Michael C. Seto: On Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children

This is the latest in a series of interviews with APA Books authors. For this interview, we spoke with Michael Seto, a clinical forensic psychologist who has published extensively on pedophilia, child pornography, sexual offending, violence risk assessment, and offenders with mental disorders. His latest book is a second edition of his seminal volume, Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

Michael C. Seto, PhD, is a registered clinical forensic psychologist and is a forensic research director with the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group. In addition to the second edition of his well-received book, Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children, he has published Internet Sex Offenders with APA Books and is also the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sexual Abuse. You can find more information about Dr. Seto and his work on LinkedIn and ResearchGate. Follow him on Twitter at @MCSeto.

For many years you have studied pedophilia and sexual offending against children, topics that are often sensationalized in the media. What facts does the scientific study of pedophilia and sexual offending reveal that may be contrary to popular belief?

There are several key findings from the scientific study of pedophilia and sexual offending that I think are very surprising to the public and to policy makers. The first is that pedophilia and sexual offending against children are not synonymous: There are individuals with pedophilia who have not offended against children, and many offenders against children are not pedophilic. The second is that many identified sexual offenders against children will not sexually reoffend, even without treatment. Of course, some do reoffend. Our knowledge about the factors that help predict who is a greater risk has grown a great deal in the past 25 years. A third finding is that there is growing evidence that evidence-based treatments for sexual offending can reduce the likelihood of reoffending for higher risk individuals.

There are many people out there who probably ask, “Why study these people? What’s the use in trying to understand such reprehensible behavior?” How do you respond to these sentiments?

My view is that we cannot advance our shared goal of preventing sexual exploitation and abuse of children if we do not understand pedophilia and sexual offending. This includes understanding the etiology of pedophilia and developing better ways to assess and treat this condition. It also includes ongoing work on assessment and treatment of sexual offenders. Otherwise, well-meaning efforts to prevent child sexual exploitation and abuse are less likely to succeed. I know these are difficult topics, and that there is a lot of anxiety, fear, and anger about pedophilia and sexual offending against children. But ignorance is not going to help us.

 In your book, you focus on the differences between pedophilia and sexual offending, as well as hebephilia. Can you summarize these distinctions?

As I’ve already mentioned, I cannot emphasize enough that pedophilia and sexual offending against children are not synonymous: There are individuals with pedophilia who have not offended against children, and many offenders against children are not pedophilic. There is overlap of course, and that is the main reason I have addressed both topics in this second edition. But the distinction is meaningful and important.

Our understanding of hebephilia as a distinct sexual interest in pubescent children, as opposed to prepubescent children in the case of pedophilia, is less developed. My hope is that discussing hebephilia at some length in this book can help us understand this sexual interest.

What treatment and management methods can help persons with pedophilia? Can you tell us a little about prevention programs? 

We are in the very early stages of understanding what can work in terms of prevention and treatment. My view of pedophilia is that it resembles a sexual orientation for age, with some parallels in how it is expressed and experienced to sexual orientation for gender. Given this view, it is unlikely that we can change sexual interests in children, so my hope is that we can develop methods to identify those who will develop pedophilia early and support them in developing effective ways of managing their sexual thoughts, fantasies, and urges. To do this, we have to tackle the enormous stigma about pedophilia, and have honest (and difficult) conversations about it.

Being from Canada, do you find that public perception of these issues is different in Canada vs. the US?

I want to be careful about making broad national generalizations, but I do think my perspective as a Canadian psychologist and researcher is relevant. I don’t know that there are big differences in public opinions or understanding of pedophilia and sexual offending. But there are clearly big differences in how Canada (and other countries) deal with sexual offending against children compared to the US. I talk about this in the book. In particular, the US stands out globally in terms of the punitive and empirically unsupported policies it has developed, including public registration of sexual offenders (the registries are accessible only by police in Canada), registration of juveniles who have sexually offended, and laws restricting where sex offenders can live when they return to the community. These policies are well meaning, but they do not appear to serve the goals they were intended to.

What can be done to help safeguard the rights of sexual offenders, without putting children at risk? 

I talk about stigma and public perceptions a lot in the book. I agree that individuals who have sexually offended against children should be held accountable for their actions. I have no objections to policies or practices that limit the freedoms of sexual offenders, if they are shown to be effective in reducing sexual offenses against children, but unfortunately many existing policies and practices are not based on scientific evidence. In general, I think policies and practices that are built on anxiety, fear, and anger are going to be less likely to achieve their goals than those built on evidence, compassion, and an appreciation for the complexities of treating pedophilia and preventing sexual offending against children. The hope that I have held my entire career is that we can work towards the prevention of child sexual exploitation and abuse while still recognizing the humanity of those who have sexually offended, and those who are at risk to do so because they are sexually attracted to children.

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