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Pedophilia: Even Science Gets It Wrong

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A recent commentary in the journal Scientific American makes a number of assertions regarding pedophilia that are noteworthy -- not because they are insightful, but because they make such egregious assumptions about pedophilia.

First, the authors state "some researchers are pushing the public to see pedophilia as a psychological disorder that calls for study and treatment--for no less a reason than the safety of children worldwide. The idea is to separate this mental state from criminal acts of child abuse, because the two do not always go hand in hand." What scientific evidence, other than the APA's DSM calling it a mental disorder, is there that pedophilia is a mental disorder? Most people assume that such terrible conduct must mean that the offender is "sick in the head" because the behavior is so repulsive. But, of course, this is circular. There's lots of criminal actions that seem "sick" and yet few people believe that people who engage in such behaviors are mentally ill. What makes pedophilia special? Might it be Freud's enduring stain on our culture as I've argued elsewhere? And are we really interested in the mental state apart from the criminal act? Perhaps we should be, but as I've argued elsewhere we don't know much about pedophilia. Nonetheless, I'm not sure very many people are in interested in pedophilia from an abstract or scientific perspective.

Second, the authors state, "pedophilia is thought to stem from a combination of genetic and environmental ­factors." Really, where is the scientific evidence that pedophilia is a genetic disorder? I've never seen a single study reporting a genetic link with pedophilia. The authors mention a study by Dr. Fred Berlin at John Hopkins (who testified at the Jeffrey Dahmer trial claiming that Dahmer was insane and suffered from a "love sickness") who reported more pedophilia among the families of pedophiles than non-pedophiles. Need I even point out the obvious confounding factor of this study? Sexual abuse occurs much more frequently within families than outside of them and this fact is well known. The results more likely reflect access to children than any genetic link.

Third, the authors state there is a link between the frontal lobes and pedophilia. What they don't say, however, is that frontal lobe abnormalities are not specific. There's lots of studies claiming frontal lobe abnormalities for many behaviors. The notion is that since frontal lobes control executive functioning (i.e., planning) and damage to them is known to be associated with impulsive behavior, fMRIs and other brain studies that reveal any frontal lobe abnormality demonstrates a biological link between behavior X and the brain. But the issue isn't whether there is some frontal lobe abnormality, but whether such an abnormality is associated with the behavior in question (notice the damaged frontal lobes theory doesn't account for the pedophile's desires or thoughts, just his control of them).

Fourth, the authors posit that biology may be to blame for pedophilia. This comes from a single study where pedophiles claimed more accidents as children where they lost consciousness. And what does this prove? Nothing. It is true that loss of consciousness places one at risk for brain injury. But the next step is to conduct a neurological examination to see if such damage, in fact, occurred. Without such hard evidence, one can only speculate as to whether there was some damage.

Fifth, the authors say that pedophiles who receive treatment are less likely to offend again. I'm all for treatment, but frankly, the evidence isn't that strong that treatment provides long-term rehabilitation. Since most pedophiles are not forthcoming with their behaviors, the only way we can accurately gauge recidivism is by re-conviction. Measures such as the Able screen and PPG are notoriously unreliable despite their widespread use.

Sixth, the authors state that drugs such as Prozac can be effective. Most studies suggest that antidepressants aren't that effective in pedophilia. Moreover, the offender must be relied upon to take such medicines everyday since reliable blood levels of such drugs do not exist. The authors briefly discuss the hormone medicines, such as Lupron. But these medicines have profoundly detrimental effects on a host of bodily systems. One can hardly imagine hormonal treatment being mandated for mothers who abuse drugs while pregnant to ensure they will not become pregnant again (even though doing drugs while pregnant arguably causes more severe damage to a child than pedophilia).

We are a society that wants answers to the pedophilia problem. Science feels this push and is desperately trying to find answers in a world where little research funds are available for this problem that the Supreme Court has concurred is a "mental abnormality" (Cf. Kansas v. Hendricks). But, the evidence simply isn't strong that pedophilia is a mental illness on par with schizophrenia or depression. Science has an obligation to be truthful about this simple fact.

1 Comment

Might the behavior in question (the urge to excuse criminal acts with junk science) "stem from a combination of genetic and environmental factors"? Or, is that behavior as volitional as downloading kiddie porn?

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