Procrastinating about laziness: Sometimes we forget that deviant sexual interests are a bit complicated

Caoilte Ó Ciardha

I’m great at procrastinating, or rather; when I procrastinate I am very good at tricking myself into doing something useful. When my house is tidy, the people around me know I’m avoiding work. When I’ve actually gardened they know I’m avoiding something huge. Today, I’m trying something different – procrastinatory blogging! In admitting this I also apologise to those waiting for papers or journal reviews from me, and I apologise to my flatmates who might have reasonably expected a clean house to result from my latest bout of writer’s block. However, toiling as I am with a current piece of work and an impending deadline, I was reminded of an article that I wrote in similar circumstances.

I don’t know what it was about that paper that made it such a struggle: perhaps it was the fact that parts of it were written as I backpacked around South America – this sounds mysterious or pretentious depending on your point of view; in fact it is neither, it’s just impractical. Writing up for publication parts of my dissertation in Loki backpacker hostels in La Paz and Lima had two outcomes: 1) other backpackers referred to me as “Laptop” –hey Laptop, wanna beer? – and 2) my copy of Andy Field’s stats book still smells like hiking boots and Fernet Branca. No, I don’t think it was just the travelling that made the paper difficult; I think it was the fact that I was trying to distil the take-home message from my PhD into a theoretical paper that would have impact. Impact! It’s the word attached to all our labours as academics these days. Our work needs to be in high impact journals or have real world impact, because as you might learn if Hollywood ever produces a (painfully dull) remake of Scarface featuring a Brazilian citation cartel instead of a Cuban cocaine kingpin:  “first you get the impact, then you get the grants, then you get promoted”. But at the time, I wasn’t interested in impact as a vehicle for career advancement. Instead I reasoned that if I had spent four years on this dissertation, I had a responsibility to disseminate my conclusions.

In hindsight, giving the paper a cumbersome 20 word title was a poor way to ensure maximum readership – A theoretical framework for understanding deviant sexual interest and cognitive distortions as overlapping constructs contributing to sexual offending against children. It was too late that I learnt the formula for good academic paper titles – Something Snappy: Something Serious That Succinctly Describes the Content. But despite the poor title and an author whose name looks like a series of typos, several of my peers took note of the paper.

In the paper, I put forward a simple position. We tend to discuss sexual interest as if it was one mental process. In truth we probably all know that it is more complicated than that but it is often sufficient to adopt a simplified view. However, a somewhat lazy approach such as this may make that heuristic hard to shake when necessary.  If age-appropriate sexual interest is not a unitary construct from a cognitive point of view, then it is unlikely that deviant sexual interest is unitary either. As a result we may not expect complete agreement from different experimental measures of (deviant?) sexual interest as these measures may tap into different processes or structures that, combined, make up what we think of as sexual interest, sexual orientation, or sexual arousal. I do not say it in the paper, but it is worth thinking about the three concepts I’ve just mentioned. They are often used interchangeably in the literature, but they really are different things. Sexual interest refers to those things that capture our sexual attention. We may not be aware of them and we may never act on them, but on some level we notice them as sexually appetitive. Sexual orientation on the other hand is how we identify ourselves, and is therefore linked not just with our sexual interests but with our identities. As a result, they are the part of our sexual selves that we can classify and articulate. Sexual arousal, finally, typically refers to the physiological response to perceived or imagined appetitive material, though physiological arousal may of course occur in the absence of sexual appetite.  Once you start thinking like this, it becomes easier to see how sexual interests must be made up of different components in explicit and implicit memory, whether these are unconscious associations, automatic scripts for sexual interactions, or readily retrieved fantasies [read Ross Bartels examine fantasy and sexual offending in detail here]. Indeed this is exactly what Spiering and Everaerd argued in 2007. And from that it is logical to conclude that deviant sexual interest may be similarly organised, or indeed that for some individuals, only some cognitive components are compromised by deviance.

Stepping away from the lazy position of considering deviant sexual interest as cognitively unitary allows us to consider how other criminogenic constructs may overlap and interact with a multifaceted system of sexual interest. For example, cognitive distortions about the sexual intentions of children may be held within the automatic scripts for sexual interactions of an individual sexual offender. Alternatively, attitudes relating to sexual entitlement may lead an individual to process sexually salient material in a more objectifying way, thus potentially increasing their risk of sexual violence. Examining the conditions under which measures of sexual interest converge and diverge, and examining how attitudes, cognitive distortions, schematic associations, explicit memories etc. interact in an integrated framework of sexual interest-related cognition will allow for a much richer explanation of offending than simply measuring penile arousal to deviant material.

It was with this last thought in mind that I was excited to read the titles of two symposia at the forthcoming ATSA conference: a two-part symposium asking somewhat provocatively – Is phallometric testing a technique of the past? and another asking – What cognitions are we actually measuring? Why should we care? Perhaps we now have the tools at our disposal for a sophisticated examination of an integrated framework of sexual interests and the role of deviance and other criminogenic cognitions within it.


Suggested citation:
Ó Ciardha, C. (2014, September 17). Procrastinating about laziness: Sometimes we forget that deviant sexual interests are a bit complicated. [Weblog post]. Retrieved from


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