What you should know

Pedophiles and child sex trafficking

Are they legalizing pedophilia? Who’s behind the movement to make it into a sexual orientation? Isn’t it horrible how they’re trafficking kids online, right under people’s noses? But isn’t it great that they busted that trafficking ring last week? 

People who never used to talk about child sexual abuse and trafficking suddenly are. The problem is, most of what people are saying is inaccurate, misleading, weaponized and often political propaganda. And this isn’t harmless; what you don’t know about child sexual abuse can hurt your children. Here’s a look behind the headlines at some of the terms and ideas that we’re all hearing about today. Knowledge is power, and understanding who wants to hurt your children can make you a powerful force in protecting them. 

What is a pedophile?

“Pedophile” is a psychological term meaning someone who has a persistent sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Unfortunately, the term is often misused to mean anyone who sexually abuses a minor, regardless of their motivation or the child’s age.

Do pedophiles have sex with adults?

Yes. Many pedophiles have a sexual attraction to adults as well as children. And even if they aren’t sexually attracted to adults, they still may enter into sexual relationships with adults for many reasons. Jerry Sandusky is a prime example of this.

Are pedophiles who molest boys gay?

Not often. Current research has shown men who self-identify as gay to be no more likely to abuse a child than men who self-identify as straight sexually. When we hear about a grown man sexually abusing a little girl, we immediately recognize that as abnormal, not a predictable part of heterosexuality. We should see sexual abuse among those identifying as gay along those same lines.

I have an uncle who molested a little girl. Do I need to worry about letting my little boy around him at family reunions?

Yes. For real pedophiles, who have an intense and persistent sexual attraction to children, a child’s age is more attractive to them than a child’s gender. And there can be a lot of variety in a pedophile’s “type” and what motivated a sex offender to offend against a child. Statistically, most of us have sex offenders in our families. And if we do, there is no way to make one-child, one-adult situations behind closed doors safe for them.

Why would someone sexually abuse a child if they aren’t a pedophile?

Several factors play a role in an adult’s choice to sexually abuse a child. Their sexual attraction is one of those factors, as is their ability to experience empathy, a sense of entitlement and understanding of power, and their overall understanding of sexuality. Children as young as three can sexually abuse other children and inflict as much damage as an adult. Some sex offenders genuinely enjoy hurting their victims; others cherish their relationship with the child and go to great lengths to convince themselves and the world that what they are doing is harmless. Many adults who sexually abuse their children won’t sexually abuse children outside their family; they see their abuse as their right.

Is pedophilia a sexual orientation?

Not, according to the American Psychological Association, despite articles and videos endlessly circulating on social media.

Currently, the American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes sexual orientations as persistent sexual attractions between adults that aren’t inherently harmful. You can never describe a sexual relationship with a child in these terms; we have much research, such as the ACE study, to prove they are harmful. The APA uses the term pedophilic disorder and classes it as a paraphilia, a persistent sexual attraction that is inherently harmful to someone who suffers from it.

It is also essential to remember that the term “pedophilia” does not mean “child sexual abuse” but rather refers to the sexual attraction between the abuser and the victim. Much of the recent flurry of on-line hand-wringing about this topic means to be divisive; it portrays clinicians using the term “pedophile” correctly, from their clinical point of view. Still, they are implying that the APA, or whatever academic they have a recording of, is talking about the act of child sexual abuse.

Does that mean pedophilia is a mental illness?

Not in the way, most of us understand mental illnesses. No medication can be given to someone to end or lessen their sexual attraction to children. No amount of traditional psychotherapy will end someone’s sexual attraction to children. However, particular types of therapy, called sex-specific therapy, teach offenders how to control sexual impulses, to think through the consequences of their actions, to take responsibility for their actions, and to strengthen whatever sexual attraction to adults they have. It also teaches them how to live their lives, so they avoid one-child, one-adult situations. Sex offenders are not considered “cured,” and compliance with treatment generally doesn’t mean they are safe to be around children alone.

Is it true that there’s a movement to legalize pedophilia?

Any time you see something about “legalizing pedophilia,” it’s safe to assume it’s propaganda intended to be divisive. Pedophilia is the desire to abuse children, not the Act of abusing them sexually. You cannot ban the desire to commit a crime. There are some small fringe groups and random politicians and op-ed writers who will talk about lowering the age of consent, decriminalizing child sexual abuse, etc.. Still, these are groups with no teeth or momentum behind them.

What if pedophilia becomes classed as a disability and pedophiles sue to work in daycares?

Pedophilia is exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act, and employers are always allowed to refuse to hire or fire someone if their conviction is related to their work. For example, pharmacies can refuse to hire someone with a conviction related to substance abuse. Companies can refuse to hire a documented sex offender if they have policies against it or laws say they must.

But doesn’t it normalize pedophilia to talk about it as a mental illness?

We need to recognize that child sexual abuse is very common, and so is the desire to sexually abuse children. If we think of people who perpetrate this crime as “horrible people,” we’re limiting our ability to recognize their urges to harm children and prevent them before children get hurt. No one thinks they’ve got a “horrible person” in their family, friends, etc. We need to recognize that people who are similar to us, who we like, can still do horrible things to children, and we need to discuss what we can do to keep people who want to do awful things to children from actually doing them.

How many children are involved in child sex trafficking in the United States?

It is tough to know, but the current guess is between 4,500-21,000. Some quote a higher number of 100,000, but advocates and experts are pulling back from it.

Is most child sexual abuse child sex trafficking?

No. The Adverse Childhood Experience study by the CDC demonstrated that among a middle-class, educated population, 20% of participants w sexually abused. So based on the CDC’s estimate and the number of children in the United States, approximately 811,000 children are sexually abused for the first time each year. So if we use the 21,000 number, child sexual trafficking represents about 2.6% of child sexual abuse.

How often do people abduct children with the intent of abusing or trafficking them?

Very rarely. There are less than 200 non-familial child abductions each year. Most of the familial kidnaps are related to contested custody.

How do most of the people who sexually abuse children get access to their victims?

They usually form a relationship with the child, desensitize them to manipulation, secrets, and unwanted touch. At least 90% of the time, someone they know and trust abuses the child. It’s worth noting that sex trafficking victims are usually sexually abused before the trafficking starts.

What’s the relationship between child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking?

There is a definite relationship between child sexual abuse, high ACE scores, and child trafficking. According to a recent study, a high ACE score, including sexual abuse, is the most significant risk factor for child trafficking.

But didn’t you read in the FBI’s write-up about Ali, who grew up in the suburbs with a loving family?

A child can grow up in a loving family in the suburbs and still have a high ACE score. Being trafficked doesn’t mean they will automatically talk about their abuse with reporters, or consciously connect abuse and trafficking.