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What Is Pedophilia?

Answers to common questions about pedophiles and pedophilia.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Pedophilia can sometimes be a taboo topic. But it's often in the headlines. What is pedophilia? Who are pedophiles? How is it treated by the medical community?

Here are answers from sexologist Ray Blanchard, PhD, adjunct psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto.

What is a pedophile?

A pedophile is a person who has a sustained sexual orientation toward children, generally aged 13 or younger, Blanchard says.

Not all pedophiles are child molesters (or vice versa). "Child molesters are defined by their acts; pedophiles are defined by their desires," Blanchard says. "Some pedophiles refrain from sexually approaching any child for their entire lives." But it's not clear how common that is.

Does the medical community consider pedophilia to be a mental disorder?

Yes. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has included pedophilia in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since 1968.

In the DSM, which is updated periodically, pedophilia has been grouped with other paraphilias -- which the APA defines as "recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors that involve children, nonhuman subjects, or other non-consenting adults, or the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one's partner."

But the next edition of the DSM -- the DSM 5 -- may instead refer to "pedophilic disorder."

"[Pedophiles] would be diagnosed with pedophilic disorder either if their attractions toward children are causing them guilt, anxiety, alienation, or difficulty in pursuing other personal goals, or else if their urges cause them to approach children for sexual gratification in real life," Blanchard says.

Can pedophilia be treated?

Yes. Although most experts do not think a person's feelings of pedophilia are curable, therapy may help them manage those feelings and not act on them.

Some patients at high risk of committing sexual offenses may need medications to reduce their sex drive, Blanchard says.

Are pedophiles only attracted to children?

Some pedophiles may be as attracted to adults as they are to children, but it's hard to know how common that is. That's because most pedophilia research is based on people who were arrested for sexual offenses against children, and they may tend to exaggerate their sexual interest in adults to seem more "normal," Blanchard says.

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