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Pedophile: one word; multiple meanings

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Overview of the term "pedophile:"

"Pedophile" is derived from two Greek words: ''pedo" means "child;" and "philia" means "love for." Unfortunately, it is an ambiguous term.

It has many meanings in common usage:

bullet Sometimes it is used to refer to an older individual who is sexually attracted towards children. A very small percentage of pedophiles act on their attraction by actually abusing children; the vast majority never act out their feelings.

bullet Other times it refers only to a person who sexually abuses pre-pubertal children under the age of 13.

bullet Finally, the definition is sometimes expanded to include sexual abuse of a children and/or youth as old as 17.

Most pedophiles are attracted to children in a specific age group (e.g. 5 or 6). Some are attracted to young people of any age up to puberty.

Definitions of "pedophile" -- formal and otherwise:

There does not appear to be any universally accepted definition:

bullet The Child Welfare Information Gateway of the Children's Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

"An adult whose primary sexual interest is in children; some professionals make a differentiation between a pedophile, whose sexual partner of choice is a prepubertal child, and a hebephile, who is aroused by adolescents." 1

bullet The "Viagara Cures" website:

"A person who has recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children." 2

bullet WordNet at Princeton University:

"An adult who is sexually attracted to children." 3

bullet American Psychiatric Association:

"A person who over at least a 6 month period has recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (age 13 years or younger). The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The person is at least age 16 years and at least 5 years older than the child or children. Not to include an individual in late adolescence involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with a 12 or 13 year old (straight or gay). Individuals with pedophilia generally report an attraction to children of a particular age range. Some individuals prefer males, others prefer females, and some are aroused by both males and females. Pedophila involving female victims is reported more than pedophilia involving male victims." 4

bullet Wikipedia defines pedophilia as:

"... the primary or exclusive sexual attraction by adults to prepubescent youths. 5

bullet "Pedophile" appears to be increasingly used in the media to refer only to adults who sexually abuse children. If this trend continues, we will need a new term to refer to non-abusive pedophiles.

Additional definitions:

bullet Hebephile: This is derived from the Greek words ''phepius" means "youth;" and "philia" means "love for." It is a condition in which an adult, usually male, is sexually attracted to young people who are at about the age of puberty. It is sometimes used as a synonym for "hebephilia."

bullet Ephebophilia: A condition in which an adult, usually male, is sexually attracted to post-pubertal adolescents (14 to 17).

bullet Infantophilia: A rare form of pedophilia in which the older person's primary interest is a child 24 month or younger.

Problems caused by the lack of precision in definitions:

Note the extreme confusion among these definitions:

bullet The term "pedophile" may include adults -- a person over 17 -- or to persons over the age of 15, or to persons of any age.

bullet The victim is variously defined as a child (perhaps any person under the age of 18), or as a prepubescent child, perhaps 11 or younger, or as a child at about the age of puberty.

bullet Most pedophiles never act on their sexual attraction by actually abusing children.

Perhaps the most serious result of the lack of clarity concerning the meaning of "pedophile" has been the misunderstanding by the media and public about the nature of the the abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church. This is almost universally described as pedophilia. This raises the image in the minds of the public of a priest sexually abusing a small child. In fact, the vast majority of sexually abusive priests are ephebophiles. They target post-pubertal adolescents -- almost always mostly male in their mid or later teen years.  A Google search for the vague phrase "pedophile priests" returns about 94,000 hits; a search for a precise term "hebephile priests" found three! 6

This website will generally use the term "pedophile" to refer to persons 16 years-of-age or older who are sexually attracted to children under the age of 13. We will refer to pedophiles who act out their feelings by sexually abusing children as "abusive pedophiles." We encourage others to use the same convention.

Incidence of pedophilia:

It appears that a fairly large percentage of male adults are sexually attracted to prepubescent children. However, they are not necessarily aware of their attraction, and the vast majority never act on their feelings.

According to Wikipedia: 5

"In 1989 Briere and Runtz conducted a study on 193 male undergraduate students concerning pedophilia. Of the sample, 21% acknowledged sexual attraction to some small children; 9% reported sexual fantasies involving children; 5% admitted masturbating to these fantasies; and 7% conceded some probability of actually having sex with a child if they could avoid detection and punishment. The authors also noted that 'given the probable social undesirability of such admissions, [one could] hypothesize that the actual rates ... were even higher'." 7

"A study by Hall et al. of Kent State University found that, of their sample of 80 adult male volunteers, 20% reported some attraction to prepubescent girls and 32.5% exhibited sexual arousal to heterosexual pedophilic stimuli that equaled or exceeded their arousal to the adult stimuli." 8

"Less research is available regarding pedophilia's occurrence 9 in females. In a 1996 study of a university sample, 2.6% of surveyed females self-reported at least some sexual interest in children." 10

The group: The Primary Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse states:

"Our current estimates from the best researcher of pedophilia in the field, Michael Seto, indicate that pedophilia affects less than 5% of the male population and less than 4% of the female population. The DSM-V indicates that the highest prevalence for pedophilia in male population is 3-5%. As such, about 1.12-1.86% of the world’s population are pedophiles. ..."

"... after accounting for underreporting, you see that 4.8-9.36% of pedophiles do molest children. Conversely, this means that 90.64-96.2% of pedophiles do not molest children, even after underreporting is accounted for.

While these numbers are obviously an illustrative estimate, it is reasonable to conclude from this exercise that the majority of the world’s pedophiles do not molest children." 15

What causes pedophilia?

Studies in the past have indicated that pedophilia may be caused by or linked in some way to:

bullet Childhood head injuries,

bullet Psychological abuse during childhood+,

bullet Lower than average Intelligent Quotient (IQ),

bullet Shorter stature 11 and/or

bullet Early childhood sexual abuse. 12

Pedophiles are also known to be at least three times as likely to be left-handed than non-pedophiles. Since left-handedness develops before birth, this may indicate that both traits are linked to genes or to events during gestation.

A study reported in the Journal of Psychiatry Research published during the week of 2007-NOV-25 has convincingly linked pedophilia to brain structure. James Cantor is the lead author of the paper. His team at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto ON Canada found a cluster of differences between the brains of convicted pedophiles and non-pedophile male offenders. The brains of 127 men were studied using magnetic resonance. 44 were pedophiles, and had been convicted of sexual offenses against children under the age of 15 but not against young adults aged 17 and older. 21 had been convicted of sexual offences against older persons. They were recruited from the Kurt Freund Laboratory at the Centre. The control group was composed of non-sexual offenders who were recruited from provincial and federal parole and probation offices in the Toronto area. The study found that "white matter" -- the connective "wiring" that connects "grey matter" neuron cells -- is far thinner in the brains of pedophiles.

Joseph Hall of the Toronto Star reports:

" 'One of the parts of the brain that didn't develop normally in these people is the part that seems to be related to identifying sexual partners,' Cantor says."

"About half a dozen areas have been identified, through imaging, as centres of sexual stimulus, generally distributed in two major brain regions. One is the temporal lobes, tucked behind the ears, which help control memory storage and facial and object recognition. The other cluster is in the parietal areas in the back that are involved in co-ordination of vision with actions." 11

CBC News reported that:

"The researchers theorize pedophilia is the result of a 'partial disconnection within that network'."

" 'The most straightforward explanation of the present result is that low white matter volumes increase the risk of developing pedophilia,' they write. 'Regardless of whether white matter deficiencies produce pedophilia or a susceptibility to it, the present results suggest the need to pursue what causes the white matter deficiencies'."

"They add that white matter abnormalities have already been implicated in other psychiatric illnesses, including bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia." 13

The researchers believe that these structural differences in the brain are present in infants. However, it is not yet clear whether they are established genetically at conception, during gestation, or in early infancy.

An earlier German study published in the same Journal during 2006 involved MF studies of 18 pedophiles -- 9 attracted to male children, 9 attracted to female children, and none attracted to both boys and girls -- were compared to 24 non-pedophiles -- 12 heterosexual, 12 homosexual and 0 bisexual.

The abstract of their paper stated that "... pedophiles showed decreased gray matter volume..." in areas of the brain. The concluded that "... these findings may support the hypothesis that there is a shared etiopathological mechanism in all obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders." 14

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Glossary Of Terms," Child Welfare Information Gateway, 1993, at:\\
  2. "Viagra & sexual terms >> P," Viagra Cures, at:
  3. "WordNet Search," Princeton University, at:
  4. "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; 4 edition text revision," Section 302.2, American Psychiatric Association, (2000).
  5. "Pedophilia," Wikipedia, at:
  6. The Google search was performed on 2007-DEC-02 before this essay was placed online.
  7. J. Briere & M. Runtz, "University males' sexual interest in children: predicting potential indices of 'pedophilia' in a nonforensic sample," Child Abuse and Neglect, (1989); 13(1), Pages 65 to 75. An abstract is at:
  8. Gordon C.N. Hall, et al., " Sexual Arousal and Arousability to Pedophilic Stimuli in a Community Sample of Normal Men," Behavior Therapy, (1995) 26, Pages 681 to 694. See:
  9. Marina Knopf, "Sexual Contacts Between Women and Children," Paidika, (1994), Vol.3, No.3
  10. K. Smiljanich, & J. Briere, "Self-reported sexual interest in children: Sex differences and psychosocial correlates in a university sample," Journal of Violence & Victims,  (1996). Vol. 11, No. 1, Pages 39 to 50.
  11. Joseph Hall, "Pedophiles 'programmed,' study finds. Toronto researchers discover stunted wiring between regions responsible for sexual response," The Toronto Star, 2007-NOV-29, at:
  12. Lisa J. Cohen, et al.: "Heterosexual Male Perpetrators of Childhood Sexual Abuse: A Preliminary Neuropsychiatric Model," Psychiatric Quarterly, Springer Netherlands, 2002-DEC, at:
  13. "Pedophiles have less brain white matter: Toronto study," CBC News, 2007-NOV-28, at:
  14. Boris Schiffer, "Structural brain abnormalities in the frontostriatal system and cerebellum in pedophilia," Journal of Psychiatry Research, in press, at:
  15. "Estimating the Prevalence of Abusers Among Pedophiles," The Primary Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse web site, 2015-2018, at:
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Copyright 2007 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posting: 2007-DEC-02
Latest update: 2018-JUL-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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