Is Paedophilia A New Sexual Orientation?


Trigger warning: this article discusses paedophilia

Recently, experts have claimed that paedophilia ought to be seen as a type of sexual orientation, just like hetero or homosexuality. But should it be seen in these terms and what are the implications of this new label?

The first issue, naturally, is if such a label is appropriate. By sexual orientation we mean ‘an enduring pattern of romantic or sexual attraction.’ The atypical trend has been to avoid giving paedophilia this label and refer to it as a psychological disorder. In 2013, however, Dr James Cantor (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) suggested that it is a ‘biologically rooted condition that does not change’ and effects 2% of men, suggesting that it is a natural condition that cannot be ‘cured’. In terms of LGBT+, the majority view has been to stress the natural-bias on sexual orientation, so homosexuality or asexuality are not seen as “choices” that an individual makes but rather  features of their personality. Thus, holding Cantor’s widely-accepted evidence and our standard 21st-century attitude to sexual orientation, paedophilia does stand as a sexual orientation.

So why does this matter? It means that paedophilia is no longer a choice, and cannot be treated medically or psychologically. But this leaves us locking away potential paedophiles because their threat to children and imposing medication on them to suppress (but not treat) their urges. This, seemingly, makes a paedophile look more like a victim of the system than a criminal, which is obviously problematic. We wouldn’t be locking them away in virtue of them having done something wrong, but rather in order to protect young children. Equally, in reforming them we would simply be ordering them not to act on their natural sexual impulses. We have to remember that fifty years ago the same attitude held to homosexuality. But because we hold on to notions of consent, we thus say paedophiles are wrong in their natural sexual construction. But if they have not chosen it and have not acted on it, have they really done anything wrong?

Perhaps there is a loop-hole here. We cannot say that attraction to children itself is immoral per se, but acting upon such an attraction is. Thus the fact that paedophiles make comments such as “We do not choose to be attracted to children, and we cannot make that attraction go away,” are irrelevant when considering the actual act of child abuse committed when a pedophile acts upon their desires.

This has two implications. The first is that society ought to no longer see sexual desire towards children as immoral or perverse. This may seem outlandish, but to do so would bear a fatal contradiction and injustice. Pedophilia is a biological attraction, and thus to object to its very occurrence is equal to objection to homosexual desires. To object to a person on the grounds of such a desire is to fatally misunderstand it and to unfairly subject and demean individuals. Furthermore, their admittance of their desire may help them to not act upon it. Non-abusive pedophilic desire is not wrong. The second is that we take a high ground on sexual desire. 98% of the population see their sexual desire as permissible to act upon, and stop the other 2%. This  is less worrying; there are plenty of desires we have that are deplored (the desire to smoke, for example). The only factor here is that if you have pedophilic desires exclusively you would have to abstain from sex. But this a fair price for child protection.

There are some serious issues to deal with now that paedophilia is being seen as type of sexual orientation. The law and society as a whole may need to re-evaluate exactly how we approach this taboo area of sex, especially by removing stigma from the simple having of (but not acting upon) paedophilic desire.


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I'm a third-year Philosophy and History student whose interests (outside my love for Tudor history) pertain to issues on equality, sex and moral ethics and education. I'm also Philosophy Academic President 2016-17. @russb005

Discussion3 Comments

  1. avatar

    An interesting article. The idea of a moral distinction between the impulse and the act will be familiar to anyone interested in sexual morality, but is something of which many people seem surprisingly ignorant. I am always pleased to see such rarefied truths getting an airing.

    I know that the moral nature of paedophilic sexual acts is not the main topic of the article, but it strikes me that when you say ‘because we hold on to notions of consent, we thus say paedophiles are wrong in their natural sexual construction,’ you do not argue that they are wrong in themselves, but only wrong by virtue of being non-consensual. If that is so, I have to ask whether you really believe that paedophilic sexual acts are necessarily non-consensual. You speak of ‘child protection’ as being a ‘fair price’ for paedophiles’ lifelong abstention from sex, but from what would consenting minors need ‘protection’, if consent is where the line is drawn? And if you believe that minors are incompetent to give consent, why? Children over the age of ten can be held responsible for their actions before a court of law. And if not according to ‘notions of consent,’ where and how *do* you draw the line?

    Another small point arises from the previous one. You say that the abstention of paedophiles from sex is ‘a fair price for child protection’. No doubt you will also be aware that a similar argument is used by those who say that homosexuals should abstain from sex, not for child protection but for moral reasons and/or the general social good. My question is—if it could be proved that a society in which homosexual desires went from being generally restrained to generally unrestrained became significantly negatively affected by such a change, would you then, by your own logic, also agree that the abstention of homosexuals from sex would be a ‘fair price’ for that society?

    As a final point, you say that the law ‘may need to re-evaluate exactly how we approach [paedophilia as an orientation]’. How do you suggest that the law change? Bringing the law into the mix seems an odd thing to do in an article mainly devoted to paedophilic sexual attraction, since I am quite sure that the law does not currently criminalise sexual attraction of any kind.

  2. avatar

    Footnote: In the middle of the second paragraph, you write, ‘In 2013, however, Dr James Cantor (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) suggested that it is a “biologically rooted condition that does not change”…’ The words ‘suggested that’ are a hyperlink to an article about Dr Cantor’s research. However, the quotation which follows this link does not appear in the article to which it links. In fact, it appears in another article (*link below). In its original context, it reads: ‘Now, many experts see it as a biologically rooted condition that does not change — like a sexual orientation — thanks largely to a decade of research by Dr. James Cantor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’. This might seem a small point, but the way the quotation is used in the article (right after ‘Dr James Cantor…suggests that’) strongly implies that it is a direct quotation from Dr Cantor, when it is not actually attributed to him at all. No doubt such an error is easy to make and easily rectifiable.


  3. avatar
    Bruno Russell

    Hi James,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

    For the purposes of this article, which of course at a limited word-count cannot fully explore everything, consent was taken to mean lawful consent, so aged 16. It thus becomes the case that paedophilic action is wrong because it cannot be consented too under this ruling (so its not ‘I say yes’ even if under the age of 14 but rather you cannot say yes if you are under the age of 16).

    Yes I would. But, as it stands, there is no ‘great price to pay’ for the acting out of homosexual desire (or, at least, the positives of acting it outweigh any effects). Whereas, in the peadophile case, the lack of consent is reason enough (i.e proection) for it not to be allowed. Of course, if morality, society and law started to not care or value child protection this would be different, but this would never (we can hope) be the case. But – of course – in the nineteenth/ early 20th century it was exactly the ‘effect on society’ argument that was often used against homosexuality being acted out (think Bentham!)

    So the law issue is a tricky one and hinges on what you think “acting” on those desires entails exactly. So in the law watching pre-prepared child pornography is acting on the desire (some agree, some disagree). The aim of this comment is to make people understand what is at play here: the “desire” is not something we choose to introduce, it is just there! So if we lock people up we should understand why and, for example, not aim to reform their desire (unless you think we can change people’s natural desires but I’m very sceptical to that claim).

    Sorry yes that is just a hyper-link error, I’ll make sure someone fixes that and links it to the right article. Good spot!

    I hope some of these comments have helped. Feel free to get back in contact if you want to discuss more.

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