Title: Personality Correlates of Pedophilia: Are They Reliable Indicators?
Author(s): Paul Okami and Amy Goldberg
Affiliation: Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles
Citation: Okami, P. & Goldberg, A., “Personality Correlates of Pedophilia: Are They Reliable Indicators?”, Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1992, pp. 297-328.
This article critically reviews the literature related to personality correlates of pedophilia. It is noted that the “slippage” of legal and moral constructs into operational criteria and research methodology in this field have created impediments to sound professional consensus and the accumulation of a coherent database. When the construct “pedophile” was separated from the construct “sex offender against a minor,” there were no reliable findings regarding “pedophiles.” “Sex offenders against minors “ were noted fairly consistently to have experienced early disturbances in mother relationships and were found for the most part to be non-violent and not aroused by sexually aggressive stimuli involving children (although a smaller portion were violent and/or were aroused by such stimuli). A subgroup of these offenders displayed the passive, lonely and shy profile frequently thought to be associated with the pedophile, although such tendencies were not clinically significant and were similar to profiles found among other types of sex offenders. With the exception of the tautological diagnosis of “sexual deviate,” little clinically significant pathology was found among either “pedophiles” or “sex offenders against minors.” Recommendations are made for more productive approaches for future research.
The purpose of this article was to review the large body of research on the psychological characteristics of pedophiles to determine whether a general pattern emerges. Before presenting their findings, the authors provide an overview of the serious problems with much of the available research that have prevented professionals from developing a scientifically sound understanding of these characteristics.
Many other researchers have already described improper research methods such as the study of men who do not represent pedophiles in the general population, the absence of normal people in the study for comparison, and the presence of conditions other than pedophilia in the men being studied.
This article focuses on a more fundamental problem that severely hampers accurate understanding—the practice of basing theories on inconsistent moral and legal definitions rather than on precise scientific ones.
As illustration, the authors refer to a typical article. Published in Psychiatric Quarterly, it referred to sexual interaction between adults and children as “sexual attacks” in spite of the fact that 26 studies conducted over the past 40 years have found that adult-child sexual activity rarely involves force or violence. Thus, the writers used the word “attack” not in the way people normally understand it, but rather as a reference to a moral or legal violation. Similarly, another article used the terms “assault” and “sexual aggression,” even though 86% of the cases studied did not involve force.
Another term used inconsistently in the literature is “child.” Studies often define youth in middle to late adolescence as “children,” and their sexual relationships with someone over 18 as “abuse” due to their age rather than the nature of the interaction. Such definitions lead to misleading or invalid conclusions and inflated estimates of the frequency of abuse.
These practices suggest to the authors that social advocacy concerns, rather than scientific principles, influence the design of many studies. Allowing law and morality to provide the theoretical basis for studying a phenomenon may reflect a conflict of interest between scientific inquiry and the enforcement of social norms.
Much of the article focuses attention on what the authors call the “diagnostic and definitional chaos” related to the term “pedophilia.” They write, “Between Krafft-Ebing and DSM-III-R lies a trail of diverse definitions of pedophilia and diagnostic criteria strongly rooted in the realms of law and morality.”
Furthermore, researchers commonly do not use the current DSM definition of pedophilia in their studies, which require that the person’s sexual preference be for prepubescent children, and that these feelings endure for at least 6 months. One study defined a pedophile as anyone who had ever had a sexual feeling or fantasy involving a child, no matter how brief. This was in spite of findings from several studies that brief or ambivalent sexual feelings for children may be common among the normal population.
The most common confusion surrounds the difference between pedophilia—preferential feelings of sexual attraction for prepubescent children—and sex offenses against minors—sexual interaction with minors including adolescents. The distinction between pedophiles and sex offenders is crucial since most studies (the authors list 14 of them) find that only a small portion of convicted sex offenders against minors are actually preferentially attracted to children.
In spite of this fact, studies typically use the word “pedophile” interchangeably with terms such as “child molester,” “sex offender,” “abuser,” and “rapist.” One study classified men as “pedophiles” and “hebephiles” based on their illegal sexual activity with children and teenagers, in spite of the fact that the same study showed they felt equal or greater sexual attraction to adults. Similarly, the article in Psychiatric Quarterly which claimed to focus on pedophilia in fact said little about it, instead discussing child molestation.
Influential sex abuse researcher David Finkelhor commits a similar error. His justification is that a sexual preference for children is a complex psychological condition that is too difficult to study. However, if a complex psychological condition exists, a better approach is to develop ways to study it. Sexual behaviors with children vary too much in characteristics and effects to label all of them as pedophilia; the only reason for doing so is for convenience rather than for scientific understanding.
Furthermore, age or maturity distinctions are often ignored. The DSM definition requires that a pedophile be attracted to children who have not yet entered puberty. However, many studies define a pedophile as anyone who has ever had sexual contact with someone under 18 or 16, regardless of their motivation or sexual preference, and regardless of the sexual maturity of the younger person.
Again, this blurring of definitions is due to the moral and legal status of sexual activity involving adults and minors, and the almost exclusive use of criminal samples in studies purporting to examine “pedophilia.”
The authors give another reason why sex offenders against minors do not accurately represent pedophiles. Several studies have shown that men whose sexual preference is for children often have a complex set of attitudes, beliefs, and feelings about children in which sexual desire may be subordinate. They often interact with children in ways that include many non-sexual aspects, including affection, which children experience positively. Thus, incidents where they do act sexually may be unlikely to be reported or prosecuted.
As a result of confused definitions, researchers typically ask questions about one group of people—pedophiles—but attempt to answer them using data obtained from a very different group of people—convicted sex offenders and rapists.
The remainder of the article reviews the literature examining the characteristics of pedophiles. Many of these studies have attempted to show that pedophiles fit a typical personality profile which includes such characteristics as social inadequacy, low intelligence, excessive religiosity, narcissism, gender pathology, psychosexual immaturity, aversion to women and adult sexuality, lack of aggressiveness, and a vulnerability to anxiety and depression.
The scientific support for the belief that pedophiles are passive, dependent, unassertive, isolated, and socially awkward is weak. Almost all studies are based on offenders against minors rather than on pedophiles. They typically find that such offenders are similar to other kinds of offenders.
One study inferred that a lack of social skills existed among men convicted of offenses involving girls because they described adults as “demanding” and “overbearing.” It found no other significant results, and even this one finding was obtained without making a proper statistical correction.
Many of the studies attempted to assess personality characteristics using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Out of 11 such studies, only one involved pedophiles rather than offenders, and it found no significant results.
Only two of the 10 studies of offenders interpreted MMPI results as indicating a trend toward social inadequacy. The others found no significant profile. Some researchers found that MMPI profiles varied greatly among sex offenders against minors so that there was no “typical profile.”
Furthermore, when these profiles were averaged, they were similar to those of other offenders. One study did find that nonviolent sex offenders against minors could be described as “introverted” (rather than as “unassertive”), but pointed out that introversion need not be a sign of neurosis.
The popular perception of pedophiles as passive, immature, and unassertive may be the result of the typical “childlike” nature of their sexual activity with children, which tends to be limited to fondling and exhibitionism.
Out of nine studies relevant to examining the intelligence of pedophiles, only three were based on pedophiles rather than offenders. One of these found no significant difference in intelligence from the general population. The other two studies did not assess intelligence directly, but did note that the pedophiles were educated professionals.
Of the six studies of offenders, one found that offenders against minors tended to be less intelligent than other offenders, while the other five found no significant differences. Research suggests that the popular perception of pedophiles as low in intelligence may result from studies of those suffering from senility and mental retardation.
Of nine relevant studies, only three were based on pedophiles rather than offenders. In one of these, 43% of the pedophiles admitted to suicidal thoughts (compared to 18% of a normal population), and twice as many as normal people felt lonely. However, these findings might have resulted from the social response to pedophilia, rather than being causes or characteristics of pedophilia.
In another study, 2/3 of the pedophiles showed no pathology. The other 1/3 showed elevated “neurotic instability.” In the third study, there were no significant findings except for elevated depression scores among only the middle-aged men attracted to girls.
Of the 6 studies of offenders against minors, one found elevated “social-sexual anxiety” similar to that found in other kinds of sex offenders. Four studies had no significant findings, and one found less emotional disturbance than in other kinds of sex offenders.
The authors conclude: “surprisingly little clinically significant pathology of any sort has been found among these groups…the profile of ‘child molester’ generally suggests no psychiatric diagnosis other than sexual deviation.”
Some professionals have asserted that pedophiles are preoccupied with religion or have puritanical attitudes toward sexuality. Few studies have addressed this question. This view probably resulted from the meager early research based on psychiatric patients and offenders. Conclusions based on criminal samples must be regarded with skepticism since an offender’s concern with religion may be an effort to gain parole.
Three studies claimed to show that offenders against minors and/or pedophiles had negative attitudes toward sexuality or were sexually repressed, but they did not investigate whether such attitudes were the result of society’s reaction to pedophilia rather than characteristics or causes of pedophilia.
Psychoanalysts in the 1940s speculated that “narcissism resulting from Oedipal fixation” contributed to the development of homosexual pedophilia. However, when one group of researchers attempted to test this theory, they found no evidence for it. There is no other scientific support for this theory.
Some older studies have reported feminine identification or behavior among pedophiles or offenders against minors, but some of these studies suffered from serious methodological flaws. More recent controlled research has failed to replicate these findings, although one study did find higher feminine identity among homosexual males attracted to adult men.
Some studies have found that sex offenders against minors are less identified with their mothers than normal controls, although one study found them to be more highly attached to their mothers. Studies have found few significant results regarding relations and identification with fathers.
The theory that pedophiles fear adult women and adult sexuality has not been investigated scientifically, but rather assumed as the only reason a man would interact sexually with a child. Versions of this theory have been proposed since the 1940s, but some recent researchers suggest this assumption may be the result of “heterocentric” bias (the belief that all people should be heterosexual).
Pedophiles may simply lack interest in adult women rather than fear them, in the same way that most adults lack sexual interest in children but do not fear them. In fact, several studies even cast doubt on that conjecture—they have found that many pedophiles also display significant arousal by, and enjoyment of, sexual activity with adult women.
Similarly, the belief that pedophiles are psychosexually immature has not been studied scientifically, but assumed based on the types of behaviors in sexual encounters between adults and prepubescent children. Research shows it usually involves exhibitionism, fondling, and/or masturbation rather than penetration.
In addition, inaccurate generalizations have been made from such behaviors with prepubescent children on the one hand, to adult-adolescent sexual interaction on the other hand, which often involves oral sex and sometimes penetration.
The image of the pedophile as a violent child rapist/murderer has been a part of sexual folklore, but has been thoroughly debunked by numerous scientific studies. However, it has recently been replaced by the image of the non-violent, passive pedophile who uses trickery and subtle coercion to obtain the cooperation of his victim.
Extensive data supports the image of non-violence even among those who offend against minors; numerous studies show force and violence are rare in adult-minor sexual activity. Studies involving psychological measures, such as the MMPI, on average have found low levels of aggression among offenders against minors, although such evidence is weaker than that obtained from their sexual behavior. Some studies of pedophiles who offended against minors showed that they were significantly more aroused by consensual stimuli than by those involving force.
However, recent studies have found more use of physical force by sex offenders against minors than previously thought, although still less than that used by other types of offenders. On the other hand, these studies are few in number, and some suffer from small, unrepresentative samples or the legal rather than scientific use of terms such as “child,” “aggression,“ and “pedophile.”
The authors concede:
The clearest finding of the present review is that relatively little may be stated about the personality or phenomenology of pedophiles and sex offenders against minors—particularly if these populations are recognized as distinct, if sometimes overlapping, groups…in Guttmacher & Weihofen’s words, ”There is doubtless no subject on which we can obtain more definite opinions and less definite knowledge.”
Wide variance in sample characteristics, operational definitions, and methodology was the rule in the studies reviewed for the present article. Frequent use of moral and legal criteria to supplant empirical criteria in defining important constructs such as aggression, force, rape, child, or pedophilia fed a characteristically hyperbolic discursive tone which added to difficulties in interpreting reports. Regarding such practices, Kilpatrick warned that “It is imperative that researchers not base their interpretations of data upon erroneous assumptions or moralistic beliefs.” The present authors are in agreement.
It is unclear whether the lack of reliable findings about pedophiles is due to the wide variation among them, or to the absence of any studies using adequate, representative samples.
The authors do make a few tentative conclusions about offenders against minors:
An unknown percentage of true pedophiles may never act on their sexual feelings, and many sex offenders against minors are not pedophiles. Pedophiles probably cannot be studied due to social stigma and mandatory reporting laws.
However, the authors conclude that it is possible to study offenders against minors if researchers eliminate the slippage of legal and moral terms and constructs into their definitions and theories. They also recommend that research make several distinctions: between homosexual and heterosexual offenders, among different ages and levels of sexual maturity of victims and offenders, between actual violence and moral violation, and between offenses among family members and those occurring outside the family.