It is unknown how many people in the general population are emotionally and sexually attracted to children or pubescent adolescents. Evidence suggests that many, perhaps most, adults may have a limited level of such feelings, but they are subordinate to their feelings for adults (Fedora et al., 1992; Freund, 1981; Freund & Costell, 1970; Hall et al., 1995; Quinsey et al., 1975).
However, some adults are preferentially attracted to underage youth. Most of those who have been identified are males. Experts estimate that 0.5% to 7% of all males are preferentially attracted to younger children or adolescents (Abel & Harlow, 2001; Farella, 2002; Feierman, 1990; West, 1998), although there is no solid data to support these figures. If these experts are correct, then between 600,000 and 8 million men in the U.S. are preferentially attracted to children or adolescents, and between 60,000 and 800,000 adolescent boys are themselves preferentially attracted to younger children or adolescents.
Attraction to underage youth typically involves feelings of affection and being in love (Howells, 1981; Ingram, 1981; Li, 1990b; Sandfort, 1987; Wilson & Cox, 1983). Preferential attraction to prepubescent children is called pedophilia, and preferential attraction to pubertal adolescents is called hebephilia (Ames & Houston, 1990; Feierman, 1990; Okami & Goldberg, 1992). Pedophilia is listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but is only considered a disorder if acted upon illegally (APA, 2013). Hebephilia is not mentioned at all.
No one chooses to be emotionally and sexually attracted to children or adolescents. The cause is unknown; in fact, the development of attraction to adults is not understood. A large number of theories involving hormonal influences, genetics, evolutionary processes, negative socialization, poor parental relationships, and childhood sexual experiences have been proposed, but most have not been tested scientifically, and none are supported by reliable evidence. In particular, there is no evidence to support the common belief that attraction to children or adolescents in adulthood is due to childhood sexual abuse (Freund & Kuban, 1993; Garland & Dougher, 1990; Hall, 1996; Li, 1990a).
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many pedophiles and hebephiles do not act sexually with children or adolescents, but it is not known how many do not (Hall et al., 1995; Okami & Goldberg, 1992).
A large number of studies show that a majority of people who have sexually offended with children or adolescents are not preferentially attracted to them, and therefore are not pedophiles or hebephiles (Ames & Houston, 1990; Freund, 1981; Okami & Goldberg, 1992).
Studies of personality characteristics on average find low levels of aggression among pedophiles. Other than the attraction itself, studies fail to find any abnormal or pathological characteristics. In particular, people attracted to children or pubertal adolescents have not been found to exhibit narcissism, psychosexual immaturity, low intelligence, aversion to adults, psychopathology, neurosis, or any personality disorder any more than people attracted to adults. The presence of these characteristics have been assumed, rather than being tested scientifically (Bradford et al., 1988; Langevin, 1983; Okami & Goldberg, 1992; Wilson & Cox, 1983).
Enduring feelings of attraction to prepubescent children first become apparent at puberty (Abel & Harlow, 2001; AACAP, 1999; Farella, 2002; Freund & Kuban, 1993; Johnson, 2002). Attraction to adolescents becomes noticeable later.
Reducing or eliminating attraction to children or adolescents is often attempted through reconditioning methods such as aversion therapy and masturbatory satiation, developed in the 1930s to eliminate homosexuality. The goal is to associate sexual attraction with boredom, revulsion, fear, shame, or physical pain. Sex-drive reducing drugs may also be administered (AACAP, 1999; Abel & Harlow, 2001; Crawford, 1981; Hall, 1996; Langevin, 1983; Maletzky, 1991).
Studies of the effectiveness of reconditioning methods to change feelings of attraction suffer from serious methodological flaws, and have led to inconsistent results. The few well-constructed studies have found that they are no more effective with pedophilia or hebephilia than with homosexuality (AMA, 1987; Freund, 1981; Hall, 1996; Langevin, 1983; McConaghy, 1999). While they have been discredited and are now considered unethical and inhumane by mainstream mental health practitioners when used on homosexuals, many still consider them acceptable when used on adults and adolescents who are attracted to children or pubescent adolescents.
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