Is Pedophelia a Fetish, or a Mental Illness?

A recent article on Puckermob titled, “Mark Salling Deserved to Die, But Not By Suicide” got a good deal of backlash from readers, many of whom expressed sympathy for him because they claimed he had a mental illness (although none of these readers had actually ever met Mr. Salling, and few, if any, are qualified to make such a diagnosis). While some people focused on his suicide as evidence, many more pointed to his trove of 50,000 images of child porn as proof-positive. As one commenter wrote, “…someone has to be mentally unstable to enjoy child pornography.” But is that a fact, or is that simply one more armchair psychiatrist parroting the most widely-accepted talking point? Is any real thought being put behind this claim, or are we simply using mental illness as a blanket excuse for any behavior we find distasteful? Is pedophilia simply a fetish, or is it actually a mental illness?

Let’s start by saying that abusing children in any way at all – sexually or otherwise – is an unforgivable act that is below the standard of what civilized people should accept. That does not mean, however, that pedophilia, or any abhorrent behavior, can be simply filed under “mental illness” and as such be forgiven. Mob rules or collective belief can’t define mental illness: mental illness either is, or it isn’t – it’s not determined by popular opinion. 

In the classic novel Brave New World, author Aldous Huxley imagines a future where it’s implied that adults having sex with children is simply standard behavior. In fact, in that reality, sexual deviance (as we might define it) was the norm, and anybody unwilling to participate would be more likely to be classified as mentally ill. But the definition of what a mental illness is and isn’t can’t be malleable and altered to conveniently satisfy mass opinions. 

Being openly gay is widely accepted by today’s standards. But what would the reaction be to someone who was openly gay in medieval times, or even as recently as the 1800’s? Being called “mentally ill” would likely be the kindest reaction that person could expect. But few educated people today think that homosexuality is a sign of mental illness. 

When it comes to sexuality, every person has their own turn-on. Some guys like blondes. Some women like men with beards. Some people get off on whips and chains, or licking the bottom of someone’s feet. Some people like to dress up as big, furry animals. For some, there’s a thrill in doing it in a parked car or in a place where they could potentially get caught. Some people like to watch, others like to be watched. The list goes on, and while some of these turn-ons might be shrugged off as common, and others may make people grimace and think “gross!”, we typically give those people as bye and say “to each their own,” accepting that it’s “not my thing” but willing to accept that we’re all not the same. 

So why is being sexually attracted to children any different? I’m not talking about the action of having sex with children – I’m talking about the attraction of it. One person gets turned on by the idea of being tied up, whipped and forced to perform certain acts….another gets turned on by the idea of having sex with children. The difference, of course, is that the latter is not a victimless activity – engaging in sex with a child is a selfish act that brings one person short-term gratification while destroying another person’s entire life. And watching child porn is no less destructive – by watching it, the viewer creates a demand for more, which means that someone, somewhere, will abuse an innocent child to fill that demand. 

Someone who is sexually drawn to the idea of sex with a child is no different than anyone else – they have their own turn-ons like everyone else does; that in itself is not an indication of mental illness. Taking action to satisfy those urges, at the expense of someone else’s safety, health and well-being who is unable to consent to those actions is selfish and evil…but again not necessarily an indication of mental illness, and certainly not deserving of our sympathy.