The term “pedophilia” (ped-uh-FIL-ee-uh) is derived from the Greek words for “child” and “love.” Pedophilia is an abnormal sexual behavior in which an adult prefers sexual encounters with children. Such a person is known as a pedophile. The term pedophile has medical and legal meanings. Medically, a pedophile is an adult who experiences sexual urges toward children who have not yet reached puberty; this person may or may not engage in the act of child sexual abuse. In law enforcement, the term usually refers to someone accused or convicted of sexual abuse involving a minor (below the age of legal consent).

Two Victims of Sexual Abuse

Twelve-year-old Valerie was at a family reunion where she met many relatives she had not seen in a long time. When she was walking alone down a narrow corridor, an uncle she hardly knew approached her. “Valerie,” he said. “Look how you have grown. Give me a hug!” She hugged him, but she was surprised that he did not let go when she thought he would. Next she felt him touching her low below her hips.

She yelled, “Stop it!” Then she ran to her parents. The uncle had drunk too much alcohol. When he sobered up, he was sorry for his actions. Although there were legal consequences for his actions, he would not be considered a pedophile by psychiatrists. This incident made him realize that he needed help with his alcoholism. He was even grateful that Valerie reported him.

What Is Pedophilia?

Pedophilia, which is referred to by psychiatrists as pedophilic disorder, is the deviant (abnormal) sexual interest in prepubescent * children by an adult over the age of 16. It is in a group of disorders called paraphilic disorders. According to the guidelines established by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the offender has to be at least five years older than the victim. The APA guidelines were revised in 2014 to consider mental health and legal issues related to the disorder. An isolated event, which is not part of a pattern of behavior, is not considered pedophilia. This distinction includes an adult who acts sexually toward a child while under the influence of alcohol or other psychoactive * drugs. The APA avoids classifying as pedophiles those persons who may have the predisposition for pedophilia but who are not likely to act out by initiating a sexual act with a child.

How Common Is Pedophilia?

Rates of pedophilia in the general population are difficult to determine. Numbers of reported sex acts against children necessarily differ from any estimate of how many people are predisposed to pedophilia. An estimate given in Time magazine (2002) was as low as 4 percent of the population, whereas Gordon Hall of the University of Oregon found up to 25 percent of the population has an inclination. Of course, these sources relied on different methods for evaluating someone as a pedophile. Being aroused by pedophilic stimuli does not indicate necessarily the urge to commit sexual abuse against children. In addition, only about half of adults who sexually abuse a child are considered pedophiles.

Who Becomes a Pedophile?

Some data regarding the nature of pedophiles comes from those who have been incarcerated for sexual offenses. Using this population introduces variables into the research. For this reason, findings tend to be disputed. Identifying who is most likely to be a pedophile is difficult to establish with any certainty. The causes of pedophilia are not fully understood. In the past, it was widely believed that most male pedophiles were victims of childhood sexual abuse themselves, but subsequent research found this to be true in only a small percentage of cases.

Research to determine causes or risk factors for pedophilia has been ongoing. This research seeks to describe common factors in the brain, thinking, and behavioral traits of pedophiles. Some results suggest that lower IQ, school failure, and childhood head injuries resulting in loss of consciousness were common traits. Research sponsored by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research found evidence for a link between low IQ and pedophilia. The researchers divided data into three groups of offenders: non-sexual, sexual against adults, and sexual against children. The measured intelligence of the pedophiles was significantly lower than the IQ of other offenders. The researchers suggested that something in the offenders’ development contributed to both the low IQ and the pedophilia. These findings may be relevant only to the incarcerated pedophile, and they do not explain pedophiles among groups that tend to have normal or above average IQs.

Pedophiles commonly exhibit sociopathic * tendencies, impaired interpersonal functioning, increased introversion, and problems perceiving reality. Studies have shown that treating offenders with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) has had some success on reducing recidivism (relapse into criminal activity), which suggests that pedophilia could be associated with a disturbance in the neural system relating to impulse control. SSRIs often are used in treating impulsive shopping, aggression, and anger. A study reported by the APA found similarities in measured personality traits among pedophiles. These personality traits included defiance of authority and sexual deviance. But there are many people with these same personality measures who are not pedophiles.

Many pedophiles have a history of substance abuse. Although intoxication may facilitate the pedophile's acting on sexual urges against children, it is not the cause of pedophilia.

How Is Pedophilia Diagnosed and Treated?

A person can be diagnosed with pedophilia because of a long-term sexual interest in children; the person may or may not have committed an offense against a child. If the person is an offender, prescribed treatment would be negotiated so it does not interfere with court action by which the person is bound. Individuals who suspect they have pedophilic impulses can turn to a psychiatrist for a diagnosis.

Diagnosis Treatment

There are no reliable methods to cure pedophilia. Behavioral health professionals may rely on SSRIs and teaching the pedophile to control desires and impulses. If a person with the disorder is incarcerated, recommendations for treatment usually are made in collaboration with law enforcement in order to prevent further occurrence of child sexual abuse. Incarceration or public monitoring are common methods for preventing pedophiles from abusing children again.

Several approaches that combine behavior therapy * with medication have shown some success in deterring repeat offenses. Some therapy might involve drugs that suppress testosterone in men, with the goal of reducing the pedophile's sexual urges, but more research is needed on this approach. Classifying pedophilia as a disorder helps medical researchers conduct studies into new and improved treatments.

Can Pedophilia Be Prevented?

There are many therapists who believe that more people who have pedophilic disorder might volunteer for diagnosis and treatment if the social stigma was not so severe. A campaign to bring awareness of the types of support available might help prevent a young person from developing and acting on pedophilic urges. Unfortunately, the available help is limited, and the methods have not been fully validated.

The most important aim when dealing with pedophilia is preventing harm to children. Parents have to be aware of the many elaborate ways that sexual abusers use to get access to children and to obtain their trust. Children who are too young to understand how people can disguise their true intentions can be fooled in ways that their parents may not suspect. Once abuse has happened, many sexual abusers will use either direct threats or complex persuasive techniques to keep the child from reporting sexual abuse.

The Internet provides a pedophile with various ways to view pornography or communicate with young children. Children who assume they are chatting online with a peer may open up about personal issues, including clues that can be used to find the child in real life. Parents need to be aware of the contacts their children have online and be aware of and use solutions available for monitoring or controlling Internet use by their children.

See also Sexual Abuse • Sexual Disorders


Books and Articles

Dreger, Alice. “What Can Be Done about Pedophilia?” The Atlantic. August 26, 2013. (accessed March 21, 2016).

First, Michael B. “DSM-5 and Paraphilic Disorders.” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry Law 42 (2014): 191-201.

Kershnar, Stephen. Pedophilia and Adult-Child Sex: A Philosophical Analysis. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015.

Websites . “Pedophilia.” (accessed March 22, 2016).

WebMD. “What Is Pedophilia?” (accessed March 11, 2016).


American Psychiatric Association. 1000 Wilson Blvd., Suite 1825, Arlington, VA 22209. Telephone: 703-907-7300. Website: (accessed March 11, 2016).

American Psychological Association. 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Toll-free: 800-374-2721. Website: (accessed March 22, 2016).

* prebuscent refers to the time in life before a child or adolescent reaches puberty, which is physical sexual maturity, such as development of breasts in girls, and more mature testicles in boys.

* psychoactive (sy-ko-AK-tiv) means affecting a person's mood, behavior, perceptions, or consciousness.

* sociopathic, also called psychopathic, refers to mental instability or antisocial behavior.

* behavior therapy is a type of counseling that works to help people change their actions.

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)