Pedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse Are Two Different Things — Confusing Them is Harmful to Children

By Brian D. Earp (@briandavidearp)

Note: this post appeared first at the Practical Ethics blog and is being re-posted.

Pedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse Are Two Different Things — Confusing Them is Harmful to Children

Republican politician Roy Moore has been accused of initiating sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his early 30s. Social media sites have since exploded with comments like these:

Roy Moore is now FUNDRAISING to conservative Christians after being outed as a pedophile.

This is truly sick. pic.twitter.com/NF5NLIGWKA

— Mikel Jollett (@Mikel_Jollett) November 9, 2017

Roy Moore is a sick man. He is a pedophile. This story is deeply sourced. It is credible and I believe the women.

— Steve Schmidt (@SteveSchmidtSES) November 9, 2017

Adult sexual contact with an underage minor is a crime and a serious moral wrong. Pedophilia, by contrast, is a psychiatric disorder involving primary or exclusive sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children (not just any person under the age of 18), which — if acted on — is a crime and a serious moral wrong. Actually, even then, it is the act that is wrong; the involuntary sexual attraction, so long as it remains disconnected from behavior, is probably not wrong in and of itself.

In short: pedophilia and child sexual assault are two different things, and conflating them is not a good idea. This is not just a matter of semantics. For one thing, confusing psychiatric disorders (requiring treatment) and sex crimes (which may or may not follow from such disorders) is likely to hamper clear moral reasoning. But more importantly, it may actually increase harm to children.

Consider the following: many people with pedophilia (1) hate their desires, (2) do not act on them for moral reasons (and should therefore plausibly be praised rather than vilified), and yet (3) often do not seek treatment precisely because they are aware that people in general cannot seem to tell the difference between:

(a) feeling involuntarily sexually attracted to young children (not wrong in and of itself), and

(b) molesting or sexually assaulting children (very wrong in and of itself, no matter the reason).

And here’s the kicker: failing to seek treatment for (a) is precisely the sort of thing that makes (b) more likely to happen. So, please, whatever your politics — stop saying Roy Moore has been “accused of pedophilia” (he has not). Say instead: “he has been accused of sexually assaulting a minor.”

The latter, not the former, is a sex crime and a serious moral wrong. If the goal is to protect children from harm, as it should be, then we should stop stigmatizing pedophilia per se and start stigmatizing (or keep stigmatizing) those who actually sexually abuse children for whatever reason, whether they happen to be pedophiles or not.

In other words, non-offending pedophiles should not be stigmatized so long as they do not offend, nor mistaken for sexual abusers. Instead, they should be encouraged to seek treatment for their disorder before they cause harm to children — which will only happen if we can keep clear about the difference between (a) and (b).