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


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.

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

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Correspondence to Roland Imhoff.

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Imhoff, R. Punitive Attitudes Against Pedophiles or Persons With Sexual Interest in Children: Does the Label Matter?. Arch Sex Behav 44, 35–44 (2015).

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