Karen Franklin, Ph.D.

Karen Franklin Ph.D.


No reliable method to determine pedophilia, study finds

Inability to diagnose pedophilia good news for TSA job seekers

Posted Nov 16, 2010

Good news for sex deviants seeking jobs with TSA

If you got caught viewing child pornography, would you prefer a prison term or a fat paycheck?

Not a very hard choice.

While the U.S. government is incarcerating some men for decades for just looking at images of naked children, it is paying others not just to peep but to actually fondle the genitals of small children and adults alike.

John TynerThe story of the airline passenger who objected to the choice between a full-body scan or a genital groping has gone viral, with public outrage reaching a boiling point over the level of intrusion and dehumanization U.S. air passengers are forced to undergo.

And lest you think that TSA's employment gurus can protect passengers by weeding out the sexual deviants from the "normal," they cannot.

Pedophilia is the main psychiatric diagnosis applied to sex offenders, and anew study shows that experts have no reliable method for determining its presence.

The study involved a group of Canadian men convicted of sexual offenses against children. Each of the 130 offenders was assessed using three different methods for determining pedophilia:

  • Phallometry: A device was applied to the men's penises that measured their sexual arousal to images of children. Just over half of the men, 55%, were determined to have pedophilic arousal patterns.
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Each man was carefully rated to determine whether he met the diagnostic criteria for Pedophilia in the current edition of this American Psychiatric Association's widely used manual. About 70% of the men met the criteria.
  • Expert judgment: Expert raters provided opinions as to whether each of the men possessed a sexually deviant interest in children such that they should be categorized as pedophiles. (The study does not provide details on the experts, or the agreement among them.) This method resulted in the highest proportion of the subjects, about 77%, qualifying as pedophiles.

But when the researchers examined their data, they found no significant association between the three methods. In other words, each method identified different men as pedophiles.

TSA scanner imageNot only that, none of the three methods predicted who would reoffend. Of the 106 subjects who were released into the community, 14 (just under 14%) reoffended sexually over an average time period of about nine years. That is a typical recidivism rate for sex offenders.

One problem is that both lay people and experts alike tend to think of pedophilia as rare, when sexual fantasies and attractions to children are actually fairly common among the general population of non-criminals. In self-report studies, anywhere from about 10% to 62% of men report such fantasies.

The bottom line in the legal context, the researchers said, is that diagnosing someone as a pedophile "clouds" the issue of risk that courts are trying to determine.

Applying the findings to the TSA debacle, there is no way to reliable determine whether any one of those good folks staring at your child's naked body or fondling your breasts or genitals to see if you are a terrorist is getting off.

And criminal history background checks won't help, either, because the broad majority of sex offenses are committed by men who have never been arrested for a previous offense.

Now, that's a scary thought for you holiday travelers.

The study is: "Pedophilia: An evaluation of diagnostic and risk prediction methods," by Robin J. Wilson, Jeffrey Abracen, Jan Looman, Janice Picheca, and Meaghan Ferguson, Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research & Treatment

More background on diagnostic controversies surrounding pedophilia, including a current attempt to expand it to include attraction to young teens ("hebephilia"), is available on my forensic psychology blog.

Also, don't miss Jonathan Mann's new song, "I don't like the TSA":


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