Q: My best friend’s father is an avid user of social media. He’s retired and spends most of his day posting memes on Facebook and Instagram. Recently, I realized he might not know how Instagram works. I noticed over the past week or so that he has been following, liking, and commenting on a lot of Instagram pictures of young gay men. I don’t think he realizes that anyone who follows him can see that activity. At first I was worried, not because he might be gay or bisexual, but because he may still be “in the closet.” He’s married, with a son (my friend), and to my knowledge, if he is bisexual or gay, nobody knows. I thought about warning him that his activity is public, but then I saw more. Not only has he been liking pictures of younger-looking men, he’s also been liking and following accounts of very young boy models. Underage boys. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but the evidence is there. So now I’ve gone from wanting to warn this guy that he may be accidentally outing himself by not knowing how apps work to feeling morally obligated to tell my friend that his dad is into dudes and might be a pedophile. I can only imagine the ramifications this news would have on him and his family.
— Best Friend’s Dad
A: “I’m sympathetic to BFD’s concerns,” said Dr. Michael Seto, director of forensic rehabilitation research at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group and an expert on pedophilia and sexual offending. “I know many people wonder what to do if they suspect someone is sexually attracted to children. And I understand how much of a burden it can feel like to keep a big secret, especially from a best friend.”
But before we discuss your options and responsibilities here, BFD, let’s get our terms straight: If by “young boy models” you mean teenage boys past puberty but under the age of consent, then your friend’s father’s behavior is icky and inappropriate—but it is not, by itself, evidence that he’s a pedophile.
“Clinically, pedophilia refers to attraction to prepubescent children,” said Dr. Seto, “though I know it’s still commonly used in public to refer to attraction to anyone underage.”
Actually, the term “pedophile” gets tossed around so indiscriminately these days that some of my own readers have used it to describe (or condemn) people in their 40s or 50s who are attracted to (or fucking) grown men and women in their 20s and 30s. For the record: An attraction to younger/youngish adults does not make someone a pedophile. If that were the case, almost everyone on earth could be described (and condemned) as a pedophile. Dr. Seto estimates that just 1 percent of men are in fact attracted to prepubescent children. So depending on your point of view—depending on whether you’re a glass 99 percent empty or 1 percent full kind of guy—pedophilia is either exceedingly rare or alarmingly common.
“Attraction to underage teens—boys or girls—is more common,” said Dr. Seto, “though it’s hard to estimate how common because it’s a taboo subject. We get hints from the popularity of certain porn genres like ‘schoolgirl,’ ‘twink,’ ‘barely legal,’ and so on. We also have a hint from how so many fashion models begin working in their teens.”
But Dr. Seto emphasizes that sexual attraction does not equal sexual behavior.
“The Instagram follows and likes may indeed suggest an attraction to underage boys,” said Dr. Seto. “And it may even be pedophilia if the models are that young. But that doesn’t mean his friend’s father is going to do anything beyond following or liking.”
Understanding what separates pedophiles who’ve offended against children (read: pedophiles who’ve sexually abused children) from pedophiles who’ve never inappropriately touched a child is an important focus of Dr. Seto’s research, BFD, and his insights could inform your course of action.
“One thing we know is that people who are low in self-control are more likely to act on sexual as well as nonsexual impulses,” said Dr. Seto. “That low self-control shows up in other ways, including addictions, problems holding down a job, problems in adult relationships, unreliability, and criminal behavior. My hypothesis is that someone who doesn’t show these signs is unlikely to offend against a child. They might look at child pornography, though, which is illegal and problematic, or they might look at legal images of children—like on social media—as a sexual outlet.”
Viewing child pornography is hugely problematic because it creates demand for more child pornography, which leads to more children being abused. But even if no new child porn were ever created, sharing images of the rape of a child is itself a violation of that child. And while it may not be pleasant to contemplate what might be going through a pedophile’s mind when they look at innocent images of children, it’s not against the law for someone with a sexual interest in children to dink around on Instagram.
“Returning to BFD’s question about whether to disclose, I don’t think it’s an easy yes-or-no answer,” said Dr. Seto. “It depends on what else BFD knows about the father. I’m required by law and professional ethics to report [someone] if I believe an identifiable child is at imminent risk. This mandatory reporting requirement is NOT triggered simply by knowing whether someone is sexually attracted to children. Instead, I have to consider information like whether the person has ever expressed fantasies or urges about a specific child, whether they work with children regularly, whether they live with children who are in their attraction category, or whether they have ever engaged in suspicious behavior like direct messaging with a child.”
Does your friend’s dad work with underage boys? Does he sometimes look after underage boys—say, grandsons? Do they have sleepovers with friends at grandpa’s house? Has he ever behaved in an inappropriate manner around underage boys—e.g., inventing reasons to be alone with them, offering them booze or drugs, or making suggestive comments offline or online?
“In the absence of these kinds of red flags, what we have here is someone who might be sexually attracted to underage boys but who might not pose a serious risk to children,” explained Dr. Seto. “So while not disclosing might mean some risk of a child being harmed, disclosing could definitely cause harm to the best friend, to the father, and to their relationship.”
You’re in an agonizing position, BFD. You essentially have to weigh the chance—most likely very remote—that your friend’s dad would harm a child against the near certainty that telling your friend about his father’s behavior would do irrevocable harm to their relationship. Your relationship with your friend would also be at risk; this is definitely one of those circumstances where the messenger risks being shot. Figuratively speaking. I hope.
Personally, BFD, in your shoes, I would err on the side of protecting even a hypothetical child. I would say something to the dad, perhaps via direct message (you could create a throwaway account and reach out anonymously), and I would also say something to my friend. But I would emphasize what the best available research tells us about pedophilia: It’s not something a person chooses, and most pedophiles never sexually abuse children. (And not everyone who sexually abuses a child is a pedophile.) So even if your best friend’s father is attracted to prepubescent boys—if he’s looking at prepubescent children and not teenagers who happen to be just under the age of consent—that doesn’t mean he’s harmed a child or would ever harm a child. He may need help to avoid offending—if, worst-case scenario, he actually is attracted to children—and being held accountable by loved ones is one way pedophiles avoid offending.
Dr. Seto is the author of Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention and more. Follow him on Twitter @MCSeto.