Here’s a Weird New Discovery About Pedophiles

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Photo: Don Smith/Getty Images

When most people think about sexual orientation, they think about the straight/bi/gay spectrum (if you can call it a spectrum) — that is, whom you’re attracted to. But as has been previously pointed out in this space, there’s more to sexual orientation than that.

For example, another, less discussed facet of sexual orientation is the target of sexual attraction: Is the person attracted to others, to themselves, or to both? When someone is “sexually aroused by the idea or fantasy of being the erotic target,” it’s known as an erotic-target identity inversion, or ETII, and that’s the subject of a new paper in Psychological Science, not yet online, by Kevin Hsu and J. Michael Bailey, both of Northwestern University.

As Hsu and Bailey point out, researchers don’t know much about ETIIs, and in fact only two types have really found their way into the literature. The most widely cited is autogynephilia, which describes situations in which natal males are “sexually aroused by the thought or image of being a woman,” and sometimes transition. There’s also apotemnophilia, “an ETII in which men find it sexually arousing to be an amputee.” As the authors point out, men with ETIIs can also be attracted to external subjects of their attraction — apotemnophiles, for example, have the tendency “to report both sexual attraction to amputees and sexual arousal by the thought or image of themselves as an amputee.” (I’d be remiss to not point out that autogynephilia is explosively controversial in the transgender community — see the middle section of my review essay on Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger to read about a witch hunt that almost ensnared Bailey as a result of a book he wrote that touched on autogynpehilia, for example, or the many critiques of the concept that have been written by trans and cis commentators alike, or this defense of it from a sex researcher who is herself a trans woman.)

As Hsu and Bailey note, “Besides autogynephilia and apotemnophilia, no other putative ETII has received much empirical study.” One candidate, they realized, might be an ETII associated with pedophilia — that is, situations in which pedophiles might be attracted to the idea of themselves as a child. After all, there had been some case reports hinting at this.

So the researchers recruited a group of pedophilic and hebephilic (attracted to early adolescents) men by placing advertisements on two websites where pedophiles congregate to trade strategies on not acting on their urges, and then asked them some survey questions. “Participants reported whether they have ever imagined being a child or having a child’s body,” Hsu and Bailey write, “and if so, the degree to which they were sexually aroused by doing so.” Those who said they were aroused by this fantasy were also asked about the gender and age of the imaginary child in question. The participants were also asked how often they dress as children, and whether they had “ever considered the possibility that they would be better off as a child and whether they had ever considered hormones or surgery to make themselves look more like a child.” Finally, they were asked some open-ended questions “about the precise nature of their fantasies and experiences” to allow for the collection of some qualitative data as well.

Here’s the key finding:

Autopedophilia was common among pedohebephilic participants: 233 (49.1%) reported feeling at least mildly sexually aroused when they imagine being a child or having a child’s body. The average degree of general autopedophilia among the participants was 4.40 (SD = 4.05). The distribution of general autopedophilia was bimodal, with over half the participants scoring either 0 (33.6%) or 10 (21.0%). Thus, a substantial minority of our sample was intensely autopedophilic.

In other words, based on this one sample, at least, it appears quite common for pedophiles to be aroused at the thoughts of themselves as a child. And, as is the case with other ETIIs, there was also often a match between external and internal targets of attraction: that is, among the pedophiles who were attracted to thoughts of themselves as a girl, 100 percent were also attracted, externally, to girls or to both genders. For those aroused by thinking of themselves as a boy, just 15.5 percent were attracted to girls, with the rest attracted to boys or both. Finally, the researchers found only minor rates of dressing as children among the autopedophiles: Just 13.2 percent had done so.

This is the first attempt to figure out the prevalence of autopedophilia, so it raises more questions than it answers. But Hsu and Bailey’s work does mark an important step forward in understanding what motivates and arouses pedophiles. As society shifts toward the approach of working with pedophiles to get them to not act on their urges, rather than endlessly punishing and ostracizing them, this kind of knowledge can only help.