Reviewed by Philip H. Witt, Ph.D., ABPP
The title of this book gives something away immediately: This will be a book of fine distinctions.
Seto notes, accurately, that many people inaccurately conflate pedophilia with
sex offending against children. In this book, Seto discusses the distinctions between
the two, delineating the potential causes of sex offending against children. These
causes may well include pedophilia—that is, an actual sexual attraction to prepubertal
children of some persistence and strength—but may in some cases be limited to other
factors, especially those associated with antisociality. Seto notes the following distinction
There is a critical distinction between pedophilic and nonpedophilic sex
offenders. These two groups differ in the characteristics of the sexual
offenses and the likelihood that they will reoffend…. Pedophilic offenders
are more likely to have boy victims, multiple victims, prepubescent victims,
and unrelated victims. Concomitantly, nonpedophilic offenders are more
likely to have only girl victims, single victims, pubescent or postpubescent
victims, and related victims.
In Pedophilia, Seto thoroughly reviews theories of causation for sex offending against
children, both historical theories (such as Finklehor’s four factor theory) and more current
theories (such as Ward and Siegert’s pathways model). He then goes further,
reviewing the empirical evidence from both individual studies and meta-analyses that
has accumulated over the years for these theories. He comes to an interesting and, at
least to me, intuitive conclusion: the various factors of the different models can be collapsed
into the two broad factors of pedophilia and antisociality. He suggests that many
factors from these theories could be considered aspects of an antisocial personality,
including emotional dysregulation, disinhibition, and self-regulation problems.
In addition to coverage of expected areas, such as various assessment and treatment
methods, the reader of
Pedophilia gets the two unexpected bonuses of detailed discussions
of areas not adequately covered in other books—adolescent offenders and childpornography
offenders. Seto reviews meta-analytic studies of adolescents, noting reliable
differences between those adolescents who molest children (increased frequency
adolescents who sexually offend against peers (higher levels of antisociality). He also
places sexual offenders generally and adolescent offenders particularly in the context of
Moffit’s well-accepted developmental theory of delinquency (with a modification proposed
by Quinsey to add a subtype of life-course-persistent offenders, that being psychopaths,
to Moffit’s original taxonomy). He notes that life-course-persistent sexual
offenders are likely to have a range of persistent antisocial behaviors, well beyond the
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The psychopathic individuals within this life-course-persistent group are less
likely to have child victims and more likely to have adolescent victims. Adolescence-limited
sexual offenders will cease sexually offending as they age and obtain access to
appropriate sexual outlets, unless they (for not fully understood reasons) are pedophiles;
if pedophiles, then their sexual focus on prepubertal children will increase the
likelihood that they will continue to molest children, even if other forms of antisocial
behavior cease as they age.
In Seto’s discussion of incest offenders, he notes that incest offenders are atypical,
generally being both less antisocial and less pedophilic than other sexual offenders. He
then explores the obvious question: Why would an individual sexually molest a relative,
given all the potential negative consequences, if that individual is not either antisocial or
pedophilic? He approaches this puzzle from an evolutionary perspective, exploring,
among other things, differences on a number of dimensions between genetically related
and sociolegal fathers (i.e., stepfathers) who molest their children. He suggests a number
of relevant factors: opportunity, lack of access to appropriate sexual outlets, degree
of genetic relatedness, age of victim (with incest offenders mainly victimizing adolescent
Seto is also one of the foremost researchers on child-pornography offenders, so in this
book, the reader receives the benefit of his grasp of this area. He notes that the literature
on child-pornography offenders is in its relative infancy, and results from this
research have not been entirely consistent in characterizing these offenders. Nonetheless,
he draws what conclusions he can from the existing literature. He suggests, for
example, that those child-pornography offenders having an organized, extensive collection
of child pornography (say, greater than 1000 child-pornographic images) and being
involved in distributing child pornography are more likely to be pedophilic. He also
notes that at the time he wrote the book, little research had been conducted “to determine
what effect child pornography use might have on the likelihood of subsequently
having sexual contact with a child” (p. 59), although Seto himself has begun to address
this gap in the research and subsequent studies. He reports findings from his recent
research, indicating (p. 160) that child-pornography offenders with prior criminal history
of contact sex offenses are, perhaps not surprisingly, the most likely to commit future
contact child sex offenses, and those child-pornography offenders with no history of
contact sex offenses were relatively unlikely to commit future contact child sex offenses.
Seto notes that there has been considerable research on typologies of pedophiles, but
relatively little research on the actual causes of pedophilia. He considers what might
lead to pedophilia, given the presumed evolutionary selection pressures against it.
First, he suggests that “pedophilia is a disorder of male-typical tendencies to attend to
cues of youthfulness such as smooth skin, hairlessness, and large eyes” (p. 118). He
also suggests that at least in some cases, “it may eventually be discovered that pedophilia
is linked to pathogen exposure” (p. 119).
One can scarcely read any literature on sex offenders nowadays without a discussion of
risk assessment. Risk assessment of sexual offenders is relevant in a variety of impor
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tant public-policy contexts, such as community notification and sexually violent predator
civil commitment. Seto’s book includes a nice overview of the primary subareas of risk
assessment, including identification of risk factors, types of risk-assessment measures,
and a comparison of static and dynamic risk factors. He has at least a brief discussion
of two common (but not yet well researched) practices in risk assessment, those being
the clinical adjustment of actuarial risk-assessment measures and the combination of
more than one actuarial risk-assessment measure. He suggests that at least the preliminary
research evidence does not support the use of clinical adjustment to actuarial
scales or combining multiple actuarial scales.
Seto concludes his book with a discussion of intervention methods for sex offenders
against children. He reviews the controversy regarding the large-scale studies and
meta-analyses of sex offender psychological treatments, concluding that the effectiveness
of such treatments has not yet been convincingly established. Consistent with
what is now commonly called a containment approach, he suggests that external controls
and prevention approaches are essential parts of managing the problem of child
sexual abuse. He recommends that sex-offender intervention research be conceptualized
within the broader context of offender treatment research, such as the well-known
line of research by Andrews and Bonta, which indicates that when offender treatments
are matched to risk, criminogenic needs, and an individual’s learning style and capacity,
treatment is much more likely to be effective.
In sum, Seto’s book is an excellent, nuanced review of the current state of the literature.
The book shows excellent breadth and depth in its coverage and analysis. Those
working in this specialty, even those with considerable experience, would gain much
from a careful reading of Pedophilia.