Pedophiles: Pure evil or a diagnoseable mental illness?

By Michelle McCulloch – Intern Clinical Psychologist

Child sexual offenders and pedophilic acts are a highly controversial and widely debated subject. As soon as someone hears the term pedophile they immediately think of this evil monster, deserving of the harshest punishment. However, that is not necessarily the case. Pedophilia is a recognisable mental disorder, meaning that the individual is suffering from a disorder and is in need of treatment. Below is the criteria as set out in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM 5) clearly stating the criteria of a pedophile:

   “A) Over a period of six months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviours involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally aged 13 years or younger).
B) the individual has acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies caused marked distress or interpersonal difficulties.
C) The individual is at least 16 years of age and is at least 5 years older than the child or children in criterion A (APA, 2013).”

Based on this diagnosis, pedophilia is not just viewed as a criminal act, but rather as an illness where the pedophile experiences significant distress due to intense sexual urges and fantasies of children with or without any physical contact with the child. Where then does this misconception of pedophilia only being a criminal act come from? Unfortunately, the media is largely to blame for the publics misconception and the stigma that seems to be attached to pedophiles. Pedophiles have been portrayed in a derogatory light, highlighting pedophilic acts as a criminal offense deserving of the harshest punishment. Furthermore, the media have failed to report on the conceptualisation of pedophilic acts as a mental condition in need of psychiatric treatment.  

The stigma around pedophilia is what stops those who have the disorder from coming forward, so they are never taught ways to manage their condition. Pedophilia is a sexual orientation and those with pedophilia have a mental disorder in which they can’t control their urges to have sexual relations with minors. Pedophilia occurs in people who recognise they have an attraction to children and can’t control acting out on it. It is not about them being violent or aggressive towards their victims but rather about acting on their uncontrollable urges towards children.

Studies have found pedophiles cannot help their attraction to children. Being diagnosed as a pedophile is not a crime. Having a sexual attraction to children is in itself not a criminal act, any more than wishing someone dead makes one a murderer. Acting on those impulses however most definitely is a criminal act. A pedophile, according to scientific studies, has no choice in what turns him or her on. There is good evidence that the brains of pedophiles have a wiring fault that deflects the objects of sexual arousal from the normal path of adults onto children, that the triggers pertaining to kids – big head, big eyes and round face that define cuteness – lead to the sexual arousal centre, rather than to the protective nurturing centre and the activities one would expect of an adult relating to a child. Pedophiles literally can’t help themselves and you often find pedophiles that have never actually committed a criminal sexual offence.

That a human being can be born with a defect that causes him or her to look for love in the wrong places is tragic. We cannot as a society afford to let pedophiles practice their sexual orientation, that is definite, but perhaps accepting that they themselves are victims of biological accident will lead us to a solution that is fair to us, them and to all the children everywhere.