Study: Men downplay their attraction to adolescent girls

A new study of Bulgarian men has replicated a previous 2013 experiment on British men. In both studies, the same photographs of adolescent girls (Tanner stages 3-4) were shown to one group of men labelled as age 14-15, and a different set of men labelled as age 16-17. Subjects reported more sexual attraction when the photographs were labelled as 16-17. The researchers conclude:

[T]he consistent finding that the same photographs of younger females, but with different age labels, were assigned significantly different levels of attractiveness suggests that cognitive factors beyond biologically driven sexual attraction were involved in making these ratings. In all the three samples, apparently younger girls were rated as less attractive than older girls despite being the same photographs. We hypothesize that this difference reflects some self-censoring mechanism involved in making such judgments. This may involve a form of comparison between participants’ own sexual attraction to the individual girl and the likely social norms surrounding this judgment.

This finding has now been replicated across four samples, including one that is yet to be reported.

Self-reported sexual interest in children

In this new study, 8,718 German men were asked to report any sexual fantasies or behaviors involving children in an online survey. The major findings are:

  • 4.1% reported sexual fantasies involving prepubescent children, 1.5% reported sexual contact with prepubescent children, and 2.4% reported child pornography use. Of the fantasists, 68.4% fantasized about girls, 13.1% about boys, and 18.4% about both. (When weighting the sample by age and education to be more representative of the German population, child fantasy rates increase to 4.4% and child contact rates decrease to 1.4%.) 0.1% reported more fantasies about children than adults (i.e., pedophilia).
  • Self-reported sexual behavior with children was correlated with self-reported fantasies. 53.5% of the people who reported sexual contact with children (without child pornography) also reported sexual fantasies about children. The vast majority of these, however, still reported a preference for adults.
  • Only 24% of people who reported sexual fantasies about children also reported sexual contact with children. (This number is not mentioned in the study, but can be easily calculated using the data in Table 1: (38+49)/358.)
  • 12.3% of all subjects who reported sexual interest in children indicated they needed help. Of those who had not committed a crime, only 2.7% said they needed help. The authors conclude that “our findings show that a certain amount of pedophilic interest can be found among community males and is not perceived as distressing by the majority of men, especially if they had not committed sexual crimes against children”.

Limitations

There are several limitations to this study, in my opinion:

  • Given the extreme stigma and legal climate, it’s unrealistic to expect most people with sexual fantasies about children to risk everything by admitting it when they stand to gain nothing. Even the majority of people convicted for child pornography use deny having any sexual interest in children (Seto, 2010, Explanations Given by Child Pornography Offenders for Their Crimes). Phallometry is a more objective and reliable measure of sexual interest. There are currently seven studies using phallometry on men in the general population, with rates of preferential arousal to children ranging from 14.3% to 29.4%.
  • After completing the survey, participants were given the option to revoke permission to use their data for the research. 4.7% did so. Additionally, 11.3% dropped out before answering the child sex questions. These participants were not included in the final sample. It seems likely that people who disclosed fantasies about children would be more concerned over the use of their answers, and more likely to revoke permission (or not answer at all).

Future studies announced

The references for this paper reveal that two other studies will soon be published based on the same survey data. The studies are titled:

  • “Risk factors for sexual offending in men working with children – A community based survey.”
  • “Are sex drive and hypersexuality associated with pedophilic interest and child sexual abuse in a male community sample?”

Other news

A brief editorial commentary on the previously reported neurology study, distinguishing non-offending and molester pedophiles, is to be published in the The Journal of Sexual Medicine. The commentary praises the study as “ground-breaking.” There’s no new insight here, but it’s an unusual honor.

Agustín Malón has published an analysis of ethical arguments related to adult-child sex in The Archives of Sexual Behavior: “Adult–Child Sex and the Limits of Liberal Sexual Morality“.