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

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
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
Mathematics Webinar
Engaging Young Students to Accelerate Math Learning
Join learning scientists and inspiring district leaders, for a timely panel discussion addressing a school district’s approach to doubling and tripling Math gains during Covid. What started as a goal to address learning gaps in
Content provided by Age of Learning & Digital Promise, Harlingen CISD
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
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive

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 Interactive Which Districts Have Cut School Policing Programs?
Which districts have taken steps to reduce their school policing programs or eliminate SRO positions? And what do those districts' demographics look like? Find out with Education Week's new interactive database.
A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )
School Climate & Safety These Districts Defunded Their School Police. What Happened Next?
Six profiles of districts illustrate the tensions, successes, and concerns that have accompanied the changes they've made to their school police programs over the last year.
Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.
Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.
Ryan David Brown for Education Week
School Climate & Safety Defunded, Removed, and Put in Check: School Police a Year After George Floyd
Education Week has identified 40 school districts that defunded their police after last summer's Black Lives Matter protests.
Police officer outside of a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (image: Bastiaan Slabbers/iStock)
School Climate & Safety Biden Team to Revisit How Schools Should Ensure Racial Equity in Discipline
The Trump administration pulled a directive on fair discipline for students of color. Biden's Education Department will review the issue.
4 min read
a student sits alone in a hallway
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Image: DigitalVision)