The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Pedophiles vs. Child Molesters: Understanding the Difference


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To say that all pedophiles are child molesters is like saying all straights are rapists.  Pedophilia is a sexual orientation.  Molestation is a form of sexual assault.  Being sexually attracted to children is not at all the same as wanting to assault them.


While many gays and straights like to publicly broadcast their sexual preferences, pedophiles tend to keep their private feelings about sex to themselves.  What’s wrong with that?  It’s hardly classy or appropriate to dump your hormonal viewpoints and urges all over the world wide web.  A straight man who tells the world how he is lusting after his female coworker is behaving quite immaturely.  People who post pictures and videos of themselves being physically intimate with their lovers are just cheapening something which is meant to be cherished.  Our personal sexual desires are not things we should be waving about like flags.  So the fact that a pedophile doesn’t walk down the street saying, “Hey, everyone, I’m really turned on by kids,” hardly makes that man a creep.  Instead, he’s modeling a level of self-restraint that we could all use to imitate. 

Now as a human, do you want other people to assume the worst about you when they don’t even know you?  Of course not, and yet people do this with pedophiles all the time, and the media greatly encourages it by only talking about pedophiles in the context of sexual assault.  If you only come across the word “pedophile” in news articles about child molesters and child porn addicts, then it won’t take long for you to start viewing every pedophile in a dark light.  But is this fair?  No, it’s not.

In America today, there is a growing bias against Muslims which is being fed by the American media.  There are plenty of nice Muslims in the world, but if you’ve never met any of them personally, and every day you’ve got some news article in your face which is associating the word “Muslim” with the word “terrorist,” then what is going to happen to your perspective of Muslims?  All of that negative, biased reporting is going to cause you to form a very unfair stereotype that all Muslims are pro-terrorism.  This is not at all true, and yet once you start thinking like this, it affects your behavior and soon you’re being a hostile jerk to any Muslim who crosses your path.

As a Christian, you need to make an extra effort to resist negative stereotypes that your culture is trying to shove on you.  God commands you to treat others as you’d want to be treated, and you certainly don’t want to be hated, shunned, and insulted over a personal preference that you have no control over.  And yet the fact remains that pedophiles are frequently linked with child molestation in entertainment and news media, so how can you fight against the biased thinking that people are shoving on you?  Education is the key here.  Gaining a few insights about pedophilia can go a long way towards helping you recognize and reject incorrect assumptions about the people who struggle with this issue.

Pedophiles are not choosing to be sexually turned on by kids.  Most pedophiles don’t understand why they are aroused by kids, it just feels like a horrible thing that developed within them.  Just as many gays feel like they were born gay, many pedophiles can’t remember a time when they weren’t attracted to kids.  So what is going on here?  Well, let’s use a metaphor to understand how the sex drive works.

The human sex drive is like an app that comes with the new cell phone you just bought.  The app just sits on the screen inactive until you choose to activate it.  The first time you start the app, you’re guided through some screens that give you options about various settings you can choose from—things like language, color, and notification sounds.  Once you choose all the settings you want, the app is ready to go.

Now when it comes to the human sex drive, God has programmed some default settings.  He’s also programmed the human sex drive to have a delayed activation time.  It is during puberty that the human sex drive will auto-launch itself, and at that time, boys will find themselves attracted to their female peers, and girls will find themselves attracted to their male peers.  An attraction to the opposite gender is the default setting that comes with the sex drive, and if the app is left undisturbed until its natural activation time, then the sexual orientation will be “normal.”

Now what happens in the case of pedophiles is that the sex drive is activated too early and its default settings get messed up.  Let’s go back to our metaphor of a phone app.  Suppose there’s a really cool app that came with your phone, but you can’t access it for 30 days.  Now suppose that before that waiting period is up, a shady programmer hacks into the brain of your phone, opens up that special app, and changes the settings so that the app won’t work the way it’s supposed to.  When 30 days are up and the app suddenly starts running on a regular basis, it’s doing things it’s not supposed to do and it’s causing your phone all sorts of problems.  This is what happens with pedophiles.  Before they hit puberty, they have traumatic experiences which they strongly associate with their sex drive, and that association causes them to develop a sexual attraction to children.

There are many ways to sexually traumatize a child, and it’s quite possible to do this without realizing it or intending to.  It is how a child interprets an experience in his or her own mind that defines what kind of trauma it was.  Because children are so young and inexperienced, it is very easy for them to get confused about what is happening to them and make assumptions which aren’t really true.  Experiences that feel sexually violating often also involve a degree of involuntary sexual arousal.  When a child’s first experience with sexual arousal happens in a context of violation, pain, or fear, the whole concept of sex gains a very negative spin to it.  If the initial traumas remain unprocessed—which is often the case with young children—then when puberty hits and the sex drive turns on full force, intense psychological distress also occurs.   In cases of unprocessed trauma, the mind often chooses certain aspects of the original trauma to obsess over.  In cases of pedophilia, age is one of the factors being focused on.  The pedophile has the concepts of sexual arousal and children welded together in his mind because of the fact that he was a child himself when he was first sexually traumatized.  The pedophile’s attraction to children is better thought of as a distressed fixation on an intensely upsetting problem.

Suppose a patch of skin on your hand is burning and itching, but you can’t see anything wrong with it.  What do you do?  You start scrutinizing your hand.  You might get a bright light to shine on it, you might get out a magnifying glass to try and see if there is some tiny splinter.  The discomfort your hand is causing you causes you to obsess over the problem.  Is it a happy obsession?  No, it’s negative and distressing. You aren’t scrutinizing your hand because it’s fun and you’ve got nothing better to do.  You’re focusing on your hand because it’s causing you great agitation and you’re trying to get relief from the stress.  This is how it is for pedophiles.  Pedophilia isn’t like a normal sexual attraction in which a man might really enjoy romancing his woman.  Pedophilia is a stress driven condition.  The mental fixation on children is driven by intense, unresolved mental distress over what happened to the pedophile when he was a child. Pedophiles don’t enjoy being sexually attracted to children—their minds just go there.

Now let’s go back to that issue with your hand.  Does the fact that your hand is bothering you mean you cannot think rational thoughts?  Does it stop you from being able to fall in love?  Does it mean you can’t do anything else with your life but obsess over your hand?  Of course not.  If your symptoms are mild, you’ll be able to function quite well in daily life, despite the fact that you have this nagging issue in the background of your mind.  When you’re sufficiently distracted, you’ll forget about your hand for a while and that will be a refreshing break. Other times, you’ll find your hand’s problems very hard not to think about, and those times will be very draining.  This is how it is for many pedophiles: their sexual attraction to children is not the dominating theme of their lives, it’s just very frustrating background static in their minds which they have to drag around with them.  The fact that they are sexually aroused by kids doesn’t mean they can’t also feel normal sexual attraction to their opposite sex peers.  So the popular stereotype that a pedophile is some crazed molester who can’t control himself is total rubbish.  Many pedophiles are married to opposite sex peers, they want nothing to do with violating children, and they can be trusted to babysit without acting inappropriately.  Just as you have your own dark secrets that you’ve never shared with anyone else, many pedophiles have never shared their struggle with anyone—not even their spouses.  Meanwhile, they’re being very kind to children, and not harming anyone.  In mild forms, pedophilia is just one more of countless struggles that humans can have.  It doesn’t have to be life-stopping, nor should it be treated as some dire emergency.  Before you leap to wrong conclusions about the severity of someone’s problems, you need to talk with that person and hear his take on his own situation.

So what determines how severely someone struggles with pedophilia?  The intensity of their own trauma.  Remember, that pedophilia is a psychological response to personal trauma.  And since it is fueled by a person’s own traumatic experiences, as those traumas become resolved, a pedophile’s attraction to children will lessen.  In other words, the theory that “once a pedophile, always a pedophile” is complete rubbish.  Pedophilia is not some incurable problem.  All stress driven behaviors have the potential to be corrected.  As the pedophile heals from his own personal stresses, his sex drive will revert back to a “normal” attraction to opposite sex peers.  Pedophiles should really be thought of as straights who are distracted by personal trauma issues.  Resolve the traumas, and the straights will be able to enjoy the normal sexual attraction that has always existed beneath the static of pedophilia.


So now that we understand that pedophilia is a psychological reaction to trauma which causes adults to feel sexually aroused by children, let’s talk about child molestation.  Like rape, molestation is a form of sexual assault.  Children do not want to sexually interact with adults.  In cases of molestation, the molester finds a way to coerce his victim into sexually interacting with him.  Molesters come in both genders and in a wide range of ages—from young children to adults.  When you think about sexual assault, think “psychological coping mechanism” because that is what assault is for the perpetrator.  Just as rapists rape as a means of gaining momentary relief from immense psychological strain, child molesters coerce children into getting sexual with them in order to gain temporary relief from their own psychological distress.

Now since God commands you to love others and to pursue attitudes such as mercy, compassion, and grace, it really doesn’t work for you to view all molesters as sick animals.  As much as you might like to tell yourself that you can’t possibly understand what causes molesters to molest, you really can.  Sexual assault can be boiled down to two basic psychological principles which all humans have in common.  When humans are hurting, they will search for a way to relieve their pain—that’s the first principle, and we can all identify.  The second principle is just as simple: intense suffering causes humans to change their priorities, with the goal of obtaining relief from pain becoming more important than abiding by any moral code.  This second principle is what makes torture such an effective means of interrogation.  If you put someone in enough misery, he will chuck morals aside and do anything to get you to stop hurting him.  Certainly there are many people in the world who think they are an exception to this rule, but they’re really not.  Breaking humans down really isn’t difficult to do.  We are extremely fragile creatures.

Now if your best friend is in some form of physical agony, what happens to his manners?  They degrade.  He becomes impatient, crispy, and irritable.  If you aren’t quick enough with the painkillers, he’ll probably say something very rude in an effort to get you to hurry up.  Pain amplifies our selfishness.  The more you’re hurting, the more you will start acting like the world revolves around you, and the less you’ll care about other people’s feelings.  Chronic pain causes people to stop caring about the long-term consequences of their actions as they become very invested in getting immediate relief.  People who are in severe pain will say and do all kinds of things which they wouldn’t do if they were in a rational state of mind.  Meanwhile, as an outside observer, you will be the most gracious and patient towards those whose pain is most visible to you.

When you can see some piece of debris protruding from a man’s chest, the graphic visual will make you decide that he has a valid right to act like a man in agony, thus you are more likely to be compassionate and gracious.  But when you can see no visible evidence of pain, then you are far more likely to withhold compassion and dump on the condemnation.  This is what happens with child molesters: the source of their suffering is in their minds, thus it is invisible to outside observers.  When the child molester acts on his pain, people decide that his actions are monstrous and illogical.  But are they?  Are child molesters really acting disproportionately to the misery they are in?  If you were inside of their heads, you wouldn’t think so.

There are many ways to develop the kind of compassion that God wants us to have for others.  Let’s be clear: compassion is not about withholding consequences.  When someone assaults someone else, there should be consequences.  We should not just stand back and do nothing while victims are getting trashed by people in pain.  But while we’re making arrests and doling out consequences, we also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the victim is not the only one doing the suffering.

Hurting people hurt other people, and psychological misery is just as valid as physical misery.  Far too often Christians join the world in declaring certain people to be undeserving of compassion simply because they have committed a crime.  And yet in real life, the distress that drives molesters to molest doesn’t magically evaporate once the molestation occurs.  Many of the ways that humans try to cope with their own distress actually make their problems worse instead of better.  Molesting children is one of those coping methods that has a very degrading effect on the perpetrator.  The more molesters molest, the more psychologically traumatized they become.  It’s a vicious cycle—rather like the man who drinks to forget about his heartache only to then end up with a brutal hangover, so then he feels he must drink more to stop the pain of the hangover, and all the while his liver is getting taxed by an overload of poison.

So if molesting children doesn’t bring the molester permanent relief, why does he keep doing it?  Well, why do humans ever engage in self-destructive coping mechanisms?  Often there is an underlying belief that the coping method being used is the best option available.

Suppose you were trapped alone in a locked room and you had a brutal headache.  The only source of relief available to you is a cup of sweet tasting liquid.  The liquid is poisonous, and you know that drinking too much of it will kill you, but you also know that one sip will bring you instant relief from the pain you are in.  So what are you going to do?  You’re going to drink the poison.  The pain your headache is causing is real to you and it’s killing you.  Exactly how the poison will affect you is unknown, thus the danger of drinking the poison seems less real and less certain.  You’re going to conclude that it’s better to solve one problem for sure than to keep suffering out of fear of new problems that might not even occur.  It is this same stream of logic that drives many of the aggressive behaviors humans do.  When we are desperate enough, we will use any means at our disposal to resolve our crisis.

The point we want you to understand is that you don’t have to be a child molester in order to have sympathy for their case.  You don’t have to be able to identify with the specific coping methods they use in order to understand the general psychological principles at work.  Molesters molest for their own personal benefit.  They risk being arrested, ostracized, and permanently labeled in order to gain some moment of temporary relief.  The great risks molesters take proves how desperate they feel inside.  You don’t need to be able to see the root source of their troubles—their behavior is telling you the scope of the mental crisis they are in.

Now as we explained earlier, pedophilia comes in a wide range of intensities, depending on the pedophile’s personal stress load.  Before a pedophile is going to even consider actually molesting a child, several factors have to come together.  First, the level of psychological distress must be very intense.  For many pedophiles, this is simply not the case.  Second, there needs to be an isolation factor—a situation in which the struggling pedophile does not feel he has any other way to relieve stress effectively.  Among highly stressed pedophiles, many find alternate ways to relieve stress—ways that do not involve them assaulting anyone.  A third factor is the nature of the original trauma.  The specific details of the experiences which initially caused someone to develop a mindset of pedophilia play a big factor in determining what kinds of activities will bring relief to them.  For example, you might hobble around on crutches if you have a broken foot, but not if you have a broken hand.  In the same way, molesting kids isn’t some fix-all which pedophiles find universally appealing.  For many, the idea of molesting kids simply doesn’t bring them any sense of relief.  A fourth factor is that molestation is an aggressive activity, and many pedophiles are passive in temperament.  Among passive pedophiles, the whole idea of sexually assaulting someone else sounds quite repulsive and intimidating.  So you see, it’s not just about morals and sexual orientation—temperaments play a huge factor in what kinds of coping methods individuals will attempt to use.

When it comes to coping with severe trauma, passive temperaments are more prone to injuring themselves than others.  It is aggressive temperaments who are more prone towards lashing out. The point is that we’d have to whittle the whole population of pedophiles down to a pretty small group before we’re going to find folks who would even be attracted to the idea of actually molesting live victims.  This is why it is so absurd to stereotype all pedophiles as potential child molesters.  Plus, if we’re going to be fair, molesting children is not strictly a pedophile issue.  Any sexual orientation can get off on molesting kids as a means of gaining power.  Sexually abusing someone often results in the victim displaying instant and dramatic signs of distress.  There are many non-pedophiles who find such displays extremely addictive because they have their own set of issues.  The world is filled with folks who are on a desperate hunt for opportunities to dominate, and they’ll gladly engage in a round of child molestation in order to satisfy their craving for power.  What causes people to need to dominate others is a discussion for a different post, but it’s important to realize what a wide range of folks molestation can appeal to.  Sure, some pedophiles go down that road.  But so do plenty of non-pedophiles.

As we said before, saying all pedophiles are child molesters is like saying all straights are rapists.  If you keep this comparison in mind, it will help you to not instantly assume the worst about individual pedophiles who you might meet.  Meanwhile, understanding that child molesters molest in order to relieve their own intense psychological suffering can help you gain compassion for a group of folks who are frequently treated like sub-humans.  As Christians, God calls us to live by a higher standard: to be generous with compassion, slow to judge, and quick to forgive.  He has set the bar very high, but He doesn’t expect us to reach it on our own.  All He wants is for us to be receptive and cooperative when He leads us on to the next stage of maturity.

Broken to Thrive: Help & Hope for Pedophiles
Symbolic Genders: Understanding Trauma Driven Homosexuality
Gender Dysphoria: Confronting the Lies that Fuel the Crisis (Help for Transsexuals)
Understanding Your Perverse Fantasies: A Sign of Stress, Not Defectiveness
Repentant Sinners: Is it wrong to stop feeling bad about the past?
Compassion Training: Focusing on Principles Instead of Particulars
Help for Sex Addicts: Understanding Symbolic Sex
Are all sexual perverts going to Hell?

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