As with all debates on important issues of public policy, words matter – more specifically, the meaning of words matter because they have power. Thus, the misuse of words can inflame passions and distort an issue.
On the issue of sex offenders, there is no word more misused than “pedophile.”
Pedophilia is a clinical psychiatric diagnosis of sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children. Yet, it is not uncommon for statutory age of consent cases involving an adult and a teenage minor to be referred to as pedophilia. The definition of pedophilia is NOT sex with someone under the age of legal consent. The age of consent in the United States varies from 16 to 18 depending upon the state. Is someone a pedophile in one state, but not a pedophile in another? Of course not.
If an adult has sex with an underage adolescent of the opposite sex it is a heterosexual sex crime. If the victim is of the same sex, it is a homosexual sex crime. Straight or gay, they are both wrong - but neither have anything to do with pedophilia.
Journalists need to stop giving this false diagnosis to statutory age of consent offenders with teenage minor victims, not only because it is factually inaccurate, but because it feeds into the myth of high sex offender recidivism. Fixated pedophiles are in fact one of the subsets of sex offenders that do indeed exhibit high recidivism. High profile cases of pedophilia, such as Jerry Sandusky, who preyed on many prepubescent boys, have merged pedophilia and multiple victims into the public consciousness.
However, statutory age of consent offenders have much lower recidivism rates than pedophiles. This is due in large part to the fact that for most offenders in this group their attraction to teenagers is part of a broader attraction, not fixated, and because these crimes frequently result from highly inappropriate situational circumstances as opposed to predatory behavior.
USA FAIR will write to the New York Times and the Associated Press to ask that they clearly define the appropriate use of the word pedophile in their manuals of style and usage – the "bibles" of the journalism profession. We are also reaching out to other legal, social justice and mental health organizations to join us.