Public discourse in the clinical mental health community has much debated about the language used to appropriately describes pedophilia, and whether pedophilia is a disorder or crime. The problems discussing the nature of pedophilia continues to be a source of contention in the clinical community at this time. In an effort to reduce stigma, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) 5th edition released in 2013 changed the diagnosis to Pedophilic Disorder, as opposed to Pedophilia, with criteria focused on those who have acted illegally on their sexual attraction.
The primary distinction between pedophilia and pedophilic disorder is whether one has acted on their sexual attraction to children with illegal sexual acts. However, even this distinction becomes murky when we take into consideration the viewing of child pornography. The term pedophilia refers specifically to a deviant human sexual arousal toward children. Persons diagnosed with pedophilic disorder are commonly referred to as child molesters and pedophiles in society.
In studies on the typology of sex offenders, child sexual abusers are comprised of two categories. “Regressed” Child Molesters are persons with the ability to have sexual arousal in healthy, age-appropriate relationships but committed child sexual crimes that were most often fueled by depression and anger. “Fixated” Child Molester are persons, primarily men, who present with deviant sexual arousal patterns to children based on actuarial and clinical assessment methods. The “Fixated” Child Molester are the persons that society labels as pedophiles. And, despite research suggesting that the majority of fixated child molesters have pedophilia, there are emergent narratives and research challenging the idea that having the experience of pedophilia means that you will become a child molester.
Critics condemned the DSM for appearing as if they condone child sexual abuse by describing pedophilia as a “sexual orientation.” Talking about pedophilia and pedophiles often feels like a crime. And, to many, the idea of conceptualizing pedophilia as a sexual orientation is often seen as a minimization of a serious moral offense. However, The Journal of American Academy challenged the apology in an editorial where they highlighted that the DSM committee’s apology failed to provide accurate education on what is currently known about pedophilia from emergent narratives on pedophilia.
“The term sexual orientation ordinarily reflects an individual’s subjective awareness of the category (or categories) of persons toward whom he or she is erotically attracted… Many report experiencing those attractions as unchosen in a fashion that seems very much like an orientation. That such attractions are often unwanted does not alter their resemblance to an orientation.” (Berlin, 2014, 406)
In 2014, a 19-year-old male under the surname of Adam interviewed with Luke Malone of This American Life where he described his first-person experience with pedophilia as his sexual orientation. His narrative illustrates the complex intersections between sexuality and morality as he self-identifies as a pedophile who has never committed a sexual offense. Adam’s story brings forward a new narrative: one where someone who has pedophilia does not become a child molester.
Integrating his story, and the experiences of others like him, is important to public discourse on preventing child sexual abuse. I believe that putting more children at risk for sexual abuse is too great of a cost for society’s failure to develop policies and practices that prevent people from acting on pedophilic interests. The salient issues in these emergent narratives such as Adam’s is, if having pedophilia means that you are a pedophile, how do we integrate pedophiles into our communities safely so that they do not become child molesters?