Paedophilia is a clinical term for adults who are primarily sexually attracted to prepubertal children. The commonly cited Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes paedophilia as “the act or fantasy of engaging in sexual activity with prepubertal children as a repeatedly preferred or exclusive method of achieving sexual excitement . . . Isolated sexual acts with children do not warrant the [clinical] diagnosis of paedophilia”. The manual adds that a person who fits this diagnosis would have to be at least 16 years old and five years older than the child to whom their sexual fantasies are directed. Technically, only a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist could be expected to diagnose paedophilia.
Paedophiles may focus on either boys or girls, or have no gender preference. Not all paedophiles sexually abuse or harass children. Some may have fantasies about sex with children but they do not act them out with a child (although they may use child pornography). Others may abuse children in different ways, including non-physical sexual abuse and exploitation. While the wider society tends to regard the paedophile profile as that of a predatory stranger, it is more common for children who are abused by paedophiles to suffer this abuse within a familiar environment at the hands of family, friends, relatives or babysitters. Most clinically definable paedophiles are male; female paedophiles exist but are rare. Generally, paedophiles do not regard their sexual interaction with children as wrong.
Clinical paedophilia is diagnosed on the basis of persistent fantasies or sexual urges towards children. As a result, paedophilia in itself is not deemed a criminal offence, as it need not involve criminal sexual acts with children. Recent debates within the psychiatric and mental health community regarding the classification of paedophilia as a mental disorder have highlighted the fact that the term was evolved as a diagnostic category mainly for clinical and research purposes and therefore it does not meet criteria for use as a legal term. This means that sexual crimes committed by paedophiles against children are not legally referred to as paedophilia, as the term refers to the clinical condition of the offender and not the criminal offence.
Closely associated with paedophilia is the term ‘preferential abuser’, which refers to people who focus on pubescent children as sexual partners or objects. This kind of sexual preference is also regarded within medical circles as a personality disorder, otherwise known as hebephilia or ephebophilia.
Nevertheless, the term ‘paedophile’ is commonly applied in a more general sense to refer to all adult sexual attraction and sexual acts against children regardless of the physical maturity of a child (that is, whether or not a child is biologically prepubescent) and irrespective of the ‘clinically defined’ status of the abuser and the context in which the abuse occurs. This broadening of the clinical term beyond the biological focus has occurred in the context of international efforts to strengthen the protection of children through harmonisation of national laws and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as any person up to the age of 18.
Legal and law enforcement agents tend to blur the distinction between the sexual abuse of children by paedophiles and by non-paedophiles, treating all offenders convicted of sexual crimes against children as ‘paedophiles’ and also adopting a more socio-legal definition of ‘child’. Health-care professionals also commonly refer to preferential sexual abuse of children as paedophilia. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), for example, defines a paedophile as: “A significantly older person who prefers to have sex with persons who according to the law are children. His sexual fantasies are focused on children.” This definition highlights that legal and law-enforcement agents use the term to focus on the age of the victim and the behaviour of the abuser. Although paedophilia in itself is not usually deemed a criminal offence, it is often associated with crimes against children, including sexual abuse and pornography-related offences.
Paedophile involvement with child pornography ranges from using children to make it (either for individual consumption or wider commercial and non-commercial distribution) to employing it as part of a process of ‘grooming’ a child, whereby the abuser manipulates and coerces a child into sexual contact, lowering their inhibitions by introducing them to pornography. Pornography-sharing is a critical component of paedophile networks, membership of which presumably helps paedophiles to rationalise and normalise their understanding of their sexual preferences. (It should be noted, however, that not only paedophiles or even preferential abusers make and access child pornography.) These paedophile groups share information and, aside from dealing in pornography, may operate as organised international child abuse networks. New technology now plays a critical role in facilitating this sharing of pornography and information, while also providing committed paedophiles with access to more children via the Internet, especially through chatrooms that are popular with children. At the same time, the Internet is said to be playing a key role in encouraging an interest in child pornography among people who might not see themselves as having a specific interest in child sex. The relatively easy access to depictions of child abuse fuels sexual fantasies about children and is believed to play an important part in contributing to or reinforcing paedophile behaviour.
The misuse of terminology results in confusion about the profile of child sexual abusers, most of whom are not, technically speaking, paedophiles or even preferential abusers. The majority of child sex abusers are situational abusers. They are usually men who use a child for sex because the child is made available to them, most commonly through prostitution or within the family. The situational abuser does not usually have a specific sexual preference for children. Situational abusers are generally regarded as opportunistic and indiscriminate, though it may nevertheless be the case that they prefer as a sexual partner someone who fulfils socially defined ideals of beauty and sexuality, such as looking young and/or physically immature. Public perceptions of those labelled paedophiles as a marginal group of people who seek sex with children may, in fact, deflect attention from the increasing sexualisation of children, especially girls, in various cultures, as well as the prevalence of sexual abuse and exploitation among the general population.
The common link between all sexual abusers of children is that they have sexual encounters with a child or young person who is, or appears to be, vulnerable, immature and powerless. These encounters include the use of child pornography. As such, the terms paedophile or preferential abuser should be used very warily and in a way that does not shield the majority of child sexual abusers who are not defined as suffering from a clinical disorder.