Myths & Realities

There are many myths and misunderstandings when it comes to sex offenders and problematic sexual interests, especially sexual interest in children (also known as pedophilia). By educating the public about this mental illness, we hope to reduce the stigma felt by those who have a sexual interest in children, since we believe this increases the likelihood of them seeking treatment for this issue. 

In addition to reducing the stigma around pedophilia, one of the goals of this website is to advertise The Prevention Study. This is a research study being conducted in the Sexual Behaviours Clinic (SBC), which encourages men with a sexual interest in children to seek treatment before acting on this interest. 

Visit our Spread the Word page to learn how you can help reduce the stigma around pedophilia.    

Together, we can all help prevent child sexual abuse!

Myth: All pedophiles are child molesters.

Reality: Sexual interests are different than sexual behaviours.

This is one of the most problematic myths, and it is continually reinforced by people using the terms 'pedophile' and 'child molester' synonymously, despite the fact that they mean very different things. In basic terms, 'pedophilia' is a sexual interest and child molestation is a sexual behaviour.

More specifically, pedophilia is a mental illness that involves having a persistent sexual interest in children, and having acted on this interest OR suffering distress because of it. A child molester is someone who has sexually abused a child, but who may or may not have pedophilia. Approximately 50% of child molesters would not meet the criteria for pedophilia (Malamuth & Huppin, 2007).  

For more information, check out this article from the NY Times: 

Myth: Pedophilia is a criminal justice issue.

Reality: Pedophilia can be addressed as a public health issue before an offence has occurred. 

Pedophilia is a mental illness, which requires and deserves treatment as much as any other health problem. Since pedophilia does not always lead to child sexual abuse, it should be possible for people who have a sexual interest in children to get treatment for this issue without committing a sexual offence

This requires society to start treating pedophilia as a public health issue, which can be addressed before it becomes a criminal justice issue. Treating pedophilia as a public health issue is one way to help prevent child sexual abuse, as it involves offering treatment to people with a sexual interest in children before they offend. 

Want to learn more about using a public health approach to prevent child sexual abuse? 

Or check out these articles by Dr. Letourneau and her team:

Myth: Treating pedophilia is the same as conversion therapy.

Reality: We're treating sexual interest, not sexual orientation.

Some people believe that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, and that trying to change someone's sexual interest from children to adults is the same as trying to change someone from being gay to straight (i.e. conversion therapy). In the SBC, we disagree. We consider pedophilia a sexual interest, not a sexual orientation. This interest is what our treatments aim to change (Fedoroff, 2019).

We believe that sexual interests are about sex; they are the things (people, objects, activities) that get people sexually aroused, but do not necessarily involve any romantic interest. In contrast, sexual orientation involves romantic interest; it refers to the gender someone prefers for a relationship partner. 

There are multiple examples to support the idea that sexual orientation is about more than just sexual interest.

  • You can have a sexual orientation without any sexual interest:
    • People who consider themselves asexual (i.e. having no sexual attraction), are often still romantically-oriented toward a specific gender.
  • You can have a sexual orientation without any sexual activity:
    • A person's orientation doesn't change even if they choose to stop having sex; orientation is based on more than sexual activity.
  • Your sexual orientation can be different than your sexual interests:
    • Men who have sex with men (MSM) enjoy engaging in sexual activities with men, even though some identify as heterosexual and would not want a romantic relationship with another man.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) also considers pedophilia to be a sexual interest, not a sexual orientation. Click here to read about the APA’s response after pedophilia was incorrectly described as a sexual orientation. 

Myth: Sexual interests can’t be changed.

Reality: The brain can and does change.

This is one of the biggest controversies with regard to treating people with a sexual interest in children. One explanation may be related to the previous myth, and people's assumption that pedophilia is a sexual orientation.

Another possible explanation for this controversy is the past belief that after a certain age the brain lost its ability to change. Since pedophilia is a mental illness, this would essentially mean that it was untreatable. Fortunately, new research has shown that neuroplasticity (the capacity for the brain to develop and change) actually lasts a lifetime! So, if we’re able to change our brains, why can’t we change our sexual interests?

Still don’t believe the brain can change?

  • Watch this TED talk by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who restored her brain functions after a massive stroke.
  • Check out The Brain that Changes Itself, a book on neuroplasticity written by Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and researcher.

Myth: Sexual offences are always sexually motivated.

Reality: People have different motivations for offending. 

Although sexual gratification is a common motivation behind sexual offences, research has found that it is not the only factor that leads people to commit sexual offences. Some of these motivators may be hard for people to understand, since they are often related to serious cognitive distortions (thinking errors).

Examples include:

  • Lack of sexual information
  • Social skills deficits
  • Childhood experiences
  • Seeking intimacy
  • Substance abuse

Research on this topic is not intended to justify or excuse sexual offences against children. Sexual offences are always wrong, regardless of whether the victim is a child or adult. The reason we do this research is because we believe that understanding the motivations behind sexual offending is the first step in preventing child sexual abuse.  

Myth: All sexual offenders will eventually re-offend.

Reality: Re-offense rates are low, and even lower with treatment.

Studies have found that the rate of sexual re-offending is under 15%, and even less for those who have received appropriate treatments (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005). This is much lower than the re-offence rates for property crimes (82%), public order offences (74%), and violent offences (71%) (Durose, Cooper, & Snyder, 2014).

Part of the reason for this myth is that people only hear about sex offenders who re-offend, but never about those who get better and go on to lead pro-social lives.

To learn more, check out these research articles:

Myth: Sex offenders are “ticking time-bombs”.

Reality: Likelihood of re-offending decreases over time.

Research has found that the rate of sexual re-offending is highest in the first five years after release, but decreases over time. A review of 21 studies found that the rate of re-offending for high-risk sex offenders was cut in half for every five years they were in the community. After 10 years offence-free, only 6% of the high-risk offenders and less than 5% of the low and moderate-risk offenders re-offended.

For more details, read the full article:

Myth: Sex offenders and people with pedophilia will not willingly seek treatment.

Reality: An increasing number of people are seeking treatment before committing sexual offences.

Many people believe that sex offenders and people with pedophilia do not seek treatment because they don’t want to change their interests or behaviours. In reality, people often avoid seeking help because they are ashamed, afraid, or unsure of where to get treatment.

The increasing number of SBC patients who have never offended, and the existence of other preventative treatment programs, indicates that people willingly seek treatment for pedophilia, even if they haven't been charged with a sexual offence.

To learn more, check out these prevention programs:

The Prevention Study (Ottawa):

  • The SBC is conducting a research study to help men with a sexual interest in children get treatment for this issue.
  • Visit the Participate page if you’d like to learn more about this study, or want to anonymously contact the research team.



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