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Aetiology of paedophilia

Theories of the aetiology of paedophilia are rather limited and focus more on social and psychological factors than on biological ones. These split into long-term background factors and proximal factors that form more immediate triggers to such behaviour.

Long-term risk factors

Many child sex offenders report that their early parent–child relationships were disruptive and/ or that they have experienced childhood sexual abuse: up to 67 per cent of respondents in one survey. Similarly, in a matched comparison between male paedophile and ‘healthy’ individuals, Cohen et al. found that 60 per cent of paedophiles reported experiencing adult sexual advances as a child. This compared with 4 per cent of the comparison group. These data are extremely diffi cult to validate. Many people who engage in paedophilic behaviour have a vested interest in reporting such events as a way of minimizing their own responsibility for their actions or gaining the sympathy of others. Attempts at validation by asking the alleged perpetrators are equally likely to result in misreporting. In an attempt to minimize these problems, Dhawan and Marshall  used detailed interviews and questionnaire methods to try to corroborate or challenge any misreporting. They concluded that 50 per cent of imprisoned paedophiles had been sexually abused as children. What this, of course, does not explain is why such episodes predict later sexual offences. A number of authors have speculated why this may be the case, with various suggestions that the abused child is trying to gain a new identity by becoming the abuser, they are engaged in an imprinted sexual arousal pattern established by early abuse, or that early abuse leads to hypersexual behaviour.

Behavioural theories suggest that child offenders develop a strong sexual attraction to children following pairings of sexual arousal and images of children. These associations typically occur in early adolescence, and may initially be accidental. However, they may be strengthened by masturbation to images of children and the use of pornography. In a partial test of this model, Barbaree and Marshall measured the sexual response to pictures of female children and mature women among men who had either sexually abused children not in their family, committed incest, or claimed to have no sexual interest in children. Their fi ndings were somewhat surprising. Less than half of the non-familial offenders and only 28 per cent of those who had committed incest were more sexually stimulated by pictures of young women than those of mature women. In addition, 15 per cent of men who reported no sexual interest in children were more sexually aroused by pictures of children than of mature women. While the conditioning model may hold for some individuals, it does not hold for all. These data indicate that sexual interest is not the only factor that infl uences the sexual choices of paedophiles. Another important factor may be a failure to develop satisfying psychological and sexual relationships with adults. Many paedophiles report high levels of loneliness, perhaps arising from inadequate attachment styles developed as children (Ward et al. 1996). As a result, some seek out intimacy with children, with whom they fi nd it easier to instigate both physical and non-physical relationships, and who are easier to control. However, this is certainly not the case for all paedophiles, emphasizing that the route to paraphilias differs widely between individuals. Nevertheless, Finkelhor’s  ‘preconditions theory’ of paedophilia identifi ed these factors as key to the condition. He suggested that paedophilia is the result of four factors:

the belief that sex with children is emotionally satisfying; the belief that sex with children is sexually satisfying; an inability to meet sexual needs in a more socially appropriate manner; disinhibited behaviour at times of stress. Pithers  provided a useful description of the process of disinhibition at times of low mood. He noted that the desire to engage in paedophile behaviour is frequently triggered by low mood as a result of stress or confl ict. As a result, individuals seek some way of decreasing these negative feelings, and allow themselves to enter a high-risk situation. This may appear the result of seemingly irrelevant decisions that place them in increasing proximity to potential victims. Once in this situation, they are overwhelmed by the potentially powerfully rewarding feelings associated with paedophile acts. They focus on these rather than the long-term negative outcomes to the situation, and as a result engage in some form of paedophile behaviour. Once the immediate ‘rush’ has receded, they may once more experience remorse, but feel out of control of their behaviour, a negative mood state that may trigger the cycle again. These factors are added to by cognitive distortions that support sexual acts with children. Common cognitive distortions are that children are as interested in sex as adults, that they seek out sex with adults, and that they enjoy and benefi t from the experience. Some of these may be truly believed by the individual. Others may be deliberate falsifi cation, to minimize negative reactions from others. Implicit tests of attitudes are, perhaps, particularly revealing in this context. In one study, using the implicit association test, Mihailides et al. found that child sex offenders were more likely to implicitly endorse ‘children as sexual beings’, ‘uncontrollability of sexuality’ and ‘sexual entitlement-bias’ beliefs than other types of offender and non-offenders. Paedophiles also frequently have a repertoire of beliefs/justifi cations used in their defence within the justice system, including denial (‘Is it wrong to give a child a hug?’), minimization (‘It only happened once’), justifi cation (‘I am a boy lover, not a child molester’), fabrication (activities were research for a scholarly project), and attack (usually character attacks on the child, prosecutors, or police).

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