It’s becoming increasingly common nowadays to pick up a newspaper and read a headline about a ‘monstrous paedophile’ who has committed the latest chilling sexual offense against a child. It’s also difficult to avoid being confronted by justice campaigns or politicians using these examples of evidence to promote ever more punitive responses to the issue of sexual offending. Inherent in this struggle is the conflating of two distinct (though related) groups: child molesters (who commit sexual offences against children) and paedophiles (who have a sexual attraction towards children but who may or may not act on these interests). In confusing these two groups, media outlets (1) do a disservice to those non-offending paedophiles who actively live each day with the intention to not act on their sexual interests, and (2) perhaps unknowingly undermine academic and practical efforts to prevent the sexual abuse of children.
It seems like such a simple idea, how you evaluate something, in part, determines your behavior towards that ‘something’. For example, people who think coffee is delicious, probably tend to drink more coffee than people who think coffee is disgusting. Social psychology theory and research support this idea; evaluations, in part, predict behavior. Empirical evidence suggests this is true whether the evaluations are immediate (implicit evaluations) or deliberative (explicit evaluations), and that both the automatic and deliberative evaluations are important in understanding behavior. From this research, Dr. Kevin Nunes, myself, and our colleagues hypothesized that how someone evaluates sexual aggression would predict, in part whether or not they would engage in sexually aggressive behavior.
Books are expensive. However, it’s tough to navigate a career in forensic psychology without any hard-copy reference materials and relying on journal articles alone. I recently noticed that my rare expenditure on books (I am neither senior enough nor expert enough to be inundated with freebies!) has shifted away from ‘topic’ books and further towards ‘methods’ books. Given that many students have only a limited budget to allocate to books, here are a few recommendations from my own experience on where you might want to invest as your career progresses.
If I were to ask the question, “what are some markers of early development experiences that might be linked to the development of pedophilic interests?” I doubt most people would suggest “physical height”. But to the contrary, pedophilic sex offenders are, on average, 1.7cm shorter than other groups of people (for example, other sex offender groups, non-offenders). A more recent study by Fazio and colleagues found pedophilic offenders to be 3.09cm shorter than non-pedophilic offenders.
“By focusing the majority of preventative efforts on uncommon predation scenarios, current policies fail to adequately protect children, and society at large, from more common sexual offenses.” (Mesler et al., 2016; pp. 220).
Sensational offences, although horrendous and worthy of concerns, are not representative of the majority of sexual offences committed in the world. Why should we care about this statement? Recently, Julia Mesler, George Anderson, and Cynthia Calkins published a chapter in Advances in Psychology and Law (Volume 1) on sexual offender policy (available here). They propose that public misconception about the majority of individuals who have committed sexual offences is one of the driving forces behind public policies that do more harm than good in terms of public safety.
The causes of sexual abuse by fathers toward their children are not well understood. Factors related to family dynamics, such as parenting style, could be a useful explanation. More research is needed to understand how family dynamics may play a role in father-child incest.
The purpose of our research is to test explanations of why some men abuse their children. We are trying to find out if fathers who commit sex offences against their own children are different from fathers who do not commit such offences. Finding out more about these possible explanations for incest can help us to better understand the motivation behind these offences and, ultimately, how to reduce them through assessment and treatment.
While writing a review paper on non-offending pedophiles, some of the research I reviewed discussed a difficult aspect of having a sexual interest in children: the choice of whether to disclose a sexual interest in children to others or remain hidden. During interviews with researchers, pedophilic men described that making this choice was a struggle for them, that the decision to disclose or not was fraught with anxiety about the potential interpersonal and other consequences. Part of the struggle for these men was the fear that in disclosing their interests, others would end the relationship or at the very least, it would impact the relationship in a negative way. Indeed, if we were to imagine that a friend of ours, or a partner, or a family member disclosed to us they experienced a sexual and emotional attraction to children, I think the majority of us would struggle with this disclosure, even if the struggle was simply knowing how to support the person while maintaining our relationship with them.