Research

Here are summaries of the most current research on minor attraction, arranged by topic. More to come!

How Many People Are Attracted to Minors?

The question of what percentage of people are pedophiles has been difficult to figure out. It’s not something that a person readily admits to. Early guesses were based off of prison samples, but these are not representative of the general population. However, more recent studies have been conducted in the general public using anonymous, self-reporting surveys, which allow for better estimates.

These surveys usually ask about sexual interest in children, use of child pornography, and sexual contact with a child. It’s important to take into account as many factors as possible, since adults sexually abuse children for different reasons. We want to focus on minor attraction.

It’s important to note that even the most current research focuses on men. The reason for this is that most sexual offenses are committed by men. Almost nothing is known of how minor attraction presents in women. Therefore, any estimates of the prevalence of minor attraction include men only.

Let’s take a look at four recent studies, in order to get an idea of how many men are hebe/pedophiles.

A study published in 2015 gave a sexual fantasy questionnaire to a group of 1,516 individuals who were recruited online, through radio, and newspaper advertising.1 The survey included a broad range of questions about sexual interests. One of the questions was, “I have fantasized about having sex with a child under the age of 12 years.” To this, 1.8% of men and .8% of women agreed.

Another survey in 2015, this time in Germany, offered a small payment for participation, and 8,718 men responded. Of these, 4.1% reported sexual fantasies involving children. Also, 2.4% indicated using child pornography, and 1.5% claimed to have had sexual contact with a child.2

Michael Seto led a study in 2013 that examined the prevalence of child pornography use.3 They analyzed a sexual behavior survey that involved 1,978 Swedish male students between the ages of 17 – 20 years old. They found that 4.2% reported having viewed pornography depicting “sex between adults and children”. Three of the survey questions asked if the participants were likely to have sex with children, based on the child’s age. For a child aged 12 – 14 years old, 190 (9.7%) participants reported they were either likely or very likely. For a child aged 10 – 12, 64 (3.3%) answered the same. And for a child less than 10 years old, 62 (3.2%) participants reported a likelihood of having sex.

A study of paraphilias (unusual sexual interests) was published in 2011, which involved 367 German men completing a survey that included questions about pedophilia.4 The results were that 15.5% reported having had sexual fantasies involving children, 4.1% found that children were intensely arousing, and 3.8% had taken action.

These studies clearly indicate that a small percentage of the populations are attracted to children. However, it’s difficult to nail down an exact figure. A man might indicate that he has had sexual contact with a child, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s predominately attracted to minors. Michael Seto claims that use of child pornography might actually be a stronger indicator or hebe/pedophilia than contact offending.5

Another consideration is that men are typically attracted to people who are younger than themselves. Therefore, if a man indicates that he was attracted to a 15 year old at one point, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s attracted to minors, since some 15 year olds already look very mature.

James Cantor is a foremost expert on pedophilia, and in an article with BBC News, he says, “It’s very common for regular men to be attracted to 18-year-olds or 20-year-olds. It’s not unusual for a typical 16-year-old to be attractive to many men and the younger we go the fewer and fewer men are attracted to that age group.”6 This is important to recognize, because it means that the surveys may seem to indicate higher numbers of MAPs than there actually are.

Cantor goes on to say that possibly 2% of the population might be attracted to children as young as 14 years old, but only 1% or less are attracted to prepubescent children. Similarly, Seto puts it at 1% for pedophilia, and slightly higher for hebephilia.7

In summary, the prevalence of men attracted to pubescent children (hebephilia) could be as high as 2% of the general population. For men attracted to prepubescent children (pedophilia), the prevalence is probably 1% or lower.

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Attraction Patterns of Hebe/Pedophilia

If a person is attracted to minors, he or she can usually tell you what age range and gender they are most attracted to. However, it’s been tricky to figure out what attraction patterns exist in the general population of MAPs, because the issue is still so much in the dark. We don’t know what percentage of MAPs are attracted to either males or females, younger or older. However, research is now discovering that attraction patterns do exist.

An internet study of 1,189 men, conducted in 2016, provides some of the best data on patterns of minor attraction.8 The study was advertised on two websites that offer support for online communities of MAPs (virped.org and b4uact.org; these websites hold the position that sex with children is harmful and wrong). News of it also disseminated to other websites. This was the first large scale study involving willing participants.

The men were asked to rate their attraction to males and females from ages 1 year old to 18 years old, using a scale of 0 to 10 (no attraction to maximum attraction). As expected, the men were much more attracted to children than adults. In general, they rated their attraction to children ages 14 and under as 9.49. However, their average attraction to adults over 17 years old was only 4.27.

What’s interesting is that the men fell into different categories based on which age they were most attracted to. The categories correspond to the stages of human sexual development. Some men reported being more attracted to prepubescent children (ages 10 and younger), some to pubescent children (ages 11 – 14), and others to adolescents (ages 15 – 16). We cannot know what percentage of MAPs are attracted to which category based on this study, because we do not know if the sample is representative of the general population. However, it’s clear that the primary age of attraction differs among MAPs.

The results also showed that the men tended to be attracted to the categories closest to their main attraction. For example, a man primarily attracted to 11 – 14 year old girls would likely rate both younger girls and older female adolescents as attractive, but he would give a low rating to either adult women or males of any age. This suggests a gradient model of attraction.

The researchers propose that a gradient model of attraction is actually typical for males. For example, a heterosexual man might be mostly attracted to adult women, but may also find some female teenagers attractive.9 In the case of minor attraction, a man might be somewhat attracted to ages on both sides of his primary category.

Regarding gender, most of the men in the study were attracted to either females (38.3%) or males (35.3%). However, 26.4% said they were attracted to both male and female children. This is significantly higher than the rate of bisexuality in the general population (5.4%).10 What’s interesting is that these bisexual MAPs were more likely to be attracted to younger children. This makes sense according to the gradient model, because young boys and girls are similar categories. It seems that if a MAP is attracted to younger children, there’s a greater chance that they will find both genders attractive.

A couple recent studies by the same authors looked to see if hebephilia is distinct from pedophilia. The question is whether the two are separate conditions with possibly distinct causes and characteristics, or are they actually just variations of the same condition. Basically, we want to know if there are different types of minor attraction.

Just to remind us of the terms:

  • Hebephilia is an attraction to pubescent children (approximately ages 11 – 14), who are beginning to shows signs of sexual development.
  • Pedophilia is an attraction to prepubescent children (approximately ages 0 – 10), who have not begun to mature sexually.

The studies examined a sample of 2,238 who had sexually offended. These men were asked to describe their sexual interests, but also their arousal patterns were tested phallometrically (penile response to sexual stimuli).

The first study tested the construct validity of hebephilia versus pedophilia, which is to look at the evidence to see how the two are similar and if they are different.11 The data clearly showed that some men are indeed attracted to pubescent children (hebephilia), and that this category exists and might be the largest group of MAPs. This confirms pervious research that hebephilia has convergent validity.

However, there was a lot of overlap between hebephilia and pedophilia. Men who said they were attracted to pubescent children were also likely to be aroused by prepubescent children, and vice versa. This means there is not much divergent validity between the two, and that minor attraction might be a single condition, even though some men express interest in either older or younger children.

The second study examined the ages of the children the men had offended against.12 It was thought that the men who said they attracted to pubescent children (hebephilia) would choose older victims, while the men who said they were attracted to prepubescent children (pedophilia) would choose younger victims. It turned out that the age of the victim(s) did not correlate with sexual interest; the men choose victims who were both younger or older than their primary attraction. There could be several reasons for this, for example, some children mature slower or faster than others. Also, younger children might be easier to victimize. However, like the first study, this one also indicates that hebephilia and pedophilia might not be separate conditions, but rather different expressions of the same.

In summary, we know that attraction patterns do exist, and that individual MAPs are usually attracted to a particular gender and age category (based on the child’s sexual maturity). Additionally, MAPs are likely to be attracted to the gender/age categories nearest their primary, based on a gradient model. Those who are attracted to younger children are also more likely to be attracted to both genders. However, it’s likely that these differences among MAPs do not represent separate conditions, but are variations of hebe/pedophilia in general.

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What Causes Pedophilia?

It would be wonderful to know the cause of minor attraction. That way, we could understand ourselves better and approach this challenge in the best way possible.

Is pedophilia simply psychological? Are we attracted to kids because that’s what we’ve gotten used to? Did we venture down a dark road and now we’re forever lost? Certainly, our thought patterns do play role.

However, research is also showing that pedophilia has a physiological basis in genetics and neural development.

It’s like putting together a puzzle. We don’t have the whole picture yet, but here are some of the pieces:

Genetics

Is minor attraction genetic? If so, we should be able to find evidence of this in twin studies. These compare identical and non-identical twins to isolate the impact of genetics versus environmental influences.

The largest study thus far analyzed the results of a survey conducted in Finland, which included 962 identical twins and 2,124 non-identical twins.13 The researchers used behavioral genetic modeling, which indicated that there is a genetic component to pedophilia. However, this was estimated to be only 14.6%. This figure is quite low, considering that most psychiatric disorders have heritability above 30%.

This means that genetics do play a role, but there are additional factors that contribute to whether a person will be attracted to minors.

Head Injuries

Pedophiles are more likely to have had a head injury when they were young, which indicates that subtle neurological damage at an age when the brain is still developing might increase the chances of developing the condition.

One study found that people attracted to minors were 12% more likely to have had a head injury before 13 years old14, and another study determined that a head injury before 6 years increased the odds of developing pedophilia from 1% to 2.3%.15 However, head injuries later in life were not correlated with minor attraction.

This means that there is a connection between pedophilia and neurodevelopmental damage, but that head injuries are only a piece of the puzzle, since the majority of minor attracted people have not had such an injury.

Non-Right-Handedness and Minor Physical Anomalies

Studies have shown that people attracted to minors are 2 to 3 times more likely to be non-right-handed than the general population (i.e. left-handed or ambidextrous).16 17 This is an important observation, because non-right-handedness has been associated with neuro-developmental stressors such as premature birth, twin births, and low birth-weight. Also, it occurs more frequently in several neurological disorders such as Down Syndrome, epilepsy, autism, and learning disabilities. This means that pedophilia likely has a similar physiological basis.

A person’s handedness is determined in the womb and during the first few months of life. Therefore, pedophilia may stem from prenatal/perinatal neurological insults, which also increase the odds of non-right-handedness.

Minor Physical Anomalies are another indicator of prenatal neuro-developmental stress. Examples of these are a curved fifth finger, the number of hair whorls, and asymmetrical ears. A study in 2015 found that their sample group of pedophiles had a greater number of minor physical anomalies than typical.18 The increase was small, but statistically significant.

Taken together, there is evidence that attraction to minors and neuro-developmental stress are correlated, although we do not yet know the exact chain of events.

Brain Structure and Function

There have been a number of MRI studies done over the past decade attempting to discover if there are structural and functional changes in the brain associated with pedophilia. However, the results have been varied and inconsistent.19

The problem is that these studies involved men who had been convicted of child sexual abuse. Not all pedophiles decide to abuse children, and it’s statistically probable that those who do have additional mental disorders that impair judgment (involving impulse control, personality, or perception). Therefore, MRI studies based on offender populations might be cuing in on brain alterations associated with these co-morbid disorders and not pedophilia specifically.

More recent studies have sought to include non-offending pedophiles, and the results have contradicted the earlier offender-based samples. A study in 2017 recruited 118 pedophiles, partly from the voluntary ‘Prevention Project Dunkelfeld’.20 Of these, 58 had a history of child sexual abuse and 60 did not. The researchers compared these two groups with 101 healthy controls. What they found is that there was no significant difference in the grey matter volume of the brain between non-offending pedophiles and the healthy controls. However, the offending pedophiles did show a reduction in the right temporal pole area. They conclude that pedophilia by itself did not cause any observable grey matter differences in their sample.

Another study in 2017 analyzed the executive function of four groups of men: 45 pedophiles who had offended, 45 pedophiles without offense, 19 child molesters without pedophilia, and 49 healthy controls.21 These men were given a series of tests that measure response time, impulse control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The results were that poorer executive function is associated with offense status and not pedophilia.

These studies, which include non-offending pedophiles, suggest that pedophilia itself does not involve large-scale abnormalities in brain structure or function. This means it’s important that we don’t lump together everyone who is attracted to minors. Rather, we ought to consider all the challenges a person with pedophilia is facing, including additional psychological disorders or social concerns that might make offending more likely. It also means that some pedophiles are typical in every respect, except for their attraction to children. These individuals also need help that’s suited to them.

The Brain’s White Matter?

James Cantor is a dedicated researcher in the field, and has led a number of studies investigating minor attraction. Recently, he suggested that pedophilia might be correlated with changes in the white matter of the brain.

In general, the brain is composed of two types of material. First is the “grey matter” at the surface of the brain, which processes information. The second is “white matter”, which is below the surface and acts like wiring that connects the grey matter together. If there are abnormalities in the white matter, it can causes signals to be weak or mixed. Cantor believes that this might be what’s going on with pedophilia. Perhaps faulty wiring causes pedophiles to feel sexual attraction toward children, along with the normal feelings of nurturing and attachment.

Cantor conducted a study in 2015 that included 24 pedophilic sex offenders and 32 controls.22 His team used diffusion tensor imaging, which measures the passage of water molecules across white matter neurons. This gives an idea of the structure of the nerve bundles that connect different areas of the brain. What they found is that their group of pedophiles showed increased (and possibly undirected) connectivity between areas that manage sexual response.

A follow up study in 2016 examined 37 pedophilic men with a history of sexual offense, and compared them with 28 nonsexual offenders and 39 non-pedophilic men with no criminal history.23 Again, the pedophiles showed increased connectivity, suggesting that sexual attraction is being activated when it shouldn’t.

However, a serious limitation of Cantor’s studies is that they did not include pedophiles with no history of sexual crimes. Therefore, it’s unclear whether the white matter differences are associated with pedophilia or delinquency in general (The pedophilic group in the 2016 study actually resembled the healthy controls more closely than did the nonsexual offenders). Further research into white matter abnormalities seems promising, but future studies will need to isolate pedophilia.

Summary

When we put all these pieces together – genetics, head injuries, handedness, minor physical anomalies, grey matter structure, executive function, and white matter connectivity – we begin to see a picture of what causes pedophilia.

Adverse factors can predispose a person to develop pedophilia. Genetic faults may be exacerbated by neurological damage/malformation in the womb, or perhaps by head injuries prior to puberty. This can lead to abnormal development, possibly in the connectivity of the brain’s white matter. The result is an atypical association of sexual activation with prepubescent youthfulness. Furthermore, life experiences may reinforce this connection.

If you are attracted to minors, it’s important to recognize the feelings you have are likely rooted in the physiological development of your brain. It’s not just psychological or moral. Knowing this can remove a lot of the shame and isolation.

Also, we are able to put this challenge into perspective: We have a brain condition. We are not horrible for simply having these feelings. It’s just how our brain responds. But, that also means we can learn to cope and make choices according to what sort of people we want to be.

Knowing what causes pedophilia gives us a helpful starting-point for taking responsibility in how we respond. We still have moral agency, and we can exercise it.

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  1. Joyal C. C., Cossette A., & Lapierre V. (2015). What exactly is an unusual sexual fantasy? Journal of Sexual Medicine, 12(2), 328-340. doi:10.1111/jsm.12734
  2. Dombert B., Schmidt A. F., Banse R., Briken Peer, Hoyer J., Neutze J., & Osterheider M. (2015). How Common is Men’s Self-Reported Sexual Interest in Prepubescent Children? The Journal of Sex
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  6. Stephenson, W. (2014, July 30). Retrieved from BBC News: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28526106
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  10. Bailey, J. M., Vasey, P. L., Diamond, L. M., Breedlove, S. M., Vilain, E., & Epprecht, M. (2016). Sexual orientation, controversy, and science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17, 45–101. doi:10.1177/1529100616637616
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  12. Stephens S., Seto M. C., Goodwill A. M., & Cantor J. M. (2016, Aug 25). Age diversity among victims of hebephilic sexual offenders. Sexual Abuse, doi:10.1177/1079063216665837
  13. Alanko K., Salo B., Mokros A., & Santtila P. (2013). Evidence for Heritability of Adult Men’s Sexual Interest in Youth Under Age 16 from a Population-Based Extended Twin Design. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 10(4), 1090-9. doi: 10.1111/jsm.12067
  14. Blanchard R., Kuban M. E., Klassen P., Dickey R., Christensen B. K., Cantor J. M., & Blak T. (2003). Self-Reported Head Injuries Before and After Age 13 in Pedophilic and Non-pedophilic Men Referred for Clinical Assessment. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32(6), 573-81.
  15. Blanchard R., Christensen B. K., Strong S. M., Cantor J. M., Kuban M. E., Klassen P., Dickey R., & Blak T. (2002). Retrospective Self-Reports of Childhood Accidents Causing Unconsciousness in Phallometrically Diagnosed Pedophiles. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 31(6), 511–526.
  16. Cantor J. M., Klassen P. E., Dickey R., Christensen B. K., Kuban M. E., Blak T., Williams N. S., & Blanchard R. (2005). Handedness in Pedophilia and Hebephilia. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34(4), 447–459. doi: 10.1007/s10508-005-4344-7
  17. Blanchard R., Kolla N. J., Cantor J. M., Klassen P. E., Dickey R., Kuban M. E., & Blak T. IQ, Handedness, and Pedophilia in Adult Male Patients. Sex Abuse, 19(3), 285-309. Doi: 10.1007/s11194-007-9049-0
  18. Dyshniku F., Murray M. E., Fazio R. L., Lykins A. D., & Cantor J. M. (2015). Minor Physical Anomalies as a Window into the Prenatal Origins of Pedophilia. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(8), 2151-9. doi: 10.1007/s10508-015-0564-7
  19. Mohnke S., Müller S., Amelung T., Krüger T. H., Ponseti J., Schiffer B., Walter M., Beier K. M., & Walter H. (2014). Brain Alterations in Paedophilia: A Critical Review. Progressive Neurobiology, 122, 1-23. doi: 10.1016/j.pneurobio.2014.07.005
  20. Schiffer B., Amelung T., Pohl A., Kaergel C., Tenbergen G., Gerwinn H., Mohnke S., et al., & Walter H. (2017). Gray Matter Anomalies in Pedophiles With and Without a History of Child Sexual Offending. Translational Psychiatry, 7(5), e1129. doi: 10.1038/tp.2017.96
  21. Massau C., Tenbergen G., Kärgel C., Weiß S., Gerwinn H., Pohl A., Amelung T., et al., & Schiffer B. (2017). Executive Functioning in Pedophilia and Child Sexual Offending. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 23(6), 460-470. doi: 10.1017/S1355617717000315
  22. Cantor J. M., Lafaille S., Soh D. W., Moayedi M., Mikulis D. J., & Girard T. A. (2015). Diffusion Tensor Imaging of Pedophilia. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44(8), 2161-72. doi: 10.1007/s10508-015-0629-7
  23. Lafaille S., Hannah J., Kucyi A., Soh D., Girard T., Mikulis D., & Cantor J. (2016). Independent Component Analysis (ICA) of Resting State fMRI (RS-fMRI) in Pedophiles. IN-PRESS Journal of Sexual Medicine.

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