Pedophilia: Biology to Blame?
A girl comes to a supermarket along with her mother to buy groceries. After a while, she gets lost. A middle-aged man is also shopping there. The girl catches sight of him and he approaches her. He asks, “What’s the matter, my dear?” the stirrings of sexual excitement are slightly audible in his voice.
The middle-aged man is a pedophile. After 10 years behind bars for child molestation, Henry is trying to make a new life for himself. He has a new home, a decent job and has recently married. But the road to normal existence is almost impossible. It is really difficult for him to find salvation. Perhaps he should be permanently removed from society.
People usually don’t like to take chances with pedophiles—people who are sexually excited by children. The incidents of child abuse are increasing day by day. Yet not all adults who abuse children are pedophiles. Some of the abusers are not, in fact, especially attracted to children but target them because they are weaker than adults.
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. In 1886, German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing coined the term “pedophile” (from the Greek pais, meaning “child,”and philia, meaning “love” or “friendship”). Krafft-Ebing was also one of the first to separate the desire for children from the behavior of child abuse. In his then revolutionary work, Psychopathia Sexualis (Pyschopathy of Sex), Krafft-Ebing opined that sexually deviant thoughts were not criminal per se but should in some cases be seen as an illness.
Indeed, pedophilia is present in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM- IV). The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) defines pedophilia as a “disorder of adult personality and behaviour” in which there is a sexual preference for children of prepubertal or early pubertal age. Krafft-Ebing also pioneered a distinction between hard-core pedophiles—those whose fondness came to the fore at puberty—and other forms of child abuse in which children are used as substitutes for adults. These pedophiles turn to children later, after an adult relationship has failed.
Among the latter class are “situational molesters.” These people are usually incapable of having relationships with an equal—perhaps because of a mental disability—or may turn to children after experiencing disappointment or mortification in an adult relationship. Research into the causes and treatment of pedophilia remains somewhat disconnected. The main reason is that scientists who study and try to treat the condition are often acknowledged as supporters of illegal sexual acts against children rather than as people trying to understand and alleviate a psychiatric disorder.
Nevertheless, like other complex psychological traits, pedophilia is thought to stem from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In one such study in 2001, researchers at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine and University College, London found that abusers had themselves been victims of sexual violence considerably more often than the patients who had not committed sex abuse, suggesting a victim-to-perpetrator cycle in some men who commit sex crimes. Also, the victims who became molesters, the scientists reported in 2003, had also witnessed violence among family members. Such a hostile childhood can create a need to replace feelings of “defeat” with those of “accomplishment.”
Such men tend to identify strongly with the thought patterns and lives of children, a trait that often goes along with a lack of education and of self-esteem. In such cases of so-called emotional similarity, a man may feel happiest and most secure when he spends much of his time with children and may even act childish himself. Also, a research team led by Ray Blanchard of the University of Toronto found that the pedophiles were more likely than the others to have had accidents causing loss of consciousness before age six. That does not necessarily mean that the early brain trauma caused the pedophilia.
It is possible that pedophiles are more likely to have been born with brain defects that can lead to pedophilia and that also made them accident prone. In that instance, the brain injury would simply be incidental to the pedophilia and not a cause of it. Other brain-based abnormalities—such as attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—have been loosely associated with both pedophilia and being accident-prone. Pedophilic men have lower IQs, poorer scores on memory tests,greater rates of school grade failure over and above the IQ differences and lesser physical height.
Treatment for pedophilia typically involves a combination of talk therapy and medication. Freudian psychoanalysis involves bringing to light traumatic events and identity crises from a patient’s childhood so that such problems may be discussed and resolved. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, on the other hand, is subjected more practically toward helping patients identify—and avoid—the kinds of situations that may attract them to engage in harmful behaviors. Sex offenders who successfully complete a psychological treatment program are less likely to commit another offense, or if they do re-offend the crime is typically not sexual in nature, write University of Leicester, criminologist, Charlotte Bilby and psychologist Belinda Brooks-Gordon of the University of London, in a July 2006 review in the British Medical Journal.
For additional help in undermining pedophilia, doctors may also prescribe medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These drugs are typically used to treat depression, anxiety and compulsive disorders, but can sometimes help pedophiles control their sexual urges. SSRIs boost the amount of the messenger substance serotonin in the brain; this boost is thought to have a positive effect on a person’s emotional state. Other promising medications target the hormonal regulatory system that is governed by a duet of small regions at the base of the brain: the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland.
In one of their hormonal collaborations, the hypothalamus produces something called luteinizing hormone-releasing hormone (LHRH), which in turn causes the pituitary to release LH. LH then prompts the testes to produce and secrete the male sex hormone testosterone. Drugs such as leuprolide acetate can block this sequence of events and thus dramatically decrease testosterone production. But even then, the work is far from done. Most pedophiles must struggle to restrain their predilections for the rest of their lives.
- Abnormal Attraction- By Peer Briken, Andreas Hill and Wolfgang Berner- Scientific American Mind, February/March 2007
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