Many, many times our knowledge of something is incomplete. When that happens, we avoid taking an action when we would do so with that knowledge we are missing. We can also take action when we would not do so with that knowledge we lack. Worse, we can take action based entirely on how we feel, which can lead to disastrous consequences.
So how does that play out in the case of child sexual abuse, pedophiles, and pedophilia? I am going to run with two scenarios. There are more, but I think two are sufficient to make my point about pedophiles.
So, a male friend comes to you and tells you that they are a pedophile, that they have sexual attractions to children. To you, a pedophile is someone who molests children. You ask him who the victim was. He says there was no victim. You are baffled, because a pedophile is someone that molests children. The conversation ends, rather awkwardly.
The scene rubs you the wrong way, so you ask some people about it. They tell you the guy always seemed creepy, and so you call the police and tell the police what he told you. You know this guy is always hanging out with this one kid, and after calling the police, you ask this one kid if the guy has ever touched him in an odd way. The kid says yes, he has. So the police come, you tell them what the child said, and the police interview the child. The child repeats that the guy has touched him in an odd way.
So the police arrest the guy, and the guy takes a plea deal and spends ten years on probation for molesting a child. Only… he does not finish his probation. His probation gets violated because he cannot find a job, and decides to talk to children anyway. He becomes sexual with one of them, and gets caught for molesting a child.
Very similar to the first scenario, a male friend tells you they have pedophilia, and they are a pedophile because they have pedophilia. You are shocked, and you want to know what pedophilia is, because it sort of sounded like he was emphasizing the fact that he had pedophilia.
So you pull out your phone, and you look up what pedophilia is, and you see on Wikipedia that it is:
A psychiatric disorder in which an adult or older adolescent experiences a primary or exclusive attraction to prepubescent children.
You go on to read that:
In popular usage, the word pedophilia is often applied to any sexual interest in children or the act of child sexual abuse. This use conflates the sexual attraction to prepubescent children with the act of child sexual abuse, and fails to distinguish between attraction to prepubescent and pubescent or post-pubescent minors. Researchers recommend that these imprecise uses be avoided because although people who commit child sexual abuse sometimes exhibit the disorder, child sexual abuse offenders are not pedophiles unless they have a primary or exclusive interest in prepubescent children, and the literature indicates the existence of pedophiles who do not molest children.
You sort through the academic gobbledegook and look up what sorts of sexual therapists there are in your area, and tell your friend… you are sorry he is facing that disorder, and you want to help however you can. You understand that a disorder is something that people do not choose and cannot help, and you want to be there for your buddy.
What Just Happened There?
What you just witnessed are two very different reactions to something that is really not very common: Someone telling you that they are a pedophile. Obviously in the first scenario, there is no attempt to verify what they are saying, there is just the assumption of what a pedophile is, and the inability of the pedophile in question to explain what they mean. Maybe they are a teenager, maybe they just do not have the words. But regardless, they now have to face stigma and hate for the rest of their life because an assumption was made, and it snowballed from there… and eventually a child was harmed.
That first scenario can play out any number of ways to come to that conclusion of a child being abused. Maybe instead of the police, the person tells someone who then blabs it to everyone they know, and then it goes on Facebook… and then his life is ruined because no one will hire him, no one will house him, and he eventually turns to children to cope with his stress. Regardless of how the pedophile goes from telling their secret to being under a tremendous amount of stress, that pressure needs an outlet, and there is the chance that the outlet becomes directed at children rather than themselves.
While many times this stress is indeed directed inwards (alcohol abuse, drug abuse, depression, anxiety, lack of friends… etc), it can sometimes be directed to others… and that becomes risky. It can be directed at children, or it could impact children by viewing images or videos where they are being sexually abused.
The second scenario… I fooled you. See, I set it up in a way that makes it seem like the friend did the right thing by looking up the term- which they did. However, they still found wrong information. While it is noted briefly in Wikipedia, pedophilia and pedophilic disorder are treated as two different things, and both are indeed separate from child sexual abuse.
Child sexual abuse is certainly an atrocity. But by knowing the difference between child sexual abuse, pedophilia, and pedophilic disorder, we can know how to react to each situation so that we can treat people in the best possible way. By knowing the essential information that can make all the difference in the world, we can ensure that we react properly to what we are being told… and correct others when they do not use the proper words to communicate what they mean.
But If Stress Can Be Directed Outwardly, Then…
Exactly: Not all child sexual abuse is perpetrated by pedophiles. It means that some people, who have never felt an attraction towards children in their life, can sexually abuse them. And this happens: In fact, it is more frequent than child sexual abuse that is perpetrated by pedophiles. One-third of sexual abuse is perpetrated by pedophiles, and two-thirds are perpetrated mainly by heterosexuals. So if we are to blindly judge sexual feelings as being a threat to children, then we must pin the blame firmly on heterosexuals, who make up two-thirds of abusers. See where blaming sexual abuse on sexual feelings leads? Nowhere in a hurry. So now what?
Child Sexual Abuse Is About Power, Control, And Self-Deception
If child sexual abuse were about feeling pleasurably about being sexual with a child… we would expect rates of child sexual abuse to be much higher than they actually are. We know from researchers and therapists that the number of motivations and the full explanation for those motivations for child sexual abuse are vast enough to fill a fairly dense book. Even one of the best researchers in the field, Elizabeth Letourneau, was only able to narrow down the motivations for juveniles who sexually abuse children… into 19 basic items.
A list of 19 motivations is not simple to comprehend, and that is just the motivations for juvenile sexual abusers. Dr. David Finkelhor outlined a process by which someone breaks down the barriers to being sexual with a child into four basic steps, and his process is not simple either. Suffice it to say that grooming is just as much about breaking down the reluctance of the abuser as it is about the reluctance of the child.
The Best Way To Intervene
The best way to stop child sexual abuse, and intervene, is to act before the abuse happens. Some organizations advocate knowing the signs of grooming. Others focus on looking at the behavior of adults or older youth. Regardless, the focus needs to be on ensuring that those facing a significant amount of stress have the ability to handle it without taking it out on other people. We need to ensure that they have healthy self-care habits. This is true for people who react outwardly and those who react inwardly: If we can teach them how to manage the intense feelings that they are facing in a healthy way, then child sexual abuse and a variety of other ills can be reduced greatly.
Mental health is just as important as physical health.