Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 44, Issue 1, pp 35–44 | Cite as

Punitive Attitudes Against Pedophiles or Persons With Sexual Interest in Children: Does the Label Matter?

  • Roland ImhoffEmail author
Original Paper


In the present research, we addressed the question of whether people harbor punitive attitudes against individuals sexually interested in children even if no sexual offense is mentioned and whether this effect is amplified by the clinical label pedophilia. In two online studies (total N = 345), participants rated the extent to which they saw individuals sexually interested in children as necessarily committing child sexual abuse (dangerousness), responsible for their sexual interest (intentionality), and clinically disordered (deviance) before judging their endorsement of means of punishment (punitive attitudes). Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions in which either the “pedophilia” label or the descriptive term “sexual interest in (prepubescent) children” was included in all items. Across both studies, results showed high degrees of punitive attitudes against sexually deviant men, an effect that was particularly pronounced if the pedophilia label was present. Whereas this was only latently observable in Study 1 (concealed by a suppression effect of reduced ascriptions of intentionality), in Study 2 no such suppression was observed. Unlike any other stigma we know of, punitive attitudes against pedophiles were associated positively with social desirability, suggesting that participants saw it as particularly socially desirable to condemn someone based on their deviant sexual interest.


Pedophilia Sexual interest in children Punitive attitudes Stigma Labeling theory Suppression analysis 



I would like to thank Sara Jahnke for valuable comments and the productive collaboration in constructing the scales.


  1. Ames, M. A., & Houston, D. A. (1990). Legal, social, and biological definitions of pedophilia. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 19, 333–342. doi: 10.1007/BF01541928.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Beier, K. M., Ahlers, C. J., Goecker, D., Neutze, J., Mundt, I. A., Hupp, E., et al. (2009). Can pedophiles be reached for primary prevention of child sexual abuse? First results of the Berlin Prevention Project Dunkelfeld (PPD). Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 20, 851–867. doi: 10.1080/14789940903174188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Buhrmester, M., Kwang, T., & Gosling, S. D. (2011). Amazon’s Mechanical Turk: A new source of inexpensive, yet high-quality, data? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 3–5. doi: 10.1177/1745691610393980.
  4. Conger, A. J. (1974). A revised definition for suppressor variables: A guide to their identification and interpretation. Educational Psychological Measurement, 34, 35–46. doi: 10.1177/001316447403400105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Feelgood, S., & Hoyer, J. (2008). Child molester or pedophile? Sociolegal versus psychopathological classification in sexual offender research. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 14, 33–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Feldman, D. B., & Crandall, C. S. (2007). Dimensions of mental illness stigma: What about mental illness causes social rejection? Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 137–154. doi: 10.1521/jscp.2007.26.2.137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Golec de Zavala, A., Cichocka, A., & Bilewicz, M. (2013). The paradox of in-group love: Differentiating collective narcissism advances understanding of the relationship between in-group and out-group attitudes. Journal of Personality, 81, 16–28. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00779.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hall, R. C. W., & Hall, R. C. W. (2007). A profile of pedophilia: Definition, characteristics of offenders, recidivism, treatment outcomes, and forensic issues. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 82, 457–471. doi: 10.4065/82.4.457.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Harper, C. A., & Hogue, T. E. (2014a). The emotional representation of sexual crime in the national British press. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1177/0261927X14544474.Google Scholar
  10. Harper, C. A., & Hogue, T. E. (2014b). A Prototype-Willingness model of sexual crime discourse in England and Wales. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice. doi: 10.1111/hojo.12095.Google Scholar
  11. Harrison, K., Manning, R., & McCartan, K. (2010). Multi-disciplinary definitions and understandings of ‘paedophilia’. Social & Legal Studies, 19, 481–496. doi: 10.1177/0964663910369054.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Heatherton, T., Kleck, R., Hebl, M., & Hull, J. (2000). The social psychology of stigma. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  13. Henderson, C., Evans-Lacko, S., Flach, C., & Thornicroft, G. (2012). Responses to mental health stigma questions: The importance of social desirability and data collection method. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 57, 152–160.Google Scholar
  14. Imhoff, R. (2014). Zeroing in on the effect of the schizophrenia label on stigmatizing attitudes: A large scale study. Manuscript submitted for publication.Google Scholar
  15. Imhoff, R., & Banse, R. (2009). Ongoing victim suffering increases prejudice: The case of secondary anti-semitism. Psychological Science, 20, 1443–1447. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02457.x.
  16. Jahnke, S., & Hoyer, J. (2013). Stigmatization of people with pedophilia: A blind spot in stigma research. International Journal of Sexual Health, 25, 169–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Jahnke, S., Imhoff, R., & Hoyer, J. (2014). Stigmatization of people with pedophilia: Two comparative surveys. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi: 10.1007/s10508-014-0312-4.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Lam, A., Mitchell, J., & Seto, M. C. (2010). Lay perceptions of child pornography offenders. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 52, 173–201. doi: 10.1353/ccj.0.0087.
  19. Link, B. G., Cullen, F. T., Struening, E., Shrout, P. E., & Dohrenwend, B. P. (1989). A modified labeling theory approach to mental disorders: An empirical assessment. American Sociological Review, 54, 400–423. doi: 10.2307/2095613.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. MacKinnon, D. P., Krull, J. M., & Lockwood, C. M. (2000). Equivalence of the mediation, confounding and suppression effect. Prevention Science, 1, 173–181. doi: 10.1023/A:1026595011371.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Mancini, C., & Mears, D. P. (2010). To execute or not to execute? Examining public support for capital punishment of sex offenders. Journal of Criminal Justice, 38, 959–968. doi: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2010.06.013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Marshall, W. L. (1997). Pedophilia: Psychopathology and theory. In R. D. Laws & W. O’Donohue (Eds.), Sexual deviance: Theory, assessment, and treatment (Vol. 1, pp. 152–174). New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  23. Maruna, S., & King, A. (2009). Once a criminal, always a criminal? ‘Redeemability’ and the psychology of punitive public attitudes. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 15, 7–24. doi: 10.1007/s10610-008-9088-1.
  24. McCartan, K. (2004). ‘Here there be monsters’: The public’s perception of paedophiles with particular reference to Belfast and Leicester. Medicine, Science and the Law, 44, 327–342. doi: 10.1258/rsmmsl.44.4.327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Paulhus, D. L., Robins, R. W., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Tracy, J. L. (2004). Two replicable suppressor situations in personality research. Multivariate Behavioral Research, 39, 303–328. doi: 10.1207/s15327906mbr3902_7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Penn, D. L., & Nowlin-Drummond, A. (2001). Politically correct labels and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 27, 197–203. doi: 10.1093/oxfordjournals.schbul.a006866.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Preacher, K. J., & Hayes, A. F. (2004). SPSS and SAS procedures for estimating indirect effects in simple mediation models. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 36, 717–731. doi: 10.3758/BF03206553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Preacher, K. J., & Kelley, K. (2011). Effect size measures for mediation models: Quantitative strategies for communicating indirect effects. Psychological Methods, 16, 93–115. doi: 10.1037/a0022658.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Ray, J. J. (1984). The reliability of short social desirability scales. Journal of Social Psychology, 123, 133–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Scheff, T. (1999). Being mentally ill: Sociological theory (3rd ed.). Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transaction.Google Scholar
  31. Schmidt, A. F., Gykiere, K., Vanhoeck, K., Mann, R. E., & Banse, R. (2014). Direct and indirect measures of sexual maturity preferences differentiate subtypes of child sexual abusers. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 26, 107–128. doi: 10.1177/1079063213480817.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Seto, M. C. (2008). Pedophilia and sexual offending against children: Theory, assessment, and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi: 10.1037/11639-000.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Shapiro, D. N., Chandler, J., & Mueller, P. A. (2013). Using Mechanical Turk to study clinical populations. Clinical Psychological Science, 1, 213–220. doi: 10.1177/2167702612469015.
  34. Spieckera, B., & Steutela, J. (1997). Paedophilia, sexual desire and perversity. Journal of Moral Education, 26, 331–342. doi: 10.1080/0305724970260307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Viki, G. T., Fullerton, I., Raggett, H., Tait, F., & Wiltshire, S. (2012). The role of dehumanization in attitudes toward the social exclusion and rehabilitation of sex offenders. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, 2349–2367. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2012.00944.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sozialpsychologie: Social CognitionUniversity of CologneCologneGermany

Personalised recommendations