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

New discoveries are upending the nurture versus nature debate.

Pope Benedict’s legacy will be forever tied to it. Penn State’s lawyers are offering legal settlements over it. Adults who knew perpetrators for years still struggle with it. And now new research suggests that some people are born with brains ‘wired’ for sexual attraction to children—or pedophilia—a propensity that’s further shaped by life experiences and often cannot be controlled.

“Whatever the chain of events is, the chain begins before birth,” said James M. Cantor, a University of Toronto professor of psychiatry whose research team has made a series of startling correlations finding that pedophiles are likely to share physical attributes, such as slightly lower IQs, shorter body height, left-handedness and less brain tissue.

“There is no way to explain the findings that we get for pedophelia without mentioning or without including biology,” he recently told Canada’s Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. “It is inescapable at this point. We cannot rule out psycho-social influences, but we cannot have a complete theory that cannot explain these non-obvious but but exquisitely important biological findings.”

Cantor’s findings have become big news not just because pedophilia is seen as one of the worst crimes—and its scandals and cover-ups don’t seem to end, whether in the Roman Catholic church or football-protecting universities. The idea that moral—and immoral—behavior has a basis in biology is the latest twist in the age-old debate of whether nature or nurture drives human action. For much of the 20th century, psychologists looked more to the nurture side of the equation. But 21st century science, with brain-scan imaging and computing power to analyze big data, are suggesting that both factors—one’s genes and one’s upbringing—shape human sexuality.

“It’s another ride on the nurture-nature merry-go-round,” Cantor told AlterNet, when asked what his findings portend. “It comes to the same point. We can’t take them apart. For scientists, the question of what portion is nature and what portion is nurture is incredibly interesting… Ninety-five percent of men are attracted to adult women. But looking at the exception, we can better understand the dynamics of sexual attraction for all.”

Like all science, research like Cantor’s can be cited to bouy one’s political beliefs—that people are born with bad genes must be treated harshly, as those on right say; or if people cannot help their genes they must be helped to manage, as liberals say. But in the 21st century, a new intellectual paradigm—or fad—is emerging implying that once scientists find a problem has genetic roots, then it will eventually be traced and fixed.

The New York Times magazine has this recent report on how teenage abilities to cope with stress may have a “genetic component” that turns on one gene that’s been identifid. This Canadian television show discusses how feelings of romantic love originate in specific brain regions, reducing that life mystery to mechanics. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, now at Google, has this TED Talk video—seen by 1.1 million people—describing how human illnesses will be cured in coming years by reprogramming one’s genes; essentially by treating cell-mutating diseases as a “software” issue.

Cantor’s talk to Canadian therapists who treat sex addicts and abusers held out a similar promise—that research was approaching a day where pedophiles could be identified early and prevented from acting out. He was mindful that such an ability was filled with political and legal implications, but he was bullish nonetheless.

“There is nothing in anything that we are learning that changes anybody’s right to treatment or right to refuse treatment,” he told colleagues. “Now it is my hope that as we go on, that we will pinpoint very precisely the exact place where things start to go off. And then we might have the greatest opportunity to change it… If the brain research is successful, then instead of preventing the second offense, we can prevent the first offense, which would be extremely, extremely exciting.”

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 Timesreport 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 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 20th 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.”

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.

But, as Cantor told Canada’s Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, brains of pedophiles are physically different from most other men.

“Pedophilic brain structure does indeed appear to be different from the non-pedophilic brain structure,” he said. “We are not exactly sure where yet. And we are not exactly sure how yet. And the differences are slight. We can pick them up when we have large groups to sample. But we can’t see it on an individual brain scan.”


Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).


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