As a medical diagnosis, pedophilia (or paedophilia) is defined as a psychiatric disorder in adults or late adolescents (persons age 16 or older) typically characterized by a primary or exclusive sexual interest in prepubescent children (generally age 13 years or younger, though onset of puberty may vary). The child must be at least five years younger in the case of adolescent pedophiles (16 or older) to be termed pedophilia. The term has a range of definitions, as found in psychiatry, psychology, the vernacular, and law enforcement.

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) defines pedophilia as a “disorder of adult personality and behaviour” in which there is a sexual preference for children of prepubertal or early pubertal age. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM), pedophilia is a paraphilia in which a person has intense and recurrent sexual urges towards and fantasies about prepubescent children and on which feelings they have either acted or which cause distress or interpersonal difficulty. The current DSM-5 draft proposes to add hebephilia to the diagnostic criteria, and consequently to rename it to pedohebephilic disorder.

In popular usage, pedophilia means any sexual interest in children or the act of child sexual abuse, often termed “pedophilic behavior.” For example, The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary states, “Pedophilia is the act or fantasy on the part of an adult of engaging in sexual activity with a child or children.” This common use application also extends to the sexual interest in and abuse of pubescent or post-pubescent minors. Researchers recommend that these imprecise uses be avoided; people who commit child sexual abuse commonly exhibit the disorder, but some offenders do not meet the clinical diagnosis standards for pedophilia, which only pertain to prepubescents. Additionally, not all pedophiles actually commit such abuse.

Pedophilia was first formally recognized and named in the late 19th century. A significant amount of research in the area has taken place since the 1980s. Although mostly documented in men, there are also women who exhibit the disorder, and researchers assume available estimates underrepresent the true number of female pedophiles. No cure for pedophilia has been developed, but there are therapies that can reduce the incidence of a person committing child sexual abuse. In the United States, following Kansas v. Hendricks, sex offenders that are diagnosed with certain mental disorders, particularly pedophilia, can be subject to indefinite civil commitment, under various state laws (generically called SVP laws) and the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. At present, the exact causes of pedophilia have not been conclusively established. Research suggests that pedophilia may be correlated with several different neurological abnormalities, and often co-exists with other personality disorders and psychological pathologies. In the contexts of forensic psychology and law enforcement, a variety of typologies have been suggested to categorize pedophiles according to behavior and motivations.

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