Perhaps no single act causes such strong emotions as the act of child sexual abuse.  Child molesters cannot even find refuge in prisons where rapists and murderers are commonplace. These offenders are shunned in every aspect of our society, yet there is no consensus as to the causes of this behavior.

Sexual abuse of children is not new, and has not always been socially taboo. The ancient Greeks and Romans used children for sexual gratification(Langevin, 1983). In Greece, it was commonplace for adolescent males to be forced into sexual relationships with mature males. This behavior was normal and not objected to by the child’s parents nor the Greek government(Langevin, 1983). The Romans encouraged adolescent boys and girls not to protest being sold into prostitution. The Roman government even went so far as to declare a public holiday honoring young prostitutes(Kahr, 1991).

Sex with children in the modern era is alive and well, the power of an older person is so great that their young victims often never tell of the horrors that they have endured. There is also a pedophile enhancement movement, with confessed pedophiles insisting that their behavior is not wrong or immoral. Organizations dedicated to the social acceptance of sex with children are not new, yet have had a large upstart in membership since the early 1970’s(Charon, 1979).

Because of the extreme sensitivity of the subject, research in this field is quite underdeveloped. Researchers have even had trouble in agreeing what to call the phenomenon. Much research on the victims has dubbed the act as child sexual abuse, most research on the offenders has labeled it as child molesting or pedophilia. The term pedophilia has some utility since it suggests a predisposition for the act separate from the act itself. The ambiguity of this term however, is what causes confusion. Pedophilia can mean child sexual abuse ranging from an arousal to children with no or little action, to sexual penetration of the child. For the purposes of this paper the terms pedophilia, child sexual abuse, and child molestation will be used interchangeably.

Pedophiles can be classified into different categories by several issues, the most common of which are causation, and victim-relationship. Using different classifications to isolate pedophiliac behavior can help us to understand this behavior and begin to find methods in which it may be contained.     `


Pedophile classification is a hotly debated topic that varies significantly in it’s origins. There are a few standards however, pedophiles can be separated by those who sexually abuse members of there own family or step-families, and those who abuse non-family members(Langevin, 1983). Even this simple distinction is not always accurate though, often familial offenders have previously offended non-family members(Hunter, 1990). Some common causes of pedophilia have found much popular and scholarly support, and these etiologies can give a general profile of some of the origins of child sexual abuse. While the names of these etiologies vary greatly, the descriptions of each remain essentially intact.

Conditioned Response Theory

Some researchers have maintained that the pedophile becomes conditioned to respond to young, sexually under-developed bodies. It has been suggested that boys begin masturbating to fantasies that involve sexually immature bodies, and then become so conditioned to these images that they need them to create sexual gratification(McGuire, Carlisle, & Young, 1965). Garland and Dougher(1990) theorized two reasons for this behavior leading to the development of pedophiliac behavior:(1) and adolescent’s sexual activity with persons his or her own age could condition sexual arousal to pubescent children, and (2) through memory distortions that have occur with the passage of time, the child or adolescent who was sexually victimized by an adult developed a fantasy that places him or her in the role of the aggressor rather than in the role of the victim. As a result of this recurrent fantasy, he or she then becomes sexually conditioned to respond to children.

Learned behavior closely resembles the conditioned response theory. Pedophilia as a learned behavior is due to sexual abuse of the abuser as a child. The pedophile then begins to imitate this behavior later in life(Groth, Hobson, and Gary, 1982).

Social Skills Theory

Social skills that have been underdeveloped or dysfunctional social skills have been suggested as a possible explanation for pedophilia, especially relating to persons of the opposite sex. Segal and Marshall(1985) compared rapists, child molesters, non-sexual offenders, and two control groups on social skill ability. The researchers based their social skill ratings based on taped conversations with females and found that all offender groups were less socially competent than the control groups. The child molesters were less skilled at predicting and evaluating their own performance in heterosexual situations. Interacting with children may give the pedophile a feeling of control and reduce anxiety(Langevin, 1983).

Low Self-esteem

Pedophilia has often been linked with previous emotional, physical, or sexual trauma. This trauma becomes so painful that it results in underdevelopment or a stifling of future development(Groth, Hobson, and Gary,1982). According to this line of reasoning this underdevelopment will not allow a person to mature emotionally as his or her body matures. The pedophile is the emotional equivalent of a child, and thus depends on them and begins to view them as sexual objects as well(Langevin, 1983). Using children in a sexual manner to cope with anxiety is reinforced and becomes a normal behavior pattern.

Pedophilia as an Addiction

Pedophilia as an addiction is a fairly new way of examining this type of behavior. In the early 1980’s researchers began to ask questions about pedophiliacs’ behavior and found that parallels could be drawn between this and other addictive behaviors. Patrick Carnes(1983) developed a model of sexual addiction to explain the behaviors of sexual abusers. Carnes suggested that molestation of children is a sexual addiction. He stated that the addict moves through a four-stage process, with each step becoming more addictive.

Preoccupation is the first stage in Carnes’ model. The addict is unable to think about anything else except sex. The addict begins to seek experiences to satisfy their desires. Ritualization is the second stage, in which the addict will engage in specific behaviors that culminate in sexually acting out behaviors. Compulsive behavior is the third stage, which is the sex act. The fourth and final stage is despair. This is when the addict realizes that there is a lack of control over the compulsive behaviors.

Carnes suggested three separate levels of addiction within this model. Level one addicts are associated with pornography, compulsive masturbation, repeatedly engaging in purely sexual relationships with no other meaning, and prostitution. Level two behaviors include illegal sexual acts with another person being victimized emotionally, but not physically(exhibition, voyeurism). Level three behavior includes rape, incest, and pedophiliac behavior.

Feminist Theory

The feminist theory argues that children are easy targets for sexual abuse by mature males because of the emphasis that our society puts on the male being the dominant, powerful, and controlling partner in intimate relationships(Hite, 1981). Males, on the other hand tend to search out sexual partners who are “younger, smaller, and weaker than themselves”(Finkelhor and Araji, 1986, p. 149).

Child pornography and advertising have been targeted by some feminists as having a role in the onset of pedophilia(Rush, 1980). The reasoning for these beliefs are based on the assumption that viewing pornography eroticizes children, and teaches adolescents to become aroused by children.

Family Theories

Pedophilia within the family, or incest is usually found in families where the family unit is rigid and lacking any guidelines or boundaries(Will, 1983). Families in which incest occurs are both physically and socially isolated from the community in which they live. Family members depend only on one another for their needs and rarely seek outside assistance for anything. Frequently the child is forced to grow up quickly and assume the role of caretaker within the family. This caretaking role is then pushed beyond conventional limits to include the physical needs of an adult within the family. The needs of the child are given very little recognition by the parents.

Families have been classified into two general types of units in which incest is more likely to occur. These include the “Chaotic family” and the “normal-appearing” family(Kempe and Kempe, 1984). The chaotic family is typically of low socioeconomic status; is dysfunctional in that the family members have histories of substance abuse, incarceration, violence, and most members have very little or no education. Children raised within family units such as this are more likely to become targets of interfamilial sexual abuse.

The “normal-appearing ” family gives off the impression that everything is perfectly normal. Frequently the parents have been married for years, are financially secure, and have established roles within the community(Kempe & Kempe, 1984).  Incestuous parents in this type of family are often unable to care for their children our themselves, either emotionally or physically. They are usually quite needy and turn to their children to fulfill those needs. Incest in this type of family is especially troublesome since even if it is reported, a conviction is unlikely without solid physical proof. The adult is an fine upstanding member of the community in their eyes. Often the authorities will side with the adult and punish the child for these attempts to bring pain upon their parents(Kempe & Kempe, 1984).

In both the “chaotic” and the “normal-appearing” families, incest is often carried on from one generation to another. This phenomenon has been dubbed the intergenerational transmission of incest(Kempe & Kempe, 1984).

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!