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Are Pedophiles Born or Made?

Both nature and nurture combine in a complex way in the genesis of a pedophile.

Key points

  • As for other mental disorders, evidence is increasingly showing that both nature and nurture play a role in the genesis of pedophilia.
  • Some neuroscientists claim to have demonstrated by brain imaging studies that the brains of pedophiles are wired differently to non-pedophiles.
  • An individual’s environment, particularly when they themselves are still a child, can also affect whether they later develop pedophilic urges.
  • A better understanding of how pedophilic urges arise in a person might help us to recognise and prevent them before they ruin children’s lives.

Surely few things are as likely to generate revulsion in society as pedophilia. This behaviour triggers revulsion not only because of the perceived unnaturalness of the attraction, but also because if pedophiles act upon their desires, they may wreck the future lives of the children they target, with all the physical and psychological trauma that can ensue.

Our revulsion is also based on the fact that children are seen as innocent and vulnerable compared to adults and the pedophile threatens to exploit that vulnerability and destroy that innocence. Important questions to address, then, are: What causes pedophilia? And how we might better diagnose and treat those with the disorder?

Understandably, some believe we should not even debate this issue. As Paul Jones, father of April Jones, a five-year-old girl from Machynlleth, Wales, who was abducted and murdered by a pedophile in 2012, has explained, "People, they think, 'Why should we help the pedophile? We should be prosecuting them, throwing them in jail, having them castrated.’"

Perhaps surprisingly, Jones does not believe in this approach. As he notes, "If we offer help to pedophiles, we might save children who might have been abused."

Why Understanding the Cause of Pedophilia Matters

If we take this approach, we need to establish—as for other mental disorders—whether pedophiles are a product of biology or environment. And as for such other disorders, increasingly it seems that both nature and nurture play a role in the genesis of pedophilia.

Certainly, some people think the condition is primarily a product of defective biology. For instance, James Cantor, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, who uses magnetic resonance imaging to scan pedophiles’ brains, believes that "pedophilia is a sexual orientation; [it’s] something that we are essentially born with, does not appear to change over time, and it's as core to our being as any other sexual orientation is."

Cantor claims his studies show that the brains of pedophiles are wired differently to non-pedophiles. According to him, "It’s as if, in these people, when they perceive a child, it’s triggering the sexual instincts instead of triggering the nurturing instincts."

But we need to know whether any differences detected in scans of pedophiles’ brains are a cause of their behaviour, or its consequence. It is worth mentioning in this context a U.S. citizen who suddenly developed a sexual attraction towards children. This man, who was living with his second wife and his stepdaughter, became overcome by troubling urges.

He began collecting material focusing on pedophilia and making sexual advances towards his prepubescent stepdaughter. She told her mother, and the man was thrown out of the family home. However, at this point, he began experiencing violent headaches and loss of balance. Rushed to the hospital, a scan revealed that he was suffering from a brain tumour.

Amazingly, once this was surgically removed, the man’s headaches and balance problems disappeared, but so did his paedophilic urges. Seven months later, he completed a sexual offenders’ rehabilitation programme, and was allowed to return home to his wife and stepdaughter. But he became concerned when he again started to develop persistent headaches and a renewed interest in child pornography. The tumour that apparently had caused his pedophilia had returned. When it was removed, he was once again cured.

Scientists concluded that the tumour interfered with the orbitofrontal cortex, which helps to regulate social behaviour, and exacerbated the man’s pre-existing interest in pornography, "manifesting sexual deviancy and pedophilia." Clearly, pedophilia is not generally caused by brain tumours, but this case shows that brain biology should not be disregarded when seeking to explain why some individuals show such horrifying sexual urges.

The Role of Nurture in Pedophilia

At the same time, it seems that an individual’s environment, particularly when they themselves are still a child, can also have an important impact on whether they will later develop pedophilic urges. Sadly, evidence shows that many people who sexually abuse children were themselves abused as a child.

Take, for example, Nicholas, an Australian married father-of-four who admitted to being attracted to boys aged 12 to 14 in a 2016 report about pedophilia, but says he has never acted on his urges. According to Nicholas, "No-one chooses to be sexually attracted to children. And those of us who are unlucky enough to be sexually attracted to children can’t [make it go away]. But many of us can and do successfully resist our attraction."

Yet he knows what it is like to be a recipient of such abuse. At 12 years old, he was molested by a holiday camp counsellor. In fact, about half of child sex offenders were sexually abused as children.

It is important to note that the vast majority of sexual abuse victims do not grow up to become abusers. However, some scientists believe a biological predisposition to the condition, combined with the experience of being molested as a child, might lead to someone developing the condition as an adult. According to James Cantor, "It could be that biology causes pedophilia, but that environment makes a person more likely to act on that sexual interest and molest a child."

A common form that discussions about "nature vs. nurture" take is that biology and environment are separate, albeit able to produce a combined effect in an individual. However, the idea that human behaviour is determined either by biology, or social environment, or a simple addition of the two, is being challenged by new findings in epigenetics, a subject that a recent article in Nature claimed provides "a molecular middle ground in the centuries-old debate over nature versus nurture." And it seems that even our genomes are highly sensitive to our environment, which can include traumatic experiences.

So it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the respective roles of biology and environment in the genesis of a pedophile turn out to be highly complex and intertwined. Acknowledging this complexity is surely vital if we want to better understand how pedophilic urges arise in an individual and how we might recognise and prevent them before they ruin children’s lives.

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