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Child molesters and paedophiles: what does the law say?

by Ridley&Hall in Children posted March 11, 2022.

While the two terms are sometimes used synonymously, there are some important differences. The word “paedophile” refers to a psychiatric disorder, where a paedophile has primary or exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Some paedophiles do not abuse or molest children, and not all child molesters are paedophiles [1].

There are many consequences for survivors of child sexual abuse, including depression, anxiety, suicidal ideations, self-destructive behaviour, substance abuse and low self-esteem, as well as being at a higher risk of revictimisation [2].

What causes paedophilia?

The causes of paedophilia are disputed. Not all paedophiles have experienced sexual abuse themselves, but they are more likely than average to have been abused as a child [3]. Other studies have shown that experiencing emotional or physical abuse or neglect as a child or being exposed to family violence also increases the likelihood of later becoming a perpetrator of child sexual abuse [4].

There is evidence to suggest that the age of onset of paedophilia is low, with some studies finding that paedophiles become aware of their attraction to children at an average of 14 years old [5]. However, they may not realise this is unusual compared to the people around them until 3 or 4 years later. Studies have also found that a paedophile’s sexual interest in children remains relatively stable throughout their lives [6].

Can you treat paedophilia?

Some medical treatment is available to help reduce the intensity of a paedophile’s sexual fantasies and urges, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or antilibidinal medication, which are used alongside psychological treatment [7]. There is evidence that using both medical and psychological treatments within a risk management plan has the best chance of preventing an offence and treatment can be successful, but it is voluntary and therefore is more likely to be taken up by individuals who do not want to commit a criminal offence. The most widely accepted and empirically supported model of sexual offender treatment is cognitive-behavioural treatment [8].

Who commits child sexual abuse and how likely are they to do it again?

Sexual abuse by strangers is relatively rare. In fact, the vast majority of people who sexually abuse children, around 94%, do so to their own child or a child they already know [9].

It can be difficult to gather reliable data on how many people convicted of child sexual abuse go on to reoffend, but one study found 18% of men convicted of sex offences against children under 13 were reconvicted [10], and another found that the figure was higher, at 35% [11].

Professionals will often complete a risk management plan, which includes a risk assessment of how likely it is that the individual will offend or reoffend. There is no single risk factor which has been found to reliably indicate the risk of reoffence, so multiple factors are taken into account and data are used which most closely relate to the individual in question [12].

What measures are in place to stop reoffending?

Anyone cautioned or convicted of a sexual offence under the Sexual Offences Act will be entered onto the Sex Offender’s Register. When someone is convicted of sexual abuse, they will often be subject to a Sexual Harm Prevention Order (SHPO). These orders can be made for purposes of protecting the public from sexual harm and can be ordered by the court in two ways:

  1. The court can make an SHPO when a defendant is before the court in relation to an offence in Schedule 3 or 5 of the SOA 2003 (Sexual Offences Act). A CPS Prosecutor will apply for this.
  2. The court can also make an SHPO when a Chief Officer of Police or the Director General of the National Crime Agency applies by complaint to a Magistrates Court.

See our previous blog post on the consequences of being convicted of a sexual offence for more details.

Works Cited

[1] K. Richards, “Misperceptions about child sex offenders,” Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, vol. 429, 2011.
[2] J. H. Beitchman et al, “A review of the long-term effects of child sexual abuse,” Child Abuse and Neglect, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 101-18, 1992.
[3] M. Plummer and A. Cossins, “The Cycle of Abuse: When Victims Become Offenders,” Trauma Violence Abuse, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 286-304, 2018.
[4] D. Salter et al, “Development of sexually abusive behaviour in sexually victimised males: A longitudinal study,” The Lancet, vol. 361, no. 9356, pp. 471-6, 2003.
[5] J. M. Bailey et al, “An Internet study of men sexually attracted to children: Sexual attraction patterns,” Journal of Psychopathology and Criminal Science, vol. 125, no. 7, pp. 976-988, 2016.
[6] M. Seto, “Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation?,” Archives of Sexual Behaviour, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 231-6, 2012.
[7] Forensic Network, “Medication for Sex Offenders Protocol,” 28 10 2011. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 31 January 2022].
[8] R. K. Hanson, G. Bourgon, L. Helmus and S. Hodgson, “A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of Treatment for Sexual Offenders: Risk, Need, and Responsivity,” 2009. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 31 January 2022].
[9] S. Smallbone and R. Wortley, “Child sexual abuse: Offender characteristics and modus operandi,” Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice , vol. 193, 2001.
[10] K. L. Soothill and T. C. N. Gibbens, “Recidivism of Sexual Offenders: A Re-appraisal,” The British Journal of Criminology, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 267-76, 1978.
[11] R. K. Hanson, H. Scott and R. Steffy, “A Comparison of Child Molesters and Nonsexual Criminals: Risk Predictors and Long-Term Recidivism,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 325-37, 1995.
[12] K. Baldwin, “Sex Offender Risk Assessment,” Sex Offender Management Assessment and Planning Initiative, Washington DC, 2015.






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