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Are Some Men Born Pedophiles? New Science Says Yes, But Sexologists Say Not So Fast

New discoveries are upending the nurture versus nature debate.

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Cantor said that he led one of three research teams worldwide—the others are German—doing new analyses of large data sets that looked at pedophile’s neurological and physical attributes. Some of these data sets are based on brain scans using MRIs, which is far more detailed than CT scans. Others are based on medical records of sex offenders, including so-called phallometric monitors, where the blood flow in a penis is measured as a man is shown different graphic images. Asking individuals about their sexual preferences will not always reveal true answers; hence the blood flow metering.   

The MRI brain-scan surveys found that pedophiles often have IQs in the low 90s, which is slightly below average, Cantor said. Pedophiles also have lower visual memory scores, he said, adding that many were put in special education classes as they were growing up. Cantor also said that many were an inch shorter than the average height of men, and also are more prone to being left-handed than the general population. The physical traits were “present before they conducted their offenses,” he said. “It doesn’t rule out that there are social or more psychological contributors… but there is no psycho-social way to explain height or handedness.”

The MRI data led to another striking finding, Cantor said—one that comes from his team as opposed to reanalyzing others’ data sets—that pedophiles have less of the connective tissue that sends electrical signals between areas of the brain. Several regions of the brain become activated when a person is sexually stimulated, he said, but in pedophiles that “wiring” between these regions is skewed or operates differently.

“No area of the brain is the sexual center,” Cantor explained. “In theory, what it looks like is the thing that goes wrong is there is a problem, not in the sex centers, but in the network that is responsible for identifying what in the environment is a potentially sexual object.” He said, “This is a metaphor. It is as if there is a literal cross-wiring and when a person perceives a child in the brain, instead of triggering the nurturing instinct, it is triggering the sexual instinct… That is a very helpful way, so far, that explains the data.”     

“How we react in particular situations is likely, at least to some extent, hard-wired,” said Russell Swerdlow, a neurologist who was cited in a recent Los Angeles Times report that discussed Cantor’s findings and how scientists were increasingly seeing pedophilia as a physical condition. A decade ago, Swerdlow had a famous patient in science circles: an ex-teacher convicted of molesting children who a day before his sentencing was found with a tumor growing in a brain lobe tied to sexual desire. After it was removed, his sex drive receded. And as the tumor grew back, so too did his unmanagable sex drive.

“We're dealing with the neurology of morality here,” Swerdlow told NewScientist.com in 2002. “He wasn’t faking,” his co-researcher, Jeffrey Burns, said. “The difference in this case was that the patient had a normal history before he acquired the problem.”

The ‘Nurture’ Explanation

A decade after that case made international news, reporting that pedophilia is being seen in mainstream science circles as a consequence of natural causes and not entirely as the result of one’s upbringing and life experiences, as believed by psychologists and many in the indisciplinary sexology field in the 20 th century is, to say the least, controversial.

“That’s totally absurd. It’s again somebody trying to say, ‘Hey, I’ve found the golden thread and I can manage sexuality,” said Rev. Ted McIlvenna, founder of San Francisco’s Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, a graduate school, who entered the sexology field in 1962 after the Methodist Church asked him to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. “I haven’t found the grail.”