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What is a "risk factor"?

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If you read research on minor-attracted people (MAPs) or child sexual abuse (CSA) prevention, you've likely encountered the term "risk factor." It's a longstanding concept in psychology and criminology, and it seems self-explanatory enough that most people aren't worried about misunderstanding it. However, as we've covered, even the most clear-cut logic can get overlooked when dealing with a topic as misunderstood and fraught with emotions as minor attractions. In fact, most people's (mis)understanding of risk factors is an excellent example of this phenomenon.

The big picture

The literal definition of a risk factor is a trait (or factor) indicating that a certain negative outcome is more likely than it would otherwise be. Many people's understanding of the concept stems, at least in part, from the COVID-19 pandemic, when traits like obesity and old age were known risk factors for more severe cases of the disease.

Importantly, a risk factor may not directly cause the associated negative outcome. Take the example of old age as a risk factor for severe COVID-19. A virus does not know or care when someone was born, so infections cannot be worse because of age alone. Instead, older people are more likely to have other conditions that make it harder for their body to fight off an infection, such as a weakened immune system. In this case, traits like a weakened immune system are known as confounding variables, and they can make it seem like old age causes more severe infections.

Applications beyond medicine

Though it is generally associated with the medical field, the concept of risk factors has also become popular in criminology and criminal proceedings, where it is used to predict, prevent, and address various crimes. For example, during sentencing and parole hearings, a convict's risk factors for repeat offenses may be considered to determine whether their freedom would put the public at risk.

Child protection

CSA prevention is one area where risk factors are widely used in research. Understanding the origins of abuse is a primary focus in the field, and experts have developed extensive conceptual models to identify cause-and-effect relationships based on risk factors. Among these is Canadian psychologist Michael Seto's Motivation-Facilitation Model of Sexual Offending, which asserts that sexual offenses require a combination of factors that both drive someone to commit an offense and enable them to do so.

Although it is impossible to create a perfectly accurate model to predict or explain human behavior, the work of Seto and other experts is based on real data and carries useful revelations about risk factors for abuse. Abuse prevention initiatives use this information to identify areas where they can make a difference and maximize the effectiveness of their approach.

Pedophilia as a risk factor

Researchers have identified dozens of potential and likely risk factors for sexual offenses against children, ranging from alcohol use and victim vulnerability to traits like poor self-regulation, antisocial personality, and high sex drive. Among the most widely discussed (and misinterpreted) of these are minor attractions like pedophilia.

Emphasis on "factor"

Perhaps unsurprisingly, pedophilia's categorization as a risk factor for sexual offending is often misused to justify bigotry. For example, some wrongly point to it as evidence that pedophiles inherently pose a risk to children.

In reality, minor attractions are just one of many factors that affect someone's estimated likelihood of committing a sexual offense, and the vast majority of pedophiles never commit an offense. Ultimately, risk factors are nothing more than statistical trends, so even the most at-risk person could go their entire life without offending.

Stigma and confounding variables

In addition, some people seem to believe that this categorization is evidence that pedophilia causes child abuse. Of course, there is no proof that sexual attractions have any power to control a person's actions, and this claim overlooks extensive research suggesting that the connection between pedophilia and sexual abuse is at least partly indirect.

We previously explored how the intense, widespread stigmatization of MAPs and minor attractions may lead to increased rates of abuse. Due to this stigma, MAPs are significantly more likely to experience mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation, all of which are also risk factors for abuse. Therefore, it is likely that these and other factors serve as confounding variables, causing the correlation between minor attractions and abuse to look stronger than it actually is.

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