Note. This post covers some heavy topics: pedophilia, child sexual abuse, sex and sexuality, masturbation, suicide.
A few years ago, there was a flush of profiles of “non-offending pedophiles” in various publications—see here, here, here, here, here, here and here to start. Their stories are usually poignant and empathy-evoking, describing a journey of depression and self-loathing before reaching acceptance. Some stories are more troubling.
Many of the stories credit a website and support group called Virtuous Pedophiles for helping them avoid influences that claim adult-child sex is good or harmless. Virtuous Pedophiles describes itself as follows:
To admit our condition is to invite suspicion, hatred, and social ostracism. Virtuous doesn’t mean we think we’re better than the average person, just that we’re not worse.
We do not choose to be attracted to children, and we cannot make that attraction go away. But we can resist the temptation to abuse children sexually, and many of us present no danger to children whatsoever. Yet we are despised for having a sexual attraction that we did not choose, cannot change, and successfully resist.
… The goals of our organization are to reduce the stigma attached to pedophilia by letting people know that a substantial number of pedophiles do not molest children, and to provide peer support and information about available resources to help pedophiles lead happy, productive lives. Our highest priority is to help pedophiles never abuse children. We hope you will explore our web site with an open mind.
Yesterday, Daniel Lavery released the report he had made to Menlo Church in November of 2019, which informed them that senior pastor John Ortberg had hidden from the church a pedophile who had volunteered with the youth in the past. In his statement, he mentioned that John had been citing the Virtuous Pedophile movement.
What is a pedophile?
First, a digression about vocabulary. The word “pedophile” is used loosely in the vernacular to cover a broad range of situations. For example, it might mean:
- A businessman who “frequents” teen girls on a yacht in a country where the age of consent is 15
- A youth pastor who has simultaneous sexual “relationships” with three different high school seniors in his group (each one believes she is the only one and they will get married once she graduates)
- A young teen who molests his 6-year-old cousin while babysitting
- A father who regularly visits his daughters’ bedrooms at night for sex and threatens them to keep it secret
- A teacher who is having sex with a 17-year-old student and says she is in love with him
- A favorite uncle who plays sexual “games” with his young nephews and stops once they get older
- A coach who strikes up a special “friendship” with a child that includes sexual aspects
- A teenager who hates himself so much for his sexual fantasies he commits suicide
- A mother who sadistically and sexually abuses her small children
But scientifically, the word only refers to those attracted to very young children. It doesn’t include those attracted to teenagers, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the person has acted on the attraction. Depending on age, the technical terms are:
A pedophile is someone whose primary sexual attraction is to prepubescent children—that means prior to the beginning of puberty, which among North American white girls is currently around1 age 10.
A hebephile is someone whose primary sexual attraction is to early pubescent children—typically around1 age 10-14.
A pedohebephile is someone who falls into both of the above categories.
An ephebophile is someone whose primary sexual attraction is to late adolescents, around1 age 15-16.
Some prefer the term “minor-attracted person (MAP)” in order to catch all the buckets. Since most child sex crime definitions set a cutoff around age 12 or 13, it’s typical to use the word “pedophile” for pedophiles/hebephiles and “true pedophile” to limit to only the first category. That is how I will use the terms for the rest of this post.
Online pedophiles use the term “age of attraction” (or “aoa") to refer to the gender and age range they find sexually arousing. Most pedophiles are only attracted to one gender, although some are attracted to both. Some are attracted exclusively to children, while others are non-exclusive and also feel attraction to adults. The degree of preference for children varies.
Pedophilic OCD is a separate disorder where a person is not sexually attracted to children but experiences unwanted, intrusive, distressing fears that they are.
Enter Virtuous Pedophiles
Virtuous Pedophiles (VirPed) is relatively new. The group started in 2012 because the founders wanted a support group that was definitively “anti-contact.”
Prior to that, most online pedophile communities were “pro-contact”, which means they believe that adult-child sexual relationships are not intrinsically harmful—rather, they can be good, and it is society that is wrong in suppressing them. These groups tend to advocate for lowering the age of consent and they want to remove the societal stigma against adult-child relationships. Other groups, while not officially pro-contact, waffled.
Virtuous Pedophiles takes an “anti-contact” stance—they say that adult-child sexual relationships are intrinsically harmful and must never be attempted, period. These groups focus on advocating for compassion and mental health resources for those who have sexual desires which they must never act on.
Both pro- and anti-contact pedophiles may call themselves “non-offending minor-attracted persons (NOMAPs).” For those in the pro-contact wing, this means they believe the laws should be changed but they choose to follow the laws anyway.
But what does “non-offending” mean, exactly? You might assume it means someone has never:
- Viewed child pornography
- Voyeuristically sought out children, in the neighborhood or at the pool, for example
- Blurred boundaries or struck up romantic or intimate “friendships” with children in person or online
- Encouraged children to film themselves in a way they believe is innocent but pedophiles find erotic
- Touched a child inappropriately (including non-sex acts like stroking, rubbing, or inappropriate hugging)
But that’s not necessarily the case. To join the VirPed online community, you must agree to never engage in “sexual activity with a minor.” Past that, there is a great diversity of opinions and experiences within the group.
Virtuous Pedophiles doesn’t require members to quit or try to quit using child pornography. Co-founder Ethan Edwards says he has not viewed CP himself and that he believes viewing CP is morally wrong, but he also thinks it is a minor harm and treated too harshly by the criminal justice system; for example, CP offenses can result in much longer prison sentences than hands-on offending. In a poll of VirPed members, only a minority said they had never viewed CP.
Virtuous Pedophiles insist, strongly, that they would never harm a child, but many in the group believe there is no harm in thoughts and fantasies about sex with children. Therefore there is nothing wrong with watching neighbor kids running around naked, say, or going to the pool, enjoying the view, and taking home some memories to masturbate to later. Other members disagree and believe this is wrong, too.
Gary, a Virtuous Pedophiles member, was in the news identifying as a non-offending pedophile while also saying he played “sexual games” with his much younger cousins as a child, maybe hugged little girls “too tight”, and did “some things I shouldn’t have done.” He described living overseas as “lots of little girls running around naked there.” But, he says, “I never penetrated a child, never – what I would call – had sex with a child.” (Gary was accused by a former foster child of sexual assault but was not charged.)
How many pedophiles are “virtuous”?
Ethan, the co-founder of Virtuous Pedophiles, tried to run the numbers and came up with: “Between 2% and 45% of pedophiles abuse a child at some point in their lives.” This was based on statistics about sexual assault.
But while rape and molestation are generally considered the most severe sex offenses, there are others. The most obvious is viewing child pornography, a non-contact sexual offense, which seems to be not quite as ubiquitous as adult pornography among non-pedophiles but still common.
There are also these less-obvious but still problematic behaviors:
Voyeurism: Deriving sexual pleasure from viewing an unsuspecting person undressed, getting undressed, or engaged in sexual activity (for example, in locker rooms, changing rooms, bathrooms, or showers). A survey of college students found that 40% reported a willingness to watch an attractive person undress if they knew they would not be caught (Rye & Meaney, 2008). (Note: this was about committing an individual act, not voyeuristic disorder, which means recurring and intense desires to commit voyeuristic acts.)
Frotteurism: Deriving sexual pleasure from touching or rubbing against an unsuspecting person—for example, in a crowd or in a public place. Some studies showed a prevalence of around 8-9% in the general male population, though rates were higher if one-off incidents were included.
Exhibitionism: Deriving sexual pleasure from exposing one’s genitals to non-consenting people. According to the DSM-V, it is thought to affect up to 2-4% of the general male population.
Some of these acts, particularly voyeurism, might not be understood or discovered by a child victim, and thus would never be reported.
What about non-criminal but still undesirable behavior?
A striking feature of the published non-offending pedophile profiles is the language of romance/intimacy used. These men describe their attraction toward young children with words like had a crush, developed feelings, fell in love and describe those children as fascinating and alluring. This seems to be the norm.
How can an adult feel “romantic” about a child? Some are aware that these feelings don’t square with child development and they need to compensate for them. But others seem not quite there yet; they still believe children have “hit on” them in the past, for example, or that they have deep and special friendships with very small children.
In the worst case, these beliefs reflect the same kinds of distorted thinking seen in sex offenders. As one young non-offending pedophile admitted, he used to find his brain trying to “justify” things that he knew he shouldn’t. He credits Virtuous Pedophiles for helping him see how distorted his thinking had become.
Does Virtuous Pedophiles really say…?
The VirPed forum is private and so I won’t be linking directly to it, but I will cite blog posts by the co-founder. I think these reflect the majority opinions in the group, as best I can tell. Again, though, not everyone agrees within the group.
Below I’m using the VP meaning of “pedophiles”—that is, people who have sexual feelings toward children but do not act on them. VP draws a distinction between pedophiles and child molesters—those who do act on the feelings with a child.
Does VP really think it’s therapeutic for pedophiles to work with children?
I don’t know if they would describe it that way. In a poll on the VirPed forum, some said that working with children decreased their desires, but most said it had no effect or increased them.
However, VP does believe some pedophiles (not all) can safely work with children.
I now do think it’s often OK for a celibate pedophile, but it’s a conclusion I’ve reached from thinking, not just feeling. I’ve heard the stories of hundreds of pedophiles online and I know that volunteering with kids often works out just fine. It’s true that we at VP don’t condemn such volunteer work (or paid work). That doesn’t mean we give it blanket approval either. We urge the pedophiles in question to pay close attention to their reactions. Is there temptation? Is it getting worse? If so, then it’s time to take decisive action to make sure the kids stay safe. If that means no longer working with the kids, then they should no longer work with kids.
They say the benefit can be worth it, as many pedophiles identify strongly with children and credit their pedophilia for a genuine affinity, care, and affection for them. “Ian”, profiled here, says:
I don’t think I would be as interested in the kids or their wellbeing if I wasn’t a pedophile. Channelling those feelings into something positive makes having to deal with the moments of my uncomfortable attraction worth it. Pedophilia is a part of me: I couldn’t change it without changing who I am.
But don’t they think pedophiles should stay away from close friendships with children?
Sometimes, in addition to running into children in the natural course of life, celibate pedophiles seek children out. Exclusive pedophiles are denied the warm and loving relationships that other people take for granted. For some of them, these non-sexual friendships with children are the closest they can get and are very rewarding. If they are confident that it can be kept entirely non-sexual, they should feel no need to stay away from these children.
Does VP think pedophilia is like homosexuality?
Yes and no. VP says that they do not believe pedophiles should be able to live out their sexual desires in society:
There are no suitable consenting partners for us pedophiles, so we can never ethically express our sexuality with the people we are attracted to. Gay men and lesbians can find adult partners and form consensual relationships. That difference is all-important.
However, they do believe pedophiles’ sexual desires are psychologically similar to an orientation:
Scientifically, pedophilia shares with homosexuality many things: both are set early in life without regard to life experiences, neither is highly heritable, and no one has found a way to change either one despite decades of serious efforts to do so.
Does VP believe pedophilia is simply a pattern of unwanted thoughts?
No, VP does not describe it as intrusive thoughts. VP describes pedophilia more like a sexual orientation involving crushes, affection, and interest in the totality of the individual.
Does VP believe pedophiles need to avoid fantasizing about children?
No. VP’s majority position is that thoughts and fantasies, in general, are a normal part of anyone’s sexuality, including pedophiles, and there is no need to feel guilt or shame over them.
Given that we are for moral reasons totally unable to express our sexuality with children, our right to private sexual fantasy would seem if anything a bit more important than for ordinary folks. I’ve argued that fantasizing about children does not in the general case increase the danger to children and might decrease it.
VP does allow that it would be wise to avoid fantasies that make it difficult to avoid sexualizing a child in real life:
But when a man is fantasizing about children he has seen with his own eyes (or pictures of children he knows), could this pose a specific danger to that specific child? A celibate pedophile should constantly be on the alert for any signs that he is becoming more likely to offend. I know from Virtuous Pedophiles discussions that many draw a line and will not fantasize about children they know personally – rarely to keep from offending, which is usually a non-issue, but to help them keep thinking about that particular child the way any other friendly adult would. Others simply think it’s immoral. But I think a fair society must trust celibate pedophiles to make those judgments for themselves.
Does VP include watching child porn as a form of “acting on” sexual desires a VP never does?
It’s not required to be in the group, but VP advises all members not to look at child sexual abuse material, both for moral reasons and for the potential legal consequences. VP members are not allowed to admit or promote use of CP in the group.
Some describe using sources such as children’s swim team photos, clothes catalogs, family blogs, classroom videos, and so on, as non-pornographic focuses for fantasy.
Does VP believe the nurturing instinct is “cross-wired” with the sexual response in pedophiles?
Does VP believe pedophilia is like OCD?
No. Pedophilic OCD is a separate disorder where a person has unwanted, intrusive thoughts about harming children. It is not the same thing as pedophilia at all. Virtuous Pedophiles are those who are sexually attracted to children, and usually romantically interested as well. For them, fantasies are sexually arousing, not frightening (although they may feel guilty afterwards).
But what do VPs think about X?
Ethan’s blog probably has an answer: try the search field in the upper left.
Edited 6/30 to add clarification about pedophilic OCD. Edited 7/1 to clarify Gary’s position at VP and interview quotes; and to clarify CP stance.
Because every child develops at their own pace, the age ranges used for laws and scientific definitions are only averages. Pedophilic attraction is based on the physiology of the child, not their age. The scientific scale I see used most often to describe physical development is the Tanner scale. ↩︎