Diversity in sexual orientation has been embraced by liberals and levied in political movements for social justice, but it's not something we tend to associate with pathology so much anymore. However, an increasing number of experts have come to believe that pedophiles—those with a primary attraction to prepubescent children—might not have a choice in the matter. According to one criminal psychologist who recently spoke publicly about this issue via Reddit, "an individual with pedophilia has the same ingrained attraction that a heterosexual female may feel towards a male, or a homosexual [person] feels towards their same gender."
David Finkelhor is not the previously mentioned redditor, but he is a professor of sociology and the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. According to him, the concept of pedophilia as a sexual orientation is "widely held" among mental health professionals and is "implicit in the definition of pedophilia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association." But among the general public, this idea is hard to stomach; sexual orientation is, more generally, thought of in brighter terms these days and often regarded as fixed or intrinsic to identity. "People are uncomfortable talking about [pedophilia] that way since there seems to be, currently, an idea that sexual orientation is something that we should kind of respect and honor and not treat as a pathology," Finkelhor says, adding that some people extrapolate that this conceptualization of pedophilia could move us toward the decriminalization of child sexual abuse.
So what are the implications here when it comes to sexual abuse and child molestation? "It is very important for the public to understand that most child molesters are not pedophiles," Finkelhor told me over the phone. "[Many people] have the impression, when you talk about someone being a pedophile, that they have a permanent and unalterable sexual interest in children and, therefore, they are going to be dangerous under any circumstances and under any form of management—and that's not true," he says, adding that pedophiles constitute a minority of those who sexually abuse children, or who are child molesters.
While pedophiles are, specifically, primarily attracted to prepubescent children, the majority of child molesters need not be. But why, then, would they abuse kids? The reasons are myriad, according to Finkelhor. "Because they don't have other access to sources of sexual gratification is the main reason—or that child may be very readily accessible, so someone who is a member of their family, for example," he says, adding that it has a frequent occurrence amongst those who might be primarily attracted to mature individuals as well. According to Finkelhor, it's also important to consider the age of the abuser; the population of juveniles who commit sexual abuse on other juveniles includes almost no pedophiles, per se, but constitiutes either one third or half of child sexual abuse cases.
Finkelhor also says that pedophiles who do abuse tend to have higher numbers of victims than other kinds of (non-pedophilic) abusers. Of course, not all pedophiles act on their impulses. Finkelhor says that it is important for us to know that there are people with pedophilic sexual orientations who "do not act on [them], are appalled by [them], and understand that it would be harmful to act on [them]." But, he added, there's little data to rely on.
When asked about methods to help pedophiles cope with their desires, Finkelhor said that the subject of treatment is hindered by the "tremendous stigma" against the sexual attraction to children. "A lot of people who have those kinds of impulses don't refer themselves for treatment, but some do," he says. Finkelhor adds that stigma isn't the only factor that can discourage treatment, saying that "[the US has] very strong reporting laws [that] require that any clinician who knows of someone who's committed an offense is required to report that."
Regarding pedophilia as a sexual orientation, Finkelhor says that "it might be premature," to speak definitively on this subject, because we do not yet satisfactorily understand the origins of sexual orientation, specifically in pedophilic terms. "There's a suggestion that childhood trauma may play some role in it," he said, "but it's probably not a necessary or sufficient condition." According to Finkelhor, one may be a pedophile with the absence of trauma; likewise, many of the people who do have such trauma don't end up there, so "there has to be something else besides that."
"I do think that there is a need for more understanding," Finkelhor said. If, for instance, the group of pedophiles who do not act on their desire is large, then it may be a promising impication for the treatment of pedophilia. "But, as you might imagine," Finkelhor said, "it's relatively hard to get people to admit to that kind of interest."