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Psychology of a paedophile: why are some people attracted to children?

Child sex offenders don’t have horns and tails. For the most part, they look and act like you and me. Shutterstock/JoeBakal

Psychology of a paedophile: why are some people attracted to children?

Having worked with police forces in Australia and the United Kingdom identifying those who sexually prey on children, people are always asking me how you can tell a paedophile from everyone else.

Well, I can tell you one thing – they don’t have horns and tails. They look and act like you and me. Except for one key difference: they’re sexually attracted to children.

What is a paedophile?

Paedophiles (as defined by the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) are individuals who are preferentially or solely sexually attracted to prepubescent children, generally 13 years or less.

There are distinct classifications for other attractions to children, depending on the developmental stage the adult is sexually attracted to. Those who find children on the cusp of puberty sexually attractive are known as “hebephiles”. “Ephebophiles” are individuals who are sexually attracted to children who have reached puberty.

Not all paedophiles are child sex offenders, and conversely not all child sex offenders are paedophiles. Some people who sexually abuse children are not preferentially attracted to children at all. The abuse is a matter of opportunity: the child is a sexual surrogate for an unavailable adult or the abuse represents a need to dominate and control another human being.

So, to de-muddy the water, I will restrict this discussion to those with an attraction to children: preferential child sex offenders.

How do people access children?

Almost 90% of sexually abused children are abused* by someone they know.

Of the remaining 10%, some are victimised as part of the sex trade, where children are bought and sold for cash. This was brought into the spotlight this week with the news that a Melbourne man allegedly travelled to Los Angeles to purchase a six-year-old boy for sex.

Sadly this is not unusual. INTERPOL (the world police) has noted a recent increase in people who travel abroad to sexually abuse children; a process known as “child sex tourism”.

Sex tourism has become the scourge of the 21st century as a result of increased and cheap world travel, and Australia has its fair share of sex tourists. Many people believe they won’t get caught if they travel to (often) developing countries to abuse children or that Australian laws don’t apply abroad. Wrong.

Any Australian travelling abroad to sexually abuse children will face the same charges as if they offended on home turf. The Federal Police are well aware of this sinister activity and have already successfully prosecuted a number of individuals under Child Sex Tourism laws.

Are they likely to re-offend?

When it comes to preferential – or fixated – child sex offenders, some don’t even realise what they are doing is wrong. They genuinely believe they are showing the children “love”.

Shocking as that may be to those who don’t share their sexual attraction to children, this is why one serial sex offender told me he offends. He understands that society deems what he did was wrong, but he can’t understand why this is the case.

Recidivism rates among child sex offenders are high. Around 17% of child sex offenders are likely to re-offend within two years. Those who truly believe they are not harming children through sexual contact are highly unlikely to be rehabilitated.

Governments have considered “chemical castration” – drugs to reduce the libido – as a sentencing option for judges in Australia. But this is already a voluntary option for offenders and we know it does not work. Often, child sex offenders are driven by a desire to dominate and control, not simply sexual desire.

So why do people sexually abuse children?

There are a number of potential reasons.

Some people who have been sexually abused as children will go on to become offenders. Studies suggest anywhere between 33% and 75% of child sex offenders report being sexually abused as children.*

The practical application of this information is that preventing child sexual abuse will reduce, but not eradicate, some occurrences later.

Then there are others who have not been abused as children but find children sexually attractive. Research suggests there may be a biological reason for this. Data published in Biology Letters found paedophiles’ brains are, in essence, wired to find immature faces attractive.

Improving our understanding of how paedophiles’ brains work will ultimately help identify those with a sexual interest in children, if not those who are willing and able to act on those urges.

How many child sex offenders are out there?

We have no idea how many people have a sexual preference for children.

One of the only ways we can gauge sexual interest in children is by plotting the ever-increasing number of websites that cater for sex offenders of all types, including child sex offenders, and those caught accessing child sexual abuse material.

To give you an idea, in 2015 INTERPOL’s collaborations with police forces all over the world had led to the arrest of more than 4,000 offenders who had accessed child sexual abuse images.

It is very hard to estimate the proportion of sex offenders in the general population, as few people admit to a sexual interest in children. One clinical researcher based a guestimate of around 2% on a European sample of male volunteers.

There is some hope clinicians may be able to help identify people with these inclinations through an analysis of brain function. Hopefully one day we may be able to understand the causation of inappropriate sexual desires towards children more readily, and prevent the cycle of abuse continuing.

Author Q&A: Xanthe Mallett will be answering reader questions tomorrow, May 26, between 1pm and 2pm AEST.


* Correction: The original article incorrectly said studies suggest anywhere between 33% and 75% of child sexual abuse victims will later become offenders. This has been corrected to say studies suggest anywhere between 33% and 75% of child sex offenders report being sexually abused as children.

The article also originally stated _90% of children are sexually abused by somebody they know, rather than 90% of sexually abused children._