Are One In Ten Men Sexually Attracted To Children?

By Neuroskeptic | November 18, 2013 3:28 pm

So say Colorado-based researchers Sandy K. Wurtele and collegues in a new paper in the journal Sexual Abuse:

Nearly 10% of males and 4% of females reported some likelihood of having sex with children or viewing child pornography.

The study is an interesting attempt to probe the darkest depths of human nature, and raises questions about self-awareness.

danger_manWurtele et al recruited 435 participants who completed a fully anonymous online survey. They were either undergraduate psychology students or came via Amazon’s MTurk (handy for research).

The lucky volunteers got to answer a range of questions about their sexuality and childhood experiences, and were then asked to rate their agreement with three statements:

I am sexually attracted to little children; I fantasize about having sex with a child; I masturbate to fantasies about having sex with a child

Here, 4% of men gave some degree of endorsement to each question (see below).

Other items asked how likely participants would be to commit various crimes “if you were sure that no one would know and that you would not get caught or be punished.”

40% of men said that they might rob a bank For buying sex, 34%; for sexual assault of an adult, the percentage who might was 16%; 13% for murder, 9% for viewing child pornography, 6% for actually having sex with a child and 5% for zoophilia.

For women, all of these rates were lower. Still, 2% of females said they might engage in child sex.

Rather worrying. But it turns out that these percentages are the result of a “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” approach to psychometrics.

The authors classed people as ‘endorsing’ or ‘admitting an interest’ in a particular behaviour if they gave any answer other than “Strongly Disagree” on a 6-point scale. That is, those who said they moderately disagreed were lumped with those (if there were any) who “Strongly Agreed” and all the other answers from the 5 options above absolute zero.

I’m not sure that makes sense.

The selection of the sample is also a concern; the authors note that the title of the study (“Sexual Experiences and Attitudes”) may have attracted a certain kind of person.

The authors acknowledge four limitations, but don’t address the biggest one – the fact that the survey is entirely self report. The questions assume that people can accurately introspect and to predict their own future behaviour, yet this is far from assured.

For example, if you ask people whether they would ever electrocute someone with 450 volts as part of a psychology experiment, they would say: never; I’m not that kind of person. But about 65% people put into that situation do, in fact, do that as Stanley Milgram showed.

Yet if we can be so wrong about whether we’d torture someone, can we trust our own beliefs as to whether we’d ever rob a bank – or have sex with a child?

ResearchBlogging.orgWurtele SK, Simons D, & Moreno T (2013). Sexual Interest in Children Among an Online Sample of Men and Women: Prevalence and Correlates. Sexual Abuse PMID: 24215791

  • Aaron Boyden

    Also, though the first question said “little children,” for some of the other questions people still may have thought teenagers could count as children, which might push some people from strong disagreement to moderate disagreement.

    • Semigrounded

      I agree, although I think even “little children” could encompass pubescent teenagers, especially for older survey takers. I wonder if they thought “prepubescent” was too clinical. It had to have occurred to them to use it. If you want to gauge desires in a SAS, though, you want it to be clinical, you want to remove the moral knee jerk response that comes from having the words “children” and “sex” in the same sentence.

      Here’s how I would have designed the survey:

      –Would you, in the future, consider a sexual encounter with a 7-10 year old.

      –Would you, in the future, consider a sexual encounter with a 10-prepuscent 13 year old.

      –Would you, in the future, consider a sexual encounter with a pubescent 13-15 year old.

      –Would you, in the future, consider a sexual encounter with a 15-17 year old.

      The survey makers should also be cautious about what fantasy actually says about desire. What if the survey taker’s child self experimented with a friend of the same age. Does the enduring eroticism of that memory reflect pedophilia? My guess is no. Could it lead to a Moderately Disagree on this question:
      I masturbate to fantasies about having sex with a child.

      Sure. How often? %6 of the time?

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

        Excellet point about remembered childhood experimentation.

  • Frank Arroyo

    Keep your sick surveys to yourself!
    For it is written: If your hand is making you steal, cut it off , for it is better to enter into the kingdom of God without the limb that’s making you stumble than not entering at all.( so if your one of these sick individuals , give yourself a lobotomy!

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Fair enough, but don’t blame the survey.

  • TheManOnFire

    Let’s be real. Those who object to the study or try to explain away the findings are IN DENIAL of the sickest and most twisted aspects of the human mind. It is this kind of denial and refusal to accept it that leads to stigmas, that then prevent self-aware individuals who have such fantasies from coming forward and seeking help!!

    I’ve never known such ignorance than to deny the inner depravity of imagination.

    • Antonio Machado

      There are some of us that don’t offend, we have no intention whatsoever of harming children

  • Jan Moren

    Look at the data: using the same criterion, 13% would commit murder, while less than half – 6% – would have sex with a child. And murder is at least as heinous a crime as molestation.

    If you take north America (where this survey was carried out), the intentional murder rate per year is 3.9 per 100000, or about 0.0039% Assume the vast majority of murderers only kill once, and that your “active time” would be between 15 and 75 years of age, about 0.23% of adults will actually commit murder at one point.

    Which would mean the equivalent number of actual child molesters would be 0.1% or one in a thousand. That’s not a lot of people by any stretch, and that’s before the caveat that the nature of this survey probably overestimates sexual molesters relative to other crimes.

    What it’s saying is, this is likely not a big problem; certainly less of a problem than murder, and nobody seems to be able to agree on even very simple measures against that.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Mmm. But the respondants were asked if they’d commit murder in a hypothetical scenario where they could be sure of never being caught.

      Few people get that “opportunity”. So it might be that 13% would murder but only 0.23% ever do.

      Maybe men in exreme situations, such as having the chance to kill civilians during a war, would come closer to the 13% murder rate…

      • Jan Moren

        The “never getting caught” qualifier applied equally to both cases, though, and so does the real possibility of being caught for both crimes.

        So the relative comparison stands, I think. And so does the conclusion that we should worry a lot more about potential murderers than child molesters if this survey is correct.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

          Agreed.

          I just thought of a situation where men did have sex with children and get away with it: ancient Greece.

          • Jonathan Gress

            Also try modern Afghanistan.

      • Lynn Gazis-Sax

        “If anyone molested my child I might kill him” could get a person from “strongly disagree” to only “moderately disagree” on the murder question.

  • tim faber

    Wouldn’t the logic with respect to Milgram show a more alarming pattern? Given that about 96 % of men in the sample did not endorse child pornography/child sex abuse wouldn’t the actual number be in fact much higer (when put in an ‘applicable’ situation)?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Quite possibly.

      I’m not sure what the ‘situation’ would be, for child sex, because Milgram-type situations involve authority or friend’s pressure of some kind, and most people are not friends with paedophiles.

      However in terms of adult sexual assault there are well known examples of ‘normal’ men joining in such attacks once their friends are involved.

      So I agree that if a situation ever arose where there was social pressure to abuse children, many men would do so. Luckily these seem rare…

      • tim faber

        Yes, that makes sense, social pressure would probably be a less important factor in a child situation. Maybe anonymity (online pornography) here is a more important factor, but then same goes for responses on the study you describe here.

      • Len Tucker

        I would think most people have at least 10 friends. Most people aren’t aware they are friends with a pedophile but they are. Out of all of my friends. maybe 6 know about my interest in little girls. But I have other friends, who have no clue. There are at least 10 people I’d consider friends and I’m fairly introverted. Extroverts probably normally have a much greater number.

        But what does it matter if their friends are pedophiles? I don’t have sex with children or look at child porn. Same is true for a large number of pedophiles. And a large, perhaps much greater than the majority, portion child molesters are not pedophiles.

        And why would a pedophile even want to pressure friends into having sex with children, assuming they are just a pedophile. I don’t want to sexually abuse children. I much rather sexually please a girl I care about. It makes as much sense as gay people trying to get straight people to have gay sex.

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  • Turd Ferguson

    humans sicken me

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  • Antonio Machado

    I will use this as an opportunity to clarify that one main point of the article was that pedophilia is a sexual orientation. I’m a pedophile and I belong to a group of minor attracted people committed to NOT harming children.

    Let me say it again. Some of us have no intention to offend or harm any children, and we are also humans, as yourselves.

    -VirPed.org

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  • http://neuroautomaton.com/ Zachary Stansfield

    Also, according to these author’s criteria, 40% said they would consider robbing a bank, whereas only 34% said they would be willing to buy sex.

    Considering the number of people who actually do rob banks, relative to the massively larger number who pay for sex, this statistic is beyond comprehension.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Heh. Although in most places, you are much more likely to get away with paying for sex, than for robbing a bank.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Gene Partlow

    The methodology of this ‘study’ seems sloppy to me. I can’t imagine a large number of people self-reporting ‘anonymously’
    on such a charged and criminality-coupled question in this age
    of online spying, bullying and Über-brother NSA activities. That said, the core idea merits study and strikes me as plausible
    since we, chimpanzees and bonobos are descended from a “last-common-ancestor” species whose heyday was 4-6 million years ago (give or take a week). We already know that chimpanzees occasionally commit murder and (if memory serves) cannibalism (?). So do we.

    More to the point, bonobos (the sexy chimpanzee) are notoriously
    promiscuous, to such a degree that, ‘protecting’ conservative mores, many zoos refused to display them. Further, sexual
    social bonding among bonobos occurs between males and females, males and males, females and females and between adults and juveniles. So it should not be surprising that, at
    least to some small degree, we also retain that potential
    ourselves. We just make the healthy, and plausibly unconscious, social decision not to indulge in cross-generational sex, to
    protect children and their innocence. The more we understand
    the human condition, without hysteria, the saner we are. The
    more we suppress self-knowledge, especially in touchy areas
    like sexuality, the more we court tragedy and then wonder
    foolishly how crimes like rape, murder and child-molestation
    could possibly happen.

    Demons in the cellar, so to speak.

  • Interested Person

    Having known one of the researchers for some time and the rigors of their analysis I can tell you that the author of this piece is taking a very quick and dirty view of the article.

    While there will be holes in all research studies — what we have her is a very quick and easy analysis without any real rigor. And everyone is commenting on this very high-level analysis.

    I commend the actual study to those of you who want to enter into a real discussion.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Thanks for the comment, but do you have any specifics? In what way was my post wrong?

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    I can’t see that such studies tell us anything about the real behaviour of people. The participants answer questions that are badly worded and hypothetical and the answers lumped together indiscriminately. It’s bad method. And what people say on surveys may be uncorrelated with their actual behaviour and we’d never know.

    There is certainly nothing here to compare with the Catholic Church’s internal data on men who have sex with children in the church (btw paedophile is a wrong word – cf. bibliophile. Most of us love children!). The Church knows who has been accused or has been caught. They don’t have to guess or float hypothetical scenarios, they know exactly who, where and when. (And they ought to just give that info to the police).

  • domy

    Do we know how many of these people have had relationships with adults when they were children? Is there a correlation with their answers?

  • For Nonviolence

    These studies (summarised by Professor Tromovitch in the posters below) indicate an even higher prevalence of such attractions among men:

    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/44284820/Prevalence%20-%20Trom%201.JPG

    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/44284820/Prevalence%20-%20Trom%202.JPG

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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