Skip to main content

Do pedophiles deserve sympathy?

By James Cantor, Special to CNN
updated 10:32 PM EDT, Thu June 21, 2012
A convicted child molester on the roof of a prison in Dresden, Germany.
A convicted child molester on the roof of a prison in Dresden, Germany.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • James Cantor: In Sandusky case, a central element that has been overlooked is pedophilia
  • Cantor: One cannot choose to not be a pedophile, but one can choose to not be a child molester
  • He says recent studies suggest that biology plays a crucial role in sexual attraction
  • Cantor: We can help pedophiles by developing efforts aimed at counsel and prevention

Editor's note: James Cantor, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, is a psychologist and senior scientist at the Sexual Behaviors Clinic of the Center for Addiction and Mental Health. He is editor in chief of "Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment" and blogs at Sexology Today.

(CNN) -- One cannot choose to not be a pedophile, but one can choose to not be a child molester.

As details of the accusations of sexual abuse emerged from the Jerry Sandusky trial, and as the public looks on with horror, a central element to the case that has received scant attention is pedophilia itself.

"Pedophilia" was long used as a synonym for "child molestation," and both were often seen as psychological failures of self-control. Child molesters were thought to be acting out their own histories of abuses, reacting to fears of adult relationships, or manifesting a symptom that might be resolved in psychotherapy, after which they would no longer be pedophilic.

James Cantor
James Cantor

Recently, however, a number of studies have starting changing that view. It appears that one can be born with a brain predisposed to experience sexual arousal in response to children.

Pedophilic men have significantly less white matter, which is the connective tissue that is responsible for communication between different regions in the brain. Pedophiles perform more poorly on various tests of brain function, tend to be shorter in height and are three times more likely to be left-handed or ambidextrous (characteristics that are observable before birth). Although nonbiological features may yet turn up to be relevant, it is difficult, if not impossible, to explain the research findings without there being a strong role of biology.

Final defense witness is not Sandusky
Pivotal moments in Sandusky trial
Geragos: Sandusky could have a hung jury

No one has been able to find a way to change pedophiles into nonpedophiles. But that does not mean we cannot prevent child molestation. Sexual preference for children doesn't have to result in actual sexual behaviors toward children.

Cases of child molestation that involve long strings of victims over the course of years illustrate what can happen when someone gives in to, or outright indulges, his sexual interests, regardless of its potential damage on others. It is those cases that dominate headlines and provoke revulsion toward pedophiles.

But they are rare. An untold number of cases merit sympathy.

The science suggests that they are people who, through no fault of their own, were born with a sex drive that they must continuously resist, without exception, throughout their entire lives. Little if any assistance is ever available for them.

They are often unable to consult mental health professionals (because of mandatory reporting rules); their families will often disown rather than support them; and despite the openness of the Internet, there are few options for coming out and joining communities of other pedophiles for mutual support.

Having encountered thousands of cases, it is my experience that the pedophiles who do go on to become actual child molesters do so when they feel the most desperate. Yet, much of what society does has been to increase rather than decrease their desperation.

In the United States especially, the great majority of attention is on punitive measures, invoked after the fact. However, the more beneficial social policies may be those aimed at prevention.

The best example of this effort is the Prevention Project Dunkelfeld in Germany, supported financially by private donation. It began with a media campaign aimed at people struggling to resist their sexual interests to children. By offering counseling and other services, it is expected that they can remain offense-free. Hundreds of people contacted the Dunkelfeld project after it was established. People from all over the world, including Austria, Switzerland and England, turned to the assistance.

Another example is the Circles of Support and Accountability, which was developed in Canada. The programs are staffed by volunteers who have received training from professionals. They provide support to people who are under no mandate to attend but are nonetheless seeking help to not commit sexual offenses.

It's too early to tell whether these efforts are effective over the long term, but preliminary reports are encouraging.

Even though very few researchers study the causes of pedophilia, we hope that the scientific community will learn more as new tools and opportunities become available.

If it is the brain's wiring that ultimately determines who will go on to develop pedophilia, can we detect it early enough to interrupt the process? Until we uncover more information, we will do more good by making it easier for pedophiles to come in for help rather than force them into solitary secrecy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Cantor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT