In 1976, the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) — the respectable and responsible UK pressure group now known as Liberty — made a submission to the UK parliament’s Criminal Law Revision Committee. It barely caused a ripple.
“Childhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in with an adult result in no identifiable damage ... The real need is a change in the attitude which assumes that all cases of pedophilia result in lasting damage,” it read.
It is difficult today, after the public firestorm unleashed by revelations about Jimmy Savile and the host of child abuse allegations they have triggered, to imagine any mainstream group making such a claim. However, if it is shocking to realize how dramatically attitudes to pedophilia have changed in just three decades, it is even more surprising to discover how little agreement there is even now among those who are considered experts on the subject.
A liberal professor of psychology who studied in the late 1970s will see things very differently from someone working in child protection, or with convicted sex offenders. There is, astonishingly, not even a full academic consensus on whether consensual pedophilic relations necessarily cause harm.
So what do we know? A pedophile is someone who has a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children. Savile appears to have been primarily an ephebophile, defined as someone who has a similar preferential attraction to adolescents.
However, not all pedophiles are child molesters and vice versa: By no means does every pedophile acts on his impulses and many people who sexually abuse children are not exclusively or primarily sexually attracted to them. “True” pedophiles are estimated by some experts to account for only 20 percent of sexual abusers. Nor are pedophiles necessarily violent: no firm links have so far been established between pedophilia and aggressive or psychotic symptoms.
Psychologist Glenn Wilson, co-author of The Child-Lovers: A Study of Pedophiles in Society, argues that: “The majority of pedophiles, however socially inappropriate, seem to be gentle and rational.”
Needless to say, legal definitions of pedophilia have no truck with such niceties, focusing on the offense, not the offender. The UK’s Sex Offenders Act of 1997 defined pedophilia as a sexual relationship between an adult over 18 and a child below 16.
There is much more we do not know, including how many pedophiles there are. A widely accepted figure is between 1 percent and 2 percent of men, but Sarah Goode, author of two major sociological studies on pedophilia, says the best current estimate — based on possibly flawed science — is that “one in five of all adult men are, to some degree, capable of being sexually aroused by children.”
Even less is known about female pedophiles, thought to be responsible for maybe 5 percent of abuse against pre-pubescent children in the UK.
Debate also still rages about the clinical definition of pedophilia. Down the years, the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — “the psychiatrist’s bible” — has variously classified it as a sexual deviation, a sociopathic condition and a non-psychotic medical disorder.
Furthermore, few agree about what causes it. Is pedophilia innate or acquired? Research at the sexual behaviors clinic of Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health suggests a link to brain development. Magnetic resonance imaging scans reveal a possible issue with pedophiles’ “white matter” — the signals connecting different areas of the brain — meaning that pedophiles may be wired differently.