I cringed when reading Benedict Carey’s article “Preying on Children: The Emerging Psychology of Pedophiles.” No, it was not the word pedophilia that sent me into a tailspin; it was that almost every line of the article was loaded with inaccuracies and conflated concepts. Given the stature of the New York Times, normally I would be shocked.
However, when it comes to the most horrible word in the English language, I am growing beyond concerned. Media’s persistent misuse and conflation of pedophilia seem more like an attempt to mislead in favor of sensation than an attempt to stick with facts. Here are the real facts, like them or not.
First, a more rigorous attempt would uncover that pedophilia is not a disorder. Carey only addresses Criterion A from the Diagnostic Manual of Disorders that notes persistent interest, sexual or romantic, in children under 13, not Criterion B. In B, the person acts on sexual interest or is highly distressed. A person needs A, B and C (over age 16 or 5 years older than child) in order to have “pedophilic disorder.”
There are people that do just fine having pedophilia and do not offend as is true with other paraphilia (think fetishes). Then again, having pedophilic disorder does not mean that one will offend either. Because they are distressed, they may be at higher risk to offend. The point is that using “pedophiles” as a stand-in for online sex offenders is misleading and potentially dangerous. Is it okay to misrepresent a hated and marginalized group?
Most Child Sex Offenses are Not Committed by Pedophilic Offenders
Carey also makes an assumption that all online offenders and all child abusers and molesters are pedophiles. This is a false claim. According to Michael Seto, a leading worldwide expert on pedophilia, he notes in Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children,
“Public and media discussion of pedophilia and sexual offending shows a conflation of the two concepts [pedophilia and pedophilic disorder], reflecting this intuition [that all pedophiles offend]. But it is not correct: Some persons with pedophilia or hebephilia have not committed sexual offenses involving children, and a substantial number of identified sex offenders with child victims would not meet the classification criteria” for pedophilic disorder (bold and brackets are mine).
In fact, most sex offenses involving children are not committed by pedophiles or those with pedophilic disorder. As Seto notes further, pedophilia is a form of chronophilias, a sexual orientation of age.
Now we move to Carey’s next conflation when he writes that most offenders are men who prey on children 6-17; however, are “convicted offenders” all pedophiles? No, they are not because only kids 6-12 would qualify them for pedophilic disorder if they meet all the criteria. Some do not even if they offend in that age group.
There is a big difference between a 6-year old and a 17-year old. In my work statewide in a prison system, only a handful of sex offenders met full criteria for pedophilic disorder, contact offending or online.
Yes, Non-Offending Pedophiles Do Exist, Call them Minor-Attracted Persons
Carey also relies on an outdated study when providing the percentages throughout the article. Seto puts the percentage of pedophilic offenders at 1 percent, not 1-4 percent. Carey does note that female offenders do exist but conflates the number with male offenders. In a recent study by Jill Levenson, Gwenda Mills, and David Prescott, their study revealed that between 14-24 percent of male child victims had female perpetrators. In my prison internship, about 20% of the sex offenders were sexually abused by female perpetrators, not necessarily female “pedophiles.”
In another study done by Jill Levenson and Melissa Grady, most “minor-attracted persons” (I kinder term for pedophiles and hebephiles), 87.5% did not offend against a child. They also had a higher educational and socioeconomic status. Though they did use “informal internet supports,” they did not engage in illegal behavior. We really need these individuals to come forward so that we can learn how they stop from offending.
Carey also overgeneralizes about pedophiles and abuse, noting that most were not abused? What abuse does he mean? In my prison groups, every single person I worked with suffered a range of domestic violence, physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, and sexual abuse. Actually, a child is much more likely to abuse, including sexual abuse, in adulthood if he witnessed or experienced domestic abuse. In fact, the trauma was so bad in our prison and outpatient groups that I wonder where Carey is getting this data.
Sex Offenders are a Diverse Group, and Prisons are the Wrong Places to Look
If such is not bad enough, Dr. Bourke’s study quoted by Carey remains highly questionable. First, polygraph-assisted methods are not an accurate way to get good data. That is why they don’t hold up in court. Remember that prisoners are in an unnatural environment, prison. Data can be problematic.
Second, Seto noted in his research that 55 percent of offenders admitted to a contact offense, not 60 or 85 percent. Carey’s discussion with Joe Sullivan is important in that viewing child pornography does not necessarily lead to sex offenses. Sex offenses, however, may lead to viewing illegal material, but what Carey fails to identify is that there is a term for this kind of offender: a mixed offender. Seto notes in his book on online offending that “mixed offenders” are more dangerous than possession-only. Sex offenders are a very diverse group, not just a bunch of pedophiles.
When Seto presented in front of the United States Sentencing Commission, he noted that possession-only offenders, though attracted to children, have lower rates of contact offenses with children.
It is no wonder that law enforcement is failing so miserably with child pornography offenses. Maybe they are looking at the wrong people with the wrong motives.
Attraction to Kids is Pervasive and Worldwide
I, for one, take the Levenson studies much more seriously because these are self-reported, and though self-report can be riddled with personal bias, who would admit that they are attracted to kids? We can be certain that the numbers of “minor-attracted” people, or pedophiles if you want to conflate a group, are much higher in the general population.
Consider these two studies. Though dated, a study done by Nagayama Hall, Hirschman, and Oliver at Kent State University found that 25 percent of “normal” heterosexual men were aroused by “pedophilic stimuli” (under 13) and a much more recent study done by Bennett, Lowe and Petrova showed that heterosexual men, in a cross-cultural analysis, showed sexual attraction to adolescent girls.
Even Seto notes in his work that researchers have known that heterosexual men show some sexual interest in prepubescent girls, but they show more attraction as the girls move toward womanhood.
Given the popularity of young girls online in social media, the young age they are showing secondary sex characteristics, and their popularity on legal sites, there is pervasive and persistent interest in young girls. Child Youtubers are making loads of money, child models can make $1500 per shoot, and the prettiest “girl in the world” happens to be 5-years old.
I would suggest that many men and women look at legal images of kids, and some look at illegal images. I doubt if any of this “pedophilia” fixation by law enforcement has all that much to do with pedophilia.
Such things as taboo, the thrill of taboo, suffering from PTSD, a spectrum disorder, addiction, anger, schizophrenia, and a combination of anxiety and impulsiveness, even self-destruction may play much larger roles in child abuse.
Children can look very different online than in person, and today’s kids that perform in dances, sports, music videos, and therapeutic sound videos, may have just changed the way our society sees childhood. Is anyone noticing?
Or are we too busy blaming pedophiles? I expect the New York Times to do better.
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.