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Pedophilia vs Pedophilic Disorder: Dispelling the Myths

Pedophilia is a word that invokes fear and disgust in many, if not the majority of the general public.

Rightfully so - any sexual contact or assault of a minor of any age is a traumatic offence that should be taken extremely seriously. However, the true definitions are often misrepresented due to mass media and public opinion. In this article, we hope to shed some light on this topic, and present pedophilia in an objective view that debunks some common myths associated with this word.

Contrary to societal belief, there is a distinct difference between pedophilic disorder and being a pedophile. While pedophilia, pedophilic disorder, and child molestation are terms that do occasionally overlap, they are not synonymous.

Pedophilia is a paraphilia (an atypical sexual interest).

A pedophile is defined as a person who has a persistent sexual attraction to prepubescent children (defined as children under the age of 11). To meet the threshold of pedophilia, one’s sexual attraction must be equal or greater than their sexual attraction to adults, adolescents, or persons of their own age. However, a person who experiences some sexual attraction, but less than to adolescents or adults, would not be considered a pedophile. They would be defined as having a paraphilic sexual interest (Levay, 2015). Therefore, not every person experiencing some sort of attraction towards prepubescent children is considered a pedophile. To mention, hebephilia is defined as being sexually attracted to children going through puberty.

Pedophilic disorder is one of the nine categories of paraphilic sexual interests in the DSM-5.

The DSM-5 considers pedophilia as a disorder only when the individual is distressed by their sexual attraction to prepubescent children, or if they are at risk of expression their attraction in actual sexual contact. The disorder is also defined behaviourally - if the individual has acted on these urges, or plan to act on them (Levay, 2015).

A Child Molester, or a sexual offender against children, is any adult who has sexual contact with a child.

Some child molesters are pedophiles, but not all. It is important to note that many child molesters act opportunistically. Their behaviour is not always motivated by sexual attraction to children, but rather, they are either unable to achieve sexual gratification in other circumstances (i.e. unable to find a suitable partner their own age, cognitively impaired, etc.).

There is a conflict between the DSM-5 diagnosis and cultural beliefs.

Although the DSM-5 emphasizes that even having these fantasies does not lead to a mental disorder, the public opinion believes that these fantasies are bad no matter what. In fact, mass media tends to represent people with pedophilic sexual interests as monsters who are actively seeking for opportunities to offend. There is a common reaction of disgust and shaming when the mere idea of sexual attraction to minors is presented. However, the distinction between urges and fantasies, versus behaviour must be acknowledged. The reality is, there are many people who find themselves sexually attracted to children, but most possess the moral compass and rational thinking to not act on these urges. Theoretically, it can be argued that having sexual fantasies about prepubescent children is potentially as common as having rape fantasies, animal fantasies, or any other atypical sexual interest.

But the question is, how common is pedophilic attraction?

Unfortunately, accurate information and research in this field is difficult to acquire. Most of the research conducted on people with pedophilic fantasies is based off of the criminal justice system. This results in the bulk of the research done on people who have acted on their actions, but not on the people who have not. Due to social stigma and shame, the tendency to under report is also quite common. Therefore, the true prevalence is unknown. An online survey discovered that 6% of men and 2% of women said there was some likelihood that they would have sexual contact with a child if they were guaranteed that they would not be caught (Wurtele et al., 2013). While keeping in mind that this is an anonymous Internet survey, this data suggests that pedophilic interest may actually be quite prevalent. The stigmatization with pedophilic disorder is arguably the worst of all.

Many do share the belief that people of pedophilic disorder or have committed offences should be locked up forever rather than rehabilitated back into society.

Regrettably, many therapists also do not feel willing or capable to work with people with pedophilic disorder. It is often quite difficult for mental health professionals to empathize with people who have committed these heinous crimes. This leaves many people who are experiencing intrusive thoughts in a bleak place. They feel ashamed to come forward, and hold a fear of talking about it with anybody. This may lead to isolation, depression, and suicidal tendencies due to shame in their own fantasies. In fact, 45% of men with pedophilic sexual interest had said they had seriously contemplated suicide (B4U-ACT, 2011).

The rise of Internet support groups and other organizations have attempted to shed some light on the truth of pedophilic sexual interest.

Groups such as B4U-ACT and Virtuous Pedophiles are non-profit organizations that promote mental health services, public understanding, and mutual support for minors attracted persons to help them lead fulfilling lives while remaining within the boundaries of the law (Levay, 2015). There are many safe ways to express pedophilic interests, such as role-playing and other power dynamics with consenting adults. Media has unfortunately exaggerated this sexual interest into a deviant, uncontrollable atrocity.

Please note, we do not wish to disregard the seriousness of child sexual abuse or dismiss the trauma of victims - nor do we condone having sexual contact with children under any circumstances - and it is important to acknowledge the implications of shaming and shunning a population who can be in dire need of help from mental health professionals and unable to access care due to the stigma they face.

We hope appropriate information and an objective view will support people struggling with these urges and encourage them to come forward in times of mental distress prior to acting on these desires. We wish to create a safe, non-judgemental environment for people experiencing these feelings, and to let them know that there is support available.

Written by Westland Researcher Adrianna Xue

Works Cited

B4U-ACT. (2011). The B4U-ACT Survey. (

LeVay, S., Baldwin, J. I., & Baldwin, J. D. (2015). Discovering human sexuality. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Wertele, S. K., Simons, D. & Moreno, T. (2013). Sexual interest in children among an online sample of men and women: Prevalence and correlates. Sexual Abuse, published online November 11.


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