Pedocriminality: Why We Should Stop Using the Word Pedophilia When Discussing Childhood Sexual Abuse
As a target of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), I spent a lot of my adolescence reading and researching sexual violence specifically against children. I read countless articles, statistics, diagnostic criteria, and psychological journals written by those who had studied the occurrence as well as works of fiction and personal essays written by both targets as well as perpetrators of CSA.
I had seen labels such as “child molester,” “child sex offender,” and “pedophile” used to describe the individuals who commit sexually related crimes against children and underage persons. Like many, I was blind to the issues that arise as a result of using such inaccurate terms; terms that unknowingly stigmatize real pedophiles — those who actually meet the criteria to be diagnosed and may never act on their desires despite their predisposition — while also mislabeling those who commit such crimes, many of whom, to the surprise of many, do not meet such criterion.
It wasn’t until this year, when scrolling through my Instagram feed, that I discovered the French terms “pédocriminel” (pedocriminal) and “pédocriminalité” (pedocriminality) on a small, French feminist Instagram account that I had started following shortly after my return to the US.
This account, as well as many feminist and CSA awareness groups in France, argue for the use of these words instead of “pedophile” and “pedophilia” explaining that these imply that all, if not most, cases of sexually related violence against children are rooted in a sexual attraction of sorts. They assert that this results in the reduction or minimization of the gravity of the crimes that are being committed as the focus is shifted away from viewing these acts as violence and an illegal offense. Instead, many are caught in the debate of whether or not pedophilia can be considered a sexual orientation while also inaccurately assuming that the cause for many cases of CSA lies in a psychologically diagnosable uncontrollable sexual drive or desire for these children.
If you try to look up the terms “pedocriminal” and “pedocriminality” on your laptop dictionary, only the French terms will pop up as neither of the terms exist in the English language. Similarly, if you try to Google these terms, only obscure psychological studies focusing on incidents of “cyber-pedocriminality” — a term chosen to describe the specific phenomenon of child pornography on the internet — appear.
After researching these French words and realizing the flaws that exist with their English substitutes, I found it curious how people in English speaking societies, including myself, haven’t thought to question the vocabulary being used to describe the widespread issue of CSA.
Realizing how the misuse of terms like “child molester” and “pedophile” are one of the many ways that society plays a role in the creation and perpetuation of systems that work against both children targeted by CSA and those trying to fight to protect these children, I felt compelled to share my findings on this issue in hopes that I might be able to inspire change in the terminology and manner in which we discuss CSA.
In adopting the terms “pedocriminal” and “pedocriminality” into the English language, perhaps we as a society would gain a better understanding of the complexities of sexual violence and its relation to children as well as a revitalized commitment to both raising awareness and fighting against childhood sexual abuse.
Etymology and Definition
To begin, it would be useful to have a firm understanding of the terms “pedophilia” and “pedophile” in both an etymological and denotative sense.
Formed by the Greek words “pais/paido-” meaning child or boy and “philos” meaning loving, the term “pedophilia” has come to be understood as the sexual preference and attraction to children with the word “pedophile” being understood as the individual who experiences this sexual preference or attraction to children.
Recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is described as a “psychiatric disorder in which an adult or older adolescent (of at least 16 years of age and at least five years older than the child) experiences a primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children [and] although biologically female individuals don’t begin the process of puberty until the age of 10 or 11 and male individuals begin at age 11 or 12, the criteria for pedophilia has been extended past the cut-off point for prepubescence to age 13 (American Psychiatric Associaton, 2013).
The DSM-5 defines pedophilia as one of the many types of paraphilias, or “a condition characterized by intense and persistent abnormal sexual arousal to atypical objects, situations, fantasies, behaviors, or individuals” as defined by traditional views of what is considered “normal” (Wikipedia). (Note: the criteria for what is considered “normal” and “abnormal” is under debate as no consensus has been found for any precise border or line between unusual sexual interests and paraphilic ones. Additionally, the consideration of what is “normal” and what is “abnormal” is highly subjective).
The manual describes pedophilia as a paraphilic disorder involving intense and recurrent sexual urges towards and fantasies about prepubescent children. These, regardless of having been acted upon, tend to cause the person who meets the criteria much distress or interpersonal difficulty.
Furthermore, pedophilia is currently stated as “incurable” as there is no evidence suggesting that these thought patterns can be changed long-term. Instead, most therapies focus on helping the individual refrain from acting on their desires in a safe and controlled way “either by decreasing sexual arousal around children or increasing the ability to manage this arousal” (Harvard Mental Health Letter).
There is another disorder that is recognized in the DSM-5 called hebephilia which focuses on “the strong, persistent sexual interest by adults in pubescent children in early adolescence who are typically aged 11–14” (Wikipedia). (For the sake of this article in conjunction with laws in the US that set the age of consent at 18, I decided to include hebephilia as a part of the discussion, however, I will be placing more emphasis on pedophilia due to its more prominent use in modern-day culture).
The Problem with “Pedophile” — Pedophile Does Not Equal Pedocriminal
“Not all [pedocriminals] are pedophiles and conversely, not all pedophiles are [pedocriminals].” — Kelly Richards. Senior Research Analyst at the Australian Institute of Criminology
(Note: for the sake of this article, the word “child sex offender” has been replaced with “pedocriminal”).
The central problem with using the word “pedophile” to describe those who commit illegal acts of sexual violence against children is that a large percentage of these individuals actually fail to meet the diagnostic criteria to be considered pedophiles. In other words, most pedocriminals don’t experience the necessary strong and persistent sexual interest, preference, or attraction to children that form the basis of pedophilia’s criterion as a psychological diagnosis. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, Incest, National Network), “[Child] sexual abuse [in most cases] is the result of abusive behavior that takes advantage of a child’s vulnerability and is no way related to the sexual orientation of the abusive person.”
Conversely, not all individuals who meet the criteria of this condition act on their desires and, therefore, commit no crimes. Due to the misconception that all pedophiles are pedocriminals — and vice versa — the existence of many of these individuals has become highly stigmatized, and they are instantly rebuked by society for crimes they haven’t even committed.
Perhaps the largest and most serious consequence of the erroneous interchanging the definitions of “pedophile” and “pedocriminal” is the blindness or unawareness to actual potential pedociminals that results from the false implication that all, if not most, cases of sexual violence against children are rooted in a sexual attraction.
Because most pedocriminals do not find themselves sexually attracted to their targets and are, instead, most often recognized as “situational offenders” — or individuals who found themselves in a situation where they could and did take advantage of a child––many members of society including the potential targets of these abuses and adults who may be looking to protect these young people — such as these individual’s parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, guardians, etc — mistakenly spend their time looking out for the “pedophilic strangers at the park” rather than diligently observing those who find themselves closely involved with the child and his/her/their family which most often times tragically includes relatives, family friends, teachers, coaches, priests, and camp counselors to name a few.
A statistic reported on RAINN reports that “as many as 93% of victims under the age of 18 know the abuser.” With this information, it shouldn’t be difficult to rethink and begin to question why we spend so much time misinforming both ourselves and our children in saying “stranger danger” when most abusers turn out to be closely tied to the target and his/her/their family.
The answer lies in the inaccurate belief that the threat lies exclusively in those who experience a sexual attraction for children; the creepy looking stranger at the bus stop, but never the camp counselor that my child has known for x amount of years, and God forbid, the child’s own grandparent or relative because how could this person that you’ve known all your life possibly be sexually attracted to children?
The Problem with “Child Molester” — Not All CSA is Molestation
Now that we have an understanding of the problematic nature of using the term “pedophile,” one might argue, “Why can’t we use the term ‘child molester’ to describe these individuals? Child molester doesn’t appear to explicitly suggest that any sexual attraction exists. It has the word “molest” right next to “child” so it instantaneously gives off a negative connotation. Plus, the idea of the molestation of a minor is considered illegal by criminal law. It should be good, right?”
The simplest counterargument to the use of this term is that not all cases of CSA are of molestation. In generally labeling pedociminals as “child molesters,” one forgets many of the other forms of sexual violence performed against children that exceed fondling or the use of children for sexual stimulation such as
- masturbation in the presence of a minor
- forcing the minor to masturbate themselves or the pedocriminal
- obscene phone calls/text messages/digital interaction
- producing or showing pornographic images or films to these children potentially involving children
- sex of any kind (vaginal, oral, anal)
- sex trafficking
Using the term “child molester” creates and preaches the connotation that abuse is exclusively molestation and rape, which many young or misinformed individuals may buy into as it establishes a hierarchy of abuse with molestation and rape placed at the peak. As a result, it causes people to brush over those individuals who may feel that they experienced a “lesser” form of abuse — such as cyber abuse or exhibitionism — and may cause them to feel that they are not deserving to be considered victims like those who suffer molestation or rape.
The Problem with “Child Sex Offender” — The Term Doesn’t Technically Exist
“My God! We can’t even have the term ‘child sex offender’? It has the word ‘child’ in it to delineate that the targets are minors, it also doesn’t imply sexual interest, and plus it has the word ‘sex offender’ which is used in the judicial system to describe a person who commits a crime involving a sex act. It should be fine.”
Sorry to break it to you, but the term “child sex offender” doesn’t even technically exist, at least not in the way that you want it to.
If you research online, the general term “sex offender” does pop up and it does include those who commit crimes against children, however, the term “child sex offender” itself isn’t actually listed.
Go ahead, I implore you to Google it yourself.
You may be directed to “child sex abuse” but that discusses the nature of the abuse, not the pedocriminal.
Additionally the term “juvenile sex offender” may appear for you. While this does exist, its use in the judicial system concerns the pedocriminal himself/herself/themself as being an adolescent (below 18) NOT the target of their crime as one would think. With that, there is no need to explain why the term “child sex offender” — as one would want it to be used to describe the age of the targets of the criminal — doesn’t exist.
Furthermore, the use of the term “sex offender” is entirely too broad as it includes any individual who has committed a sex crime; a list that could go on and on as sex crimes are committed against a wide array of people all differing in age, gender, ethnicity, racial background, socio-economic status, and religion. Consequently, the term “sex offender” lacks the accuracy and preciseness that many desire to have when describing cases of sexual violence with a patterned nature, especially in relation to children and minors.
Adopting “Pedocriminal” and “Pedociminality”
This is not a private matter; it isn’t just about children or those directly affected by it. It includes and affects everyone at every level of society.
In France, many groups are arguing for the full adoption of these terms and the obliteration of the term “pedophile” meaning pedophiles would be considered pedocriminals despite the possibility of not acting upon their desires.
This proposition has brought all sorts of backlash as people continue to argue the possible erasure non-offending pedophiles as a result of cruelly associating them with those who actively offend.
One of the arguments in favor of fully inaugurating the terms “pedocriminal” and “pedocriminality” is based on the reasoning that any sexual relations (which these groups consider are still forms of aggression/violence) with children are and will always be illegal offenses as these individuals cannot legally give consent. While this argument is true, it does ignore the fact that many pedophiles are non-offending and, consequently, chastises these persons who have not committed a crime.
Therefore, the optimal solution would be to use both “pedocriminal”/”pedocriminality” and “pedophilia”/”pedophile” together, while establishing a clear distinction between the definition and appropriate use for each.
The words “pedocriminal” and “pedocriminality” would be used as umbrella terms to discuss the act of sexually-related crimes committed against children, while “pedophile” and “pedophilia” would be reserved to refer specifically to individuals who experience sexual attraction to children.
With the prefix “pedo” to outline the targets as children and the word “criminal/criminality” to reflect the notion of violence and that an illegal offense has taken place, these terms place an emphasis on the act having been performed (therefore including those pedophiles who do act on their desires while excluding those who have not) and the act as a crime against children or minors which is punishable by law.
Using the two sets of vocabulary would allow people to better understand the nuances and complexities of CSA, refrain from further stigmatizing non-offending pedophiles, and become better equipped to identify possible predators in society.
After discovering these terms, I felt a strong desire to add my research to the overall discussion surrounding CSA in hopes that I might be able to inspire others to reconsider the way that these conversations are being conducted. In adopting the terms “pedocriminal” and “pedocriminality” into the English language, perhaps we as a society would gain a better understanding of our role in perpetuating sexual violence against children, as well as a revitalized desire and commitment to educate ourselves, raise awareness, and move forward in the fight against childhood sexual abuse.
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