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Writing Fiction with Science: Pedophilia

When you listen to slush readers, editors, and agents talk about what they don’t want to find in their mailbox, you hear about hackneyed ideas, bland openings, purple crayons, and death threats. You also hear, “Don’t send me a sympathetic story about a rapist or a pedophile. Ugh.”

When Henry Gee asked me to submit a story to Nature Futures, I decided to break that rule. Why? Well, first off, I’m not much good with rules. Also, I felt this particular rule was malformed. What it really meant was, “Don’t make me read something that makes me feel I should tell the cops about you.”

One of my pet peeves is the conflation of pedophilia and child rape. Paying attention to abuses of authority, as I do, I have this peeve triggered a lot. The phrase “pedophile priest” makes me grit my teeth.

Not every adult who rapes a prepubescent child is a pedophile. (The term for those attracted to pubescent children is “hebophile.” Those we consider normal–attracted to adults–are teleiophiles.) A summary of research on pedophilia by the Mayo Clinic suggests that one in ten people who molest a child is not a pedophile. Now, the likelihood is good that this tenth person is a juvenile who has themself been molested and, thus, taught inappropriate behavior for their age. Nonetheless, child molestation does not equate to pedophilia.

Nor do we know what percentage of pedophiles have ever raped or molested a child. Pedophilia is a taboo topic, and it’s unlikely that many people would be willing to reveal their pedophilia for the sake of science, particularly if they were managing their sexual impulses in a way that otherwise didn’t bring them public attention. Most research done on pedophilia is done on convicted child molesters and rapists; they are unlikely to represent the entirety of pedophiles.

There are two things we know from studying pedophilia that make it likely that there are pedophiles in society who have never coerced or forced a child into sexual activity. The first is that pedophilia is not always an exclusive attraction. The vast majority of those who have a sexual attraction to prepubescents are also attracted to adults, and this group is responsible for the fewest number of victims. Their crimes tend to be opportunistic, with family members the usual targets. They don’t go out of their way to find victims.

The second thing that suggests the possible existence of non-predatory pedophiles is the profile of those who are studied as criminals. They tend to be emotionally immature and have poor coping and communication skills.

A quick digression: Modern psychology makes a distinction between fetishes and paraphilias based on the impact on someone’s life and on society. A fetish doesn’t cause problems; a paraphilia does. This is a somewhat arbitrary distinction, as it isn’t based on the strength or type of sexual desire involved, merely on the outcome. That means that, given two people with equal desires for some kind of sexual behavior, one may be considered to have a fetish if s/he has the social or financial resources to find someone to willingly indulge him or her, and one may be considered to have a paraphilia because s/he doesn’t.

What this means is that there may well be pedophiles out there who manage to keep their attractions in the realm of fantasy or to find creative ways to satisfy their desires with adults instead of children. That doesn’t mean it would be easy, of course. Making it harder is the isolating effect of such a socially unacceptable attraction. It can’t be easy to find support in managing pedophilia responsibly if telling someone only results in the loss of another friend or worse.

There are programs now for those who want help managing their desires. They aren’t widespread, nor do we have any information on how effective they are, as they’re generally recent. But at the very least, they provide us with one more population in which we can study pedophilia and the prevention of child rape. Some studies from these populations are starting to come out now.

Still, no matter what we find, it won’t change the fact that there is a group of pedophiles with no attraction to adults and no emotional or financial resources to channel their sexuality into something that doesn’t hurt children. And while one of my main characters in the story is sympathetic despite her open attraction to children, it is this reality on which the world of the story is built. My story is sympathetic to the character’s attraction but not at all to the crime.

That’s how you break a rule.

Comments

  1. Philip Legge says

    Very good article, and edgy in the same way that I found your story for Nature. I’d point out though, that I’ve frequently seen the term “ephebophilia” and “hebephilia” in printed and on-line literature referring to love of pubescent children (there is a slight difference between the terms: the former is for the late stage of puberty, the latter for the early stage); whereas “hebophilia” seems to be a conflation of the two (YMMV).

  2. julian says

    This post made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, much like your story did, Ms. Zvan. (which I don’t doubt was one of your goals)

    But at the very least, they provide us with one more population in which we can study pedophilia and the prevention of child rape.

    It’s strange how our instinctive response to ‘wrongness,’ demonizing anything and anyone associated with it, often has the opposite of making a situation better. We really do have to bite the bullet and familiarize ourselves with the most unpleasant and repugnant things out there if we want any hoping of minimizing the harm they cause us.

  3. badandfierce says

    My usual blathering about stories friend and I had a similar discussion a little while ago. There’s a very common shorthand in fiction of making your villain a predatory pedophile. Almost always a male villain who preys on male children. Sure, a person who does such things is evil, but it’s incredibly lazy writing, pulling out a cultural demon and using that instead of actually thinking about what evil things a baddie has done and why. The conclusion to this conversation was that a story with any kind of sympathy for a pedophile character (within pretty much the exact confines you’ve discussed here) would be essentially unpublishable. So good to see that challenged. What’s the point of stories if they don’t shake up a worldview?

  4. ema says

    Not every adult who rapes a prepubescent child is a pedophile.

    Where in the linked summary does it say that?

    It defines pedophilia as a clinical diagnosis, and a pedophile as an individual (generally at least 16 years of age and at least 5 years older than the juvenile of interest) who fantasizes about, is sexually aroused by, or experiences sexual urges toward prepubescent children (generally <13 years) for a period of at least 6 months and is either severely distressed by these sexual urges, experience[s] interpersonal difficulties because of them, or act[s] on them.

    Child molestation is defined as not a medical diagnosis, and a child molester as any individual who touches a child to obtain sexual gratification with the specifier that the offender is at least 4 to 5 years older than the child.

    Nothing about adults who rape prepubescent children not meeting criteria for pedophilia.

  5. says

    ema, if you read the whole article, the datum in question is mentioned in this sentence:

    “Pedophilic child molesters on average commit 10 times more sexual acts against children than nonpedophilic child molesters.”

    There’s also a reference to a study which is the source of this statistic. Now, I’ll grant this reference doesn’t exactly match what Stephanie said (one in ten is not the same as ten times — it should be one in eleven, and it could be that pedophile molesters commit more or fewer molestation acts apiece than non-pedophile molesters, so ten times as many acts might not mean ten times as many pedophiles), but perhaps she was referring to a different quote that I haven’t found yet, and in any case this does make it clear that there is a non-negligible contingent of non-pedophile molesters.

  6. says

    ema, that’s an extrapolation on my part from the literature on pedophilia and the literature on rape. The Mayo summary is quite good, but it doesn’t put child rape into the larger body of knowledge about rape, probably because it hasn’t been studied much that way. We know that rape happens for a variety of reason, only some of which have to do with sexual gratification. Nothing I’ve seen in the literature about child rape suggests that it would be special this way.

  7. ema says

    @Anne C. Hanna,

    Pedophilic child molesters on average commit 10 times more sexual acts against children than nonpedophilic child molesters.

    Unfortunately, the source study uses made up criteria (see p9: they use “more than one year” just because their questionnaire defined length in one-year intervals) so there’s no way to evaluate the claim’s validity.

    @Stephanie Zvan,

    Got it. Didn’t mean to derail, just thought it was in the Mayo summary and I somehow missed it.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    A commenter on a fairly recent Pharyngula post admitted to sexual attraction towards children, but insisted (s)he was keenly aware of the damage acting on such drives could cause, and would never do so.

    The dilemma presented made a strong impression on several others, who complimented this person on his/her courage in describing their generally hated tendencies, even pseudonymously.

    I’d find this and paste a link, if the FtB search function weren’t so goddamn perverted.

  9. says

    ema, the “more than six months” criterion used by the APA isn’t a hell of a lot less arbitrary than the “more than one year” criterion used in the study, so I hardly think it completely invalidates their results, although it may introduce a bit of fuzz into their numbers. They found that more than 1/3 of the admitted molesters in their group had engaged in molestation for a year or less, which seems a disproportionate representation if the study participants were truly all pedophiles; one would expect a much more even distribution of molestation duration if all the subjects were pedophiles. Rather, it would seem that there is a significant contingent which may not have any long-term stable sexual orientation towards children. There are almost certainly ways to nitpick and argue this, but I think it would be rather denialist to discount completely the indication that child molestation by non-pedophiles is not a negligible phenomenon.

    I should also note that the study participants classified as pedophiles molested more children apiece (88% of the molested children in the study) and committed more acts of molestation (95% of the molestation acts in the study), which of course makes sense given the greater duration of their involvement. So there *is* an imbalance here, but even so, these numbers suggest that the contingent of non-pedophile molesters is still large enough that it shouldn’t be ignored.

  10. ema says

    the “more than six months” criterion used by the APA isn’t a hell of a lot less arbitrary than the “more than one year” criterion used in the study

    The reason you have a temporal criterion is to allow you to rule out transient stressors mimicking the symptoms of the disorder. Meaning, making up an arbitrary time interval just because you couldn’t be bothered to modify your questionnaire is not valid methodology.

    In any case, one flawed study isn’t definitive, and I’m not familiar enough with the specialty literature to have an informed opinion on this topic.

  11. says

    ema, I understand that modifying the criterion does make a difference, but my points were simply:

    1) the thing you claimed was not in the linked summary *was* in fact in the linked summary, whether or not you think it was well-sourced in that summary, and

    2) while the research on which that statistic was based may have been somewhat flawed, it is not reasonable to dismiss it out of hand as completely invalid. One year is still a pretty short period of time, and so might arguably still be considered a reasonable measure of transience. I don’t see why you’re so invested in disputing this particular point anyway. Why would one presume a priori that every single person who molests a child necessarily did so because they have a stable, long-term sexual orientation towards children? It seems to me far more reasonable to expect that there would be a variety of different possible triggers and motivations for abuse of children, just as there are a variety of different possible triggers and motivations for rape of adults. For example, it is well known that it is not necessarily the case that all or even most same-gender prison rapists have stable same-gender sexual orientations, because that’s not really what prison rape is about. Why would we not expect that there might be similar factors in play in child molestation?

  12. says

    The vast majority of those who have a sexual attraction to prepubescents are also attracted to adults, and this group is responsible for the fewest number of victims. Their crimes tend to be opportunistic, with family members the usual targets. They don’t go out of their way to find victims.

    It’s quite strange, isn’t it, and it kind of shoots the hell out of the idea that pedophilia is a sexual orientation. My one experience dealing with a pedophile has also confirmed that general picture. The man was gay and was convicted of purchasing child pornography by the federal government. He had also been accused by his own daughter (who was still a child at the time) of molesting her and had lost custody of her and her brother, though he was not convicted of that, prior to the child porn conviction.

    What this means is that there may well be pedophiles out there who manage to keep their attractions in the realm of fantasy or to find creative ways to satisfy their desires with adults instead of children.

    The substitution of fantasy for reality is a huge grey area when it comes to crime. One of the things about the modern age is that fantasy can nearly come to life using computers to create virtual environments. If this technological capability is taken to extremes, it can be difficult to distinguish between a photo or video of real people from one of fake people. If I’m not mistaken, the courts have basically decided to not distinguish between the two and will punish fantasies with the same amount of impunity they use to punish those who possess abusive media depicting real children.

  13. That guy says

    My wife and I were involved in a local swingers group. The first party of the year the group had was always a “back to school” theme, and female members of the group would always show up in schoolgirl outfits with a few of they guys in schoolboy outfits. The vast majority of the men were just there, not in costume, hanging around the women who were dressed up. My wife and I went to one party without costume, and the next year we both went as teachers and stuck to ourselves, flirting in the corner. After that, though, it just became too uncomfortable. Were they a bunch of pedophiles acting out a fantasy? Maybe a couple of them were. The rest, though, were just a bunch of people who could dress up and act out roles they hadn’t put any thought into. We, on the other hand, couldn’t go there. It was just too much thought to put aside, and we were incapable of it.

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