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Constructive Questions Regarding Paedophilia

by Theo Sandfort

In the literature concerning paedophilia, it is generally seen as a paraphilia or a perversion. [*1] Here I shall consider whether all sexual involvement between adults and children is appropriately labeled paedophilia, and whether it might not be useful to consider paedophilia as an identity.

Because paedophilia is considered a priori a paraphilia by some authorities, almost all scientific publications on this subject are concerned with unravelling its etiology, and ways to eliminate paedophile desires and replace them with what are, from society's point of view, more appropriate or acceptable forms of behavior. Most of these contributions derive from therapeutic practice with "offenders" and "victims" or from correctional programs in prisons.

Of course psychiatrists and therapists see a lot of pathological behavior, in intergenerational sex as elsewhere. Society is justifiably concerned about sexual abuse of children. But is all sexual involvement between adults and children abusive? Whether or not these involvements are abusive may be partly determined by the motives of the adults.

Adults who have sex with children do so for a variety of motives. For some the child is primarily a substitute for an adult partner who for some reason is inaccessible at the time. Others act out of a general feeling of attraction to children themselves. This distinction is supported by the results of a study by Barbaree and Marshall, which shows that the situation is even more complex. Adults who had had sexual contacts with children were differentiated on the basis of five distinct age preference profiles of penile response, as measured with a plethysmograph. [*2]

It is not, however, possible to equate certain penile responses with paedophilia, although this is common practice. A man's penile response pattern may inform us about his sexual object choice; it will not predict in what way that person will act upon this orientation. Besides, this approach limits the concept of paedophilia to its sexual component alone. This is in line with medical tradition. From the turn of the century, the medical establishment has played an important part in the creation and maintenance of concepts of sexual deviancy, as well as in defining same-aged heterosexuality as the only "healthy" form in which sex should be practised. Historical studies, as well as contemporary research, suggest that for people who consider themselves paedophiles, their desire often includes much more than sex. [*3] It may include an interest in how children feel and think, a longing to be with them, and sometimes also a desire to guide or educate them.

At this point, the meaning of "children" has to be specified in relation to paedophilia. Within the field of psychiatry a biological criterion is used: there paedophilia is considered to be attraction to pre-pubertal or pubertal children. Another criterion could be based on the desired person's psychic sexual maturity; still another based on the age of consent in the local Penal Code, which is complicated because this varies greatly between countries.

Associated with paedophilia are terms such as pederasty, ephebophilia, hebephilia, Greek love and Man/boy love. The choice of a particular label and its interpretation, of course, has political implications. For instance, Man/boy love, a current term in the United States, stresses the unproblematic affectional side of the phenomenon, and suggests reciprocity or even symmetry between both parties. The latter, of course, is not always present. In the following discussion I shall use "paedophilia" as a general term to denote feelings of attraction to children as well as young adolescents.

There are individuals who experience these feelings of attraction in a strong, sometimes exclusive way. Some scholars argue that everybody experiences these feelings; according to them, people with paedophile desires differ only quantitatively and not qualitatively from others. [*4] The confirmation of this hypothesis must depend on the way paedophilia is defined and assessed. However, I believe the outcome will not affect conclusions about paedophilia.

The origin of paedophile desires, like the origin of other sexual orientations including heterosexuality, is still unknown. A number of theories have been proposed from psychodynamic and behavioristic viewpoints. But where hypotheses derived from these theories have been tested, the results don't support the theories. So, in a recent overview of research studies, Langevin concludes that the origin of paedophilia is still an enigma. [*5]

The fact that we see sexual involvement between adults and youth in many different societies across time and space suggests that there might be a biological component. The divergent patterns and rules that can be discerned, however, show that society has a strong influence on the way this involvement is expressed. While in some cultures these relationships form an important vehicle for passing on skills and customs, our contemporary Western culture forces paedophilia to be practised more or less underground. It is striking that in all the traditional theories about paedophilia, this diversity, as well as the influence of society, is not accounted for.

Whatever the origin, people with paedophile desires exist. All together they constitute a rather diverse group. Among them there are people in whom symptoms of psychopathology can be observed. such as the inability to socialize with peers, chronic depression, or distrust of other people. As others have already argued, it is however unclear how these symptoms and paedophilia are related to each other. It goes without saying, that discovering a sense of apartness from more conventional peers, induces feelings of alienation. These feelings are intensified when the moral condemnation of paedophile attraction is realized. Compared with homosexuality there are even fewer opportunities for paedophiles to resolve the resulting identity confusion. Thus some pathology might be the consequence of discovering one's paedophile attraction and finding out about society's disapproval of it. Although more definitive data is needed, the possibility that there are cases in which paedophilia is the outcome, or one of the symptoms, of a pathological development should not be precluded.

Besides pathological cases, there are people who label themselves as paedophiles and live meaningful and happy lives; they don't want to get rid of their desires. I came across these people in the paedophile milieu. I also saw some of them in the research done at the State University of Utrecht on a small group of paedophiles. [*6] This study suggested why some paedophiles adjust better than others. The ones that do better seem to be those:

who regard their paedophile desires in a predominantly positive way;
who have integrated paedophilia into their lives along with other interests and activities;
who are in touch with and experience support from other paedophiles;
and who have been able to develop satisfying contacts or relationships with boys.

Of course this topic needs to be studied much more deeply. Proper research might reveal that contacts with people with the same feelings are of great help in coming to terms with them. Such contacts give one the opportunity to recognize one's paedophilia, they legitimize one's desires, and help with the acceptance of these desires. Likewise, one can obtain answers to many questions about practical matters.

These observations suggested that the concept of a paedophile identity might be useful. By "paedophile identity" I mean the answer of someone with paedophile desires to the question: "What am I sexually?" This is not a simple question. Finding out about one's paedophile desires might in itself be a complex process. All the perceptions and skills that have been learned in order to be a heterosexual are simply not usable in this situation. A lot of questions arise that have to be answered to organize one's life. New skills have to be developed. Without pretending to be exhaustive, I want to give you an impression of the kind of questions that are involved.

Among the first questions that paedophiles will ask themselves are: What are these feelings? Am I sane? What do these feelings mean to me? What do sex and friendships with children mean to me? What do I think about society's disapproval, how do I come to terms with it?

How central to my life do I want paedophilia to be: is it the core of my personality, which dominates all other interests and activities, or is it just one important concern among others? It might be that in the beginning, while someone is first becoming aware of his desires, paedophilia is paramount and rules that person's life completely. I expect however, that within a healthy personal development a paedophile will learn to integrate his desires along with other interests and activities in his life, in such a way that he rules his paedophilia, instead of the other way around.

Other questions deal with paedophile desires. How shall I act upon them: shall I repress them, or do I want to express them? If so, in what way? And, regarding overt sexuality, do I sublimate and decide in favor of platonic relationships? Are the children with whom I get involved at risk? How do I minimize these risks? How do I get in touch with children? How should I interact with them and build relationship? What, about power in these relationships? And the parents of the children with whom I get involved: how honest and open with them do I have to be, what is sensible?

What about the law? How do I develop friendships with children and, at the same time, minimize the chances to be detected? Should I prepare the child for things that might happen when people find out about it, and how do I do this without frightening the child?

What about my relationships with other people? Should I disclose myself to them? What are the risks of disclosure and are there any advantages? How should I deal with rejection?

Finding out about one's paedophilia will also raise doubts about the future: What are my prospects, will I become a "dirty old man", a lonely, pathetic creature?

To the extent that there are consistent patterns of answers to all these questions, paedophile identities can be distinguished. The question "Am I a paedophile? " is in itself irrelevant; to concentrate on it leads one away from the more constructive questions. It is likely that the importance of some of these questions changes during a paedophile's development. Possibly there is a sequence in which certain questions tend to emerge. This development of paedophile identities could become the main subject of new research into paedophilia.

Thinking of paedophilia in terms of identity is useful for the persons involved. Using the concept of identity fosters a reflective attitude about one s desires. It suggests to them that they, to a certain extent, can construct their own lives, and it implies responsibility for the ways paedophilia is handled and expressed by them.

In my opinion, adopting the use of the concept of paedophile identity opens up a radically different approach to paedophilia in therapy and counselling. Many people will consider the suggested approach as being synonymous with promoting child sexual abuse. I have already noted that it is unclear to what extent paedophiles are responsible for genuine cases of sexual abuse of children. Actually it might work just the other way around. If paedophiles are no longer forced to live underground and to be secretive about their relationships, but instead their desires are recognized as legitimate, and they are guided towards a responsible expression of their desires, we might prevent some cases of genuine sexual abuse.

Editor's Note:

Dr. Theo Sandfort is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Department of the State University of Utrecht, the Netherlands, and is currently engaged in social scientific AIDS research.
He is the author of 

The Sexual Aspects of Paedophile Relations: The Experiences of Twenty-Five Boys (1981),

Boys on their Contacts with Men: A Study in Sexually Expressed Friendships (1987),

and numerous articles on paedophilia.

His doctoral thesis, Het belang van de ervaring, has just been published in the Netherlands.


1. John Money, Gay, Straight, and In-Between (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 137-9, 154-6, 216, for example, defines paedophilia as a condition in which sexuoerotic arousal and the facilitation or attainment of orgasm are responsive to, and dependent upon having a juvenile partner of prepubertal or peripubertal developmental status. A paraphilia is defined by him as a condition of being compulsively responsive to and obligatively dependent upon an unusual and personally or socially unacceptable stimulus perceived or in the imagery of fantasy-for optimal initiation and maintenance of erotosexual arousal and the facilitation or attainment of orgasm.
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2. H.E. Barbaree and W.L. Marshall, "Erectile responses amongst heterosexual child molesters, father-daughter incest offenders and matched non-offenders: Five distinct age preference profiles." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the international Academy of Sex Research, August 1986, Amsterdam.
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3. J2. Eglington, Greek Love (New York: 0. Layton, 1964), Chapter V.
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4. E. Brongersma, Loving Boys (Elinhurst, N.Y.: Global Academic, 1987), pp. 42-51; K. Freund, "Pedophilia and Heterosexuality vs. Homosexuality", Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 10:3 (1984), pp. 193-200.
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5. R. Langevin, Erotic Preference, Gender Identity and Aggression in Men (Hillsdale, N.j.: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1985).
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6. Th. Lap, De binnen- en buiten kant van kinderen. Wat pedofielen aantrekkelyk vinden in kinderen (Utrecht: privately published, 1987).
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