Friday, February 20, 2015


Primary prevention of sexual abuse involves targeting root problems to prevent the abuse from occurring in the first place. This article will summarize why I believe it is important to discuss the popular but imprecise belief that someone who holds a sexual interest in children is eventually going to commit a sexual offence against a child.

Virtuous Pedophiles is an organization with the goal to reduce the stigma most pedophiles experience by popularizing one fact that most of the public does not know (or at least acknowledge): that a number of pedophiles do not commit a sexual offence. As I discussed in my Nextgenforensic article, most of us overlook the key distinction between the term ‘pedophile’ and ‘sex offender against children’. That is, pedophiles are those who hold a sexual interest in children whereas sex offenders against children are those who have committed a sexual offence against a child (see here for more information on pedophilia). Not all pedophiles are sex offenders and not all sex offenders against children are pedophiles (for an interesting review, see Seto, 2008).

I recently had the opportunity to speak to the co-founders of Virtuous Pedophiles, Nick Devin and Ethan Edwards (pseudonyms). The Virtuous Pedophiles online forum currently has over 600 members and, as noted in their website their “…highest priority is to help pedophiles never abuse children.” Nick and Ethan were kind enough to answer a few questions on the impact of imprecise language and future directions for clinicians, researchers, and policy makers in this field.


Labels influence peoples’ views and perceptions (for review, see Harris & Socia, 2014 and Janke et al., 2015). Both Nick and Ethan highlighted several reasons for why it continues to be important to be explicit in distinguishing between pedophiles and sex offenders. For example, Nick pointed out the negative impact of the public’s habit of equating pedophiles to sex offenders: “[m]any pedophiles believe themselves to be evil as a result of attractions that they did not choose, even if they don't act on those attractions.  Many are depressed as a result; some are even suicidal”.

Negative public views not only means pedophiles are stigmatized, but also that some pedophiles do not seek help from professionals because of their fear of being discovered. As Nick pointed out, more precise language can change public perceptions and even laws. “I think the source of the hatred is the failure to distinguish between pedophilia and sex offending.  People just are not aware that a great many pedophiles successfully resist their sexual attractions.  If enough people became aware, I think the hatred would be reduced.  Pedophiles would be more willing to get the help they need, and fewer children would be sexually abused.”



1) Clinicians and Policy Makers

There are a lot of improvements needed to expand services to pedophiles and, ultimately, to aid in the primary prevention of child sexual abuse. I asked both Nick and Ethan what clinicians and policy makers in the field can do to help pedophiles lead more productive lives without offences. Both had important points, which I provide below.

Ethan: “Clinicians can do several things. One is to learn the true mandated reporting requirements in your jurisdiction... Treat pedophiles as people with a difficult life problem, not just as potential molesters. You have been trained for empathy and respect for your clients, and extend that to pedophiles -- especially those who have done nothing wrong. Do not abruptly terminate therapy without providing a referral. Accept that pedophilia is a sexual attraction that was not chosen. Do not try to eliminate the attraction, but help clients work around it and feel OK about themselves as long as they do not harm others. Often pedophiles have no trouble controlling their behavior, but want help with leading a worthwhile life. Knowing that you will never know sex or love, and knowing that everyone would hate you if you told them who you truly are -- these alone are understandable causes of distress.”

Nick: “With respect to policy makers, they need to look at the mandatory reporting rules.  These rules require therapists to report a patient if they think the patient is a danger is to a child.  The rules are well intentioned.  Of course we want to protect children from abuse.  The problem from the pedophile's perspective is that the rules are vague.  No one knows what a particular therapist will consider dangerous, and the consequences of being reported are so severe (e.g., social ostracism) that many people who need help don't go to therapists due to fear of being reported.  Dr. Fred Berlin of Johns Hopkins University use to see a large number of non-offending pedophiles as part of his practice.  He reports that pedophiles stopped coming in for treatment when Maryland adopted mandatory reporting rules.  Dr. Hans Beier runs a program called Prevention Project Dunkelfeld in Germany, which encourages pedophiles to come forward for treatment.  He has said that the program would not be viable in the United States due to mandatory reporting rules.”

As policy makers, it is important to acknowledge the deleterious effects of mandatory reporting law. Overly restrictive laws results in pedophiles not getting the help that may have preventing them from abusing a child. It is true that as clinicians, we are limited by the mandatory reporting laws in our jurisdictions. If you live in a restrictive jurisdiction, which requires you to refer someone who reports a sexual interest in children, it is important to note that there are an increasing number of anonymous online resources available to your client (which I summarize here). Unfortunately, not all clinicians currently do this, as Ethan pointed out:

 “…some researchers have said that most sex offenders commit their first offense when they are desperate and feel they have nothing to lose. Yet when some explicitly seek help, they are told that no resources are available to them unless they have committed an offense.


2) Researchers

As a researcher, I was particularly interested in what researchers in the field can do to help primary prevention efforts. Here is a summary of interesting projects that hold important implications, as suggested by Nick and Ethan.

  • Develop a best practices treatment module and disseminate that information to therapists who see pedophiles.

Nick summarized the state of affairs, which highlighted the current uncertainty in our field. Specifically, some researchers/clinicians believe pedophilia can be changed whereas others believe that, like other sexual orientation, pedophilia cannot be changed and, instead, must be managed.

We hear from a lot of pedophiles who see therapists and they report different approaches.  Some therapists say you should try very hard not to fantasize about children.  Others say not to worry about that and focus on strengthening strategies to prevent abuse.  Some try to change a pedophile’s sexual interests to make them attracted to adults.  Others say this isn't possible.  Some therapists are right on this and others are wrong.  Who is right?  What is the best way for the therapist to proceed?

A recent article by Müller and colleagues on the subject elicited a number of Letters to the Editor, which highlights the controversial nature of this debate (for those wanting a snapshot of the debate, there is a radio broadcast on the subject). More primary studies are required, and a review article would be useful in providing direction to clinicians.

  • More research on non-offending pedophiles.

Ethan noted “it would be great if there was research on non-offending pedophiles. It is very difficult to study us because we have such a strong motivation to stay hidden. Perhaps anonymous surveys could be formulated with enough protections to convince celibate pedophiles that they really are safe in responding. Representative-sample community surveys could include questions about attraction to children -- why don't they?”

Such studies are certainly doable. Online surveys now allow for anonymous participation. That is, surveys can be created to ensure that no identifying information is collected, such as IP addresses. In addition, b4uact provides help to researchers hoping to recruit self-identified pedophiles. Increasing research on non-offending pedophiles (e.g., the Dunkelfeld group) can improve our understanding of this group of individuals. Census data certainly would be the gold standard, but at least in Canada, we are reducing the scope of census questions (though there is an active debate as to why we should not). Countries with more flexibility in their census survey could provide worthwhile contributions to this field with the simple addition of two questions: (1) Have you ever felt sexually attracted to a child under the age of 12? (2) Have you ever had sexual contact with a child under 12 when you were over the age of 16? The answers to these two questions would provide a robust estimate on how many people with a sexual interest in children actually offend.

  • Summary of mandatory reporting laws.

As Ethan pointed out “Pedophiles assume the worst about mandated reporter laws, wondering if just admitting an attraction to children will get them reported”.

A summary of mandatory laws for Canada and states in the USA (as well as other countries) would be a useful tool for any pedophile seeking help, as well as clinicians wondering about the scope of mandatory reporting laws. Access to these summaries may mean that more pedophiles would seek help and, as such, would be a worthwhile project.

Ethan offered a simple way forward: “One simple starting point is for every person who hears "pedophile" to ask: Is this a celibate pedophile or an offending pedophile? And if the allegation is towards a pedophile, treat it with the same skepticism you would if the same allegation is made against a non-pedophile.” As university professors, we can teach this to our undergraduates. As researchers, we can make sure to be explicit in our publications. As clinicians, we need to be aware of the distinctions between those living with pedophilia and sex offenders, as well as provide help to the best of our ability given our respective mandatory reporting laws. As policy makers, we can teach this distinction to politicians, as well as highlight the harmful effects of mandatory reporting laws and other policies on prevention efforts.

One final thought: we can better prevent sexual abuse if we provide pedophilic individuals with the necessary support and resources. However, it seems that common stumbling blocks (e.g., mandatory reporting law, fear of self-identifying as a pedophile) are due to the popular but imprecise belief that someone who holds a sexual interest in children is eventually going to commit a sex offence against a child. As highlighted by surveys and research studies now available, being a pedophile does not mean you are bound to commit a sexual offence. Indeed, whereas pedophilia likely is not a choice (e.g., studies here and here), committing a sexual offence is a choice, and one that a number of pedophiles do not make. Of course, we can do much more to prevent child sexual abuse, as highlighted by my conversation with the cofounders of Virtuous Pedophiles. One seemingly simple step has to due with being more precise in our use of language.

Kelly Babchishin, Ph.D. is a Banting postdoctoral fellow (CIHR) at the University of Ottawa’s Institute of Mental Health Research and the Karolinska Instutet in Stockholm, Sweden. Kelly’s doctoral dissertation examined change in acute risk factors of sex offenders; her current research involves identifying causal candidates for the onset of sexual offending. Her other research interests include online sexual offending, pedophilia, and risk assessment.


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