They are almost always men, but can be of any age and sexual orientation. More victimize girls than boys. They tend to live alone or with a parent, are often unemployed or in a low-paying job and have trouble forming adult relationships. They usually start having or fantasizing about sex with kids before they are 18. Pedophiles "tend to be shyer and more inhibited; they're drawn to children because they feel uncomfortable around adults and fear adult sexuality," says Dr. Martin Kafka of McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. But beyond that, there's an awful lot we don't know about this disease.
And disease it is. The American Psychiatric Association classifies pedophilia as a mental illness marked by "recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children." The fantasies or behaviors must persist for at least six months, and their target must be no older than 13. Children are the exclusive focus of a pedophile's sexual interest, but he desires children for companionship, too. "To a classic pedophile, children are true love objects," says psychologist Robert Prentky of the Justice Resource Institute in Massachusetts. "He is happier and more comfortable in the presence of children."
That highlights a crucial distinction. Not all pedophiles sexually abuse kids. And not all child molesters are pedophiles. Many molesters typically spend little time around children, interact with them only sexually and even hate kids. "At some level, abusers feel guilt, but they tend to rationalize abuse by saying it's a good way to teach kids about sex," says William O'Donohue of the University of Nevada at Reno. A significant risk factor for becoming a child molester is having been sexually abused as a child. "Some victims of abuse may want to re-create their own experience, to give them mastery over it," says psychologist Christine Courtois of the Psychiatric Institute of Washington. That said, "it takes a helluva lot more than sexual abuse to make you a child molester," says Prentky. Molesters tend to be predatory, antisocial, impulsive and exploitative, for instance.
Pedophiles, in contrast, were not necessarily abused. They often seek out significant non-sexual contact with children, and even believe that their gropings cause no damage. Many tend to collect the nude-picture kind of child pornography rather than more vicious images of child rape, and many are happy with catalogs showing kids modeling underwear. "At some level, they know child porn is wrong, but they rationalize it by saying they're not hurting anyone," says O'Donohue. Which fans of child porn will go on to molest a child is unknown, as is the actual number of pedophiles in the general population. "Some who look at child pornography have no history of molesting," says Kafka. "They seem able to control their urges." Does porn provide an outlet for pedophilic urges? Ray Wyre, a consultant to the British courts, doubts it. "The justification was that if people saw it they wouldn't do it," he says. "But this material reinforces pedophiles' belief that kids enjoy it." And that can push pedophiles into molestation.
Sex offenders tend to have a high incidence of depression and anxiety, as well as low levels of the brain chemical serotonin. "They may 'self-medicate' their mood disregulation through sex, which boosts their serotonin levels," says Kafka. Pedophiles find this release in children, for reasons that remain shrouded in the mists of their childhoods and psychopathology. But as the media sexualize kids--Brooke Shields in one era, Britney Spears more recently--"it sends a message of acceptability," says O'Donohue. Perhaps child porn and pedophilia aren't as far out of the mainstream as we'd like to think.