The word pedophilia originates from the Greek words paidos, meaning child, and philia, meaning love. A pedophile is characterized by sexual attraction to and maybe love for children. The first scientist to use the concept was the German sexologist and physician Richard Krafft-Ebing. In his monograph Psychopatia Sexualis, published in 1886, he defined pedophilia as a psychosexual perversion, open to cure. This was in sharp contrast to the prevailing religious and moral judgment on sexual relations between adults and children. To Krafft-Ebing, pedophilia could be caused by senility or other mental deficiencies. Around 1906, his British counterpart Havelock Ellis presented pedophilia as an extreme version of normal masculine sexuality. Currently, pedophilia is understood as a divergence of personality, caused by psychological damage in early childhood. This concept was rarely used in English before the 1950s.

It is generally believed that pedophiles vary as much as any other group of human beings. The majority consists of men, who seek contact with children, mainly boys, in early puberty. Some wish to stimulate the child, some seek mutual

The Snake Charmer (c. 1870), Jean-Léon Gérôme. By displacing the scene onto a foreign landscape, nineteenth-century European artists could hint at an erotic view of children that would be unacceptable using Western subjects. © , Williamstown, Massachusetts.

stimulation, and others want to have intercourse with the child. A minority, who get most of the press coverage, are fascinated by sadistic elements in their relation to children, as was the case among a group of pedophiles in Holland and Belgium who were discovered during the 1990s in a widely publicized case.

Until relatively recently, pedophiles had fairly easy access to children, who were left largely unattended by parents. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, growing attention to the phenomenon has made it more difficult for pedophiles to act out their sexual urges. This is why easy access to CHILD PORNOGRAPHY and chat rooms on the Internet play such a prominent role in stimulating the fantasies of pedophiles and, probably, alleviating the desire for more aggressive behavior.

The first British and American surveys of sexual CHILD ABUSE date from the 1920s. More substantial surveys were conducted from the 1950s on, with the Kinsey Reports taking the lead. A comparative study of Anglo-American surveys covering the years 1940 though 1990 showed no noticeable change in the prevalence of abuse of girls younger than fourteen. Between 10 and 12 percent are thought to have been sexually abused. There are no comparable figures for boys. The surveys of the 1990s produced highly contradictory data, which vary depending on differences in study populations and design. The number of college students who claim to have been sexually abused as children varies from 15 to 30 percent. Of these, only five or six percent mention that they have experienced intercourse during childhood. Scandinavian surveys show a similar picture. Official crime statistics indicate a much lower incidence of child sexual abuse, which suggests a large number of unreported instances, especially for severe crimes in family settings. To what degree the sexual abuse is caused by pedophiles–in the figure of the "dirty old man"–and not by relatives or other persons known to the child is impossible to discern from the existing statistical sources. But all research suggests that the most severe sexual abuses of children are related to incestuous relations within the family.

The Cultural History of Pedophilia

Despite the lack of statistics, other sources indicate that sexual relations between adults and children have always existed. Attitudes toward this have changed over the course of history, and these relations have been condemned since late antiquity. Despite this we can find examples of prominent figures, including Saint Augustine (354–430), Muhammad (570–632), and Gandhi (1869–1948), who publicly enjoyed the company of young children and may have had sexual relations with them.

In the strictly hierarchical society of classical Greece, sexual relations between an adult man and a boy were seen as contributing to the boy's education. In late antiquity this view was questioned by, among others, the poet Ovid and the philosopher Plutarch. They argued that such a relationship was not fulfilling for the adult, since the boy, due to his inferior social status, was not allowed to express his own desire. This devaluated the joy of his adult partner and so men were better served by having sexual relations with women.

With the rise of Christianity, approved sexuality came to be located within heterosexual marriage, with procreation as its sole purpose. This was reflected in medieval legislation that established minimum marriage ages and prohibitions against INCEST and homosexual relations. With the ENLIGHTENMENT and the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, morality was no longer the responsibility solely of the Church. The gatekeeper of public and private morals was to be the state, and nineteenth-century penal legislation built upon this base, adding sections on sexual offenses.

The penal code did not prevent adults from having sexual relations with children. The most severe sexual abuse can be detected in legal sources, from rape to sexually related child murder. Between 1830 and 1890, two-thirds of all documented sexual offenses in London had children as victims. Nineteenth-century institutional and educational sources show a less dramatic picture, with some ambiguity about the line between physical and sexual abuse of children by teachers or priests.

Discourse on the sexual abuse of children was renewed in France and England around 1850 as a result of the rise of the middle-class family, with its romantic concept of the child, as well as the establishment of the new scientific professions of psychiatry and forensic medicine. Two French physicians, Adolphe Toulmouche and Ambrose Tardieu, undertook the first forensic medical studies of child victims of sexual abuse.

But it was not until the publication of a series of articles entitled "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" in the British newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 that sexual abuse of children became a topic for public discussion. The articles, written by the journalist W. T. Stead, dealt with CHILD PROSTITUTION. They had an enormous effect on a public that cultivated the image of the innocent girl-child as encountered in Alice in Wonderland and in the many contemporary photos and paintings of naked children. About a quarter of a million people marched in the streets of London demanding a higher AGE OF CONSENT for sexual acts. This

In 1996, a mass protest was held in Brussels, Belgium, in response to the perceived mishandling by the police of the Marc Dutroux case. Dutroux had abducted, sexually abused, and killed several young girls in the 1990s; his crimes went undetected for years, even though informants had warned the police of his activities a number of times. © .

demand was echoed all over the Western world, and at the outbreak of World War I the age of consent had been raised in most countries from ten or twelve to fifteen, sixteen, or eighteen.

The people responsible for bringing sexual child abuse to the public's attention were not physicians. Despite the occurrence of sexually transmitted VENEREAL DISEASES amongchildren, both at ORPHANAGES and in families, physicians tended to profess belief in the so-called innocent explanation: that the children had caught the diseases after sharing sheets, sponges, or towels. The physicians were motivated not only by fear of losing customers if they interfered in the domain of the family. The epidemiology of venereal diseases was not completely known. Furthermore, it was not yet possible in their society to speak about children and SEXUALITY within the context of the innocent child. To the nineteenth-century child savers, the subject could not be mentioned without evoking the image of the masturbating boy and the precocious working-class girl.

In this situation, the subject was left to the women's movement, the philanthropic societies, and individual child savers. Due to their work, a new image–that of the sexually innocent child who was easy prey for sexually depraved adult men–was introduced into the culture.

Even though children were considered sexually innocent, however, they were not always trusted in court. The skepticism facing the child witness was great, and it was supported by new scientific studies of child witnesses and by a Freudian understanding of children's sexuality. This new knowledge could also be used to acquit the child of bad intentions, since it framed childhood sexuality as by its very nature innocent.

The moral panic about sexual child abuse at the end of the nineteenth century was followed by a series of media panics during the twentieth century. With a foundation in sexology, forensic medicine, and EUGENICS, the image of the sexual psychopath dominated the discourse of the 1930s through 1950s. This interpretation was gradually replaced by psychoanalysis, the sexual revolution, and an understanding of and belief in resocializing sexual criminals. In the late 1960s the picture changed again with the development of the women's movement and movements concerned with the rights of various groups. This period climaxed with the first accusations against preschool teachers. Among the first cases was the McMartin Preschool in California. The case opened in 1983. Seventeen years later all the accused were acquitted.

During the 1970s through 1990s, revelations of the existence of child pornography as well as pedophile chat groups on the Internet, in addition to a series of sensational child murders in the United States and Europe, resulted in a new moral panic, which led to an insistence on stronger punishments for child sexual abuse and a demand for national registers of sexual offenders. The first world conference on sexual child abuse, held in Stockholm in the summer of 1996, supported these. In the United States, thirty-five states implemented the so-called MEGAN'S LAWS during the years 1994 through 1996. These laws contain a community notification provision. Forty-nine states have introduced state registers. In the early twenty-first century a reaction to what came to be seen as a witch-hunt against pedophiles became visible. It produced a growing awareness of the legal rights of the accused.

The Serial Pedophile of the 1990s

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, pedophilia as well as sexual child abuse are no longer private matters, as they were a century before. They are public matters that keep a collection of professionals, from physicians, psychiatrics, and psychologists to lawyers busy. They also sell well in the media. Whereas sexual abuse within the family has been known and publicly condemned for generations, the twentieth century has seen a growing awareness of sexual child abuse in public settings, from preschools to the Catholic Church. Public awareness has shifted its focus from the adult to the child, and concern is not only for girls but, since the 1930s, has grown to include boys as well.

The growing discussion of pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children has been seen as characteristic of the cultural and mental changes of the twentieth century. Researchers seem to agree that the increased number of cases has not, by itself, been the driving force behind the discussion. Here the agreement stops, and a variety of different explanations are to be found in the existing literature. They range from pointing out the responsibility of the scientific professions as well as the media to explaining the public debate about pedophilia as an element in disciplining heterosexual normality. The question of continuity and change has also been introduced. When 250,000 people marched in the streets of Brussels, Belgium, in the summer of 1996, was this a repetition of the London march of 1885 against the white slave trade and a demand for a higher age of consent? Or was it the harbinger of a radical new phase, since the child in contemporary society could be considered the last remaining, irrevocable, unexchangeable primary reflection of adult dreams of a long-lost world of purity and stability. The strong reactions to sexual child abuse are in reality an exhibition of adult insecurity at being confronted with a late-modern, reflexive society, where human relations are constantly changing. A final statement in this debate over the rationality of the pedophilia discourse comes from the American literary critic James Kincaid. He has advocated the provocative thesis that the contemporary concept of the child, which praises innocence and asexuality, inevitably produces its own erotic counterpart. In our longing for children, the erotic desires are banned and projected onto the pedophile. In other words, the focus on pedophilia fulfils an existential need.

The above-mentioned studies focus on the discourse on pedophilia and sexual abuse of children. Analysis of legal practices has revealed gendered, racial, and social biases as well as concealment, ambivalences, and distortions when the many words had to be turned into action. Knowledge of the reality of sexual child abuse has been based on studies of court records. They reveal that girls historically have been thought to be the most vulnerable group, especially girls from lower social strata and of non-white descent. They also reveal that the sexual abuse of children often continued unpunished for many years because, on the one hand, children were not trusted as witnesses in such cases, and, on the other, mothers were often blamed for not having been watchful enough. Studies of court materials have also revealed how difficult it can be to untangle the accusation of child abuse—especially sexual child abuse–from social and racial prejudices of the juridical system.

See also: Child Saving; Lolita.


Fass, Paula S. 1997. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feldman, W., et al. 1991. "Is Childhood Sexual Abuse Really Increasing in Prevalence?" Pediatrics 88: 29–33.

Freedman, E. B. 1987. "'Uncontrolled Desires.' The Response to the Sexual Psychopath 1920–1960." Journal of American History (June): 83–106.

Jackson, Louise A. 2000. Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England. New York: Routledge.

Jenks, Chris. 1994. "Child Abuse in the Postmodern Context: An Issue of Social Identity." Childhood 2: 111–121.

Jenkins, Phillip. 1998. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kincaid, James R. 1998. Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.