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Title: Adult sexual interest in children: Considerations relevant to theories of aetiology
Author(s): Kevin Howells
Affiliation: Department of Psychology, University of Leicester, England
Citation: 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.


Theoretical explanations specifically addressing adult attraction to children are rare. Instead, general theories of learning and of sexual deviance and perversion are applied. These theories attempt to account for all types of deviance, and assume the same mechanism underlies them all.

Psychoanalytic theories

There is no single accepted psychoanalytic theory of deviance. In addition, the more important the type of deviance, the less information there seems to be. A recent comprehensive review of psychoanalytic thinking on sexual deviance included no information on pedophilia.

The few theories that exist are based on observations of very small numbers of highly atypical pedophiles; sometimes they have no basis in the study of pedophiles at all. Theories typically involve psychoanalytic ideas about child sexuality, fixation, Oedipal conflict, projection, and narcissism. Scientific evidence for their validity is weak; some researchers suggest that the theories are unscientific or useless.

Social learning theories

Social learning theories assume that sexual behavior is mostly determined by social learning, not by biological or hormonal factors. Accordingly, it is believed that the kind of person or object that evokes sexual excitement in a person is learned and/or conditioned. One scientist has proposed that this learning occurs in three areas: arousal, heterosexual social skills, and gender-role behavior. Instead, the author proposes the following three areas of learning: arousal, sexual behavior, and non-sexual factors required for adult heterosexual interaction.

Sexual arousal is only one aspect of adult sexual behavior with children since not all people who engage in such behavior are aroused by children and lack arousal to adults. Classical conditioning is believed to explain arousal to children when it does occur. Sex play with other boys during puberty may cause pleasant feelings to be associated with the physical characteristics of boys at a time marked by increased sex drive. This may cause future arousal to boys.

However, this theory is inadequate for the following reason: such sex play is common among boys, but most do not grow up to be pedophiles. It is not known why most adolescent boys move on to more adult partners while pedophiles do not. Proposed answers to this question include social difficulties with mature partners or unpleasant experiences with mature girls.

Another possible explanation involves the mental process by which a person labels his state of arousal as sexual or not. According to this theory, physiological arousal not elicited by erotic stimuli may be incorrectly labeled by the individual as erotic. Thus, it is speculated that some men may experience non-erotic arousal in the presence of a child, and incorrectly label it as erotic.

Alternatively, studies have shown that normal males show some sexual arousal to children. In some men it may reach high enough levels that they notice it and label it as erotic. In both these cases, men who experience such arousal may come to define themselves as “deviant.”

This theory also suffers from an important shortcoming. Such an experience would need to be repeated several times in order for the stimulus of a child to become conditioned with the man’s response of sexual arousal. It is therefore further speculated that the memory of this first deviant arousal may become the basis of fantasies used during subsequent masturbation, which serve to condition the deviant arousal.

The use of adult heterosexual erotic materials for masturbation may lead most men to normal adult heterosexuality, preventing them from becoming pedophiles. Some studies show pedophiles use such materials less frequently than normal men, and that they are more repressed and inhibited in their sexuality. However, it is difficult to know whether these observations are the causes or results of pedophilia.

Sexual behavior is likely to involve learning through observation. A lack of punishment when an adolescent acts sexually with a younger child may reinforce pedosexual behavior. Alternatively, there may be a relationship between childhood victimization and later pedosexual behavior. However, evidence for this hypothesis is weak and subject to other explanations.

Serious deficits in heterosexual skills may prevent access to an adult partner even if the person has normal sexual arousal. The literature shows an agreement that pedophiles show social skills difficulties. However, most professionals make this comment without reporting objective data.

Two studies investigated psychometric profiles of sex offenders against children and suggested they were passive, weak, dependent, and inadequate in relating to adult females. Three other studies of offenders found they suffered from feelings of inferiority and were less capable than normal men of establishing relationships with mature women. Other studies described them as isolated, lonely, sexually inhibited, and socially impaired.

However, these studies were based on offenders in institutions who may be significantly more inadequate than pedophiles in the general population. In addition, the methods used were not well-suited to assessing social functioning, and no comparison groups were used. Thus no study has yet demonstrated that pedophiles are less adequate than normals.

Characteristics of pedophiles

Some clinical research implies that pedophiles view others in terms of dominance and submissiveness, see adults as overbearing, and therefore turn to children who they view as non-threatening.

However, pedophiles’ thoughts about children suggest that children are not simply substitutes for adults. Normal adults choose adult partners on the basis of subtle non-sexual characteristics such as personality or affectionate feelings. Pedophiles’ choices may rest on equally subtle bases; they attribute children with positive non-sexual qualities which distinguish them from adults, such as innocence, spontaneity, and trust. This observation needs further study.

The wide variety among pedophiles and pedosexual behavior precludes any single theory of cause or development. There have been many attempts to classify pedophiles into subgroups but few have been validated scientifically or therapeutically. Many of these attempts involve classification according to three factors:

Sexual preference

Some have a persistent sexual preference for children beginning in adolescence, while others have a preference for adults but act with children due to situational factors (e.g., marital problems, loss of wife, abuse of alcohol, or stress). Most theories focus on the former type since the latter type are really not pedophiles. However, most clinical and criminal studies find the latter type to be the majority of those who offend.

Some researchers call the former type “fixated” and the latter type “regressed.” Plethysmograph measures support this division; while normal men and “regressed” offenders show higher sexual arousal to adult females than to children (but still some arousal to children), “fixated pedophiles” show higher sexual arousal to children than to adults.

This suggests different treatment approaches for the two groups: changing sexual orientation for the “fixated pedophiles,” and focusing on psychological problems for the “regressed offenders.”


The general public and professionals likely overestimate the degree of aggressiveness in sexual offenses involving children; the media gives the most attention to violent cases, and criminal and clinical researchers see a biased population with significantly higher levels of aggression.

The available evidence suggests that in reality, aggressive behavior is rare in pedophilic incidents; they resemble sex play more than sexual assault, and typically involve fondling. One study found that non-aggressive contact resembles adult heterosexual contact in that the offender desires a “consenting” sexual relationship, has affectionate feelings for the child, and will stop if the child resists.

This is seen by the public as “enticement” and “entrapment.” These “love affairs” have little in common with sadistically motivated child murders, and are likely to require different theories to explain them.

Heterosexual vs. homosexual preference

Most studies show a consistency of gender choice among offenders. Some studies of offenders state that homosexual offenders are more likely than heterosexual offenders to have previous convictions, exhibit “sociopathy” or “immaturity,” be younger and never married, have a better education, have begun masturbating earlier and more often, be sober at the time of the offense, have a more enduring preference for children, have older victims that are outside the family, and to inflect less trauma on their victims.

Biases in the literature

Theories are based on observations of pedophiles, and therefore are seriously weakened if those observed are not typical. Unfortunately, it can easily be shown that the men observed in studies of pedophilia are not typical of pedophiles. The vast majority of studies are based on convicted offenders and those in psychiatric care. It is very likely that their characteristics are seriously skewed by reporting and judicial bias.

Some studies have shown that 67 to 90% of adult-child sexual incidents are never reported. Those that are reported are more seriously damaging to the child than those that are not, are more likely to involve girls and younger children, and are more likely to involve an adult who is older and known to the child.

Much thought needs to be given to how such biases may produce false and misleading conclusions and to the methods of securing less skewed samples.

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