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
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety How a Superintendent Urged Parents to Discuss Gun Violence With Their Kids
The leader of the school district that serves Monterey Park, Calif., encouraged parents not to "let the TV do the talking."
5 min read
A woman comforts her son while visiting a makeshift memorial outside Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. Authorities searched for a motive for the gunman who killed multiple people at the ballroom dance studio during Lunar New Year celebrations.
A woman comforts her son while visiting a memorial outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., two days after a gunman killed 11 people and injured several others as they celebrated Lunar New Year.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School Climate & Safety Guidance on Responding to Students' Questions About Shootings
A guide for educators on ways to foster a sense of safety and security among students at a time when gun violence seems widespread.
4 min read
People gather for a vigil honoring the victims of a shooting several days earlier at Star Ballroom Dance Studio, Monday, Jan. 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, Calif. A gunman killed multiple people late Saturday amid Lunar New Year's celebrations in the predominantly Asian American community.
Two days after a mass shooting that killed 11 people, people gather for a vigil outside the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif. In the aftermath of shootings and other community violence, educators are called on to help students process their emotions and help them feel safe.
Ashley Landis/AP
School Climate & Safety Many Schools Don't Have Carbon Monoxide Detectors. Are They Overlooking the Risk?
Less than a quarter of states have laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in school buildings.
5 min read
Image of a carbon monoxide detector with a blurred blueprint in the background.
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety Students of Color Disproportionately Suffer From Police Assaults at School, Says Report
A new report tallies up assaults by school-based police officers on students of color.
6 min read
Deputy Carroll walks the hall of Rice Elementary School with an administrator on Wednesday.
A school police officer walks the halls of Rice Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C., with an administrator on April 6, 2022.
Lindsey Hodges/The Index-Journal via AP