Being Sexually Attracted to Minors:
Sexual Development, Coping With Forbidden Feelings, and Relieving Sexual Arousal in Self-Identified Pedophiles
Jenny A. B. M. Houtepen, Jelle J. Sijtsema, and Stefan Bogaerts - Department of Developmental Psychology, Tilburg University, Tilburg, The Netherlands
Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy; 22 June 2015
This article aims to provide more insight into pedophilic attraction and risk and protective factors for offending in non-clinical pedophiles.
Fifteen participants were interviewed about sexuality, coping, and sexual self-regulation. Many participants struggled with acknowledging pedophilic interest in early puberty and experienced psychological difficulties as a result. Furthermore, many committed sex offenses during adolescence when they were still discovering their feelings.
Early recognition of risk factors and early start of interventions seem vital in preventing offending. Moreover, results suggest that risk for offending can be diminished by creating more openness about pedophilia and by providing pedophiles with social support and control.
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The Whole Article
Frans E. J. Gieles, PhD, The Netherlands,
has written A Short Comment on this article:
There is ongoing debate about the etiology
of pedophilia. Currently, pedophilia is viewed as a psychological
disorder with early life risk factors, such as early sexual behavior
(Goode, 2010), history of sexual abuse (Freund,Watson, & Dickey,
1990), and prenatal or early childhood neuro-developmental problems
(Blanchard et al., 2002; Cantor et al., 2004).
Seto (2012) showed recently that pedophilia has many similarities with sexual gender orientation (i.e., heterosexual and homosexual feelings), such as the early age of onset, the fantasy or desire to engage in romantic behavior, and the stability of this sexual preference over time. Therefore, Seto (2012) suggested that pedophilia may be better considered as a sexual age orientation instead of a mental health disorder or a sexual preference that is chosen or somehow learned.
This view is controversial given previous research into sexual attraction to minors in individuals who have committed child sexual abuse. This research showed that child sexual abusers may be
Yet, not all child sexual abusers are pedophiles. Similarly, as becomes clear from the last criterion in the definition of pedophilic disorder in the DSM-5 given earlier, not everyone who experiences pedophilic feelings qualifies for this diagnosis. However, if someone is experiencing significant distress because of intense sexual fantasies involving children but has never had any physical contact with a child (and maybe never will), this individual can still receive the clinical diagnosis of pedophilia. Finally, even pedophiles who engage in deviant behavior show great behavioral variation in the type and severity of psychological risk factors.
In a recent review on child pornography offending (Houtepen, Sijtsema, & Bogaerts, 2014), it was proposed that risk factors related to child pornography offending can be viewed along the lines of two continua:
Furthermore, Schmidt, Gykiere, Vanhoeck, Mann, and Banse (2014) showed that different types of child sexual abusers
differ in their degree of sexual deviant interests.
Moreover, in their study, sexual deviant interest was negatively associated with factors known to be associated with antisocial behavior, such as psychopathy and substance use. This suggests that some offenders do not engage in offending because of antisocial tendencies, but rather due to psychopathological factors related to deviant sexual interest.
[...] Pedophiles often acknowledge having romantic and loving feelings for children in addition to having desires to engage in sexual contact (Seto, 2012). Therefore, it has been suggested that some pedophilic child pornography offenders are less likely to engage in child sexual contact offenses when they are directly (i.e., instead of indirectly, via watching child pornography) responsible for the abuse (Houtepen et al., 2014).
Because of the great stigma associated with pedophilia (Jahnke & Hoyer, 2013; Janhke, Imhoff, & Hoyer, 2015), some pedophiles may be troubled by their sexual interest (Freimond, 2013), fear losing control over their feelings (Hossack, Playle, Spencer, & Carey, 2004), or experience difficulties in dealing with feelings that are “forbidden” in contemporary society. In order to refrain from offending, these pedophiles need sufficient self-control and some need professional help in order to learn better coping strategies to relieve sexual arousal.
However, disclosure of sexual interest is a highly frightening activity for many pedophiles. Even when they do find the courage to seek help, resources to provide pedophilic individuals with sufficient help are currently lacking (Seto, 2012).
This is in part because previous research on pedophilia has focused mainly on pedophilic offenders who were sentenced to imprisonment or compulsory treatment because of sex offenses (Capra, Forresi, & Caffo, 2014; Hall & Hall, 2009). As a consequence, knowledge about pedophiles who have no criminal record or have not sought professional help is lacking.
In this study we aim to contribute to the understanding of pedophilia by providing more in-depth insight into pedophilic attraction and risk and protective factors for child sexual offending in non-clinical and non-incarcerated pedophiles.
To this end, we interviewed 15 participants who acknowledged having pedophilic feelings.
First, in order to provide more insight into pedophilic sexual development, we examined the onset of pedophilic interest, the content of this attraction (i.e., the extent to which there were sexual and/or romantic fantasies and desires present), and risk factors of pedophilia such as early sexual behavior and history of child sexual abuse.
Second, we investigated experiences with acknowledging having pedophilic feelings and coping mechanisms that are used in dealing with “forbidden” feelings and stigma. Finally, we examined behaviors to relieve sexual arousal, including self-reported offense behavior such as child pornography offending and sexual child abuse.
The sample comprised 15 self-identified males with pedophilic interest. [...]
Participants were approached through an online request that was placed on the forums of three Dutch pedophile websites in November 2013.
Furthermore, the requests were sent by e-mail to individuals who acknowledge having pedophilic feelings and were known to be active in self-help groups in the Netherlands at that time.
We made use of semi-structured interviews.
We conducted these interviews in order to get a fuller understanding of what is currently known about pedophiles in the forensic field. Furthermore, we aimed to develop an interview that could fill some of the gaps in previous literature on the association between pedophilia and (child pornography) offending (see Houtepen et al., 2014).
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Seven participants had experienced mental health problems. They were often troubled with feelings of anxiety, depression, and inferiority. For three participants, mental health issues started after the age of 16. The remaining four had already experienced mental health issues early in life.
Content of Sexual Interest
Ten participants acknowledged that their attraction to minors was not solely sexual, but that romantic feelings were also present. They reported falling in love with a child, and/or had fantasies about having a real romantic relationship with a minor.
Also, when asked what they found particularly attractive in minors, eight acknowledged that it was a combination of both physical characteristics, such as “their beauty” or “bodily shapes,” and behavior, such as “openness,” “spontaneity,” “honesty,” or “naiveté,” whereas only four referred solely to children’s appearances.
Moreover, 10 participants stated that having close relationships with children (e.g., friendship or adult coaching role) was highly satisfying, for example, because it provided them with the opportunity to make children happy.
Especially for participants who acknowledged being less sexually aroused because of their age (three, including two who were in their early to mid-thirties), having close social contacts with minors was more important than the sexual component.
Furthermore, four participants stated that when they were less socially involved with children, they felt more fixated on and troubled by their sexual interest in minors. During these times their need for intimacy and closeness was not met, and some argued that it was easier to imagine children as sexual beings when there was no real contact and distorted cognitions about children and sexuality were not contradicted by real life. Therefore, social contact with minors seemed to serve as a preventive strategy against risks for offense behavior.
[...] Some participants reported that they did not find the unequal balance of power attractive but had fantasies in which they were still a child and having sexual relationships with other minors.
Early Sexual Behavior and Experience of Sexual Abuse
Eight participants reported having early sexual experiences (ages 6 to 11 years), ranging from discovering masturbation (one), to “playing doctor” with other children (four) and more mature sexual play with others (one), to actual penetration (two).
One acknowledged that this early sexual experience had in some way affected his sexual development, and argued: “This certainly has made me think about sexuality too early, and I guess I was fixated on this for quite a while.” One of these participants also reported being sexually abused in childhood.
Hence, although early sexual behavior may have fixated some participants on sexual activity with children, for others such a conditioned association between children and sexual attraction seems to be nonexistent.
Coping With Forbidden Feelings
Realization of Pedophilic Feelings
Reactions to the realization of pedophilic feelings differed from very negative to extremely positive. In general, 12 participants had struggled with their sexual attraction in some way. Some felt quite disturbed when acknowledging that the term “pedophile” fit their sexual feelings.
Because of negative views by both the media
and the general public and the subsequent undifferentiated flow of
information concerning pedophilia, these participants were afraid of
being stigmatized as “monsters” or “child rapists.” One
participant argued that pedophilia has become more criminalized over
time, leading to more secrecy, rumination, and obsession about
Thirteen participants sought help with professionals, like-minded others, or other meaningful individuals in their environment.
Six participants had sought help from a physician, psychologist, or sexologist, either to get assistance in accepting and/or coping with their sexual attraction to minors, or to get help with symptoms, such as feelings of depression or loneliness, that seemed partly to be the result of pedophilic interest.
Three argued that this help was not sufficient because of a lack of clinical knowledge about pedophilia in general. For one participant, this was also a reason for not seeking help at all.
Two participants felt that it was too risky to disclose their sexual feelings to a professional because of the negative stigma of pedophilia.
The struggle with pedophilia also became evident when we asked participants to report their subjective well-being on a scale from zero to 10, which resulted in an average score of 6.3 (SD = 1.6; range: 3–8.5; N = 14).
One participant had trouble expressing his subjective well-being, but reported, “Currently, I am not happy.”
Help from Like-Minded Others
Three participants found support through contact with other individuals with pedophilic interest, for example by visiting self-help groups or by engaging in (online) contact with like-minded others.
Furthermore, three others noted that they just enjoyed having such contacts, because they could really be themselves and talk openly about their feelings.
Some participants argued that it was the recognition of shared feelings that comforted them, or that others had provided them with the courage to talk to other non-pedophilic individuals in their environment.
Finally, one found it particularly reassuring to see that many others with pedophilic interest did not engage in sexual behaviors with children:
Nondisclosure and Negativity from the Environment
Although most understood that people felt uncomfortable knowing that someone close to them had pedophilic interests, they argued that this negativity contributed to secretive behavior which, in turn, may put some at risk for committing sex offenses.
Relieving Sexual Arousal
Child Pornography Offending
Eleven participants admitted to having watched child pornography at some point during their life. Eight participants argued that they downloaded child pornography years ago, often in adolescence when they were still very sexually focused and/or were confused about their sexual attraction to minors.
Currently, these participants stated that they did not engage in child pornography offending anymore, with one exception—one participant hesitantly admitted that he sometimes still receives some child pornographic material from others with pedophilic interests.
Four had come into contact with the legal justice system for possession of child pornography and three of them had been convicted. [...] One was being charged with (but not convicted of) production of child pornography because while on vacation he had taken photographs of naked children who were bathing. [...]
Type of Material
The type of material that participants watched differed greatly, ranging from virtual child pornography to material depicting real minors engaging in sexual activity with adults.
However, nine had closely considered what type of material they could justify watching. For example, they preferred material that depicted children posing naked, old material, and/or material that depicts sexual activities between minors because they argued that in order to produce this material, children did not have to be sexually abused (anymore).
Interestingly, these justifications seemed to overlap with their views about children’s sexuality. According to 11 participants, children often show signs of developing sexuality in an experimental fashion, such as through experimenting with nakedness and “playing doctor” with other children. Therefore, watching child pornographic material in which no adults were involved was considered as viewing material of children who are enjoying themselves, but not as an act that contributed to child sexual abuse.
In addition to the 11 participants who watched illegal material, three either viewed legal material of children depicted naked or watched movies that were formerly considered legal, but are currently labeled as child pornography because those films include shots of minors being naked while having an erection.
One admitted that although at first he did not feel the need to search for child pornography, searching for naked pictures of minors made him curious about more severe material. Yet, as a barrier to offending he said that he had never been a risk taker and that he could not risk getting caught because of his wife and children.
Similarly, others also acknowledged the fear of getting caught as a vital protective factor against offending, or argued that they simply did not feel the need to engage in child pornography offending because their sexual fantasies had always been sufficient to relieve arousal.
Effect of Child pornography on Sexual Arousal
With regard to the effect that the watching of child pornography may have on the viewer’s cognitions and feelings, seven others argued that they needed new or more severe material in order to get sexually aroused at the time they were downloading. Moreover, seven reported experiences of having mixed feelings while watching child pornography.
For example, they stated,
[...] One participant admitted that at times he used downloading as a substitute for child sexual hands-on abuse or at least felt that he needed to download material in order to refrain from hands-on offending.
In contrast, five participants reported that their sexual arousal showed stable patterns over time; their preferred child pornography images remained sufficient to relieve sexual arousal. Overall, none of these participants reported cross-over sexual deviant behavior (hands-off to hands-on).
Child Sexual Contact Abuse
Ten participants stated that they had never engaged in physical sexual contact with minors. Three of them admitted that they had considered seeking sexual contact with a minor at some point, but never fulfilled these fantasies.
[...] Seven participants [of those ten] never seriously considered having sexual contact with a minor despite their sexual desires. [...]
Based on their personal experiences, four of these participants said that although they never initiated sexual contact with children, children may sometimes try to involve adults in their sexual behavior. According to them, in such cases adults should take responsibility by disapproving this type of behavior and/or explain to children the reason for the inappropriateness.
These four participants considered sex between children and adults as abuse mainly because of the age difference and subsequent imbalance in power, but did not seem to consider children unwilling to engage in such behavior per se.
For some, the inappropriateness was mostly determined by the current taboo on children’s sexuality. They argued that sex between an adult and a minor would not per definition be accounted for as sexual abuse.
However, because children would not be able to talk to others about their sexual engagement, this would always be problematic in contemporary society. So although these participants did not really feel that having sex with children is wrong, they made use of strategies in which they could uphold their own feelings and beliefs about their sexual fantasies, while also respecting the rules of current society against having sex with children
Five participants admitted that they had
engaged in sexual behavior with minors, but none of them defined this
behavior as child sexual abuse.
Similarly, one other participant acknowledged that he had sought sexual contact with minors when he was younger, but that he did not understand at the time that what he did was wrong and believed that it was a pleasurable experience for both parties.
All stated that they would never engage in sexual contact with children again.
Finally, the two participants who acknowledged engaging in multiple “romantic relationships” with minors had also engaged in sexual contact with these minors. Both seemed to understand at some level that their behavior was considered abusive because they actively tried to hide their behavior from others.
Other Ways to Relieve Sexual Arousal
Seven participants acknowledged that they are (or were) also able to relieve sexual arousal by watching adult pornography or by engaging in sexual activity with adults. For most, masturbation and fantasy were enough to satisfy their sexual interest, and some acknowledged that sexual experiences became far less important with age. Instead, the social component of pedophilia (i.e., having close contact with minors) was experienced as more meaningful.
In this study we aimed to provide more insight into pedophilic attraction by interviewing non-forensic and non-incarcerated individuals with pedophilic interest.
In concordance with Seto’s study (2012), we found that individuals with pedophilic interest often recognized the onset of sexual attraction in puberty that remained rather stable over time. In addition to sexual attraction, most participants reported having romantic feelings for children and emphasized the importance of being able to engage in social contact with minors, for example in adult coaching roles or friendships. This study suggests that such social contact seems to diminish child sexual offending.
Furthermore, with regard to age preference and the subject of attraction, there was great variation among participants. For example, in some, attraction was based on personality characteristics of the child, whereas others were attracted to physical appearances or to both inner and outer characteristics.
With regard to risk factors for developing pedophilia, most participants experienced early sexual behavior with other minors, which seemed to have influenced their cognitions concerning children as sexual beings. Such experiences were also reported in another study among self-identified pedophiles (Goode, 2010).
According to conditioning theories of the etiology of pedophilia, these early sexual experiences with other children are a first introduction to interpersonal sexuality. During these sexual experiences, individuals become aware of their sexual preferences and conditioning attraction to particular childlike physical appearances. These characteristics are then never properly adjusted to older individuals (Seto, 2004).
Still, in the current study, some participants did not engage in sexual contact before puberty.
To summarize these findings, there is great differentiation in pedophiles’ sexual preferences, and in the development, content, and etiology of this sexual interest in children.
The second aim of this study was to provide insight into how individuals with pedophilic feelings cope with sexual attraction to minors. Many participants reported having difficulties acknowledging their pedophilic attractions. Moreover, on average, these participants rated their lives as a 6.3 on a scale of zero to 10,
which indicates relatively low subjective well-being.
In general, two important issues in learning to cope with pedophilia need to be considered:
To resolve these issues, pedophiles may need professional help or help from their social environment to stimulate disclosure and learn to separate their feelings from abusive behavior.
Yet, half of the participants in our study who had sought such help (i.e., three out of six) suggested that sufficient professional help is currently lacking, especially in regular (i.e., non-forensic) mental health sectors. This is in line with previous research (Seto, 2012).
Another study also suggested that not all mental health professionals are willing to treat pedophiles, and that some may hold stigmatized views against pedophiles themselves (Jahnke, Philipp, & Hoyer, 2015).
Moreover, such stigmatized views, or even punitive attitudes against pedophiles are in fact considered socially desirable in contemporary society (Imhoff, 2014).
Therefore, to better educate mental health professionals and to reduce stigma, more attention should be given to pedophilia in general and to the treatment of pedophiles and individuals with pedophilic interest who are struggling with their sexual feelings.
Furthermore, risk factors such as health issues related to feelings of anxiety and depression should be identified and treated as early as possible. Specifically, it is important to provide individuals with the necessary confidence in themselves and other people so that they can actively engage in interpersonal relationships and talk openly with others.
Our interviews suggest that such openness could prevent child sexual abuse because it enhances feelings of acceptance. Disclosing sexual feelings to non-pedophilic individuals can be particularly valuable because these individuals can provide social control and challenge inappropriate cognitions.
As Goode (2010) notes, society responds more adequately to adult sexual attraction to children by recognizing its existence and by keeping children safe through allowing for open communication regarding the subject of pedophilia. Brochures discussing pedophilic feelings at offices of physicians, sexologists, and clinical (also non-forensic) psychologists can be helpful in reaching those individuals who are currently struggling with pedophilic feelings but who have not, or not yet, engaged in sexual behavior with children.
Moreover, information on pedophilia could be given in general sex education to youth who are developing a sense of their own sexuality. Providing youth with more nuanced information that is often lacking in the media and society can give them the right tools to cope with their sexual feelings in appropriate ways and seek help when needed.
Non-disclosure and engagement in secretive behavior seem to stimulate child sexual abuse because of a lack of social control and the subsequent belief that inappropriate behavior has few consequences.
[... ... ...]
[...] It is important to note that most participants engaged in this behavior in adolescence when they were highly sexually fixated, suggesting that adolescence is a critical time for offense behavior in individuals with pedophilic feelings. During adolescence many individuals are still struggling with accepting their pedophilic interest and sexual identity and do not yet have the capacity to understand and appropriately control their sexual arousal.
The latter explanation is in concordance with findings suggesting that in adolescence, individuals engage more in risk behaviors because
Indeed, many participants in our study stopped offending because they were better able to understand that their behavior was damaging to victims and/or because they were less fixated on their sexual feelings.
Furthermore, in contrast to the avoidance-active offenders of Ward and Hudson (1998), they seemed to have found better coping strategies to control their sexual interest, for example through fantasizing and masturbation. For others, these coping strategies comprised telling others about their sexual feelings, thereby diminishing the risk of offending by enhancing their self-control with social support and control from others (cf. Hirschi, 1969).
[... ... ...]
[...] We found that four participants in our study argued that although they had never engaged in sexual contact with children, they had experienced situations in which children themselves where the initiators of sexual contact and tried to seduce adults to sexual play.
The fact that our participants report these experiences may be explained by the possibility that pedophiles are more inclined to view situations involving children as sexual because of their implicit theories concerning children and sex. Non-pedophilic individuals instead will probably not have these sexual association biases involving minors, and therefore may not report such experiences.
Given the earlier described taxonomy of mapping risk factors into
it seems that these participants have problematic scores on both continua and have a higher risk for re-offending.
Our findings should be interpreted against the backdrop of several limitations.
First, our sample is not an adequate representation of the whole population of pedophiles in the Netherlands. Because of stigma and fear of the consequences of disclosing their sexual interest, self-identified pedophiles are an extremely difficult subgroup to reach, and only 15 individuals agreed to participate in our study.
Also, we studied individuals who acknowledged having pedophilic interest, but who do not necessarily have an official diagnosis of pedophilia according to the DSM-5.
Finally, although none of the participants was incarcerated at the time of the study, during the interviews three participants stated that they had been convicted in the past for child pornography offending.
Therefore, and because of the explorative nature of this study, we should be careful in generalizing our conclusions to the whole population of non-forensic and non-incarcerated pedophiles.
Furthermore, our sample consisted mainly of highly educated individuals, and this may have confounded our results.
Moreover, we recruited our sample via online requests on forums where pedophiles are active. As a result, participants were already interested in discussing this topic and were able to critically reflect on their own and others’ thinking, feelings, and behaviors.
Finally, because we only made use of self-reports, deviant behaviors may have been underreported (Buschman et al., 2010).
Future research should invest in including non-forensic pedophiles to study directions and links between risks and protective factors for offending, including early sexual behavior, and social support from the environment.
Also, more research is needed on treatment programs that will help pedophiles better understand their feelings and provide them with the support and tools to relieve their sexual arousal in non-harmful ways.
Eventually, more insight into pedophilic feelings may result in a broader debate and acceptance of deviant sexual preferences by society. Until then, many individuals with pedophilic preferences remain standing at the edge of society, waiting for self-regulation to fail.
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