Pedophilia As A Sexual Orientation

In a previous post, I covered whether pedophilia can be considered a mental disorder — as it currently is today, with certain (and important) nuances — and what the implications of doing so are from a stigma point of view. If mental illness is already stigmatized in and of itself, the combination of what people perceive to be mental illness with what the public believes about pedophilia is an explosive molotov cocktail. Like I mentioned in that post, the big debate currently in the public opinion is whether pedophilia is a mental disorder or a sexual orientation.

What is a sexual orientation?

A lot of people attempt to disqualify pedophilia as a sexual orientation merely from a semantic point of view. The first thing people get hung up about is the notion that the word ‘sexual’ in ‘sexual orientation’ refers to the sex (or gender) of the people one is attracted to, which is just an overly simplistic interpretation of the term. More broadly, the word ‘sexual’ refers to a person’s sexuality, and therefore a sexual orientation defines what kind of individuals one’s sexuality is oriented towards. While it is obvious that the default criteria by which sexual attraction has been traditionally measured is gender, it is not necessarily the only parameter that can determine a person’s sexual orientation. Those who cling to this narrow definition of sexual orientation as their only basis to say that pedophilia isn’t one are just grasping at straws in an attempt to shut down any potential debate about the topic.

“But it’s an illness!”

I have already explored this in my post mentioned at the beginning of this one, so click on the link and read it for an in-depth analysis. However, I’ll quickly touch on the most common non-argument, which is merely that it’s a mental disorder because it’s listed as such in a book (or a number of books). This is important, because those opposing the idea of pedophilia as a sexual orientation will cling to this argument tooth and nail. They will say that the whole scientific community agrees that it’s a mental disorder, and that it’s listed in different scientific reference documents — namely the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) published by the World Health Organization (WHO) — as such. Therefore — their argument goes — you are ignorant for not believing the ‘experts’.

What they completely fail to realize is that the same scientific community also agreed that homosexuality was a mental disorder back when it was listed in the DSM, and that the fact that something is — at one point in time — considered a disorder by the psychiatric profession doesn’t mean it’s automatically true. Psychiatry is not an exact science, and scientists can be wrong, so as more is learned about a condition through research, the scientific consensus can change — which is exactly what happened with homosexuality. They ignore the fact that these documents are revised quite frequently (the DSM is in its fifth edition and the ICD in its tenth), and they are revised precisely because of new knowledge accrued about the conditions described in them, prompting them to update their findings.

Once such recent change introduced by the DSM in its latest edition is the distinction between paraphilias and paraphilic disorders, that applies not only to pedophilia but also to every other ‘deviant sexuality’ or paraphilia. This change is important, because it differentiates between the condition of being sexually attracted to children in and of itself — which is what constitutes pedophilia — and potentially associated conditions in the form of shame, guilt, distress, interpersonal difficulties or acting out on the attraction by sexually abusing a child — which is what constitutes pedophilic disorder. Therefore, if none of these conditions are present, pedophilia is described as a sexual orientation, and there is no pedophilic disorder:

Image of the print edition of the DSM-5 calling pedophilia a sexual orientation in the absence of a diagnosis of pedophilic disorder

In all fairness, the DSM did retract the use of the term sexual orientation and changed it for the term sexual interest due to pressure from certain lobby groups (particularly conservative religious groups), but suffice it to say that the intended language the DSM used was clear and that whether you call it an orientation or an ‘interest’ (a euphemism as big as they come), it clearly states that it is not a disorder in and of itself. The new term can be found only in the online edition of the DSM though, since the print edition was already out before they were forced to make the correction. In addition, the change was purely linguistic, to avoid controversy, not because new scientific findings led to the conclusion that it didn’t qualify as a sexual orientation.

Conceptualizing pedophilia as an age sexual orientation

The reality is that the only reasons why pedophilia is not currently classified as a sexual orientation are not scientific, but political. There are many implications — and it would very controversial to do so today—of formally proclaiming pedophilia a sexual orientation, because of the huge stigma that pedophilia has attached to it. So I’m not holding my breath for it to happen any time soon, perhaps not even within my lifetime.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that the scientific consensus is changing towards acknowledging that pedophilia is — for all intents and purposes, and in all ways that matter — a sexual orientation just like any other. What makes something a sexual orientation, you may ask? In general, scientists attribute the following characteristics to sexual orientations:

  • They are unchosen. This has little to do with whether one is born with it or it’s the result of some kind of event during one’s early development. This debate is not even settled for homosexuality, in spite of all the research that has been poured into trying to figure it out. Even if pedophilia was the result of traumatic sexual experiences during childhood — something which is pretty much proven to not be the case, given that very many pedophiles were never victims of sexual abuse — it would still be so beyond the individual’s control that for all intents and purposes it would be just the same as having been born with it. The pedophile would certainly not have chosen to suffer such traumatic experience and it would make no sense to blame him for it — that would be the very definition of victim blaming.
  • They are discovered right around puberty, pretty much like all other people start to discover who they are attracted to. It may seem that some pedophiles don’t discover their attractions until later in life, but that’s typically because during early puberty many of us are still attracted to children our own age, so we don’t notice anything really noteworthy — unless the attraction is homosexual, like in my particular case. However there are pedophiles attracted to younger children who have known that they were attracted to much younger kids since as early an age as 11. Sure, they can’t formally/clinically be diagnosed with pedophilia before the age of 16, but they know very well what they’re attracted to, and they generally continue being attracted to such young children well after puberty.
  • They are stable over time, meaning that they can’t be changed or ‘cured’ — as has been proven with homosexuality — and once again, it’s irrelevant whether one is born with it or if there are developmental factors that contribute to its development— most likely it’s a combination of both for all sexual orientations — there is still no way to change one’s orientation once it has ‘set’. I will explore the idea of a cure for pedophilia in a separate post.
Michael C. Seto

In his paper Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?”, researcher Michael Seto defines (male) sexual orientation as “the direction(s) of a male person’s sexual thoughts, fantasies, urges, arousal, and behavior”. As you can see, he doesn’t specifically mention gender in this definition.

He establishes age as an additional axis of sexual attraction, orthogonal to gender. Therefore, along the gender axis (x) you have homosexuality on one end (left) and heterosexuality on the other (right); along the age axis (y) you have teleiophilia (attraction to adults) on one end (top) and pedophilia on the other one (bottom). Given that pedophilic attractions are also typically gender-specific, and that some pedophiles can be attracted to adults to some degree or another, we’re really talking about a spectrum along these axis as opposed to discrete positions in the resulting chart. A man exclusively attracted to adult women would be a heterosexual teleiophile and would be at the top right corner of the chart. A man exclusively attracted to boys would be a homosexual pedophile and would be at the bottom left corner of the chart. But there is room for any number of combinations in between.

Age and gender axis of sexual orientation, as conceptualized by Michael Seto

In addition to the three characteristics described above, Seto also talks about correlation between sexual and romantic behavior. When he looks at pedophilia at the light of these four characteristics, he really finds no scientific evidence that precludes pedophilia from being classified as a sexual orientation. All existing scientific research shows that pedophilia is clearly unchosen, that the age of onset is right around puberty like with any other orientation, that it is stable throughout a man’s life and that pedophiles would choose — if it was possible — children as romantic partners; in other words, pedophiles fall in love with children, just like homosexual men fall in love with other men or heterosexual men fall in love with women.

In fact, his words clearly suggest that the only caveats to consider pedophilia a sexual orientation are in fact political, legal and social:

By the above definition of sexual orientation — and most common definitions of sexual orientation — pedophilia can be viewed as a sexual age orientation based on the more limited evidence available regarding its age of onset, associations with sexual and romantic behavior, and stability over time. Though there are clearly differences in some respects, there are also striking similarities in the research literature on pedophilia.
[…]
I have focused on the scientific and clinical implications of conceptualizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation in this brief article. But what about the legal and social implications? In particular, what impact might there be in conceptualizing pedophilia as a sexual age orientation, based on empirical evidence, akin to sexual gender orientation such as heterosexuality or homosexuality? For example, there are anti-discrimination laws or policies that specifically mention ‘‘sexual orientation’’ as grounds for redress. The makers of these laws and policies surely had sexual gender orientation in mind, not sexual age orientation.
[…]
Given the anxiety and fear elicited by pedophiles in con-temporary societies, it is highly unlikely that citizens would support the expansion of legal and civil rights to other sexual orientations. Nonetheless, this challenging and complex discussion needs to take place. Accepting that pedophilia is a sexual orientation akin to heterosexuality or homosexuality, rather than a preference that is chosen or somehow learned, may influence the direction of this discussion. Pedophilia is unlikely ever to be accepted, given its behavioral manifestations involve the sexual exploitation of children, but can it be tolerated when it is not accompanied by criminal actions?

I am of the strong belief that it should be up to scientists and not politicians or policy makers to determine whether a human condition is classified as a mental disorder or not, since it is a scientific question and not a legal one. Albeit certainly not an exact science, psychiatry is — after all — a science, and a branch of medicine, and it’s not societal consensus but sound scientific research on its etiology and symptoms that lead to other conditions, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or autism, to be classified as mental disorders. In the case of a condition that determines what kind of individuals one is sexually attracted to, if it’s not a disorder, then what is it? I can only think of one term to describe it.

The journey from paraphilia to sexual orientation

Agustín Malón

Another very interesting scientific article to see why it doesn’t make sense to keep considering pedophilia a mental disorder or paraphilia is Pedophilia: A Diagnosis in Search of a Disorder”, by Agustín Malón. In this article, written during the time that led to the publication of the fifth edition of the DSM, Malón draws a parallel between the treatment of homosexuality by the psychiatric community from the time it was classified as a mental disorder or paraphilia and until it was ultimately and completely removed from the DSM. Homosexuality went through three phases:

Phase 1: Homosexuality considered a mental disorder

Up until the DSM-III homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, with no reservations. This was the status of pedophilia up until the DSM-5 when they started making the distinction between paraphilias and paraphilic disorders. Before that, it was considered a disorder in all cases.

Phase 2: Ego-dystonic homosexuality

In 1980, homosexuality was removed from the DSM-III and replaced with ‘ego-dystonic homosexuality’, which meant that it was only considered a disorder if the individual suffered distress resulting from the condition of being homosexual. This distress could be caused either by internal conflict (like for instance with religious beliefs about the sinful nature of homosexual sex) or by internalizing society’s negative views of homosexuality, being victim of mockery or bullying, etc.

This is the exact situation in which pedophilia is today, with pedophilia itself not considered a disorder unless there are ‘interpersonal difficulties or marked distress’, in which case it becomes pedophilic disorder. It would really be no different if they called it ego-dystonic pedophilia.

Phase 3: Homosexuality completely removed from DSM

With the DSM-III-R edition in 1987, ego-dystonic homosexuality was removed as well. The psychiatric community — surely encouraged by LGBT activist groups — realized that a condition cannot be considered a disorder solely based on the subjective perception the individual has of it. If that was the case, we could see things like ‘ego-dystonic ugliness disorder’ when an individual is deeply distressed about how ugly he is and how hard it’s going to be for him to find a partner, or how bullied he is by non-ugly people in his environment. In other words, just feeling bad about something doesn’t make that thing a mental disorder. If you develop depression, anxiety or any other disorder due to your condition of being homosexual (or ugly), your disorder is depression or anxiety, not homosexuality (or ugliness).

The same can be said about pedophilic disorder, and this inconsistency between the treatment of homosexuality and that of pedophilia — and every other paraphilia — in the DSM has not passed unnoticed by many professionals in the field, as noted by Malón in this article:

The past depathologization of homosexuality is the strongest argument available to those who take the position that pedophilia and other paraphilias should not be treated as mental disorders (Culver & Gert, 2006; Moser, 2001). These authors claim that the subject’s personal suffering is a necessary condition to define a mental disorder and their main argument is that paraphilias, including pedophilia, do not cause any particular distress in the majority of those who experience them. Where such distress is present, they add, it is better explained by the presence of a conflict with society (stigmatization, condemnation, persecution, etc.) than by the condition itself (Vogt, 2006). Indeed, some people are quite capable of integrating it into their lives and personalities with reasonably satisfactory results (Moser, 2001; Suppe, 1987; Wilson & Cox, 1983).

In other words, the situation and consideration of pedophilia as a mental disorder is no different than that of homosexuality. Both are sexual orientations which are not conducive to reproduction, which is the main physiological purpose of sex. Therefore both can be considered ‘sexual deviations’ or ‘disordered sexualities’, but that doesn’t make them mental disorders. If you want to argue that one is a mental disorder, it’s really very hard to have any valid arguments to say that the other one isn’t.

In addition, there is no conclusive evidence that homosexuality is definitively in-born or genetic — the infamous gay gene has not been discovered — and the latest research on pedophilia suggests a strong correlation with prenatal factors. In other words, we simply do not know the cause in either case, but both seem to be incredibly similar in etiology and manifestation.

But what about consent!?!?

I’ve already addressed this in another post, so I’ll just quote here what I said there:

… consent has absolutely nothing to do with whether one individual can be attracted to another. No one chooses who they are attracted to, and I’m not just talking about broad categories here (men, women, children, brunettes…) but even about specific people. When we see someone and we find them attractive, we don’t ask permission to be attracted to them. Plenty of men are attracted to women that would never consent to a sexual relationship with them. It could be because the woman doesn’t even know the man, as it is often the case when men are attracted to hot Hollywood actresses or fashion top-models, and women aren’t generally inclined to have sex with total strangers. It could be because she’s married, or otherwise in a stable monogamous relationship, and they would never cheat on their partners. It could be because she’s a lesbian, or simply because she doesn’t find the man attractive.

The only difference is that children cannot consent (meaningfully), whereas an adult may not consent under certain circumstances. However as long as the pedophile realizes that — as plenty of us do — there really is no difference, and we’re just as capable of refraining from acting on our attraction with someone who cannot consent as a heterosexual teleiophile is capable of refraining from acting on his attraction with someone who just won’t consent.

The growing consensus

There is a growing consensus among the scientific community that pedophilia is — in all ways that matter from a scientific point of view — a sexual orientation. This means that it’s an unchosen and unalterable sexual attraction to prepubescent children. In addition to Michael Seto previously mentioned, James Cantor, from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, Canada, is one of the world’s leading researchers on the topic of pedophilia.

His research employing Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) led to the discovery of strong correlations between a number of factors that are known to be inborn — like (left/right)handedness, height or IQ, among others — with pedophilia, strongly suggesting that pedophilia could be a condition developed well before birth. In addition, he discovered significant differences in the brain structures — particularly in the white matter, what he describes as ‘connective tissue’ — of pedophilic child sex offenders as compared to those of non-pedophilic child sex offenders. He describes these differences — in layman’s terms — as a ‘crosswiring’ of the brain that lead to pedophiles being sexually attracted to children instead of adults.

James Cantor is often interviewed and quoted in many publications clearly saying that pedophilia is — for all intents and purposes — a sexual orientation just like homosexuality or heterosexuality:

Now, many experts see it as a biologically rooted condition that does not change — like a sexual orientation — thanks largely to a decade of research by Dr. James Cantor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

And there are more and more scientists that are adhering to this view:

In July 2010, the Harvard Mental Health Letter of July 2010 stated that “paedophilia is a sexual orientation and unlikely to change. Treatment aims to enable someone to resist acting on his sexual urges”.
The idea of treating paedophilia as a disease has long been controversial.
Like many forms of sexual deviance, pedophilia once was thought to stem from psychological influences early in life. Now, many experts view it as a sexual orientation as immutable as heterosexuality or homosexuality. It is a deep-rooted predisposition — limited almost entirely to men — that becomes clear during puberty and does not change.
Van Gjiseghem says what he and his colleagues mean by sexual orientation is a person’s inborn and unalterable sexual preference, irrespective of whether that preference is harmful to others or not. Currently, there is no significant longitudinal evidence that pedophiles can be made to not be attracted to children, and thus it can be defined as their orientation. And if pedophilia is a sexual orientation, that also means it’s futile to send pedophiles to prison in an effort to alter their attractions. Doing so is akin to sending a homosexual child off to a religious-based institution that claims it can “pray the gay away.”
In terms of LGBT+, the majority view has been to stress the natural-bias on sexual orientation, so homosexuality or asexuality are not seen as “choices” that an individual makes but rather features of their personality. Thus, holding Cantor’s widely-accepted evidence and our standard 21st-century attitude to sexual orientation, paedophilia does stand as a sexual orientation.

Finally, a very recent scientific study conducted by the Prevention Project Dunkelfeld in Germany — a revolutionary program aimed at providing confidential support to self-identified pedophiles — concluded that sexual attraction to children was stable over time and therefore supported the idea of conceptualizing pedophilia as a sexual age orientation:

Furthermore, the results support the conceptualization of pedo-/hebephilia as a sexual age orientation in men.

Implications

People assume that it was the recognition of homosexuality as a sexual orientation and not a mental disorder that lead to the destigmatization of homosexual relationships and eventually to social rights like same-sex marriage. However, that is not the case. Sure, it may have somewhat contributed, but the ultimate reason was precisely consent, and the idea that two consenting adults can do whatever they want to do in the bedroom and it’s none of anyone’s business. In addition, homosexuals were seeking to have sex with other homosexuals, people belonging to the same group as them who were fighting for the same rights.

Therefore, assuming that recognizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation will lead to the legitimization of adult-child sex is simply misguided. Societal — and scientific — consensus is that children are incapable of providing meaningful consent to sexual relationships with adults and that’s why they can be devastatingly damaging for them. Therefore, just because a condition is not considered a mental disorder anymore, society is not going to give pedophiles carte blanche to override children’s [inability to provide] consent and engage in sexual relationships with them. I don’t see society ever accepting that simply because it is suddenly acknowledged that pedophilia doesn’t really fit the mold of a mental disorder. That would require huge amounts of societal change, the abolition of age of consent legislation and many other changes that would encounter fierce opposition from all sectors of society, including very many pedophiles.

So if we don’t want to legitimize adult-child sex, what’s the point in acknowledging that pedophilia is a sexual orientation? It would mean acknowledging that there’s nothing inherently wrong with pedophiles as human beings, other than having an atypical — and very unfortunate — sexual orientation, one we can never act on. It would mean understanding that other than that there’s nothing that makes us any different than any other human being. It would mean understanding, compassion and support, without assuming we are inherently dangerous or untrustworthy due to our ‘condition’. It would mean recognizing that there’s nothing inherently evil in our nature, nothing that precludes us from knowing right from wrong, and nothing that prevents us from doing the right thing at all times. It would mean accepting pedophiles as people deserving of the same respect and sympathy as any other person.

It would not, however, mean accepting adult-child sexual relationships in any way, shape or form. This is not a consequence that follows automatically from acknowledging that pedophilia is a sexual orientation as opposed to a mental disorder. None of the scientists describing pedophilia as a sexual orientation is trying to legitimize sexual relationships with children in any way, and suggesting otherwise is just a fear-mongering tactic designed to shut down any serious and rational discussion about this topic with fallacious ‘slippery slope’ arguments.