The flexibility of pedophilic sexual interests

Ian McPhail

Can someone’s sexual interest in children decrease and their sexual interest in adults increase?  This sounds like a complicated and vital question that professionals in the business of treating sexual offenders should be asking themselves most mornings before they head to work.  Not surprisingly, this is a question that psychologists and psychiatrists have been preoccupied for a long time, with more modern examples emerging in the 1960s and 1970s.  However, more recently, a series of recent articles have dug into this complicated and thorny issue anew.  And perhaps even more interesting, this debate has spilled over into the media, with a recent radio broadcast in Canada featuring two of the main individuals in the recent debate speaking to the issue at hand: can we change pedophilic interests?

Given the importance of sexual interest in children in explaining why someone would want to engage in sexual acts with a child, one might expect multiple research studies published each year about how effective treatment is at modifying pedophilic interests and many active debates among professionals on how to best change this particular sexual interest.  In my review of the literature, this does not seem to be the case, and the recent round of debate is the first in some time.  In fact, it seems that we understand surprisingly little about whether sexual interest in children can be modified.

The therapeutic techniques that currently exist can be described as techniques to control arousal and manage sexual fantasies involving children. Indeed, the current clinical lore is that the most professionals can hope to do is help individuals with pedophilia to identify, understand, and manage (not change) their sexual interest in children in the hopes of not offending against a child.  (Clinical work focusing on managing sexual arousal uses behavioural techniques, such as olfactory aversion or reconditioning, with a degree of success.)  Given the state-of-the-science and where we are at clinically for treating pedophilia, this seems to be a completely reasonable position to take.  This position balances the oft competing goals of “no more victims” and not making unrealistic and harmful demands of pedophilic clients.

“It seems that we understand surprisingly little about whether sexual interest in children can be modified.”

A recent article by Michael Seto arguing that pedophilia may be considered a sexual orientation and James Cantor’s interview on the above mentioned radio broadcast typifies this position: pedophilia can be considered a sexual orientation and therapy is unlikely to alter the person’s underlying sexual attraction to children (managing arousal in everyday life becomes the goal of therapy).  To me, this represents an important shift in thinking about how to approach pedophilic individuals clinically and from a policy standpoint.  Starting from this position, a clinician is not attempting to change the pedophilic individual’s interest in children and further, replace this interest with an interest in consensual sex with adults.

Rather, the aim of therapy is to help a pedophilic individual cope with their life circumstances more successfully, cope with their sexual interest (or orientation, if we wish to adopt Seto’s argument), and manage their arousal to children in order to refrain from offending in the first place.  If this is indeed the case, the best mental health professionals can offer as direct intervention of pedophilic interests is the management of sexual arousal and coping with a pedophilic sexual orientation.

“The aim of therapy is to help a pedophilic individual cope with life circumstances, sexual interest, and manage their arousal to children in order to refrain from offending in the first place.”

One nagging thought is that there may be some interesting empirical unknowns that these arguments assume.  Given the current state of knowledge, pedophilia can be understood as a category of individual that are marked by an intense and enduring sexual attraction to children, this attraction being caused by a single or relatively limited set of causes (see this article by Schmidt and colleagues).  Alternatively, we may also think of pedophilia as covering a range of severity and chronicity of pedophilic interests (see this article by Mackaronis and colleagues).  To illustrate these points, an anecdote can be found in the stories of the pedophilic individuals that were interviewed for the radio broadcast I mentioned above.  These two individuals are both considered to have pedophilic interests, but these cases are different in terms of intensity of interest, chronicity of interest, and their lifestyles.  For example, one interviewee’s lifestyle revolves around children (e.g., he was employed as a children’s dance instructor), his attraction to children has existed since his early adolescent years, and he has had few, if any, romantic relationships with adults (interview time point 26:40).  In contrast, the other individual’s life does not revolve around children, his sexual interest in children arose in his early twenties after viewing child pornography, and he has successfully engaged in romantic relationships with adults (interview time point 1:25-16:00).

These two anecdotes suggest something about the difference in the features and age of onset of their pedophilic interests.  Recent research colleagues and I have conducted seems to suggest that certain individuals who have pedophilic sexual interests are socially and emotionally oriented, in addition to being sexually oriented, towards children.  While there is a minority of pedophilic individuals who do not show this pervasive pattern of being emotionally attracted to children.  I would suggest that this research captures the anecdotal phenomenon presented by the two individuals in the radio broadcast.  Also, some recently published research out of Germany suggests that the age of onset and exclusivity of pedophilic interests are related to the stability of a person’s interests in children over time.  That is, the earlier the age of onset and the more exclusive the interest, the more stable a person’s (self-reported) sexual interests.

“Recent research seems to suggest that certain individuals who have pedophilic sexual interests are socially and emotionally oriented, in addition to being sexually oriented, towards children.”

These findings, taken together and applied to the treatment of pedophilic interests (and research on the efficacy of such treatments), would suggest that in order to understand the effect of treatment, clinicians and researchers will need to account for three potential aspects of a person’s psychosexual functioning: age of onset of pedophilic interests, exclusivity of pedophilic interests, and social and emotional attraction toward children.

So it seems plausible that the idea that pedophilia is a sexual orientation to be managed rather than reduced might have a circumscribed applicability (e.g., to those with early onset and exclusive pedophilic interests). Specifically, there will be subset of individuals who are diagnosed as pedophilic who will need strategies to manage the arousal due to some potentially unchangeable cause of their interests and a pervasive orientation towards children.  However, as it currently stands, we have few scientific results to settle this point.

Which brings me back to the main idea I started with, this recent debate on the changeability of sexual interest in children.  The one thing I want to touch on in this post is that Müller and colleagues’ work is an important step in terms of sparking the debate.  Müller and colleagues’ research presents evidence that pedophilic individuals can reduce their arousal to children and increase arousal to adults.  And it was this research that sparked the recent debate I mentioned above.  However, the commentaries by James Cantor, Mike Bailey, and Martin Lalumière on the research by Müller and colleagues are spot on: there are too many flaws in the design of Müller and colleagues’ work to arrive at any firm conclusions on the treatability of pedophilia.  However, the value I see is that the three commentaries present vital information for anyone who is considering doing research evaluating treatment approaches to pedophilia.

Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2015, July 19). The flexibility of pedophilic sexual interests [Weblog post]. Retrieved from

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