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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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McIlvenna, an octogenarian who has spent five decades studying sexuality through the nurture lens—or how life experience molds behavior—says the scholarship that links pedophilia with one’s genes barely explains anything. Instead, he explains pedophilia by drawing on insights gained from years of taking personal sexual histories. McIlvenna says human sexual behavior has several basic but key bottom-lines: people are sexual, have desires, express them differently, and those desires evolve over a lifetime—as relationships to one’s body and as the stories they tell themselves about sex change.

“One of the problems we’ve had in sexology is that you have to look at what people do sexually and how they feel about it, and not what they should or shouldn’t do—but what they really do,” McIlvenna said. “You need to do profiles of people. You need to know everything about them. We need to know the provenance of people and their sexual behavior. Everybody is so different. So what you have to do is find a way to look at it.”

McIlvenna believes taking thousands of personal sex histories has revealed surprising psychological traits about pedophiles. They generally do not seek out images of adults having sex with children, he said, but are likely to seek images of children in “poignant poses.” That is because their sexuality has not evolved past key stages in otherwise healthier childhoods, he said.

“One of the problems is we didn’t research people as they were growing up,” he said. “We don’t look at children and do sex histories and profiles on them. We don’t do it with teenagers. We think that suddenly you’re an adult and that’s the thing we look at. We can tell very early where a person is, the stories they tell themselves, how they feel about their bodies and other people’s bodies, because it really depends on how they feel.” 

Humans are “pleasure-seeking creatures,” McIlvenna said, saying that sexuality evolves first in relation to one’s own body—as a child and adolescent—and then as an experience with other people. Pedophiles, like all people, have irrepressible desires, he said, but they have not been able to evolve past a child’s early phases of experiencing sexual feelings. “My experience of watching what happens with people who talk about pedophilia is that they’re people that really focus much more on their own bodies—and finding something that’s like their bodies—and they stop there.”

McIlvenna said he has no patience for “preachers who say ‘the devil made me do it’” or “doctors who say, ‘Well, something happened...’” He said, “Is the question sexual health or is the question to find somebody or something to blame or justify because somebody likes little kids? It hasn’t changed behaviorly at all in 3,000 years. Statistically, it has not—I don’t care what that guy in Toronto says.”

However, that guy in Toronto— James Cantor—who also is the editor-in-chief of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, told AlterNet that the most recent data and analyses “doesn’t necessarily rule out nurture hypotheses.” If anything, Cantor said both factors are at play, and the sexology field seems to be recognizing that.

“The basic idea that pedophilia is in the biology in the brain is more than 100 years old,” he said, saying that perspective took a back seat to the development of psychology led by Sigmund Freud. “But now we have new data sets that we can look at.” 

Swerdlow, the neurologist who had that famous patient with a brain tumor a decade ago that increased his sexual desires for children, said that there was no single factor that accounted for behavior—such as genes condemning men to become pedophiles. “Many things undoubtedly affect the wiring—genes, experience, aging, disease,” he said.