Keywords: Pedophilia


Yuill, Richard, & Evans David T.; Jan 01 2006
Type of WorkEncyclopedia Extract

Extract from: Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (vol 7) 2006, p3385

Pedophilia's significance in late modernity rests on its unconventionality, an extreme symbol of sexual decadence threatening "moral" communities and nation-states.

Over the past 25 years, pedophilia has mostly been formulated through political campaigns, professional etiologies, and media-led local "moral panics," notably in the campaign for "Megan's Law."

Pedophilia was coined by Krafft-Ebing in Psychopathia Sexualis (1892), defining a range of desires and practices associated with adult sexual attraction to children.

Contemporary definitions vary from medical psychiatry stressing pathological and behavioral attributes to social policy disciplines emphasizing multi-factor personality, familial, and cultural explanations.

Subsequent clinical refinements have included Hirschfeld's hebophilia (1906) and Glueck's ephebophilia (1955), specifying adult sexual attraction to pubertal and post-pubertal young people.

Historical and cross-cultural studies highlight contrasting non-western cartographies of adult-child sexual practices, including

  • adult male (erastes)-youth (eromenos) relationships in classical Greece;
  • insemination "rites of passage" in African and Melanesian tribal communities;
  • widespread cultural expressions of pederastic desire in the Near, Middle, and Far East from the Middle Ages through modernity; and finally,
  • revivals of "Pedagogical Eros" in Europe from the Renaissance through the early twentieth century.

Attempts to demarcate child and pedophilic sexualities are compounded by shifting and conflicting cultural notions of childhood, "childhood sexual innocence," and adolescence. This is reflected in

  • significant variations in age of consent statutes,
  • problematic uses of developmental and biological markers to define age categories, and
  • inconsistent approaches to children's agency.

Thus, in the UK and US, sexual offenses by children have been increasingly recognized, leading in the UK to legislative regulation (Sex Offenders Act 1993), with 10-vear-old males being legally responsible for their actions, as in rape, and having their names placed on the sex offenses register - indications of inherent contradictions in laws demarcating "child sexual innocence."

Efforts to challenge dominant clinical and legal discourses and to promote positive views of pedophilia have met with failure. Following the Gay Liberation Front's (GLF) assault on hetero-normativity,

  • the Pedophile Information Exchange (PIE) emerged in the UK. It provided a public forum for pedophiles, whilst seeking political and legal reforms. Following high-profile trials, some members were imprisoned and PIE was effectively wound up in 1984.
  • NAMBLA (the North American Man-Boy Love Association) advocates abolishing age of consent laws.
  • A number of European countries and Internet sites maintain boy lover support groups.

Mainstream contemporary social science research locates pedophilia within wider sociocultural contexts of

  • hegemonic masculinity,
  • patriarchal family, and
  • Enlightenment conceptions of children as powerless.

However, previous associations of pedophilia solely with adult male attraction to female children have been questioned due to significant numbers of adult women-boy relationships. Whereas earlier taxonomies drew distinctions between exclusive and infrequent attraction, recent formulations focus on

  • age and gender of victim,
  • recidivism rates, and
  • potential risk factors.

Pedophiles have been subsumed within generic approaches to sex offenders, notably causal explanations for seeking child sexual partners including

  • inability to form adult relationships,
  • distorted cognition, and
  • abused/abuser cycles.

Most recent pedophile stories have been recounted by childhood sexual abuse (CSA) survivors. The 1990s and 2000s saw a heightened attention in media and policy making circles through concerns over Internet chat rooms and sex tourism.

Jenkins (1998) identifies such stories as heightened "moral panics," strategically utilized by

  • Christian fundamentalism,
  • mainstream feminism,
  • professional agencies, and
  • national governments for political agendas.

Boylovers criticize the general sex-negative, ageist western cultural scripting for adult-child sexual relationships (including state intervention and professional pastoral monitoring).

They adopt

two rationales for adult-child sexual relationships:

  • firstly, a child liberationist position which contends that whilst conventionally children are subservient to adults in all areas of social life, their rights in certain contexts (including financial and political) are being institutionally recognized, and that, as future citizens, they are increasingly empowered to make more autonomous choices.
    Why then should issues of intimacy and sexuality be excluded?
    By implication, it is argued, unrecognized intergenerational friendship, intimacy, and sexual relationships can also be positive and beneficial.
  • Secondly, they contend that boys especially can benefit from educational guidance and friendship from an adult male.

For opponents, two issues are paramount:

  • firstly, the pre-existing power disadvantages and subjectivity discrepancies between adults and children;
  • secondly, omnipresent risks to children in such relationships, including post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and addictions.

This "relationship" between CSA and harm was challenged by Rind et al. in 1998,

citing considerable neutral and positive outcomes of intergenerational relationships in college and community samples, accounts conventionally silenced in victimological approaches.

The demonization of pedophilia rests on dominant discursive depictions and practical regulations of "innate childhood sexual innocence," but ambiguously such calls for protection contradict escalating empowerment given to children in other areas. Consequently, only adults may speak on intergenerational relationships, where children's voices are silenced alongside certain adults.

Furthermore, governments and media demonize the pedophile as the ultimate sexual "folk devil," the shadowy pathological individual "enemy within," effectively distracting attention from a moral crisis in which supposedly “moral” states consistently retreat in the face of amoral market pressures to commodify, exploit, and sexualize childhood, where cases occur within the bastion of "moral" values: the family.

Logically, forceful contemporary proscriptions on pedophilia will inevitably be weakened by inherent amoral consumerist capitalism and the political and legal ambiguities that result.

Further destabilizing tensions include whether age boundaries remain within Enlightenment paradigms, how far children can be viewed as meaningful social actors, and yet not erotic agents, and the extent to which the legitimacy of CSA discourses may be sustained as they further encroach on idealized notions of the bourgeois family.

References and suggested readings

Evans, D.T. (1993) Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities. Routledge, London.

Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. Pantheon, New York.

Jenkins, P. (1998) Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

O'Carroll, T. (1980) Paedophilia: The Radical Case.

Peter Owen, London. Plummer, K. (1981) The Paedophile's Progress: A View From Below. In: Taylor, B. (Ed.), Perspectives on Paedophilia. Batsford, London.