There is still confusion, even among professionals, with regard to the terms child molester and pedophile. For many the terms have become synonymous. For them the word pedophile is just a fancy term for a child molester. The public, the media, and many child-abuse professionals frequently use the terms interchangeably and simplistically refer to all those who sexually victimize children as pedophiles.
There is no single or uniform definition for the word pedophile. As previously stated, for mental-health professionals, it is a psychiatric diagnosis with specific criteria. Labeling all child molesters as pedophiles is, however, confusing. There are clear differences between the types of individuals who sexually abuse children, and law-enforcement officers handling these cases need to understand that and make such distinctions when appropriate.
Not all pedophiles are child molesters. A person suffering from any paraphilia can legally engage in it simply by fantasizing and masturbating. A child molester is an individual who sexually molests children. A pedophile might have a sexual preference for children and fantasize about having sex with them, but if he does not act on that preference or those fantasies with a child, he is not a child molester. Whether or not a person acts on deviant sexual fantasies and urges may be influenced by other factors such as personality traits, the severity of psychosocial stressors, personal inhibitions, substance abuse, or opportunities. Inhibiting factors such as guilt, moral beliefs, or fear of discovery may limit or reduce the sexual activity with children. For many of them their problem is not only the nature or quality of the sex drive (attraction to children) but also the quantity (need for frequent and repeated sex with children).
Some pedophiles might act out their fantasies in legal ways by simply talking to or watching children and later masturbating. Some might have sex with dolls and mannequins that resemble children. Some pedophiles might act out their fantasies in legal ways by engaging in sexual activity with adults who look (small stature, flat-chested, no body hair), dress (children’s underwear, school uniform), or act (immature, baby talk) like young children. Others may act out child fantasy games with adult prostitutes or online partners. A difficult problem to detect and address is that of individuals who act out their sexual fantasies by socially interacting with children (i.e., in-person or online), or by interjecting themselves into the childsexual- abuse or exploitation “problem” as overzealous child advocates (i.e., cyber vigilantes). It is almost impossible to estimate how many pedophiles exist who have never molested a child. What society can or should do with such individuals is an interesting area for discussion but beyond the role of investigators or prosecutors.
People cannot be arrested and prosecuted just for their fantasies. In addition not all child molesters are pedophiles. A pedophile is an individual who prefers to have sex with children. A person who prefers to have sex with an adult partner may, for any number of reasons, decide to have sex with a child. Such reasons might include simple availability, opportunity, curiosity, or a desire to hurt a loved one of the molested child. The erotic imagery and sexual fantasies of such individuals are not necessarily recurrent, intense, and focused on children; therefore, these people are not pedophiles.
Is an individual with adolescent victims a pedophile? Is everyone using a computer to facilitate having sex with children or trafficking in child pornography a pedophile? Is an adult soliciting sex with adolescents (or law-enforcement officers pretending to be adolescents) that are met online a pedophile? Is a 19-year-old dating a 14-year-old online a pedophile? Is an individual who has both child and adult pornography in his possession or on his computer a pedophile? Is an adult who has sexually explicit images of pubescent 16 year olds a pedophile?
There are many reasons why an adult might have sex with an adolescent child. They range from a long-term sexual preference (i.e., hebephilia) to situational dynamics (i.e., forbidden nature makes it exciting, brings back memories of their own less stressful adolescent years, adolescent children are less judgmental or threatening, adolescent children are less likely to have sexually transmitted diseases). Many child molesters are, in fact, pedophiles, and many pedophiles are child molesters. But they are not necessarily one and the same. Often it may be unclear whether the term is being applied with its diagnostic or some other definition.
Most investigators are not qualified to apply the term with its diagnostic meaning. In addition labeling all child molesters as pedophiles is potentially confusing and counterproductive. Not everyone using the Internet to facilitate having sex with children or trafficking in child pornography is a pedophile. To avoid confusion with a mental-health diagnosis and possible challenges in court use of the term pedophile by law enforcement and prosecutors should be kept to a minimum.
Distinctions between the types of child molesters, however, can have important and valuable implications for the law-enforcement investigation of sexual exploitation of children. Most classification systems for child molesters were developed for and are used primarily by psychiatrists and psychologists evaluating and treating them. These systems and the diagnostic system in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR®) (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) usually require the offender be identified and available for evaluation. This publication will set forth a model for investigators that places sex offenders along a motivational continuum and into several patterns of behavior.
These categories are not intended for use by mental-health professionals or clinicians. They are intended for use by law-enforcement officers, prosecutors, and other professionals in evaluating cases and developing the evidence needed to identify, arrest, and convict child molesters.
If the investigator already has enough evidence to convict a child molester, then it may be of little importance whether or not the molester is a pedophile or any other category of offender. But if the investigator is still attempting to develop incriminating evidence, such distinctions can be invaluable. Even if there is enough evidence to convict a child molester, the fact that a molester is a certain type of sex offender could still be important in evaluating the potential for additional child victims and other types of criminal behavior.