A handful of scientists are testing a controversial practice of using virtual reality to diagnose pedophilia in men in hopes of helping them manage their sexual desires before they act on them.
Pedophilia, a psychiatric disorder, affects up to 5 percent of men, according to the American Psychiatric Association. But it’s difficult to study because researchers don’t want to use real photos of children to measure arousal. So they’re turning to 3-D animated characters and virtual reality.
It’s not foolproof, and it’s raised concerns among some psychiatrists who fear the computer-generated images could stimulate the men’s interest in children.
But advocates say it could be a useful tool to diagnose pedophilia and help prevent some of the 58,000 cases of child sexual abuse in the United States annually.
How virtual reality works
In one study, psychologist Patrice Renaud and his team at the Institut Philippe-Pinel de Montréal compared virtual reality to audio recordings to test VR’s ability to detect pedophilia. They used two groups — men who were either accused or convicted of child sex crimes, and men with no criminal record who said they had no sexual interest in children.
The team played VR animations and audio recordings for the two groups of men and measured arousal through penile plethysmography, or PPG, which measures changes in the circumference of the penis based on blood flow. With virtual reality, Renaud was able to identify 54 of 60 participants as either showing signs of pedophilia or not, versus 44 of 60 participants using audio.
“Virtual reality has better sensitivity and accuracy to detect the presence of pedophilia,” said Renaud.
Renaud recently had a research paper retracted because the data was published twice. The underlying conclusions were not challenged.
Other researchers, however, are wary of virtual reality.
Animated images are less lifelike than photographs, and may not be real enough to invoke a response, said Canadian clinician and researcher Liam Marshall.
“I don’t think most of us feel comfortable with showing offenders pictures of children, and especially children not wearing clothes,” said Marshall, who primarily conducts his research using audio recordings.
Dr. Paul Fedoroff, who directs the Sexual Behaviors Clinic at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, said he worried that showing even virtual children to pedophiles might heighten their sexual interest in minors.
PPG testing has issues, too. It doesn’t work in about one-quarter of men, said Leo Keating, a clinical social worker who oversees New England Forensic Associates, a treatment center in Arlington, Mass.
Debate over treatment
A diagnosis of pedophilia is not automatically linked to the crime of child sex abuse. Not all abusers have the disorder, and many who have a sexual interest in children don’t act on it.
Around three times a year, Marshall gets calls from men who say: “I’m a pedophile, but I’ve never acted on it — can you help me?”
Marshall advises them to seek therapy, but warns callers from the US to be vague when discussing their concerns with a counselor, in case the therapist feels compelled to report them to law enforcement.
“We have made it very difficult for people who have this attraction to ask for help because of stigma and barriers to getting treatment,” said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
Some experts, who see pedophilia as innate, don’t believe in the efficacy of treatment, which typically consists of behavioral therapy, sometimes combined with antidepressants or drugs that curb libido.
“There’s no meaningful indication that trying to change behavior changes sexual preferences,” said James Cantor, a psychologist at the University of Toronto.
But many psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinicians say that pedophiles can learn to manage their attraction to children. Most pedophiles are sexually interested in adults as well. “The goal of treatment is to help pedophiles to associate sex with adults, not children,” said Fedoroff.