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

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
Teaching Webinar
Interactive Learning Best Practices: Creative Ways Interactive Displays Engage Students
Students and teachers alike struggle in our newly hybrid world where learning takes place partly on-site and partly online. Focus, engagement, and motivation have become big concerns in this transition. In this webinar, we will
Content provided by Samsung
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
Educator-Driven EdTech Design: Help Shape the Future of Classroom Technology
Join us for a collaborative workshop where you will get a live demo of GoGuardian Teacher, including seamless new integrations with Google Classroom, and participate in an interactive design exercise building a feature based on
Content provided by GoGuardian
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online

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 Biden's New Actions on Guns Could Affect Students and Schools
President Joe Biden announced steps to prevent gun violence through executive action and a push for state and federal legislation.
5 min read
High school students rally at the Capitol in Washington on Feb. 21 in support of those affected at the Parkland High School shooting in Florida.
High school students rally at the U.S. Capitol in February 2018, three days after a former student shot and killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.<br/>
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says Teens Are Driving COVID-19 Surges. Can Schools Counteract That?
Teenagers and young adults are now driving COVID-19 cases in some states, and experts say schools may be critical in preventing outbreaks.
4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Climate & Safety Opinion Empowering Teachers and Parents to Speak Up on School Safety
Rick Hess shares practical suggestions from Max Eden on how to ensure school discipline reforms are indeed keeping students and staff safe.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Climate & Safety Audio Driving the School Bus, Waiting for a Vaccine
A veteran bus driver holds out hope he won't get COVID-19 while awaiting his first vaccination.
3 min read
Eric Griffith, 55, poses for a portrait in front of a school bus in Jacksonville, Fla. on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Griffith, who has been a school bus driver for 20 years, delivered meals and educational materials during the first couple months of the coronavirus pandemic when schools shifted to remote learning.
Eric Griffith has been a bus driver for Duval County schools in Jacksonville, Fla., for 20 years. He's been driving students all year and hopes to get his coronavirus vaccine soon.
Charlotte Kesl for Education Week