The 180

We need to talk about pedophiles

Clinical psychologist James Cantor says a current court case about child pornography gives us a chance to have an important conversation about pedophilia. He says most Canadians confuse pedophiles with child abusers, and that's dangerous.
An image taken from the Facebook page of a campaign mounted to protest a sex-offender arriving in a B.C. community. Psychologist James Cantor, who studies pedophilia, says it's important to understand that not all pedophiles are sex offenders. (Protect our Children in Bradner/Facebook)

Not all pedophiles abuse children. And not all child abusers are pedophiles.

Clinical psychologist James Cantor knows this, and he'd like more Canadians to understand it too.

And, he says, a court case currently underway in Newfoundland gives us a chance to discuss it. 

A 51-year-old man is on trial for possessing child pornography, after Canadian Border Services intercepted a package addressed to him. The package contained a sex doll that looks like a child. The accused has pleaded not guilty. 

James Cantor is an outspoken international expert on pedophilia. (Firsthand/CBC)

Cantor, an associate professor of psychiatry who researches atypical sexualities, including pedophilia, says that owning a child sex doll could indicate pedophilia. But it does not mean a person will harm a real child. 

"The only meaningful motivation for possessing and using that kind of a doll is a genuine sexual attraction to children....a diagnosis of pedophilia does indeed logically follow from somebody who prefers a doll that looks like a child, to a sex doll that looks like an adult." 

According to Cantor, many pedophiles spend their lives suppressing their sex drives, because they know it would be wrong to act on them. 

Because, in this case, the alleged child pornography does not depict an actual child, and therefore does not indicate harm, Cantor says it gives us an opportunity to talk about our misunderstandings, and assumptions, about pedophiles. 

"This is such an important case. Because we're not talking about a child who is a victim, a lot of the automatic emotions that we get are now in the back seat, and it is easier in this case to talk about the issue in the abstract."

The following is a condensed version of James Cantor's interview with The 180 host Jim Brown. 

What's the biggest misconception that most people have about pedophilia? 

I think, probably, the number one lesson that people need to be aware of is that pedophilia is itself different from child molestation. Most people take these two phrases as synonyms, but they're not. Pedophilia is the actual sexual interest in children. These people are turned on more by children than they are by adults. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they actually touch anyone. There are people that experience it, know that it poses potential harm to the kid, and they spend their lives suppressing it. 

I think, probably, the number one lesson that people need to be aware of is that pedophilia is itself different from child molestation.- Dr. James Cantor

And why does that distinction matter? 

If we can imagine the point of view of the pedophile, and I'm very aware that I'm asking for a stretch, for people to stretch their points of view a minute, if I ask regular people: "When did you pick to be attracted to whatever it is you're attracted to?" most people look at me like I have three heads, you know, they very quickly realize that they didn't pick, they just figured it out, and especially if it's the same as everybody else's, they never really thought about it. But if they grew up, you know, when they were 10, 11, 12-years-old, experienced crushes, but then by the time they hit 15, 16, 17, and their crushes are still on 10, 11, and 12-year-olds, that's when they start realizing, "Ooh, I have a problem." 

Now, they have done nothing wrong, they didn't ask to be into kids but they very quickly realized that they need to suppress those interests, completely, and totally, and completely without support. Very often, they can't so much as tell a psychologist or psychiatrist about it, for fear of being reported to the authorities. So we have these people, and men especially can understand how difficult this task is, to suppress their sex drives completely for their entire lives, with no support, no exceptions, zero tolerance. Period. But in society's - very understandable - zealousness to protect children, we've kind of overshot the target in a way that very conceivably could be making the problem worse. 

They have done nothing wrong, they didn't ask to be into kids, but they very quickly realized that they need to suppress those interests, completely, and totally, and completely without support.- Dr. James Cantor

So instead of having pedophiles out in society, receiving sex-drive reducing medication, psycho-therapeutic support, whatever is is that is appropriate to their case, instead we have pedophiles circulating out in society, completely unsupervised by everybody. And us congratulating ourselves for having made things safer, when probably, we're making things less safe. 

Now, you approach this clinically, over and above your professorship you're also a clinician, I thin it's safe to say that society does not approach this issue clinically. What do you think would change if we started to approach it less emotionally, and more intellectually? 

Oh, that's a good question. And I'm not even sure that pertains just to this question - I would say that about mental health in general, and a lot of science in general. 

Where I think we have the biggest problem in our failure to think about situations like this rationally, or logically, instead of emotionally is really - a lot of what goes on in the public is trying to imagine the point of view of the victim, which is perfectly understandable. That's what we want to prevent, that's what we want to stop. Now, even though that's our natural empathy, if we actually want to affect what's going on, we need to understand the perpetrator. Because that's the behaviours that we're trying to change. We need to help, and prevent, the existence of somebody becoming a victim, but the way to do that - and it's harder to do - it takes actual effort, to try to understand the point of view of the perpetrator if we want to change their behaviour. 

It takes actual effort, to try to understand the point of view of the perpetrator if we want to change their behaviour.- Dr. James Cantor

Another part that I think makes these conversations more extreme than they need to be, are that there are also people who use the issue really just for their own political or personal purposes. The only phrase I've seen for this being talked about is "virtue signalling." These are people who, rather than using themselves to bring attention to an issue, they use an issue to bring attention to themselves and to demonstrate what good people they are. And because there is no other side, or no perceived other side, to conversations about protecting children from abuse, that's a ripe issue for people to use and just ratchet up the emotion, and ratchet up the emotion to fulminate the emotions of the masses, in order, again, to be a centre of a conversation, of an election, of whatever the purpose is. 

Unfortunately, those kinds of situations are very counterproductive. 

Now, I don't have to tell you this, because you speak publicly on this issue quite often, but there will be people listening to this interview who will still believe that all pedophiles should just simply be locked up. What do you say to those people? 

There's not a lot I can say, other than to offer the information and allow people to absorb it as much as possible. My experience actually has been pretty much the opposite. Although there exist very many very vocal, punitively-minded people, most people are educable. Most people are somewhere in between, but mostly because they've never been given an alternative way to think about the issue. Whenever pedophilia is in the news it's always surrounding a case of abuse. We never see a story that's more along the lines of, uh, "pedophile finishes work, goes homes, makes dinner." It's because we only hear about, and talk about, pedophilia in the case of abuse, that people have come to see these as synonymous.