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Pedophilia, Mental Illness and Child Pornography

Defendants accused of possession of child pornography are frequently also accused of being pedophiles or of engaging in hands-on abuse of children. A fascinating op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday makes the argument that pedophilia is a fixed mental condition and not a choice or lifestyle decision. It points to a website, Virtuous Pedophiles, for people who admit their attraction to children, but are morally committed to controlling their urges.

We are not so sure that pedophilia is a such a fixed preference as opposed to part of the fluid, ever-changing complexity of human sexuality. The article itself states that up to 1% of males continue to be sexually attracted to children, which seems like a huge number. In practice, diagnoses of pedophilia are pretty rare, reserved by most clinicians for patients whose lives are genuinely affected or even dominated by intrusive thoughts of sex with children over a period of time. Such a diagnosis, as the Times piece makes clear, comes with devastating real-world consequences, affecting a person’s ability to work and putting him at heightened risk for civil commitment.

If you are accused of possession or distribution of child pornography, you may be ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Some of the testing has a deceptive element to it: you are not told exactly what is being tested. If you are ordered to undergo an evaluation, think it through first with a competent lawyer or a savvy therapist. It is essential to gain some perspective on what led to the crime before the evaluation and to avoid the frequently unwarranted and harmful label of “pedophile.”

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