators of sexual offences against children are not diagnosed with paedophilic disorder. It is therefore important that a clear distinction be made between the act of sexual abuse/exploitation and the clinical condition of paedophilic disorder, which may or may not involve conduct amounting to child sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

Most pedophiles are not child molesters

I will admit right from the start that here is where I have no data and simply talk out of my own intuition. The fact is, we simply don’t know how many pedophiles there are, so it’s basically impossible — without this information — to say what percentage of us molest children. It’s a mathematical impossibility.

All we have regarding the prevalence of pedophilia is estimates. As I mentioned above, Michael Seto estimates that about 1–2% of the adult male population are pedophiles. These are very conservative estimates. Sarah D. Goode in her book Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children talks about ~10% of adult men admitting — through anonymous surveys — to being sexually attracted to children to one degree or another. Even guiding us by the very conservative 1% estimate, that would mean that in a country like the United States alone, and estimating that about 38% of the population are adult males 16 years old or older (according to the 2010 census), which is the minimum age to be technically diagnosed with pedophilia, there would be more than 1,200,000 male pedophiles alone. Female pedophiles exists, although we have even less information about how prevalent pedophilia is among females, so I can’t venture to guess a number. But even considering male pedophiles alone, it would be pretty safe to assume that the prevalence of child sexual abuse would be much higher than it is if every pedophile was a child molester.

In any case, even if we cannot possibly know how many pedophiles there are, it is very clear that there are very many pedophiles who never molest children, as well as that the vast majority of child sex offenders are not actually pedophiles — a fact that is supported by science. A helpful Twitter user made this handy Venn diagram that explains the situation quite well:

In summary, if presented with the facts, those who continue to conflate pedophilia and child molestation do it out of willful bigotry and a desire to continue to stigmatize pedophiles and paint us all as monsters.