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What Science Reveals About Pedophilia

| December 7, 2011 at 08:32 am

Parental Child Abduction 7As high-profile pedophilia cases rivet the nation, psychiatrists uncover fascinating new details about the mental illness, from how offenders justify abuse to striking patterns in brain scans.

Amid the past month’s disturbing revelations about child sexual abuse at Penn State and Syracuse—and the debates over morality and complicity and punishment—it can be easy to forget that pedophilia is a mental illness, and that legally, it only becomes a crime when acted upon. Yet the key to preventing and treating the disorder may lie in its clinical details.Among psychiatrists, views on pedophilia differ. Some researchers liken it to an addiction, others to sexual orientation; still others put their faith in brain scans.

Yet pedophilia is consistent in the criteria that define it: erotic desire directed wholly or partially towards pre-pubescent children, typically under the age of thirteen.

And for reasons not definitively established, there are undeniably more male than female pedophiles; by some estimates, men perpetrate as many as 94 percent of sexual offenses against children.

Studying the disorder is complicated by the fact that, in the U.S., laws that went into effect in the 1990s require therapists and physicians to report to child protective services (and other authorities that vary by state) anyone they believe poses a threat to a child. The legislation trumps patient-doctor confidentiality in these circumstances.

Since reporting a potential pedophile results in legal action, the law has deterred many pedophiles from voluntarily seeking psychiatric help—which troubles some researchers, since the disorder can be easier to prevent than treat.

As a result, almost all research on pedophiles is based on convicted sex offenders—those who have already acted on their desires—most of whom are or have been in prison. As Judith Herman, a psychologist who works with abused children at the Victims of Violence clinic in Boston told The Daily Beast in an e-mail: “Truthfully, I don’t think the psychiatric profession has much of a clue about pedophiles.

Most studies are based on…the 5 percent who get caught—a very unrepresentative group.” In other words, most pedophilia research subjects are outliers.

Still, a small community of psychiatrists is working to better understand the disorder—work that could ultimately help to prevent the kind of suffering we’ve recently come to hear all too much about.

Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist and director of the sexual behavior unit at Johns Hopkins, is one of the country’s best known and respected researchers on pedophilia. In his view, knee-jerk moral condemnation is beside the point.

“We don’t know why we experience the sexual desires that we do. For so long, we’ve looked at it as if it’s simply a moral issue—people are supposed to have certain attractions—and often society said if you experience a different kind of sexual temptation or feelings, you’re not as morally worthy a person,” he said.

“It’s not someone’s fault they have the condition, but it is their responsibility to do something about it. Telling me that someone has pedophilia is like someone saying about me that I’m heterosexual. It doesn’t tell you whether I’m kind or cruel, introverted or extroverted, caring or not caring, intelligent or not intelligent.”

Berlin stresses the diversity of the pedophiles he’s worked with. “There are people with pedophilia that are often in denial, the way some alcoholics deny having a drinking problem,” he said. “There are some who believe that society should change, and that we shouldn’t insist that they not act on their attractions. In my experience, that’s been a minority.

There are others who are desperately looking for help to try and make sure they stay in control, and many of them are very pleased to learn that there’s a medicine that might help.”

Indeed, one of the few treatments these patients can seek out is medication that lowers testosterone levels, to blunt the intensity of the erotic desire. Clinicians also sometimes prescribe anti-depressants, both to address co-existing psychiatric problems and for the common side effect of lowering sex drive. They also often recommend psychotherapy that involves cognitive-behavioral methods, to challenge patients’ skewed belief systems.

Judith Becker, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Arizona—who has evaluated more than a thousand pedophiles—conducts this kind of therapy.

She commonly asks her patients to consider how old they felt when they were engaging in sexual acts with kids. For some, she says, this question has been an “aha moment,” helping them realize that, in their involvement with children, they’ve actually regarded themselves as being of the same age as their victims.

During these encounters, Becker said, it’s as if they slipped back to a much earlier phase in their own development—or perhaps never graduated beyond it in the first place.

Source: The Daily Beast

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