Male Homosexual Attraction to Minors Information Center
Home Using this site Print documents Full Bibliography Mission Contact us
Screen version

Theories for the cause of minor-attraction


Theories have been proposed to explain preferential sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children, but not to adolescents. Thus, there is no literature regarding possible causes of ephebophilia.

Most theories of pedophilia are those that attempt to explain all types of deviance.1 Sexual deviance or paraphilias refer to sexual feelings or behaviors involving objects, animals, or non-consenting people, with pre-pubescent children defined as non-consenting. Thus, deviance includes exhibitionism, fetishes, voyeurism, pedophilia, zoophilia, sexual sadism/masochism, and rape, among other phenomena. Until recently, homosexuality was included, but ephebophilia never has been.2

Because theories of deviance assume the same mechanism underlies them all, they do not distinguish between attraction to children and rape, let alone between attraction to boys and attraction to girls.3 Most of the theories described here are taken from the literature on sexual deviance.4

The abused-abuser hypothesis

Many professionals and most of the public believe that childhood sexual abuse causes sexual attraction to children or adolescence in adulthood. In fact, few studies have actually investigated this abused-abuser hypothesis, and those that have suffer from significant flaws. The most common shortcoming is reliance on samples of child molesters, who are not representative of pedophiles or ephebophiles in general. Even among child molesters, only a minority were abused as children.

After reviewing the research, psychologists Randall J. Garland and Michael J. Dougher of the University of New Mexico concluded that the abused-abuser hypothesis is simplistic and misleading. They write that its uncritical acceptance may lead to premature and incorrect conclusions and ineffective policies.5

Psychoanalytic theories6

Historically, psychoanalytic theories have been based on the agreement that normal sexuality involves the attraction to adults of the opposite gender, and has as its goal genital orgasm. Other sexual attractions and behaviors have been defined as deviant or paraphilias.

Like psychoanalytic theories in general, theories about pedophilia typically involve ideas about child sexuality, fixation at an infantile developmental stage, Oedipal conflict, projection, castration anxiety, and narcissism. Any sexual behaviors that resemble childhood activities are assumed to indicate "regression" to, or "fixation" at, an immature stage, and are assumed to be due to some developmental difficulty in childhood, usually involving Freudís "Oedipus complex."

Psychoanalytic theories suffer from three shortcomings:

Biological theories7

Biological theories

Cognitive theories8

Cognitive theories are based on the assumption that pedophilia is a form of sexual aggression. Theorists suggest that sexual aggression results when an individualís cognitive distortions about the meaning and impact of sexually aggressive behavior allows him to justify it. He may think the victim enjoys or benefits from the act, or at least is not harmed by it.

These theories have serious limitations.

Developmental theories12

Developmental theories assume that pedophilia results from adverse childhood experiences: negative socialization, abuse or neglect, inadequate social skills, academic problems, or early sexual experiences.

Like cognitive theories, all developmental theories suffer from the following shortcomings:

Behavioral theories13

Behavioral theories focus on observable behavior rather than underlying motivations. They assume that behavior develops and can be changed through conditioning: pairing positive or negative feelings with those behaviors. Thus, they assume that sexual arousal to a stimulus results from repeated association of sexual gratification with that stimulus during masturbation or sexual activity.

Several speculative behavioral theories for pedophilia have been proposed:

None of these theories have been tested scientifically.

Isolated minority syndrome

Danish sociologist Agner Fog takes a different approach to the understanding of pedophilia, and the paraphilias in general. He writes that traditional sexology finds the paraphilias difficult to understand because it ignores sociogenetic (anthropological and historical) and phylogenetic (sociobiological and ethological) factors.

A broader approach would take into account the structure of society and the evolutionary history of humans. The benefits of such an approach, he argues, have already been seen in societyís improved understanding of homosexuality.

Based on this approach, Fog introduces the isolated minority syndrome, which he says explains the situation of a person whose sexuality is not accepted by the surrounding society. Due to his isolation from others like him, such a person cannot learn the most appropriate way to live with his sexuality. As a result, his sexual behavior becomes extremely stereotypical, inflexible, and uncontrolled.

Suppression of feelings, frustration, low self-esteem, social stigmatization, and isolation may lead to substance abuse, non-sexual crimes, suicide, projection of the deviant impulses onto other persons, violence against the sexual object, or an outburst of uncontrollable sexuality. Fog proposes that these symptoms are often believed to be characteristic of the paraphilias themselves, but are in fact secondary symptoms of the social suppression.14

General criticisms of most theories

The current state of understanding of pedophilia is very poor, as is the case with the paraphilias in general. Attempts to validate all theories have been small case studies of unrepresentative clinical or criminal samples. None have been replicable, controlled scientific studies, so findings are inconclusive and no single theory or set of theories is accepted.15 In fact, little is known about the development of sexual attraction among non-deviant individuals.16

Psychologist Chin-Keung Li raises a more fundamental question. He writes that the search for a single theory of pedophilia may be unproductive since pedophilia is not a unitary phenomenon but rather involves very different kinds of people, relationships, and encounters.

In addition, he writes that three fundamental characteristics limit all current theories.

Annotated bibliography

Feierman, J., "Introduction and A Biosocial Overview," in Feierman, J. (ed.), Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990, pp. 1-68.

Jay Feierman describes evidence for hormonal processes that influence sexual attraction before birth. He proposes a theory that explains heterosexuality, homosexuality, ephebophilia, and pedophilia based on the phenomena of brain masculinization and defeminization.

Freund, K. & Kuban, M., "Toward a testable developmental model of pedophilia: The development of erotic age preference," Child Abuse & Neglect, vol. 17, 1993, pp. 315-324.

Kurt Freund and Michael Kuban of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto propose and test a theory of gender and age preference. They write that their findings along with their clinical observations suggest that the development of erotic gender preference precedes that of erotic age preference. They conclude that pedophilia is predetermined at least from early childhood.

Garland, R.J. & Dougher, M.J., "The abused/abuser hypothesis of child sexual abuse: A critical review of theory and research," in Feierman, J. (ed.), Pedophilia: Biosocial Dimensions, New York: Springer-Verlag, 1990, pp. 488-509.

Psychologists Randall J. Garland and Michael J. Dougher of the University of New Mexico summarize the various theories that have been proposed in attempts to support the abused/abuser hypothesis, and examine the scientific evidence. They find it wanting, and propose examining additional factors to understand the effects of adult-minor sexual activity on the child or adolescent, including the characteristics of the child or adolescent and the nature of the interaction.

Hall, G.C.N., Theory-based assessment, treatment, and prevention of sexual aggression, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Considering sexual attraction to minors to be a form of sexual aggression, Gordon C.N. Hall outlines the various theories that attempt to explain sexual aggression in general. He proposes that while all have their shortcomings, each type of theory has validity because it describes a different type of aggressor. He writes that sexual aggressors against children rarely use violence or aggression in their offenses, and should be classified as physiologically motivated.

Howells, K., "Adult sexual interest in children: Considerations relevant to theories of aetiology," In Cook, M. & Howells, K. (eds.), Adult sexual interest in children, London: Academic Press, 1981, pp. 55-94.

Kevin Howells explains psychoanalytic and social learning theories which attempt to explain the causes of pedophilia. He also describes the evidence that supports them, and points out shortcomings of research in the area.

Langevin, R., Sexual strands: Understanding and treating sexual anomalies in men, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1983.

Ron Langevin of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto briefly describes various theories attempting to explain pedophilia, the research that supports them, and treatment methods.

Li, C.K., "Adult sexual experiences with children," in Li, C.K., West, D.J., & Woodhouse, T.P., Childrenís sexual encounters with adults, London: Duckworth, pp. 139-316, 1990.

Psychologist Chin-Keung Li critically reviews the major theories that attempt to explain adult-child sexual interaction, and finds a fundamental problem that limits all of them.


1. Hall, 1996; Howells, 1981.
2. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders DSM IV-TR, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.
3. Hall, 1996; Howells, 1981.
4. Feierman, 1990a; Garland & Dougher, 1990; Hall, 1996; Howells, 1981; Langevin, 1983; Li, 1990a.
5. Garland & Dougher, 1990.
6. Howells, 1981; Li, 1990a.
7. Feierman, 1990a; Hall, 1996; Langevin, 1983; Li, 1990a.
8. Hall, 1996; Li, 1990a.
9. Hall, 1996; Okami & Goldberg, 1992. For more details about the crucial distinction between sex offenders and pedophiles, see the section in this site on important distinctions.
10. Bradford et al., 1988; Okami & Goldberg, 1992; Wilson & Cox, 1983.
11. Bradford et al., 1988; Constantine, 1981; Crawford, 1981; Hall, 1996; Howells, 1981; Ingram, 1981; Okami & Goldberg, 1992; Virkkunen, 1981; West, 1998; West & Woodhouse, 1990.
12. Garland & Dougher, 1990; Hall, 1996; Howells, 1981; Langevin, 1983; Freund & Kuban, 1993.
13. Garland & Dougher, 1990; Hall, 1996; Howells, 1981; Li, 1990a.
14. Fog, 1992.
15. Hall, 1996.
16. Freund & Kuban, 1993.
17. Li, 1990a.
Top of page Screen version
Home Using this site Print documents Full Bibliography Mission Contact us