Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation? A Psychologist Breaks Down What Makes a Jerry Sandusky

Posted by Cord Jefferson

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Society has long struggled to find the best way to manage and rehabilitate sex offenders. Never has that been more obvious than earlier this month, when Jerry Sandusky, a retired Penn State football coach, was arrested and charged with molesting boys for years while his colleagues ignored his actions. As America once again considers how to protect its children, a Canadian psychologist suggests a controversial new way to illuminate the problem.

Dr. Vernon Quinsey, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at Queen's University, testified before Canada's parliament in February that pedophilia should be considered a sexual orientation. Though you may think he's crazy, Quinsey is not alone. A growing number of medical professionals share his view, and they think it may help society finally fashion a worthwhile response to people who prey on children.

GOOD: First thing's first: What's the definition of a pedophile?

Vernon Quinsey: This is something some people tend to be quite confused about, and it's because they don't distinguish between sexual offenses against children and pedophilia. There are guys who commit offenses against children who are not pedophiles. Pedophilia is a clinical diagnostic term referring to people who actually prefer prepubescent children to adults for sexual partners. Not all guys who commit offenses against children are pedophiles. For instance, you could have a man who sleeps with a young teenager who tells him she's 21, and that would not be pedophilia. Pedophiles prefer children who do not have an adult body shape. One thing I'd also like to point out is that instances of pedophilia have dropped quite substantially over the past few decades, as have all sex offenses. That's something you'd probably not know from reading most media accounts.

GOOD: You're a member of a growing group of psychologists who say pedophilia should be considered a sexual orientation. Why?

Quinsey: Part of the definition of pedophilia is a person has a preference for a particular kind of partner. We measure this in the laboratory with a method we call phallometry, which allows us to measure changes in a man’s penile tumescence in response to visual stimuli or stories. While certainly not perfect, this is probably the best way we have of measuring male sexual interest. And pedophiles, unlike other men, show substantial sexual interest in prepubescent children. As far as we know—and many people have tried—these sexual interests are not modifiable by any method that’s been tried yet. So it appears like pedophilia is a sexual orientation. Because if you think of a sexual orientation like male heterosexuality, phallometric studies will show that male heterosexuals show substantially more interest in females than males. You also can’t modify that interest; it’s stable through adulthood, just like pedophilia.

GOOD: How does one become a pedophile? Is it something that happens in the womb? 

Quinsey: The short answer is we don’t know. There’s been very little genetic work done and almost no work done on intrauterine effects. We do know that the brains of pedophiles are different than those of other men. James Cantor, at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, has shown that. His work is probably the best on these brain structure differences. [Ed.: Click here to read about some of Cantor's work.]

GOOD: Are there female pedophiles?

Quinsey: There have been a few cases of female pedophiles reported throughout history, but the number is very, very low, to the point that it's not clear they exist in nature.

GOOD: Assuming pedophiles are hardwired this way, is it a fool’s errand to try and rehabilitate them?

Quinsey: As far as we know there is no cure for pedophilia, but people can learn to control their urges, they can avoid high-risk situations. The evidence of treatability—that is that clinicians can lower the likelihood these guys will reoffend—is controversial. If you look at the field as a whole, there is no consensus on how effective these programs are at helping these guys control their urges. From the social policy side, you have to do something. And one of the things we can do—and do quite well, in fact—is to assess the risk that pedophiles have of reoffending. And that risk varies substantially. Some guys are very likely to reoffend and some guys are not, and we can measure that. So that gives us a tool that allows us to determine what kind of supervision people might require to avoid reoffending, and how much attention we should pay to their risk.

GOOD: It's a biological imperative for people to have sex. How can pedophiles do that without harming society?

Quinsey: There are lots of people who don’t have sex. They masturbate, they watch pornographic material. There are sexual outlets that don’t involve partners. But there is no quick fix for any of this. There are no easy answers. People talk about chemical castrating pedophiles a lot, but the evidence about chemical castration is not particularly encouraging. There are miserable side-effects. Pedophiles don’t like to take the castration drugs, and if a pedophile is particularly high-risk, you need to guarantee he’s going to take those drugs. That raises all sorts of ethical issues. The important issue for people to grasp is that the treatment and management of pedophiles is very much a work in progress, and it’s something that requires funding and people to do work. Because it’s not just going to go away.

GOOD: Do you think there's a case to be made for allowing pedophiles pornographic drawings of children in the hope that they can find release in those instead of harming real kids?

Quinsey: Good question. I doubt it could be tried because there are laws against it. People would also worry about whether it might encourage this behavior.

GOOD: If pedophiles' preferences can't be altered, it would seem that putting them in jail isn't going to change their behavior the way it might, say, a bank robber. Do you think pedophiles should be imprisoned?

Quinsey: It depends on how high-risk they are. If they are high-risk, then society does need some degree of protection, and that can be provided by some kind of an environment where they don’t have access to the community. But that doesn't necessarily mean jail. And in some cases pedophiles can be let back into the community and managed with some supervision. [Ed.: Read more on new approaches to supervising offenders.]

GOOD: Having pedophiles in the neighborhood is something that's difficult for a lot of people to stomach.

Quinsey: Of course. In that way, pedophiles are like a lot of other individuals who are high-risk: People don’t want to live beside them. Which is why pedophiles inevitably end up in neighborhoods that are less well-organized. That’s probably not a very healthy situation, because then it becomes easier for pedophiles to fall under the radar.

GOOD: Knowing all that you know, would you want a pedophile living in your neighborhood?

Quinsey: I think all citizens have to accept a certain amount of risk to function normally in society. We can’t be perfectly safe, and the fact is that I actually do live in a neighborhood with several halfway houses, some of which are home to guys who have been convicted of attacks on children. There isn’t really much alternative. People have to live somewhere. What you want is for anyone with a criminal history, not just pedophiles, to have decent housing and good supervision. When they get that it’s better for everyone.