Paedophilia: Sexual preference or disease?

Carlo Lori 25 January 2015

Recently there has been a drive to fight the stigma against paedophilia; the idea is that, whilst those who act upon their desires should be prosecuted, the overall approach to paedophiles should be as people in need of treatment, not as criminals. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), paedophilia is a disorder if it causes a person “marked distress [or] interpersonal difficulty”, or if the person acts upon his desires and molests a child. This is all very commendable but I am inclined to wonder on what grounds paedophilia might be classed as a disease. 

Some studies have suggested that paedophiles have neurological differences from `normal’ people.  If behaviour and sexual attraction are determined, at least in part, by the brain – this does not seem to be an unreasonable hypothesis – then neurological differences are to be expected not only in paedophiles, but in anyone who does not conform to the normal model, whatever that might be.

One Swedish study found that the brains of homosexuals were different to those of heterosexuals. Homosexuals were found to have brains more similar to those of heterosexuals of the opposite sex than to people of their own sex (as reported by the BBC, 16 June 2008). If we wished to consider neurological differences as sufficient reason for a sexual preference – fundamentally paedophilia is a sexual preference – to be classed as a disease, then to be consistent we should also class homosexuality as a disease.

The conditions set by the DSM are satisfied: homosexuals do seem to have neurological differences, most do act in accordance with their homosexual urges and some do suffer (I dare say all at some point in their life) from marked distress or cognitive dissonance.

We face a choice: either we class homosexuality as a disease too, we accept these criteria and devise a reason why homosexuality should be excused, or we completely reject the conditions detailed above. Classing homosexuality as a disease does not seem to be particularly productive, correct or desirable, so I think it can be discarded as an option.

The question then becomes whether there is a relevant difference between homosexuality and paedophilia that extends past the target of sexual desire. To be perfectly honest, I have been unable to think of an even plausible reason. I should also emphasise that I do not mean to equate the two or group them together in anything but the broadest possible category of all divergent sexual orientations.

Fundamentally, this boils down to the fact that paedophiles target children, which is illegal, whilst homosexuality involves consenting adults. This should not, in itself, be a reason to class something as a disease. What is acceptable and/or legal changes through time and there was a time when homosexuality had the same stigma associated with paedophilia today. Therefore unless we wish to lend legitimacy to the regimes round the world that class homosexuality as a symptom of a depraved mind we should not use the fact that paedophilia is found distasteful by society (and has been consequently made illegal) as a reason to justify it being a disease.