Friday, September 01, 2017

Pedophilia, Age-Specific Attraction and the Split Attraction Model

I've been thinking about how pedophilia relates to the split-attraction model, particularly since some pedophiles feel romantic attraction to children as well. Specifically, which types of attraction should be age-specific, and which ones are fine being directed towards any age?

This is a personal question for me. I'm aromantic and asexual, but before I figured that out, I was briefly afraid I might be a pedophile, because the feelings I'd inaccurately labelled as 'sexual' (aesthetic, sensual and emotional attraction) were just as likely to be directed towards younger children as towards my peers. (In fact, my first ever squish that I can remember was towards my 2 year old brother, when I was 10.)

I know that most people don't feel sexual attraction until puberty, and are attracted exclusively to people of broadly similar age. Romantic attraction seems to have an onset around the same time in many people, though I've heard some people claim to have 'crushes' well before puberty. And if anything romantic attraction seems to be more age-specific than sexual attraction - judging from the many older adults I've seen who admit to being sexually attracted to young adults but don't seem to feel limerence for them.

I have no idea what is normative for other forms of attraction, though. I had my first squish at the same age as sexual attraction usually starts, but was that because I'd entered puberty, or because my brother had finally gotten old enough to start expressing his wonderful personality? Who knows?

But really, does it matter what's normal? No. It matters what's healthy.

Being sexually attracted to children is considered unhealthy for one simple reason - it motivates you to do something that would harm someone else. The negative impact on children of having an adult do sexual things with them is very well documented. It's been linked to a wide range of mental health problems, including depression, suicidal ideation, self-injury, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, eating disorders, dissociation, somatization, and personality disorders. Obviously I know this from personal experience, and my own abuse has resulted in me experiencing many of those issues myself.

Romantic attraction is probably also a problem, for similar reasons. Although it's less widely studied, there is evidence that non-sexual adult-child relationships that involve many typical markers of romantic relationships are often unhealthy for the child. There's a book, The Emotional Incest Syndrome, that discusses parents using their children to meet the same needs that a romantic partner typically would. This is reported as causing emotional problems, primarily because the parent is expecting a level of emotional maturity that isn't appropriate to the child's developmental level. A couple of research studies have discussed the same phenomenon as a subtype of generational boundary dissolution, linked with psychological problems, such as depression.

But what about other types of attraction? What are the implications of aesthetic, sensual, emotional or intellectual attraction when felt by an adult towards a child?

Aesthetic attraction doesn't seem to involve a desire to really do anything about the attraction, other than admire the person's appearance, or if you're artistic, presumably making art inspired by them. Neither of those things seem particularly harmful for a child target. I doubt any children will be harmed by having an adult enjoy looking at them or drawing pictures of them.

Sensual attraction is the desire to engage in non-sexual, non-romantic touch, such as hugging or cuddling them. Not only is this a normal healthy part of interaction between children and the adults close to them, but it's actually essential to a child's emotional well-being. From observation, I strongly suspect that the vast majority of parents feel sensual attraction to their children, particularly right after birth, feeling drawn to hold and stroke their newborn. And not just parents do it - think of the ritualistic 'passing around the baby' that many new parents do with people they trust. Obviously, as in any relationship, consent is important, and even hugging and cuddling can be intrusive if the child doesn't want it at that moment. But because children have an innate need and craving for touch, it's quite possible for an adult to act upon sensual attraction towards a child in a way that the child experiences as unambiguously positive and beneficial - especially if you're the child's parent.

Emotional attraction is the desire to get to know someone better, and to be their friend. Although most children prefer same-age friendships, intergenerational friendships don't seem to be harmful. I, personally, was friends with several adults as a child, and I found most of those relationships beneficial. Research, similarly, suggests a positive impact of intergenerational friendships - this study reported that children who were sent on visits to elderly care homes described feeling worthwhile, having fun and enjoying the elderly people's company, while their parents described them as having increased empathy, understanding the cycle of life better, and being better at communicating with elderly people. Based on this, I'd say it's fine to feel drawn to befriend a child.

Intellectual attraction is feeling interested in how someone thinks, and wanting to engage in intellectual discussion with them. I'd argue that many child psychologists, including Piaget, probably have felt intellectually attracted to children. On the child's side, I see no harm in asking a child interesting questions and exploring how they think. Indeed, that probably provides beneficial intellectual stimulation. And as a gifted kid with intense interests, I've certainly had older people 'pick my brain' regarding topics of interest to me, which has pretty much always been a fun experience for me.

So, in conclusion, sexual and romantic attraction to children have the potential to lead you to harm the child they're directed at, and so feeling those types of attraction is a problem you should learn to manage in some way. However, other types of attraction lead you towards activities that are typically harmless or beneficial to children, and so are probably fine. Even if your interest in children might be unusual, if it's limited to non-sexual and non-romantic forms, feel free to seek out that kind of contact, provided that neither the child nor their caregiver (if they're not your child) objects.


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