nextgenforensic

Stigma and non-offending pedophiles

Ian McPhail

People who have pedophilic interests and do not act on these interests present a complex challenge to clinicians.  There is growing evidence that a pedophilic orientation is associated with pre-natal factors, suggesting this orientation may start with events present prior to birth.  On this blog, we were fortunate enough to have the co-founders of Virtuous Pedophiles write a post about the existence of non-offending pedophiles and some of the painful challenges these individuals face due to having a sexual orientation they did not choose.  As part of the shame and fear of disclosing pedophilic interests, some non-offending pedophiles do not make these disclosures, even to mental health professionals.  A consequence of not feeling safe to disclose a pedophilic orientation, these people are left to cope with and manage their sexual attractions on their own.  As a budding mental health professional, I find this state of affairs unacceptable.  There are a number of reasons why I am unsatisfied with this status quo, but one I find pressing and that research is beginning to examine with non-offending pedophiles is stigma.

Much of the stigma research to date arises out of the sociological tradition that traces back to Erving Goffman’s famous text on the topic.  In psychology, stigma research typically examines discrimination and stigmatizing attitudes directed toward visible minorities (such as different ethnic and racial groups) and groups with invisible ‘marks’, such as persons with mental illnesses and sexual minorities (gay men, lesbian women).  For most liberally-oriented people, it is unacceptable that ethnic minorities, persons with mental illness, or sexual minorities face discrimination due to these aspects of their identities.  Non-offending pedophiles have as part of their identity an invisible mark that, if known to others, would likely provoke rejection, anger, indignation, fear, and contempt.  This is the core of having a stigmatized identity.

Non-offending pedophiles have as part of their identity an invisible mark that, if known to others, would likely provoke rejection, anger, indignation, fear, and contempt.  This is the core of having a stigmatized identity.

Here’s what we current know about the stigma of pedophilia:

Research suggests that lay public theories of pedophilia include: beliefs that pedophilia is due to unusual relationships in childhood or inadequate coping with tough emotions; pedophilic individuals are seen as being evil or disgusting; that pedophilic individuals cannot control their urges and are dangerous for children; and that pedophilic individuals cannot be helped to avoid offending.

Compared with alcoholic and antisocial individuals, members of the public show more fear of and anger towards pedophilic individuals and express a desire for greater social distance from pedophilic individuals (this is a measure of discriminatory intent).

– On a somewhat more positive note, using the term sexual interest in children, as opposed to the terms pedophilia or pedophilic orientation, mitigates stigmatizing attitudes and discriminatory intent.

– As well, in response to a recent episode of This American Life that presented the story of an adolescent who has a sexual interest in children, people commenting on the show’s Facebook page tended to post supportive or positive comments as opposed to negative comments.

– These stigmatizing attitudes and beliefs have been found in the general public, but surely mental health professionals and trainees are tolerant and accepting?  As many as 95% of mental health professionals are unlikely to accept pedophilic individuals as patients and psychology trainees hold stigmatizing stereotypes about, have negative affective responses, and have discriminatory intent toward such individuals.

– The good news is that relatively brief anti-stigma training reduced all of these aspects of stigma directed toward pedophilic individuals in a group of psychology trainees.  So while mental health professionals may hold stigmatizing beliefs, there is evidence suggesting these can be changed with a bit of effort.

 The stigmatizing attitudes we hold towards non-offending pedophiles have a real impact on their lives.  I say this as bluntly as I can, since we are personally responsible for the attitudes we hold, how we share them with others, and how we use our attitudes and beliefs to guide our behaviour; we cannot shrug-off this responsibility onto others.  One of the main reasons that we have for checking our stigmatizing attitudes, advocating for a more nuanced view of non-offending pedophiles, doing research in this area, and treating non-offending pedophiles is that the experience of stigma-related stress is associated with negative mental health and social outcomes, some of which are risk factors for sexual offending.

 The stigmatizing attitudes we hold towards non-offending pedophiles have a real impact on their lives.

Non-offending pedophiles fear the stigma they face if they disclose their sexual interests.  The experience of stigma-related stress, caused by fear of discovery by others and the social distance that others maintain perceived by non-offending pedophiles, is associated with lower levels of positive coping and self-esteem and a higher fear of negative evaluation and social isolation.  Non-offending pedophiles report experiencing tension and fear about disclosing their sexual interest to others and that if they do disclose, they will lose friends or will be labelled as a “sicko”.  These fears may cause some non-offending pedophiles to isolate themselves, not pursue new friendships, and feel anxious or suspicious in existing social relationships.  These outcomes of stigma-related stress are particularly problematic, since social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for sexual offending.  Some non-offending pedophiles report using drugs and alcohol to cope with the stigma they face and fears of discovery.  Again, drug use and alcohol misuse is a well-known risk factor for sexual offending.

Some non-offending pedophiles report using drugs and alcohol to cope with the stigma they face and fears of discovery.  Again, drug use and alcohol misuse is a well-known risk factor for sexual offending.

To make this point clear, the experience of stigma is associated with higher levels of known risk factors for sexual offending, which suggests that stigma is potentially indirectly involved in increasing the risk that sexual offences occur.  Because of this potential path, I think stigma is a key consideration for understanding and treating non-offending pedophiles and why we should care about stigma research in this population.  If we want to prevent sexual offences against children, we need to take the impact of stigma on non-offending pedophiles seriously.

There is another aspect to stigma that has further ramifications for providing services to non-offending pedophiles.  Since I typically can’t resist being cheeky, this post contains an informal stigma “experiment”.  So let me directly ask, when reading through my sympathetic take on the plight of non-offending pedophiles, did you question what my angle was?  Were you suspicious of my agenda in mounting such a sympathetic defence?  Did negative thoughts about my character pop into your head?

If so, this process is called courtesy stigma: attributing stigmatizing beliefs to someone and engaging in discriminatory action due to someone associating themselves with a stigmatized group (see this recent review of stigma research for more details).  I will be honest and say that I was reticent about writing this post, since I have little doubt courtesy stigma exists for those who associate themselves with non-offending pedophiles, even in the role of concerned student or mental health professional.  Though, I do think the benefits of blogging and thinking about how to help non-offending pedophiles outweigh the downsides.

Cheekiness aside, clinicians that are hesitant about working with non-offending pedophiles, due to concerns about facing stigma themselves, is problematic.  If this is something that clinicians face or are worried about, not only is a fear of others’ reactions preventing non-offending pedophiles from seeking treatment, stigma is preventing the help from being available in the first place!

If we want to prevent sexual offences against children, we need to take the impact of stigma on non-offending pedophiles seriously.

The more I read about stigma, the more complex the issue becomes and the more avenues of research open up for concerned social scientists.  I think given the potential link between the experience of stigma and risk factors for sexual offending against children, if we are concerned about prevention, we will attempt to understand stigma facing non-offending pedophiles and how clinicians can work with these individuals to alleviate some of the negative consequences they face due to stigma.  This approach balances the desire to protect children from sexual abuse and a socially conscientious and compassionate approach to alleviating suffering by non-offending pedophiles.

Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2016, January 10). Stigma and non-offending pedophiles [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-cH.


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