A version of this was first published in the online journal SquareTwo in 2016. At the time I was more cautious than I am now, so I published it anonymously, but with permission I am republishing it here. This is a side-project from a paper I published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
In recent years, a scholarly literature has developed suggesting that—like other sexual proclivities—pedophilia is a condition similar to sexual orientation in that it’s likely to last for a long time and in some cases, cannot be changed with therapy (Seto 2012).
In the midst of these recent developments, a community of individuals called “Virtuous Pedophiles,” (or individuals who are sexually attracted to children but who see adult/child sexual contact as wrong and who desire not to act on their pedophilic proclivities) have established an online presence. This “Virtuous Pedophile” phenomena is now also garnering increased discussion in popular and other publications.
This idea of the “Virtuous Pedophile” is a very interesting development from an LDS perspective. Mormons are told it is possible there are “thorns in the flesh” that God will not remove. This recent discussion concerning “virtuous pedophilia” suggests that pedophilic tendencies are one such struggle.
In the course of research for a paper on religiosity among Virtuous Pedophiles, I interviewed, two Mormon Virtuous Pedophiles. Here, I am discussing and posting part of the transcripts from these interviews. The purpose of doing so is to suggest that while pedophilia is certainly a risky proclivity to have, God did not leave any of His children—including pedophiles—helpless or hopeless. If these pedophiles have found ways to curb their proclivity, then every one of us—having some thorn(s) in the flesh—can have hope as well in overcoming our individual trials.
Some estimates suggest that approximately 5% of the male population exhibits some pedophilic tendencies (BBC 2014). If this is true, there are—statistically speaking—thousands of Mormons who exhibit these tendencies, many of whom (presumably) see acting on them as wrong. This is not an insignificant number of people, but the stigma for this condition is so great that nearly all of these individuals remain closeted. These interviews are an attempt to shed some light on a significant but completely undiscussed issue among some of our brothers and sisters. There are other accounts of Virtuous Pedophile experiences that have been published in various fora, but these will focus on the LDS experience in particular.
One of the findings of my more academic study is that Virtuous Pedophiles use the language of the LGBT rights movement as a heuristic for discussing their condition (e.g. “born this way,” “out of the closet”). However, this adoption is mostly for expedience seeing as there is not a prior language concerning their particular situation from which they can draw. Both they and I recognize the fundamental moral distinction between same-sex and adult/child sexual behavior and the occasional references to homosexuality should not be implied as equating pedophilia and homosexuality in any way.
The individuals interviewed are “Jason,” a returned missionary in his early 20s currently living in Utah who is attracted to adult women but also to young boys. The other is “Juan,” another young returned missionary from South America who is particularly attracted to 7-12 year-old boys. The vast majority of pedophiles are male, so it is unsurprising that the two Mormons I interviewed happened to be male. The quotes have been edited for clarity and the content reported here emphasizes the particularly Mormon dimensions discussed.
I began my interviews with Jason and Juan by asking them what they perceived as some of the most stressful things about being a pedophile. Jason immediately noted the complications pedophilia presents when it comes to marriage.
Jason: The thing is, I’m definitely attracted to boys. I’ve had some attraction to girls my age, but it’s stronger to the other end. Will the healthy attraction be strong enough to hold up a marriage? Will I be able to do things that I want to do, to have a family and all that? Will that work? [These questions are probably what stress] me out [the most] at the moment. I have my patriarchal blessing, and that’s helpful to me, because it tells me that I’ll have a wife and kids—it helps me be happy, have something to hold onto. I don’t know if that’ll happen in this life or the next life. I hold on and just trust that things will work out the way that God wants them to. And try to go about my life and if a relationship [with a woman] comes about it comes about, and I do what I do. It’s hard to cope with that for sure, but you find ways. Sometimes I have to hold God close when I’m having a rough time.
Juan: I know that feeling [pedophilic] attraction doesn’t mean that you can’t have a normal life, and that you can keep God’s commandments, including marriage. I know this is possible for me and I want to believe it is the same for others.
The question Jason and Juan raise here is an important one. To what extent would it be problematic to encourage a dispositional pedophile to contract a marriage? Of course, this question becomes more complicated when there is at least some secondary sexual desire for the adult spouse. While many criticize the “it will all work out” or “maybe in the next life” approach for people in particular circumstances, Jason’s response shows that in some situations, this approach can provide comfort.
Both Jason and Juan reported they had had private and powerful spiritual experiences that helped them to feel God’s love and support for them.
Jason: I can think of one specific example when I was a teenager. I’m ** now, so a few years back. My dad and I were going on a trip. I remember seeing this 12-year-old kid and being attracted to him and thinking, “oh my gosh.” This is before I accepted it, and I thought, “This is terrible. I’m a monster. I don’t know how I can live on like this. I don’t think I can.” In that moment I was ready to cry, ready to lie down, and I didn’t. I just kind of heard voices: everything will work out, don’t worry. You don’t know how right now, but I will take care of you.
Me: In your [trying to cope with these tendencies] with [the help of] God, is it you throwing it all on God, or is it a companionship?
Jason: I think it’s more of a companionship. I think it depends on the moment too. I’ll pray and the prayer might start out with me saying “Come on, why am I this way! This sucks!” And it feels like I’m throwing it all on Him. “I’m going crazy right now. Help me, carry me.” So then I throw it all on Him. In those moments, virped [the Virtuous Pedophile support group] is the kind of thing, where He showed me to it. It took me a while to look into it—I’m slow. I feel like God [helped me find it], but I had to do my part to seek it out, to find it. So, I’d say 50/50.
Me: Tell me a little bit about your personal prayer life (again, if you’re comfortable doing so). How do you feel God reacts to your prayers about your pedophilia?
Juan: I think He understands them more than anyone else. For a long time, I was making myself miserable about this. I even denied myself from dating. There are really personal experiences I won’t mention, but I know that God trusts me with these feelings. I know that I should direct my feelings towards helping other people with the same problem, or any other problem they would consider unmanageable. He accepts me and my girlfriend is a big [testament to] this: she’s a temple worker and we have had some really personal experiences about the temple, my attractions toward boys. Even though I made a promise not to mention them openly, I know I’ve had feelings that mean that God helps me with this[trial] so I can help others.
At the same time, however, Jason and Juan have both had negative experiences with attempting to “pray the pedophile away.” These negative “pray the pedophile” away experiences are a common theme among religious Virtuous Pedophiles in general, and certainly are not restricted to the Mormons.
Me: In what ways have you tried to cope with these difficulties?
Juan: I’ve taken different angles throughout the years. Most of the time I was actually praying for the feelings to [be} removed. That didn’t quite work, as I was judging myself a lot and feeling sinful and dirty. What I do now is accept the feelings [as] a part of me.
Jason: On my mission, there were times I was frustrated. [I’ve] struggled with masturbation my whole life (even on my mission at times). There were some times when I was like,“Take this away from me— take these desires away from me please. I don’t want to have them.” But at times they can be a little bit less intensified if I can do my part and not masturbate. The intensity goes away a little bit, but not completely. Eventually, I came to the realization of “I don’t think this is going to go away.” I think the attractions could be less than they are right now, but I don’t think I should expect [them to go away completely].
After both Jason and Juan realized their pedophilia was not going to go away, both of them struggled to accept the fact that their pedophilic desires were, in and of themselves, not sinful. Jason finally internalized this fact when he found the online Virtuous Pedophile support group and realized there were other people like him. Juan indicated that one of the most stressful things about being a pedophile was “wondering how God feels about [him].” He said he finally accepted the non-sinfulness of his condition when he decided to be a bit more open about his struggles.
Juan: I told the girl I was dating about my challenge. She didn’t judge and that was huge. She gave me her therapist’s number and I called. He took it pretty well and made me realize that feelings can be out of our control, but what we do with them is what makes [us who] we are. With that in mind, I studied a lot of scriptures and found that really is true: a person can have the desire to smoke, but if he doesn’t [smoke] then it’s not bad. Same with alcohol, with drugs, with wanting to lie, or steal, or hit someone. If you don’t act on [the desire], you’re not sinful.
The fact that both Jason and Juan had a proclivity that—while not sinful in and of itself—can lead to very grave sin, leads to theodicy concerns about why God would allow them to be sexually attracted to children. While both of them indicated they believed their pedophilia was caused by natural, early-life causes, both of them still found some meaning in their condition in terms of it being part of God’s plan.
Jason: It’s definitely possible that He made me this way to challenge me, but at the same time, I think of it a lot is like homosexuality, where it’s kind of a part of the fallen world. At the same time, God says, “I know you can handle this.” I think at the same time [there are] things you can learn from it, and I can use [these struggles] for good as well. I really try to do what I can to help other virtuous pedophiles. I feel like that’s a big reason why I have it. He knows he has children who deal with it, and He wants me to help them cope with it.
Juan: I know I’ve had feelings that mean that God helps me with this so I can help others.
Both Juan and Jason had been “out” to their respective bishops, and Juan also came out to his mission president.
Me: How did your singles ward bishop react?
Jason: Super well. He was a little surprised initially. “Oh wow, it was a little eye opening, I didn’t know that was a thing.” But [he showed me] a lot of love too and basically told me he was there to help, [that he could] help me get into LDS Family Services for therapy sessions if I wanted, and that he’d do anything he could to help me.
Me: How did they react [to you Juan?]?
Juan: Basically the same. They felt troubled with what I was telling them and were really sad. [My] mission president asked if I had a sin to confess about it, [and because] I didn’t, he ignored the topic and continued with other topics. My bishop told me to be really careful and to keep my feelings under a professional’s eye, and that if I ever acted on it I’d be in serious trouble.
Although undeniably uncomfortable, non-chosen sexual desire for children is a reality. In some cases, it may be just as permanent as any given sexual orientation. Stigma towards individuals with pedophilic tendencies is also a reality, and there is evidence that this stigma hurts these people psychologically without actually leading to a lower probability of them offending (Janke, Schmidt, Gerardt, Hoyer 2015). Nevertheless, acknowledging this community is perhaps the first step toward not only softening the stigma, but also toward offering these individuals increased support in what may be one of the most difficult trials imaginable.
These two young men have taken upon themselves Christ’s cross, attempting every day—even every hour—to deny themselves of ungodliness. Their understandings and methods of coping may be instructive to all of us who struggle with other types of difficult proclivities.
Seto, Michael C. “Is pedophilia a sexual orientation?” Archives of Sexual Behavior 41, no. 1 (2012): 231-236.
British Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28526106. “How many men are pedophiles?” (2014).
Jahnke, Sara, Alexander F. Schmidt, Max Geradt, and Jürgen Hoyer. “Stigma-related stress and its correlates among men with pedophilic sexual interests.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 44, no. 8 (2015): 2173-2187.