The Sciences

Are One In Ten Men Sexually Attracted To Children?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticNov 18, 2013 9:28 PM

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So say Colorado-based researchers Sandy K. Wurtele and collegues in a new paper in the journal Sexual Abuse:

Nearly 10% of males and 4% of females reported some likelihood of having sex with children or viewing child pornography.

The study is an interesting attempt to probe the darkest depths of human nature, and raises questions about self-awareness.

danger_man

Wurtele et al recruited 435 participants who completed a fully anonymous online survey. They were either undergraduate psychology students or came via Amazon’s MTurk (handy for research).

The lucky volunteers got to answer a range of questions about their sexuality and childhood experiences, and were then asked to rate their agreement with three statements:

I am sexually attracted to little children; I fantasize about having sex with a child; I masturbate to fantasies about having sex with a child

Here, 4% of men gave some degree of endorsement to each question (see below).

Other items asked how likely participants would be to commit various crimes “if you were sure that no one would know and that you would not get caught or be punished.”

40% of men said that they might rob a bank For buying sex, 34%; for sexual assault of an adult, the percentage who might was 16%; 13% for murder, 9% for viewing child pornography, 6% for actually having sex with a child and 5% for zoophilia.

For women, all of these rates were lower. Still, 2% of females said they might engage in child sex.

Rather worrying. But it turns out that these percentages are the result of a “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” approach to psychometrics.

The authors classed people as ‘endorsing’ or ‘admitting an interest’ in a particular behaviour if they gave any answer other than “Strongly Disagree” on a 6-point scale. That is, those who said they moderately disagreed were lumped with those (if there were any) who “Strongly Agreed” and all the other answers from the 5 options above absolute zero.

I’m not sure that makes sense.

The selection of the sample is also a concern; the authors note that the title of the study (“Sexual Experiences and Attitudes”) may have attracted a certain kind of person.

The authors acknowledge four limitations, but don’t address the biggest one – the fact that the survey is entirely self report. The questions assume that people can accurately introspect and to predict their own future behaviour, yet this is far from assured.

For example, if you ask people whether they would ever electrocute someone with 450 volts as part of a psychology experiment, they would say: never; I’m not that kind of person. But about 65% people put into that situation do, in fact, do that as Stanley Milgram showed.

Yet if we can be so wrong about whether we’d torture someone, can we trust our own beliefs as to whether we’d ever rob a bank – or have sex with a child?

Wurtele SK, Simons D, & Moreno T (2013). Sexual Interest in Children Among an Online Sample of Men and Women: Prevalence and Correlates. Sexual Abuse PMID: 24215791

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