Can Pedophilia Be Changed? The Scientific Community Says…

The scientific community, as with homosexuality, has not reached complete consensus because there are holdouts suggesting that it can be changed. In fact, I recently was informed by someone I very much trust and respect that a Canadian researcher had found evidence that sexuality can change. There was also a news article suggesting the same. Specifically, that it was theoretically possible to wipe out sexuality and start over by using drugs that suppress all sexuality, or by therapy. So, I am going to review one example of this research, because it is applicable not only to pedophiles, but the world at large. If indeed there is a way to change sexuality in that regard, it raises all sorts of issues in a wide variety of fields not related to child sexual abuse or pedophilia.

You may think this is dry and boring. But if you are the critical thinking type, then by all means, look through this, but bear in mind that “pedophilia” is used to refer to the sexual attraction to children and “pedophiles” are those with that attraction. Behavior is not discussed in this article.

Contacts, Contacts…

So I contacted a few people, including the source of that information, to get their take on it and identify who the researcher was. I reached out to Dr. James Cantor, who has done fairly recent fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging- they scan your brain in real-time while it works) research into pedophilic men. I also reached out to someone with the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. Both Dr. Cantor and the original source confirmed that the researcher’s name is J. Paul Fedoroff, the director of the Sexual Behaviors Clinic at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

Dr. Cantor’s Take

Dr. Cantor’s reply was to send me his take, and four PDF’s with the applicable research. I was expecting to read through quite a bit in order to review it, given the nature of the research. I was also expecting to need a dictionary handy.

Dr. Cantor’s reply, directly quoted here, is:

Hi, TNF.

I’m not aware of anyone successfully doing that kind of thing. The closest I can think of is a psychiatrist in Ottawa (Paul Fedoroff) who still believes in conversion therapy for pedophiles, but there is no evidence he is right, and there is a lot of evidence that he is wrong. Other researchers have re-analyzed Fedoroff’s findings and showed that he analyzed it incorrectly. I have heard him re-state his belief on a listserv recently, and I do not expect any amount of evidence is capable of convincing him he is mistaken.

Assuming Fedoroff is the source, here is his article claiming changing pedophiles and the many articles showing he was wrong. In my opinion, Fedoroff is selling false hope.

– James

The five studies are:

Changes in Sexual Arousal as Measured by Penile Plethysmography in Men with Pedophilic Sexual Interest, Müller et al, 2014 (original study)

A Failure to Demonstrate Changes in Sexual Interest in Pedophilic Men: Comment on Müller et al (2014), J. Michael Bailey, 2015

Purported Changes in Pedophilia as Statistical Artefacts: Comment on Müller et al. (2014), Cantor, James M, 2015

The Lability of Pedophilic Interests as Measured by Phallometry, Lalumière, Martin, 2015

Evidence That Arousal to Pedophilic Stimuli Can Change: Response
to Bailey, Cantor, and Lalumière
, Fedoroff et al, 2015

Critical Thinking First, Guys

Being smart, I did not want to just take Dr. Cantor at his word, though I will admit to being biased by it. The stakes were too high, and the source of the original claim was not just a random person. It is someone who has helped me for over five years now, a therapist I very much respect (yes, I see a therapist about my attractions).

So trying to get to the bottom of what my therapist said, and what it all meant, I sat down and prepared myself to be bored out of my mind, and found that the initial study was only 9 pages and was, and I quote, “…based on work done by Karolina Müller in partial fulfillment of her master’s degree under the supervision of Drs. Peer Briken and John Paul Fedoroff.” That alone raises a flag for me, but okay, I kept reading. The study was also done in 2014, so if it had held water in the first place, I likely would have heard about it by now.

Also raising flags for me was the number of citations in Mr. Federoff’s other works: Many of his studies are not cited by other studies (citations). A brief review of Google Scholar only turns up a handful of pages of studies, and most of them have no citations or are irrelevant. The first thing I look at with studies is usually how many times it has been cited by other studies, and since the original study has been cited 32 times, this raised a minor flag.

Going Through The Study

I had to stop in the first page, because the authors leave a gaping hole right in their introduction: They point out that not all men who commit sex crimes have pedophilic disorder, but they ignore the reality that not all with pedophilic disorder have committed sex crimes. Maybe they thought their audience already knew that? But then they make a vague statement that sexual orientation is different from sexual interest… and fail to expand on how they mean that or why they believe that is true. In other words, they are setting up their paper and not defining the terms they are using, which is elementary.

Further, they mention that penile plethysmography testing (PPT) has been criticized… and they never mention what that criticism is, and go on to detail how they used PPT results for their study. For anyone who does not know, PPT is a test where the test-taker is exposed to pictures and audio stories that are meant to sexually arouse or are neutral and not meant to arouse. The pictures and audio that are meant to arouse involve both adults and children, and the physical erectile response is measured by a special ring that goes around the person’s penis (sorry, ladies). From other research and reports, I know offhand that PPT can be fooled: If someone is intentionally trying to think about something non-erotic, the results can be skewed. It is similar to polygraph in that manner.

That is a rather important criticism to overlook, because the study looks at the previous result charts of a few men, and then later result charts of those same men taking the same test.

Methodological Flaws… Without Reading The Commentaries

Before I even got to their methods and results section (the meat of any serious research study), I found one major methodological flaw: They admit to not knowing how exclusively the men were attracted to children, and they intentionally selected men whose results to children were greater during initial test results. In other words, they cherry-picked their test subject’s charts. That alone, for me, is enough to dismiss the study. However, most of their sample (79%) had committed a sexual offense against a child, which also raises questions about whether their study would replicate to non-offending pedophilic men, if it would replicate at all.

Also, given the recent research into fMRI monitoring of sexual arousal (an fMRI version of the same test being discussed in the study) and how said fMRI monitoring cannot be fooled as easily as PPT, one would expect something along the lines of, “It would be interesting to see these results replicated in an fMRI study vs. initial PPT results.” Yet nothing of the sort ever appears in the study. Those are just my impressions with my limited knowledge of these areas.

Regardless, Three Peers Reviewed This And Found It Lacking

Yes, they did, and their replies where they focus on statistics and methodology are difficult to summarize concisely. In short, the data in the original study did not add up and did not control for measurement error and other factors that can influence test results. Phrases such as, “unsound research design,” “false hope can be harmful,” and “imperfect specificity” are common in all three replies, which means that the three researchers who looked at the study found it lacking.

Like me, Bailey took issue with how Müller et al. described PPT as the “gold standard” for objectively measuring sexual interest and how they defined sexual orientation and sexual interest. Bailey noted that an erection is not completely indicative of sexual interest, because people can be aroused and not have an erection. There are also biases that can influence test results, like a desire to give a specific response and a high-stress situation like the one most men were under. Bailey also points out that Fedoroff is biased in that he has been an advocate that paraphilic (deviant sexual) interests can change for 27 years.

Cantor took a more blunt tack and pointed out that while the study claims to be evidence of change among pedophiles, their test protocol has “complete invalidity,” and that they also incorrectly interpreted the results of their study while not making the complete data they were working with available.

Lalumière took a slightly more expansive take on the study and looked at Fedoroff’s other claims and the lack of support for those claims, and also pointed out the same methodological issues that Bailey and Cantor did. He posits many theoretical questions that the original study does not address, and control methods that were not used. He suggests that, “A better study still would involve the repeated assessment of pedophilic men randomly assigned to a condition that could influence pedophilic responding (e.g., aversive conditioning) or to a control condition.”

It is distinctly important that a 9-page study returned another 10 pages about the same study, and all of the replies conclude that the original study was lacking in similar ways.

Fedoroff et al. Responds

In true scientific fashion, the authors of the original study replied to the concerns of the three aforementioned authors. However, the responses largely nitpicked minor details and did not provide anything in the way of new evidence (or data) supporting the conclusions of the original study. In fact, Fedoroff et al points out that a study cited by Bailey was unpublished, and then uses an unpublished study of his own to counter a similar point.

They also reiterate that sexual orientation is different from sexual arousal, saying, in part, that “a gay man is still gay even if he loses his sex drive or is unable to get an erection.” Being unable to get an erection but still being gay would dispute the very claims the original study is making: That because several men showed a 50% decreased erectile response to child stimuli and a 50% increase in response to adult stimuli, their sexual orientation had changed. They offer no explanation for why their claims should apply to the criticisms, but not their own study, since PPT measures erectile response, not an internal response in the brain.

In short, the response from Federoff et al nitpicks details that do not undermine the strength of my objections to his study, or the objections made by the three researchers who were replying to his study.

A Word About Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Studies On Pedophiles

We are still figuring out how fMRI can be used with pedophilic individuals, and there is still much we do not know. A recent study suggests that fMRI shows that pedophilia is neurodevelopmental in nature. However, Cantor’s research into the brains of pedophilic vs. nonpedophilic men show that there is a definite biological origin of pedophilia. Again, pedophilia is the sexual feeling, not the act of sexually abusing children. Cantor’s research suggests that in some senses that we are still discovering, a sexual attraction to children develops with biology and may be inborn in some ways. Can you change the physical structure of the brain to eliminate sexual attraction? Yes, that sounds ridiculous, and it is. If you want it straight from Dr. Cantor’s mouth… you can watch his hourlong explanation of the research.

A Word About Sexual Attraction To Adults Vs. Children

I suppose some would not like hearing this, but I have a primary sexual attraction towards children. The way I usually describe it is that about 80% of my attraction is towards children, broadly, and 90% of all of my attractions are towards males. I have attempted many times to turn those tables to have fantasies that involve adults, and every time I have attempted this, it is like fighting with a rubber ball: It bounces my fantasies back to children every time, and the longer I try to go without a fantasy involving a child, the harder it becomes to avoid said fantasy. It is a losing battle. I know from my own experience, and I suspect most pedophiles share this, that attempting to just have fantasies of adults does not work. Eventually, the response to adults is just not there, even if one is not exclusively attracted to children.

So where does that leave me? Well, I can take drugs to lessen the sex drive (the side effects are NOT worth it). I can argue with myself about how monstrous I am for thinking about children sexually (putting me in a rather nasty mental state of depression and suicidal thoughts, if I am being honest, which helps no one). I could also accept how I feel, what I fantasize about, and remember that fantasy is not the same as reality and that hurting a child is a choice. That is, I could actively choose to fight the idea of being sexual with a child while accepting that it is natural to have fantasies involving just that and accepting that I can never act on those fantasies.

Absent a way to change my sexual attraction, I do not see any other alternatives that lead to a healthy mental state. If you want to prove this to be wrong, then become a scientist and study this stuff. Do a better job than Federoff and come up with alternatives with real data to support them.

In Short…

In short, there is very limited evidence to support the study’s hypothesis that, “sexual orientation is indeed different from sexual interest.” There were no definitions offered for either term in any of the 24 pages of information I had at my disposal. The prevailing opinion about pedophilic sexual “interest” has been that it cannot change, and that it is harmful to try. To suggest otherwise without proof makes Dr. Federoff look like a quack.

That is what is historically the case with sexuality in general, and of course, the prevailing opinion about homosexual “interest” is that it cannot change, and that it is harmful to try. Frankly, the man in the National Post article sounded very much like the men who went to Exodus Ministries claiming they were no longer gay. Giving this sort of false hope to pedophiles is dangerous and wrong.

I did not read anything in any of the information I had that changes these conclusions, and in the presence of overwhelming evidence in support of those conclusions and the absence of evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to raise the false hope that pedophilia can change. I see a myriad of ethical issues if mankind ever comes up with a method of changing sexuality, be that via a drug, magnetic changes to the brain, or some other technology.

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