Dr. James Cantor of CAMH has shown pedophilia is like a sexual orientation — a deep attraction that cannot change. Now, pedophiles who have never molested children are seeking social acceptance.
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Dr. James Cantor of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has spent the last decade on research suggesting that pedophilia is a deep-rooted, unchangeable predisposition.
Pedophilia has been widely viewed as a psychological disorder triggered by early childhood trauma.
Now, many experts see it as a biologically rooted condition that does not change — like a sexual orientation — thanks largely to a decade of research by Dr. James Cantor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Cantor’s team has found that pedophiles share a number of physical characteristics, including differences in brain wiring. It’s now thought that about 1 to 5 per cent of men are pedophiles, meaning they are primarily attracted to children.
These findings have been widely accepted among scientists, but have had little impact on social attitudes or law. However, we are left with the alarming question: if some men are born pedophiles, what should society do with them?
Bolstered by this research, pedophiles who have never molested children are seeking social acceptance.
‘We can resist’
Ethan Edwards has always loved little girls.
For years, he told himself his feelings were protective and loving, nothing more. But when he hit 50, he found he couldn’t stifle his desires any longer.
“I realized that young girls certainly took my breath away, more than grown-ups are usually charmed by kids,” he says.
Edwards, using a pseudonym, wrote about this realization on Virtuous Pedophiles, a website he co-founded for pedophiles who have never molested children. The group says their attraction is one they were born with and cannot change, but can control.
Edwards says the goal of Virtuous Pedophiles is to prevent child abuse, by reducing the stigma against non-offender pedophiles.
“We do not choose to be attracted to children, and we cannot make that attraction go away,” reads the website, which has about 200 members.
“But we can resist the temptation to abuse children sexually, and many of us present no danger to children whatsoever. Yet we are despised for having a sexual attraction that we did not choose, cannot change, and successfully resist.”
The biology of pedophiles
Sitting inside his office at the College St. research hospital, Cantor is surrounded by books on sexology and eccentric decor — a framed sign that reads “Data Is My Porn,” a throw pillow that spells “penis” in Braille.
Down the hall at the Kurt Freund Phallometric Lab, Cantor’s research team conducts experiments on convicted sex offenders. The men view nude images of children and adults of both sexes, while a device measures blood flow to their penises.
The method, called phallometry and invented by Freund in the 1950s, accurately measures sexual interests in 90 per cent of men, Cantor says.
“It’s the most obvious test in the world,” he says. “The procedure gives us a relative measure of how he reacts to the adult categories versus the child categories.”
His team has found that pedophiles share many physical characteristics. They are shorter, on average, than other men. They are three times more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous. Their IQs are about 10 to 15 points lower. Finally, they are more prone to childhood head injuries — which Cantor chalks up to a natural clumsiness.
These physical characteristics are determined before birth, so the explanation for pedophilia must be in part prenatal, Cantor says.
“It’s become harder and harder to explain pedophilia on just (early childhood events). It’s either purely biological or a mix of biological and experiential. But pure experience can’t explain these data.”
Cantor, an internationally respected clinical psychologist, has also conducted studies with sex offenders using MRIs. He has found they have less white matter — the connective tissue that carries messages to other parts of the brain — than other types of criminal offenders.
The evidence suggests pedophilia results from atypical wiring in the brain. Cantor calls it “cross-wiring”: the stimuli that usually evoke nurturing and protective reactions in adults is instead evoking sexual reactions in pedophiles.
Similar experiments are being conducted across the globe, most notably at Berlin’s Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine, but Cantor’s research has greatly influenced the view among researchers that pedophilia has a biological basis.
Pedophiles are thought to be overwhelmingly men. About a third of those men prefer boys, about a third prefer girls, and a third will be attracted to both.
Although female sex offenders exist, they are rare and it is more difficult to test their desires. Queen’s University sexologist Dr. Meredith Chiversconducted a similar genital-based test on women, but found, curiously, that females respond to everything — including images of bonobos copulating. (One theory is that during evolution, women developed this response as an automatic defence mechanism for rape.)
Some researchers disagree on whether the brain differences in pedophiles occurred before birth or in early development. Regardless, many are coming around to the view that pedophiles cannot be “cured” — but some can be stopped from molesting children.
Preventing child abuse
“Not all sex offenders who target children are pedophiles, and not all pedophiles are sex offenders,” says Dr. Michael Seto, a pedophilia expert and forensic researcher with the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group.
Seto, a former colleague of Cantor’s at CAMH, has found that only 50 to 60 per cent of convicted sex offenders are pedophiles. The rest have sexually abused children for reasons beyond attraction — personality disorders, chaotic households or violent impulses.
His research has focused on psychological traits shared by sex offenders, potentially providing insight into why some pedophiles molest children, while other “virtuous” pedophiles like Edwards are apparently able to control their urges.
Seto has found that sex offenders are much more likely to have a sexual abuse history than other types of criminal offenders. Certain traits, including impulsiveness, risk-taking behaviour, sexual preoccupation and lack of empathy, are also shared by sex offenders.
He has argued forcefully for pedophilia to be thought of as a sexual orientation — an idea he acknowledges is controversial, but hopes will actually help prevent child abuse.
“Right now, it’s really slanted so that the treatment services are for people who have gotten into trouble,” he says. “Obviously, we need that, but I think where there is a big gap is in terms of prevention. How do we reach people who are sexually attracted to children and are aware of it?”
One of the concerns with labelling pedophilia a sexual orientation is the potential for parallels to be drawn with homosexuality. Seto is quick to point out the difference between orientation based on age, and orientation based on gender.
However, if pedophilia was widely viewed as a sexual orientation, effective treatment could focus on self-regulation skills — avoiding acting on one’s urges — rather than trying in vain to change sexual preferences, he wrote in a research paper last year.
“Pedophiles will remain hidden if they continue to be hated and feared, which would impede efforts to better understand this sexual orientation and thereby prevent child sexual exploitation,” he wrote.
Mandatory reporting laws make it incredibly risky for pedophiles to tell therapists about their desires. In Canada, one is only required to report to the police if a specific child is at risk, but the laws can be misunderstood by mental health professionals, says Seto.
The Harper government recently announced tougher measures against child predators, including a public sex offender registry. Seto says this is misguided, given that the recidivism rate for convicted sex offenders is actually quite low, at about 10 to 15 per cent.
“One of the worries would be that would further drive individuals underground,” he says. “It could also lead to problems that decrease the likelihood they can successfully be integrated.”
Ironically, Cantor says the idea that pedophiles are born, not made, can be used to support opposing political views — some will say “lock ’em up and throw away the key,” while others will call for sympathy and therapy.
Cantor often receives emails from distraught men seeking guidance on controlling their desires. The side effect of strict mandatory reporting laws is that people don’t come in for help, he says.
Pedophiles among us
To the unassuming onlooker, Ethan Edwards leads an ordinary life in Pennsylvania. He is in his mid-50s and works as a software developer. He was married for more than a decade and raised three daughters. He is well-respected in his community.
But Edwards harbours a secret that, if exposed, threatens his entire livelihood and reputation. He is attracted to girls as young as 4 — and although he says he has never molested a child, his desire is enough to make him a monster in most people’s eyes.
“For me, the biggest problem with this is the isolation,” he says in an interview over Google Chat. “Everyone else thinks I’m sick and dangerous. Well, not everyone, but most of society.”
Edwards is actually a rarity among pedophiles, in that he managed to suppress his desires until he was middle-aged. Most pedophiles become aware of their urges at puberty or by the time they are young adults; many will describe their desires as romantic, not just sexual.
He is also able to maintain relationships with adult women — he says he was attracted to his wife while they were married. Perhaps surprisingly to some, he says he was never attracted to his daughters, citing an innate repulsion to incest.
Even now that he has accepted he is attracted to children, he swears that he will never act on his urges.
“I think it’s because my protective instinct towards children is so strong,” he says.
Edwards says he has never seen any child pornography. Instead he looks at seemingly innocuous photos of children — almost always wearing clothes, at least bathing suits. Cantor calls it “victimless,” although some might dispute that.
He launched his website with Nick Devin, also a middle-aged professional using a pseudonym, after meeting him on another support group, b4uact.org. Both felt sex with children was inherently wrong, and they wanted to create a website for other pedophiles with that view.
On Virtuous Pedophiles’s “First Words” page, pedophiles — many of them teenagers or young adults — describe their relief at finding the group.
“I am in my late 20s and have been dealing with unwanted attraction to young boys since I was a teenager,” writes one member. “Though I have never acted on these attractions with anyone, this is my primary sexual attraction, and it bothers me greatly. I have considered suicide many times.”
Many pedophiles online do not share the viewpoint of Edwards and Devin.
On some sites, anonymous writers advocate for lowering the age of consent.
“It should be clear to anyone with any grey matter that pedophilia is just another oppressed sexual orientation or interest, and age doesn’t somehow magically make consensual sex between two people into something evil,” writes one user.
Another writes: “Nobody will ever quite understand the pain that we feel . . . seeing and longing for something we love but cannot have . . . and if we reach for it . . . we are accused of being sadistic monsters who only want to hurt kids. It will not last forever. Things will change.”
Edwards says he is disturbed by the activists that are “pro-contact” and hopes that young, struggling pedophiles find his group first.