A recent New York Times op-ed outlines the case for holding pedophiles responsible for their conduct, though not for their underlying sexual attraction to children. As defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), pedophilia is an intense and recurrent sexual interest in prepubescent children. It only turns the corner to outright disorder, according to the DSM, when a person acts on this interest or when it causes great distress or difficulties with others. In her op-ed, Dr. Margo Kaplan, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law, notes that “our laws ignore pedophilia until after the commission of a sexual offense, emphasizing punishment, not prevention” and so she argues for removing the barriers to pedophiles stepping out of the shadows and seeking help to “advance efforts to protect children from harm.”

Perhaps it is the nature of the disorder as well as the horrifying crimes it inspires that may not allow for such a dispassionate solution to the problem. After all, Kaplan's stance was immediately challenged by many. Eva, a commenter who describes herself as “a survivor of sexual abuse at the hands of a long-time pedophile,” finds Kaplan’s piece disturbing in that it gives no voice to the (surviving) victims of these crimes. Noting “yes, innocent until proven guilty still stands,” she wonders why Kaplan would ever believe a group of pedophiles who claim they are not committing a crime. Eva argues that child sex offenders tend to have “no respect, care, or sympathy for their victims” and most don't believe their actions are even wrong. What are the facts?

The Grim Details

Pedophilia is considered a sexual orientation and nearly all people with this tendency are assumed to be male. Studies of those found guilty of molesting a child indicate only one to six percent of all perpetrators are female. Estimates also vary as to total number of pedophiles, with experts quoting between one and five percent of the population. One reason for this imprecision is the numbers are based partially on criminals caught — not all are caught — and partially on approximations of those who purchase or access child pornography.

Research conducted by the Center for Mental Health and Addiction in Toronto found about 30 percent of the pedophiles studied were either left-handed or ambidextrous — triple the rate among the general population. On average, pedophiles are close to an inch shorter and their IQ was 10 points lower than the average. Pedophiles also had less white matter in their brains. While 50 percent to 70 percent of pedophiles are also diagnosed with exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism or some other sexual tendency, other mental disorders, including mood disorders, are also common.

While this research suggests Kaplan's suggestion is worth considering, some facts are disturbing enough to provoke outrage and in turn extreme caution. Children are most vulnerable between the ages 8 and 12, with some estimates indicating that victimization occurs before age 8 in over one fifth of all cases. However, one study found 24 percent of female child sexual abuse survivors were first abused at age 5 or younger. One 1994 survey revealed 453 pedophiles to be responsible for the molestation of over 67,000 children. This means each individual offender harmed 148 children, on average. Is it possible to be open to someone whose essential nature entices him to cause great harm to the innocent?