School Climate & Safety

Labels Like ‘Pedophile’ Don’t Explain the Many Faces of Child Sexual Abuse

By Caroline Hendrie — December 02, 1998 5 min read
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When the school band director is convicted for having sex with a 14-year-old trumpet player, more likely than not at least someone in the community will label him a “pedophile.”

But pedophilia, the term popularly associated with the sexual abuse of children, does not apply in many cases of misconduct involving students and school employees, experts say.

“‘Pedophile’ is the most misused word in the language,” said Jane K. Matthews, a Minneapolis-based psychologist who specializes in sex offenders. “Very few people qualify as a pedophile. But anytime there’s a child involved, people use it.”

A Trust Betrayed

Experts who study sexual misconduct involving minors say there is no single category that describes the wide range of people who commit such offenses. Most reported incidents of sexual conduct with students involve adolescents, and mental-health professionals have not reached a consensus on classifying the adults who engage in such relationships.

“There’s a whole big field out there that we don’t know what to call,” said James A. Cates, a psychologist from Fort Wayne, Ind., who works with offenders and their victims.

Some experts recognize a disorder known as “hebophilia,” marked by a selective sexual preoccupation with adolescents.

Adults who have many sexual relationships with teenagers--a pattern that is not uncommon in school misconduct cases--may fall into this category, said Dr. Fred S. Berlin, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University’s school of medicine in Baltimore.

He cautioned, though, that people who get involved sexually with adolescents may have nothing unusual in their sexual makeup, but may instead be acting because of other factors, such as emotional immaturity.

“They may just be under a lot of stress and have difficulties in adult relationships,” he said. “They find a youngster who treats them in a kind way, and they lose track of the fact that there is a boundary there that shouldn’t have been crossed.”

Who Is a Pedophile?

Although the term pedophile is sometimes applied to those who abuse older adolescents, the American Psychiatric Association defines it as a powerful sexual attraction to prepubescent children, generally 13 or younger.

In the latest edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the association says pedophiles must be at least 16 and be at least five years older than the children they target. It also says pedophiles:

  • May target girls, boys, or both;
  • May be attracted exclusively to children, or to adults as well;
  • More often target girls than boys;
  • Frequently are attracted to children in a specific age range (among girls, 8 to 10 is most common, while boys are typically slightly older); and
  • Often rationalize their sexual activity as educational or sexually pleasurable for the child.

Dr. Berlin, an expert in pedophilia, said both nature and nurture appear to play a role in causing the disorder. Being abused as a child is considered a risk factor, but the majority of sexually abused children do not become pedophiles, he said. Moreover, some research suggests that some genetic and hormonal abnormalities may play a role.

“We now recognize that it’s not just a moral issue, and that nobody chooses to be sexually attracted to young people,” Dr. Berlin said. “And at least in some instances, persons have been predisposed by childhood abuse or biological abnormalities.”

Distinctions Drawn

In an effort to better explain the differences between offenders who have sex with children, researchers Robert A. Prentky and Raymond A. Knight have spent years devising a classification system for molesters incarcerated at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a state prison in Bridgewater, Mass.

Under their complex system, the only offenders considered true pedophiles are those interested in lasting relationships with children, both emotional and sexual.

“It would be their preference to develop and sustain relationships with children so that children met all of their needs,” said Mr. Prentky, the director of assessment at the treatment center.

Mr. Prentky and Mr. Knight, a psychology professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., say another type of offender, whom they term “narcissistic,” is oriented almost exclusively toward sexual gratification.

“The narcissistic offender is someone who is selfishly interested in the child only as a sexual object, and doesn’t really care about the person as a human being,” Mr. Prentky said. Still, he said, such offenders typically “groom” their targets, gradually seducing them by creating the appearance of caring for them.

Bad Judgment a Factor

Meanwhile, a researcher at Hofstra University has developed a classification system geared specifically to schools. Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational administration who has studied sexual misconduct in schools, breaks offenders into two main categories.

The first are pedophiles, who are sexually attracted to children and who chose careers in education primarily for that reason.

The other group she describes as “romantic bad-judgment abusers,” whose targets are teenagers. They typically view adolescents as sexual partners capable of consent, often regard their abuse as an affair, and fail to recognize the power imbalance in such a relationship, she said.

In her research studying 225 cases of staff-on-student misconduct, Ms. Shakeshaft found that pedophiles tend to have good reputations, a characteristic found less frequently among the bad-judgment abusers.

“With pedophiles, it’s almost always a teacher who’s considered an outstanding teacher,” Ms. Shakeshaft said. She and other experts contend that such educators often rely on their reputation to protect them if allegations surface.

Ms. Shakeshaft said the confusion over labeling sex offenders stems in part from differences in terminology in such fields as law, public health, and psychology. But for educators charged with keeping their schools safe, she said, such distinctions may in the end mean little.

“Even though they may have different motivations,” she said of abusers, “the harm they are doing to kids is the same.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 1998 edition of Education Week as Labels Like ‘Pedophile’ Don’t Explain the Many Faces of Child Sexual Abuse

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