Content warning: this article contains mentions of sexual violence toward minors.
Dr. James Cantor is an accomplished Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at U of T. One of 44 faculty members who focus their research on forensic psychiatry, Cantor also works at the Centre for Mental Health & Addiction, with a specific interest in atypical sexual behaviours. He juggles his positions alongside regular commentary concerning his research on high-profile outlets, including CNN, The Walrus, The Atlantic, and the Toronto Star.
This same research has lead to some uncomfortable questions and contentious opinions about the nature of sexuality and ethics.
For over 15 years, Cantor has sought to better understand the origins of pedophilia. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) outlines the criteria of diagnosis for those with pedophilic disorder as having “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children” and having acted upon these urges, which can include anything from masturbation to sexual assault.
Cantor, writing to The Varsity, notes that there are many factors that go into consideration of a diagnosis, “including the science itself, insurance and financial aspects (people want coverage for seeing a therapist, but insurers want to pay as little as possible), legal and forensic aspects (what counts as legally insane), and the perceived stigma associated with qualifying for a DSM category at all.” As such, having pedophilia does not equate to being diagnosed with a pedophelic disorder.
Cantor contends that pedophilia is an inborn and unchangeable sexual orientation. He draws on brain scans of people with pedophilia to show that pedophilia results from “atypical brain wiring,” rather than any active decisions made by those with the condition. Men with pedophilia have less white matter in their brains compared to men without pedophilia, which, according to his paper, suggests that “pedophilia results from a partial disconnection of [the white matter] network.” This unconventional wiring means that the natural protective urge that people feel toward children is instead transformed into a sexual draw. Cantor associates other brain-related characteristics with people with pedophilia, including lower IQ and left-handedness.
He further supports his thesis using phallometry, which is a method of assessing sexual interest in men by measuring blood flow to their penises. He shows his subjects nude photos of children and adults, and measures their blood flow, which shows a marked difference in the reactions of people with pedophilia to the different images.
Cantor’s research is among a large and growing scientific consensus that pedophilia results, at least in part, from unalterable biological attributes, similar to how one would describe sexual orientations.
The ethics of pedophilia
Sexual abuse of children is unequivocally considered to be both illegal and immoral. Its short-term effects on survivors can include academic problems, behavioural and emotional problems, and drug and alcohol abuse among adolescents. In the long term, child sexual abuse can contribute to symptoms like depression, anxiety, body issues and eating disorders, suicidal ideation, and self-blame for the incidents. In Canada, child sexual abuse can carry a penalty of up to 14 years in prison.
Cantor thinks that there should be a clear line drawn between people with pedophilia who do and don’t act upon their urges. Because he considers pedophilia to be a sexual orientation, he thinks that it should be viewed as ethically neutral, since it is an uncontrollable biological attribute. Meanwhile, sexual abusers of children, who act upon their pedophilia, should be condemned.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Cantor said that, “people who are pedophilic but who work to remain celibate their entire lives are being increasingly recognized as needing and deserving all the support society can give them.” In other words, Cantor thinks that if a person with pedophilia can control their urges, society should not ostracize them.
“… non-offending pedophiles should have the very same rights as everyone else.”
Writing to The Varsity, Cantor remarked that he does not think that societal acceptance of people with pedophilia will happen in the near future. However, he contends that ending their “reflexive demonization” will help both “pedophiles themselves, but also… [prevent] actual cases of child molestation.”
“The more we facilitate pedophiles coming in for therapy or support,” he wrote, “the better we can help them develop the skills for managing their sexual interests… For almost all human behaviour, people can manage problems best when they can discuss them openly, and we have no evidence to suggest this is any different.”
How should social media deal with non-offending people with pedophilia?
One of Cantor’s more public instances of support for this social acceptance is a joint letter he signed in January 2018 to John Starr, the Director of Trust & Safety of Twitter. The letter was written in response to a series of bans of accounts of non-offending people with pedophilia.
He, along with a group of “clinical and forensic psychologists, sexologists, sociologists, child protection workers, journalists, writers, and digital rights advocates” warned that banning accounts of people with pedophilia who advocate for celibacy would “increase the likelihood of some [individuals] acting on their sexual feelings.”
They argue that the removal of support networks for non-offending people with pedophilia risks adding to the social isolation and stigma surrounding their condition, and as such would increase the likelihood of people with pedophilia assaulting minors.
Cantor wrote, “I don’t think I hold or have expressed any views [about] how social media should do anything. I do believe and I have expressed that non-offending pedophiles should have the very same rights as everyone else.” He notes that, to him, the banning of the accounts was more of a free speech issue, rather than asking for “special treatment” for non-offending people with pedophilia.
Twitter has allowed some of the users back on its platform under different accounts, but still does not have a concrete policy on how to deal with people with pedophilia.
Critics point out that having people who are open about their pedophilia on social media networks can be dangerous, as children frequent these same sites. While Twitter requires that users be 13 years of age or older when they create an account, a 2016 survey conducted by the BBC found that a majority of UK children under 12 create social media accounts regardless.
People with pedophilia as a part of the LGBTQ+ community
“Speaking as a gay [man],” Cantor wrote in a tweet from December 2018, “I believe [the LGBTQ+ community] SHOULD include the P. To do otherwise is to betray the principles that give us our rights.”
The tweet, which mirrors his view of pedophilia being a sexual orientation, suggests that pedophilia should be included in the LGBTQ+ community.
Cantor thinks that there should be a clear line drawn between people with pedophilia who do and don’t act upon their urges.
When asked to elaborate, Cantor wrote that he believes that “everyone who is sexually atypical” should be included in the community, regardless of the discomfort of others.
“When my or any community declares that we deserve recognition of our rights, we have only two ways to justify it. One is the basic principle I espouse: I draw the line at behaviours that cause others harm.”
He added, “If whatever thought or behaviour causes no one harm, it should be accommodated. Under this (my) ethic, GLBT is all okay, kink is okay, and so on. Child molestation is out, as it risks such harm to others. A sex doll built to look like a child however, is okay, as no one is harmed (although some may feel quite queasy).”
Otherwise, he suggested that deciding the ‘validity’ of each sexuality would result in a contest based on “popularity and politics, rather than principle,” within the LGBTQ+ community.
On the other hand, critics have long since pointed out that these attitudes can be harmful to the community, as they echo the false stereotype of gay men being sexual predators of minors.
This perception has contributed to discrimination against gay men in both the clergy and school systems, and has been credited by some as being the beginning of conservative-Christian opposition to LGBTQ+ rights.
Anti-LGBTQ+ activists still harness this stereotype to tie the community to pedophilia, recently impersonating gay men on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to deliberately spread the misconception of pedophilia as a regular and accepted part of the community. Some even created banners and posters which they displayed at protests and Pride events.
Cantor remarked that while he doesn’t see a particular connection between the communities themselves, both do have shared experience of growing up as an outsider. The main difference exists in the ability to act out on their attractions.
“As a gay man, I get to have a happy ending. (No pun intended.)” he wrote. “I get to engage in my atypical sexuality with likeminded others. Some people are born with sexual interest patterns, like many kinds of kink, that can only be expressed with other people in very special circumstances. Others, for whom I can’t help but be sympathetic, are born with sexualities that cannot be shared with others at all.”