Start Omhoog

[Scientific articles]

Social interactions among paedophiles

Pierre Tremblay, 2001
School of Criminology, University pf Montreal

Read "My Comments", by Robin Sharpe, 2003.


The purpose of this study is to explore the range and nature of social interactions among individuals who experience a sustained and compelling attraction towards young adolescents or prepubescent children of either sex. Such an attraction, of course, is prohibited and the target of extensive social controls, legal sanctions and therapeutic efforts. Given the widespread hostility they elicit, paedophiles are generally viewed not only as social outcasts but also as social isolates. This may explain the lack of research on the social networks of paedophiles .

Nonetheless, a non-trivial proportion of criminal prosecutions involve multiple co-defendants; a number of advocacy groups publicly challenge age of consent laws exist and provide favourable definitions of paedophilia; finally social learning theory typically emphasizes the influence of peer groups in maintaining high recidivism rates and the development of deviant careers. My substantive goal, here, is to analyze the variety of conditions that allow paedophiles to overcome their social isolation, seek each other out and become, as a result, embedded in a deviant quasi-community or social movement.

Data and method

The main data set, in this study, relies on the taped conversations I obtained from 19 subjects. About half (N=11) were currently serving their sentence in a Canadian federal prison (the "prison sample"). Another group of subjects (N=4), interviewed in my university office or at their place, were currently participating in a community relapse-prevention self-help group - L'Amorce - ("the institutional community sample").

Access and referral were provided by the psychological staff managing this program (sponsored and funded by the provincial government). In both cases, I had asked staff to refer me to individuals known to have had some past interactions with other paedophiles, and willing to talk about it to a university professor conducting an independent investigation on the topic.

The other participants interviewed were located by independent means (the "street sample"): two were located by way of an advertisement placed in an upbeat nightlife Montreal weekly ("Voir"); another was a personal acquaintance I had known as an undergraduate philosophy student; the last subject was a committed libertarian and writer that had publicly acknowledged his "right" to seek out sexual intimacy with young adolescents.

[... P]articipants in this study can be viewed as repeat offenders.


Variations in the known incidence and characteristics of age of consent offences are not appropriately measured unless one analyzes separately the incidence of paedophile and hebephile offences and seeks to understand the differential dynamics of juvenile male and female involvement in both types of offences. This exploratory research suggests, for example, that the degree of organization or density of interactions among offenders engaged in similar violation increase as a function of the age of the juveniles and their sex - hebephiles seeking male adolescents being the most socially organized domain of age of consent offences.

Documenting the significance of age of consent offences by scanning world-wide media reports on law-enforcement investigation agencies (a customary research procedure, e.g., Huges, 1999) does not necessarily provide useful insights for understanding variations in rates of age of consent offences because of the media’s emphasis on "worst cases".

Although a number of burglars rape their victims, it is doubtful that documenting patterns in burglary-rape cases would provide insights in accounting for variations in burglary rates. None of the subjects interviewed in this research (drawn mostly from a population of already serious repeat offenders) would qualify as violent offenders or as "worst cases". Yet they are probably quite representative of most individuals currently arrested and convicted by law enforcement for age of consent violations.

A distinctive argument in this paper is that non-instrumental or symbolic interactions among offenders are more important for certain kinds of offences (age of consent violations in particular) than for other offences (e.g., property crimes).

This is so because commitment to violate basic social norms requires that potential offenders acquire through personal contacts "favourable definitions" of their own behaviour.

Internet technology currently provides the organized means for social isolates to overcome natural, legal and social barriers. Because law enforcement agencies pursue practical goals (arresting individuals) web sites have mainly been understood as providing new instrumental opportunities for paedophiles or hebephiles to reach juveniles and commit (or attempt to commit) offences.

However, the most significant and long-term implication of this new mass medium of communication is that it allows individual paedophiles to participate in the development of an authentic subculture and "community" and to perceive themselves belonging to "a social movement". The obvious implication is that a stable forum for in-group intimate, albeit virtual, contacts between individuals normally trapped by an unshareable secret will have lasting effects on their commitment and ultimately on the incidence of age of consent offences.

Research on age of consent offences is mainly undertaken by psychologists and criminologists pursuing the practical concern of treating individuals, assessing their personal characteristics ("personality traits") and evaluating the impact of various options of "treatments".

Sociological research on aggregate patterns of age of consent violations over time and across countries and cities has not been viewed as policy-relevant. The perceived social encapsulation of many "sex offenders" has also discouraged research on paedophile and hebephile social networks (for exceptions, see Hanson and Scott, 1986).

Current opportunities for both instrumental and symbolic interactions among age of consent offenders may change this current focus. One implication of this investigation is that that perhaps more resources should be channelled to community relapse prevention programs. Another implication is that relapse prevention support groups should consider the possibility of taking advantage of existing Internet opportunities to expand their influence.

In this paper, I have avoided discussing the empirical or intellectual merits of "favourable" or "unfavourable" definitions (arguments) of sexual interactions between juveniles and adults and concentrated instead on analyzing behavioural interactions.

Moreover, I have refrained from participating in Web discussions and chat forums and did not undertake an analysis of relevant paedophilia sites. Nonetheless a sociological investigation of the current web-driven paedophilia subculture should increase our understanding of paedophiles and could provide a useful strategy for overcoming the inherent self-selection sampling biases shaping conventional clinical and correctional research. It could assess the extent to which this socialization process (individual deviants becoming embedded in a collective set of exchanges) affects not only their motivation to act out but also their ways of acting out and even their motivation to cease or reduce the frequency and the seriousness of their violations.

To the extent that age of consent offenders interact among themselves, they may learn from each other new "tricks" or discover new "opportunities" (an "enhancing effect"). But, at the same time, they may also define for themselves a new set of norms about the "appropriate" rules of courtship and about the appropriate settings for engaging in erotic interaction with juveniles ("a structuring effect").

Moreover, individuals engaging in age of consent offences may also realise that they are pursuing an altogether "impossible dream". As they persevere, they are likely to be disappointed by the juveniles that they have interacted with

(the theme of "betrayal" and the associated theme of the "unreliability" of juveniles were recurrent topics in our interviews).

They may also be disappointed by the callousness or insensitivity of other paedophiles they happen to exchange with (another recurrent theme).

As they attempt to actualize their attraction, the personal costs they impose on themselves and on their personal entourage (including the juveniles themselves), may trigger a self-reflection process that will commit them into abstinence. I have learned that much through my conversations with one of the subjects of this study (MC) who channelled his entrepreneurial and charismatic qualities in the creation of a relapse-prevention support group for individuals attracted to juveniles. Although co-ordinated by two devoted psychologists (who believed that "therapy" is basically a process of uncensored self-reflection), the impact of gifted individuals such as MC should also be analyzed more closely.

[Scientific articles]

Start Omhoog