What is pedophilia?

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Despite the term's widespread use in public discourse, many people have a remarkably poor understanding of what pedophilia is and what it means for someone to be a pedophile. This can be attributed to the widespread use of inaccurate language in discussions about pedophilia and related topics. Considering the importance of these topics in discussions about child protection and other important goals, the importance of expanded access to accurate information about pedophilia is clear.

Pedophilia is defined as a pattern of stable and persistent attractions to prepubescent children. It is one of four minor attractions, the others being nepiophilia (attraction to infants and toddlers), hebephilia (attraction to pubescent teens), and ephebophilia (attraction to post-pubescent minors and young adults). While most scientific definitions focus on sexual attractions, pedophilia and other minor attractions can also be experienced as romantic, aesthetic, or other types of attractions.

Classification

In psychiatry, pedophilia (like other minor attractions) is classified as a paraphilia - a loosely-defined group of attractions to atypical objects, situations, or groups of people. Historically, paraphilias (originally under a different name) were considered mental disorders, but by 2019, in response to growing dissatisfaction among experts, new editions of both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the International Classification of Diseases changed this.

Based on the revised versions of both texts, paraphilias (like pedophilia) are no longer considered mental disorders, and newly-introduced paraphilic disorders replacing them could only be diagnosed under specific conditions. This marked the end of pedophilia being categorized as a mental disorder, though many continue to mistakenly describe it as one.

Broadening perspective

In a pair of papers published in 2012 and 2016, clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Seto theorized that pedophilia and other minor attractions could be considered sexual orientations based on their similarities to gender-based sexual orientations. A 2022 study conducted by clinical psychologist Dr. Crystal Mundy later confirmed his theory. In his work, Dr. Seto also coined the term chronophilia to describe paraphilias characterized by attractions to individuals at specific stages of development, such as pedophilia.

Child protection researcher Dr. Allyn Walker expanded on Dr. Seto's work in a 2019 paper, finding that minor attractions (including pedophilia) can be considered queer identities. Despite clearly distinguishing between minor attractions and LGBTQ identities, Dr. Walker's work is often mischaracterized as evidence of the myth that pedophiles are joining the LGBTQ community.

Characteristics

A pedophile is someone who experiences a pattern of stable and persistent attractions to prepubescent children. The term is often used interchangeably with "abuser" and its synonyms, but most pedophiles aren't abusers and pedophilia is distinct from child sexual abuse. People who experience other minor attractions are known as nepiophiles, hebephiles, or ephebophiles, based on the definitions mentioned earlier in this article. For simplicity, the umbrella term "minor-attracted people" ("MAPs") can be used to describe a group where more than one minor attraction is represented.

Experts have developed numerous theories about the cause of pedophilia and other minor attractions, each with its own shortcomings. In all likelihood, minor attractions are caused by a unique combination of genetic and environmental factors for each MAP. Some MAPs attribute their attractions to a specific experience, such as a childhood trauma. Although there is some evidence that early life events may play a role in shaping attractions, there is no proof that any specific event can be the sole cause of an individual's attraction to minors.

According to current research, up to 5% of males are pedophiles, with the prevalence among women suspected to be lower, though not zero. This isn't exclusive to adults, as the average age for a MAP to discover their attractions is 14 years old, and 66% of MAPs will realize that they're attracted to minors before they become an adult. Of course, a child would not be considered a MAP just for being attracted to children their age or slightly younger.

Many of the traits stereotypically associated with pedophiles, such as being left-handed or having a lower IQ, are only associated with sexual offenders and were mistakenly applied to all MAPs before researchers became more aware of non-offending MAPs. In reality, the brains of MAPs function similarly to the brains of non-MAPs, and non-offending MAPs actually experience higher levels of empathy for children than non-MAPs. Research indicates no difference between MAPs and non-MAPs in terms of capacity for self-control.

Learn more

Pedophilia is one of the most misunderstood topics in public discourse. You now know the basics, but there are still decades of research to explore. Look around this blog for more deep dives into major topics, or check out our MAP Facts page for quick answers and statistics. If you want to explore the original research, our Research page shares the latest findings from reliable sources to help you get started.

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