Living with unusual sexual interests
This section is designed to help you:
- explain terminology around unusual sexual interests (paraphilias)
- explore your own sexual interest or preference
- learn how to lead a healthy life with these interests
- gain insight into what therapy entails and whether it is right for you
A paraphilia involves persistent sexual arousal toward something seen as unusual or outside the norm. This can vary over time, place, and culture.
More common paraphilias include an interest in watching people who are unaware of being watched while they undress or engage in sexual activities (voyeurism); exposing one’s genitals to people who are not suspecting, for example in public (exhibitionism); or having a sexual interest in objects or body parts that are not genitals, such as feet (fetishism).
This section focuses primarily on a sexual attraction to children. But if you feel you may have other paraphilias, you may still find some of the exercises in this module useful, you will just need to adapt them for whatever causes the sexual arousal.
A sexual attraction to children
When it comes to terminology, it’s important to know that not all sexual interests are the same and they can often be mislabelled. For example, the media often uses terms like ‘paedophile’ to refer to anyone who commits a sexual offence against a child, but they are not the same. Having a sexual interest in children doesn’t automatically mean a person will abuse them. Research shows that many people convicted of child sexual offences don’t have a sexual preference for children.
According to the International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD-11), paedophilic disorder exists when someone has recurring, powerful sexual urges and fantasies involving prepubescent children, leading to actions or distress. This disorder relates to prepubescent children, not teenagers.
How people develop paedophilia is not fully understood and involves biological, social, and psychological factors. Genetics, brain development, learned behaviour, and attitudes towards sex and children all play a role.
Hebephilia and ephebophilia
Hebephilia refers to a sexual interest in early-puberty adolescents, while ephebophilia involves mid- to late-teen adolescents. These terms aren’t defined clinical disorders, but if the focus leads to problematic behaviour or distress lasting more than 6 months, they may meet criteria for a paraphilic disorder.
Sexual interest and preference
Sexual attraction varies greatly. Some people are attracted to different genders, ages, looks, and personalities. This diversity is normal. While for some people their sexual interest is only in one age group, for others they have interests in more than one. This diagram represents this cross-over.
A person can have different sexual interests that include a wide range of preferences, but there might be one group that holds the strongest appeal. For instance, someone might find themselves interested in male children, male adults, and female adults, with a preference leaning towards adult men.
- which genders and ages are you attracted to?
- what characteristics do you find appealing?
- are these attractions real-life, online, or fantasies?
- how long have you had these attractions?
This can give you insight into your preferences and guide you through the following sections that focus on managing and living with a sexual interest in children.
Can sexual interests change?
There’s an ongoing discussion among professionals and researchers about whether paraphilic interests can change.
Our clinical experience suggests that change is possible for some people. This depends on factors like the nature and strength of a person’s interest, how long they’ve had it, and whether they also have age-appropriate sexual attractions.
For example, people who are also interested in adults might redirect their fantasies away from children toward adults. Take a look at our section on managing fantasy.
Having a sexual interest or preference for children does not automatically lead to harmful actions. Remember: you have control over your behaviour, and you can lead a healthy, safe, and content life.
Coping with stigma
Living with a sexual interest in children often comes with the burden of stigma – negative beliefs that society might have. This can impact mental well-being. It’s crucial to address and manage stigma to promote a healthier and safer life.
There are two types of stigma: social stigma and self-perceived stigma. Social stigma involves society’s negative perceptions of certain groups, while self-perceived stigma occurs when individuals internalize these negative attitudes, often accompanied by feelings of shame.
Addressing social stigma
Challenging social stigma requires sensitivity, as it involves influencing others’ beliefs. Here are some things that might help.
- Educating other people about the difference between sexual interest and harmful actions, if you feel safe and comfortable doing so.
- Use accurate terminology, like “a person with a sexual interest in children,” to promote a clearer understanding.
- Sharing your experiences of leading a safe and healthy life with this interest to reduce loneliness and showcase positive outcomes.
Recognizing that small efforts to challenge beliefs contribute to broader societal change.
Managing self-perceived stigma
There are lots of ways to combat your own feelings of stigma:
- Using positive self-talk to reaffirm your control over your behaviour and to recognise the positive steps you take to manage sexual attractions/thoughts.
- Developing coping strategies to navigate guilt and shame, which can be further explored in our related section.
- Getting support from trusted individuals or our helpline and chat advisors, who offer non-judgmental assistance.
- Avoiding exposure to media that perpetuate stigmatized views to safeguard your emotional well-being, especially online articles or discussions.
- Maintaining hope and actively working on a Good Lives Plan, reviewed periodically with our support.
This section aims to guide you through managing your sexual interest and overcoming stigma. By understanding and addressing these challenges, you can build on your strengths and live a healthier life.
Living with a sexual interest in children has challenges. Negative thoughts or emotions can trigger a downward spiral, complicating the management of both your interest and behaviour. That’s why it is important to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion can give you valuable tools to live a good life and not harm children.
Self-compassion involves giving the same care and empathy to yourself as to other people experiencing suffering or difficulty. It is like compassion, but directed inwards.
Here are some ways that you can practice self-compassion.
Imagine a compassionate friend
Create a mental image of a compassionate friend, whether real or imaginary. Visualize their appearance, demeanour, and how they interact with you. Breathe deeply and slowly, then engage in a conversation with this friend about your worries or struggles. Consider the advice they would offer, their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Jot down your thoughts, feelings, and the advice provided by your compassionate friend.
Maintain a compassionate diary
Document your negative or critical thoughts and counter them with positive, friendly, and kind responses. Imagine your compassionate friend addressing these thoughts, and note down the compassionate advice you’d offer to a loved one facing similar challenges. After the compassionate response, identify an action you can take to cope with these thoughts.
Engage in calming activities
Allocate time for self-care through soothing activities. This could entail taking a relaxing bath, visiting a serene location, savouring your favourite meal or snack, conversing with a loved one, reading a captivating book, watching a cherished TV show, spending time with your pet, imagining a tranquil space, practicing yoga, basking in the sun’s warmth, or lighting a comforting scented candle. Plan a week ahead with at least one soothing activity per day. Experiment with new activities to gauge their impact on your well-being.
If you find yourself struggling with a sexual interest or preference for children, you may have encountered challenges along this journey. Perhaps you’ve experienced attraction to children you know, leading to feelings of shame and concern about your fantasies.
It’s important to recognize that the nature of your sexual interest or preference is not your fault. You cannot control your initial feelings, but you can manage your behaviour, fantasies and urges.
By doing so, you can pave the way for a fulfilling and healthy life without harming children.
Making a personal commitment
Consider making a pledge to yourself outlining the way you wish to lead your life and your commitment to maintaining safety and health. This commitment could be written down, possibly in the form of a letter addressed to yourself. If you have a supportive individual in your life who is aware of your situation, sharing this letter with them can serve as a means of accountability. Alternatively, you can send the letter anonymously through our secure email service. If you choose to contact us via email, kindly indicate whether you’d appreciate feedback or if you prefer us to retain the letter.
Examples of commitments you might include.
- I promise to stop viewing sexual images of children, recognizing the harm it inflicts on the children shown.
- I promise not to act upon sexual thoughts or urges that could harm others.
- I promise to seek assistance when facing challenges. The people or organizations I will reach out to are: …
While it is important to recognise the need to stop problematic behaviours (if this is applicable to you), you might want to think about phrasing your promise as ‘approach goals’. Approach goals involve things you can actively do, for example, speaking to the helpline when needed, or focussing your time and energy on healthy and positive activities to replace the harmful behaviours.
Exploring therapeutic options
Some people who have a sexual attraction to children want to change this attraction. There is some debate about how effective this change can be and some might suggest it is akin to the historical use of such practices for altering homosexual interests.
Managing your thoughts, fantasies, and behaviours associated with your sexual interest or preference is possible. Should you require additional support, some people find that therapy is helpful. Through therapy or counselling, you can delve into your concerns, thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in a more comprehensive manner. Together with a therapist, you can develop strategies and a personalised plan to enhance your coping mechanisms.
Encompassing therapy people often discuss various aspects of their attraction such as how it impacts relationships, intimacy challenges, negative thought patterns, risky behaviour, and addressing sexual thoughts and urges. Your therapist will work alongside you to pinpoint issues and find effective approaches to handle them in a healthy and safe manner.
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Much of the concepts detailed above are explored within Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a structured therapeutic approach. You can find further information about CBT and its application in addressing these concerns.
Should you desire specialized therapy tailored to your sexual interest, thoughts, or urges, the following services could help:
- The Safer Living Foundations’ Aurora Project: Providing support, guidance, and therapy for adults concerned about their sexual thoughts and behaviours.
- StopSO: A resource that can connect you with experienced counsellors and therapists knowledgeable about paraphilias and sexual thoughts.
- PreventIt: Free and anonymous online CBT for people with a sexual interest in children.
If you’re struggling with intense sexual fantasies or urges, you can also consult your GP. For certain individuals, medication might assist in reducing libido intensity and frequency of sexual thoughts or urges. Various medication options are available, and discussing them with your GP or a psychiatrist can provide clarity on their potential benefits.
If you have any concerns, questions, or would just like to talk about what you are going through, our non-judgemental helpline advisors are here to support you. You can stay anonymous and don’t have to give your real name or any contact details. If you’re not ready to speak to anyone yet, you can also use our live chat or send a secure email.