Should We Lift the Stigma on “Virtuous Pedophiles”?

Posted in: Criminal Law

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast called the “Savage Lovecast,” with Dan Savage, and he received an interesting call for advice. The woman on the other end of the line reported that her boyfriend, among other things, appeared to have a stash of photographs of adolescents in his pornography folder on his computer. She reported, however, that the photos were not themselves pornographic. She was nonetheless concerned about his apparent attraction to children.

To help offer the woman some advice, Dan and a guest expert on the subject considered the phenomenon of “virtuous pedophiles.” The name “virtuous pedophiles” refers to a group of people who are attracted to children but who do not act on that desire and who, through an anonymous website, provide support to one another so that all members can continue to refrain from offending. The idea of the “virtuous pedophile” struck me as a fascinating one, and I will here explore the concept and some of its potential implications.

Status Versus Conduct

Ordinarily, when we speak of pedophiles, we tend to refer to those people who not only feel the desire to have sexual relations with minors but who act on that desire as well. The notion of “virtuous pedophiles” might therefore at first glance seem like an oxymoron—there is nothing “virtuous” about sexually preying on defenseless children, and the title might even appear to be trying to justify immoral and harmful conduct (as some pedophile-oriented web sites apparently do). But it is at least conceptually coherent to distinguish between the conduct of pedophilia—acting sexually upon children—and the mere status of pedophilia—experiencing a desire for such sexual activity. While the former can and should be subject to criminal penalties, the latter, if criminalized, would be a sort of “thought crime” that is and should be anathema to our system of justice. So the real question may be this: Do we trust that there truly are “virtuous pedophiles,” this category of those whose conduct does not reflect their status? (And perhaps a close second question would be: Do we believe that all or most of the specific self-proclaimed “virtuous pedophiles” are in reality what they claim to be?).

Sexual Orientation

In the bad old days (not completely behind us), when our government (and private people) openly and proudly discriminated against gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals, people would sometimes make the argument that there is a difference between “practicing” homosexuals and “non-practicing” homosexuals. This idea arose in particular in the context of our military policy, which in the past excluded people with a same-sex orientation while potentially admitting self-identified straight people who happened to have occasionally engaged in same-sex sexual conduct. Critics of this policy noted that even if one assumed that service members should not be engaged in same-sex sexual activity, the “appropriate” ban would look to conduct rather than to status. Citing Robinson v. California, critics noted that it is unconstitutional to punish a person for the status of being addicted to drugs (even though it is permissible to punish the person for acting on that addiction). Shouldn’t a prohibited sexual orientation similarly fail constitutional scrutiny?

A same-sex sexual orientation is obviously worlds away from a pedophilic sexual orientation. The former is part of the range of normal, healthy, adult, consensual sexual interactions, whereas the latter is pathological. Yet it may still be useful to think of people who are attracted to children as having a pedophilic sexual orientation, similar in some ways to straight or gay orientation. This allows us to understand both that pedophiles cannot help and do not “choose” how they feel, just as people who are sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex or the same sex do not choose how they feel, but that—like people who are straight or gay—pedophiles can make a choice about whether or not to act on their sexual orientation. A person can, for example, choose to be celibate (as a Catholic nun might choose to do), despite the fact that they have a sexual orientation of one sort or another.

Thinking about pedophilia as a sexual orientation, however, may not necessarily prove entirely helpful to those people who refer to themselves as “virtuous pedophiles.” When religions of various types encouraged people who had a same-sex sexual orientation to refrain from acting on that orientation, critics of these religions would object strenuously to this advice and regard it as abusive. One reason for the objection was that there is nothing wrong with acting on same-sex sexual attraction, but that was not the only reason for the objection. Another reason was that it is extremely difficult and, for many, perhaps impossible to have a sexual orientation that moves one toward a particular population of partners but nonetheless to refrain from acting on that orientation. In other words, critics of religions that told gay people to be “non-practicing” were critical not only of the objective of the project (to make gay people celibate or straight) but also of the process of trying to get people to stop themselves from doing what comes naturally to them.

When One’s Orientation Is Toward Harm

In the context of pedophiles, virtually no one would criticize the efforts of the pedophiles themselves or others to prevent people from acting on their orientation toward children. Even if it is difficult or soul-crushing to refrain from preying on children, that is exactly what a pedophile must do if he or she is to be worthy of being part of society. When pedophilia is at issue, it would be truly virtuous to act in a way that would spare children the trauma of being sexually abused. But the question remains: is this possible?

The people on the Virtuous Pedophiles web site maintain that it is possible, and they argue—somewhat convincingly—that if a pedophile is alone and lacking any support by others with similar feelings, then he or she is far more likely to act on a pedophilic orientation and actually harm a child than if there is a community of fellow sufferers with the united aim of preventing one another from offending against children. One can think about Alcoholics Anonymous as a model for people who are drawn to or addicted to (or otherwise oriented toward) conduct that is destructive, to oneself and/or to others. Rather than being forced to sit around alone and try to avoid drinking by sheer force of willpower, the alcoholic stands a much better chance of successfully avoiding the bottle if she has a sponsor and a meeting to attend and a community of likeminded people who can help her through the rough patches. Why wouldn’t the same be true of people oriented toward pedophilia? Being alone with one’s secret shame seems like a recipe for failure of abstinence.

One sobering answer to this analogy, though, is that Alcoholics Anonymous (“AA”) does not claim that it can successfully prevent all of its members from relapsing. Indeed, it is understood in the addiction community that relapse is a part of recovery for many people, and part of the acceptance that alcoholics find within AA is an acceptance of relapse and the possibility of starting over again (and once again proudly counting the days of sobriety). A similar acknowledgment of relapse in behavior, however, would seem unacceptable and even grotesque in the pedophilia context. Consider a group of pedophiles coming together for meetings and supporting each other notwithstanding “relapse,” which in this case would mean sexually molesting children. Imagine a member receiving a chip that says “10 days sober,” with the meaning that it has been a full 10 days since this proud member raped a child.

Unlike the AA context, then, a truly virtuous pedophile community would have to demand perfection in terms of behavior, and if we believe such a demand to be unrealistic (as many experts on this paraphilia believe), then allowing the “virtuous pedophile” community to survive (without legal intervention and without attempting to identify members and take measures to bar them from positions of responsibility over children) might seem too risky a proposition. A belief that pedophiles have little control over their behavior, in fact, is what drives the desire to have offender registries and the ability of communities in which such individuals reside to know who the pedophiles are. This belief does not sit comfortably with the premises of the virtuous pedophile community.


As with so many such issues, I find myself very ambivalent. I agree with the idea that we should have empathy for people who have a pedophilic orientation, because I accept that people cannot help which populations of people they find sexually attractive. I also find persuasive the notion that people with a pedophilic orientation are much more likely to remain law-abiding citizens if they are motivated to do so (and those who join “Virtuous Pedophiles” are likely motivated that way) and if they have a community of others like them on whom to lean for support when they feel weak and find it difficult to maintain their commitment to ethical behavior. I am, in short, glad on the whole that there is a website dedicated to supporting the efforts of people with a pedophilic sexual orientation to refrain from harming children, and I would not want to do anything to harm the people who use that website.

At the same time, though, I am not sure I would want the stigma on pedophilic orientation lifted sufficiently to allow for in-person meetings and sponsors of the sort that one finds in Alcoholics Anonymous. Realizing as I say this that not having such in-person communities may result in more harm to children, I am not sanguine about my conclusion. But I worry that destigmatizing the orientation of pedophilia could have the negative effect of simultaneously destigmatizing the conduct of pedophilia as well.

Unlike drinking, which is not generally stigmatized anyway, molesting children is very much stigmatized, and one hopes that the stigma operates at least to some extent to prevent people from acting on the desire. To state this differently, I do not know that it is possible to divide stigma sufficiently to allow for us to welcome and treat pedophiles well (when it is only an orientation) while simultaneously condemning in no uncertain terms any conduct and any “relapse” to the behavior itself. And I am also skeptical of “abstinence only” approaches in other zones of sexual instruction, so I wonder how much faith I can put in such an approach in the pedophilia context.

I know this is not a very satisfying answer to the question of virtuous pedophiles, but I find myself both admiring of such people and fearful of them at the same time. Perhaps the Internet is the best safe space that they can hope for, a space that reduces the odds of their offending, that supports them and acknowledges the challenges they face, but that leaves them truly anonymous so that none of us is in a position of having to decide whether to “out” them as pedophiles and take measures to protect potential victims from them. Knowing who they are, it would be difficult to remain silent.

As to Dan Savage’s caller, I cannot help hoping that she remains with her boyfriend—despite and because of his pedophilic proclivities. Perhaps if he is with her and can express a side of his sexual orientation that is adult-oriented, he will be less likely to offend against a child. And perhaps too, she can keep an eye on him. That advice, of course, cannot pretend to be in her best interests but may be in those of the community of children that he stands to harm. And so I understand that I am not giving her advice so much as expressing a wish.