On Pedophilia

by Jason Stotts

A friend of mine (@oleMMoen) recently posed a question on twitter about pedophila, then an interesting conversation ensued:

@oleMMoen: “What percentage of 13-year-olds are pedophiles?  I would guess at least 20%.  Does anyone know?

@jstotts: “The question is confused, “pedophile” means an adult who is sexually aroused by prepubescents.”

@oleMMoen: “Well, if you define “pedophile” that way, then of course, that’s a no-brainer.”

@jstotts: “That’s its precise definition. Certainly you want to work with the real concept?”

@oleMMoen: “Aren’t both precise? “Pedophile” means “child lover.” Psychiatric manuals add the “adult” clause because they deal with pathologies.”

@michaelcaution: “but concepts aren’t reducible to etymology that’s rationalism. The adult-child distinction is objective b/c it…”

@michaelcaution: “distinguishes btw child-child relations which is a different legal distinction.”

@oleMMoen: “Sure, only adult pedophile practice is legally prohibited. How does that exclude children form being pedophiles?”

@jstotts: “When children love children, it is love simpliciter; pedophilia is more than simply the object of love.”

@michaelcaution: “I believe that gets into what @jstotts is saying regarding child sexual development and arousal in conjunction w/ the legal distinction of what an “adult” means regarding the exercise of rationality”

@oleMMoen: “Yes, I understand that you think so. But why do you want to add the adult clause?”

@oleMMoen: “That’s a rationalism accusation, a curious use of “objective,” and appeal to “the exercise of rationality.” Jesus!”

@michaelcaution: “my guess would be that the adult was implicit already in forming the concept and that you are trying to add child in b/c”

@michaelcaution: “prepubescent children aren’t sexually developed to have sex w/ each other so it would be ridiculous to classify”

@michaelcaution: “something that doesn’t exist in reality”

@oleMMoen: “Yes. But lots of 13-y.o.s do have sexual desires. Should we have a separate concept for 13-y.o.s who like 11-y.o.s?”

This got me thinking about the question of how you define pedophilia.  Is pedophilia always an adult oriented to children?  Can a child be a pedophile? Are people born pedophiles?

Let’s start with the DSM and the APA definition of pedophilia.  The current DSM (IV-TR) defines pedophilia as (link):

The paraphilic focus of Pedophilia involves sexual activity with a prepubescent child (generally age 13 years or younger).

The individual with Pedophilia must be age 16 years or older and at least 5 years older than the child. For individuals in late adolescence with Pedophilia, no precise age difference is specified, and clinical judgment must be used; both the sexual maturity of the child and the age difference must be taken into account.

Some individuals with Pedophilia are sexually attracted only to children (Exclusive Type), whereas others are sometimes attracted to adults (Nonexclusive Type).

The disorder usually begins in adolescence, although some individuals with Pedophilia report that they did not become aroused by children until middle age. The frequency of pedophilic behavior often fluctuates with psychosocial stress. The course is usually chronic, especially in those attracted to males. The recidivism rate for individuals with Pedophilia involving a preference for males is roughly twice that for those who prefer females.

Diagnostic criteria for 302.2 Pedophilia

Over a period of at least six months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).
[And:] The person has acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies caused marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.
[And:] The person is at least age 16 years and at least 5 years older than the child or children in Criterion A.

Note: Do not include an individual in late adolescence involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with a 12- or 13-year-old. (p. 571-2)

This definition has been criticized and a paper addressing the changes in the concept and recommendations for DSM V by the APA can be found here: link.

Before we proceed farther, we need to recall a very important distinction between pedophilia and ephebophilia (my definitions):

Pedophilia: attraction to children who are pre-pubescent (not sexually mature).

Ephebophilia: attraction to children or young adults who are pubescent (sexually maturating) or post-pubescent (sexually mature), but below the legal age of consent.

This distinction is important because pre-pubescent children are not sexually mature or sexually viable.  On the other hand, pubescent and post-pubescent children and young adults are sexually mature and capable of full adult sexual intercourse. Now, whether they’re psychologically mature enough to handle this is a separate question.  It’s important to note, too, that ephebophilia is bounded on the upper end by the legal age of consent, after which the person is a legal “adult” and no longer under the umbrella of any paraphilia based on age (chronophilia).  Thus, the upper bound for ephebophilia is dependent on time period and culture.  If that seems strange to you, remember Juliet Capulet was only 13 and the age of menarche was later in that time period than it is now.

Another question is whether pedophiles are born or whether pedophilia is developed.  Right now, there is little evidence that pedophiles are born.  The APA notes that pedophilia usually begins in adolensce, but sometimes as late as middle age.  No mention is made of pedophilia being an innate condition.  This conforms to literary accounts such as Lolita, where Humbert Humbert doesn’t develop a fixation on young women until his girlfriend died when he was young.  Afterward, he develops a fixation on a young girl who he nicknames Lolita and who looks just like his dead former girlfriend.  He attributes his fixation on her to wanting to continue his childhood romance.  In short, there seems to be widespread agreement that pedophiles are not born pedophiles.

Now, a question can be asked whether it’s conceptually possible for a prepubescent to be a pedophile, even though we know that this is quite uncommon.  I want to say that, no, a prepubescent cannot be a pedophile.  This is because pedophilia involves sexual arousal for prepubescents and prepubescents cannot experience actual sexual arousal as their bodies are not ready for this.  This is not to say that children never engage in play involving the sexual organs, obviously they do.  But this seems radically different as these children are curious about their bodies, about others bodies, and about sensations they receive from their bodies.  Of course, they may find that sexual touching of their own self (masturbation) or of others is pleasurable, and this is perfectly natural, as our sexual organs have some level of functionality since birth and our nerve structures are in place.  So, a child might find some enjoyment in masturbation or being touched by another.  However, this is very different than adult sexual activity which involves sexually mature bodies driven by hormones and having robust sexual responses including orgasms.  A child stimulating himself will feel pleasure and then inexplicably stop feeling pleasure as the orgasmic response is not ready for his body.

Sexual play between prepubescents is simply different in kind than sexual activity between an adult and a child.  Moreover, sexual play between prepubescents is a healthy way for them to learn about their bodies and other bodies and this should not be a source of shame.  Indeed, much more psychological damage is done to a child by preventing them from learning about their sexual bodies and shaming them for their sexual interests than would ever be done by letting them explore their bodies.

Now, a question can be asked, when we talk about pedophilia, are we talking about sexual arousal for prepubescents, sexual activity with prepubescents, or both.  It seems to me that sexual arousal and desire for prepubescents is the primary concept here: no one would normally engage in sexual activity with a child who was not sexually aroused by them.  Consider, in contrast, barbarians in Africa who rape infants and virginal children in order to “cure” their AIDS infections; this is not pedophilia as their object is not to have sex with a child, their object is to cure their AIDS infection.  Thus, simple sexual activity with prepubescents is not pedophilia, but desire and arousal for prepubescents is pedophilia as well as desire, arousal, and action.  Of course, having desire and arousal for prepubescents that you never act on has a very different moral status than having arousal and then acting on it.  The first we might think is sad, but it is not immoral. The latter is clearly immoral.

This, of course, raises the question: is pedophiliai immoral?  Certainly our first inclination is to say it is.  However, our feelings or intuitions are not moral criteria.  If we are to call pedophilia immoral, we need to point to some harm done to the child.  Luckily, this is not particularly hard as it’s incontrovertible that peodphilia causes harm to the child, both bodily and psychological.  A separate question might be asked if that harm is socially constructed: that our worry that harm will happen creates the harm with the child.  Those who raise this objection often point to ancient Greece where older men had sex with young boys.  The problem is that this is vague to the point of meaninglessness.  In ancient Athens, for example, the erômenos (the young boys) were usually 13-25.  At best, the practice is an instance of ephebophilia, although even that is confused, as the practice was legal in Athens and even encouraged by the law.  If we relax our definition of ephebophilia to mean something more like “attraction to teenagers,” then it would fit, but even the concept of “teenager” would be foreign to the Greeks who had children and adults, but not that strange area between.  Thus, the objection that the ancient Greeks practiced “pedophilia” is factually false.

Yet, I think we still need to be more explicit about the wrong of pedophilia.  After all, pedophiles have their lives ruined or taken from them for their crime and because pedophilia is immoral.  We must, therefore, be clear about exactly why it is wrong.  We said before that pedophilia can cause physical damage to a child, but it is true this doesn’t always happen.  We also said before that pedophilia causes psychological damage and a quick survey of the psychological literature easily confirms this.  But, is this all that’s wrong with pedophilia?

In addition to the harm to the child, pedophilia is a kind of rape.  Children cannot provide real consent to sexual activity and nonconsensual sexual activity is rape.  This, too, is the worry about ephebophilia depending on the ages of the participants as the wider an age gap, the less likely true consent can occur.  Of course, sometimes real consent can occur with ephebophilia, so it cannot be considered categorically immoral.  On the other hand, in the case of pedophilia, real consent is impossible because even if the child might wish to consent to sexual activity, their body is physically not ready for such.  Moreover, their psychological development is not to the point where they can really understand the situation and what it would entail.

Thus, at the end of the day, we must say that pedophilia is immoral and that it is also categorically different than two children who sexually interact.

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6 Responses to “On Pedophilia”


  1. Michael Caution

    Jason you’ve got a typo. “@michaelcaution: “Sure, only adult pedophile practice is legally prohibited. How does that exclude children form being pedophiles?””

    That was actually said by Ole

    And the order of these two should be reversed, It’s all one sentence.:
    @michaelcaution: “distinction of what an “adult” means regarding the exercise of rationality”

    @michaelcaution: “I believe that gets into what @jstotts is saying regarding child sexual development and arousal in conjunction w/ the legal…”

  2. JasonStotts

    Thanks! I’ll fix it now.

  3. Michael Caution

    In light of what you’ve wrote, perhaps if we were to reword Ole’s question thus: Can a post-pubescent child be classified a pedophile if aroused by a pre-pubescent child?

    I first want to ask anyone that knows, is there much evidence or any studies dealing with such a pair, a post-pubescent being aroused be a pre-pubescent? I bring it up because at first glance it would seem a very marginal issue, statistically speaking. Based on the DSM and APA definitions it seems that the distinction between pedophile/non-pedophile regarding age is not discrete or clear-cut but rather contextual meaning there is room for borderline cases.

    Going by the psychological classification we wouldn’t therefore claim a 13 yo interested in an 11 yo to be a pedophile. It’s more likely, given a real life context, that it would actually be what we might call a “crush”. Here I am assuming that the 13yo is more likely aroused or interested in the 11yo in a natural manner. Meaning they find that person cute/physically attractive, they are friendly to one another, etc. To what extent they call, “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, [or] sexual urges” I’m not quite clear on. Can a 13yo have intense fantasies and sexual desires to the level at which would be classified as paraphilic?

    And I’m guessing that they use the 5 yr. difference to give a general measure on judging the relationship. And 5 years is a rough estimate of different peer groups among children. Most likely you’re not going to find children with wide age differences playing or associating together. That’s just a guess. And if you take into account what Jason said about the disorder not being innate but developing later in life it seems to indicate that Ole’s original question would be near impossible. Again, I have no data that I know personally. On the whole it would appear that if such a situation were to arise it would be highly contextual and not given to any generalization.

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