I was busy doing some research on pedophilia when I came upon a fascinating website.The website claims that a person who is a pedophile can be spotted by looking for the “pedosmile”. The pedosmile is widely recognized in our society and has even been defined in the “urban dictionary” as:

"Phenomenon where, when photographed, a pedophile will always have a creepy, lopsided grin which screams "I molest children". Such pictures are in sharp contrast to those of normal people, who generally have a deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression, and conventional felons such as murderers, who always frown. Typical features of a pedosmile include tight, discoloured lips, visible tongue, concealed teeth, a cocked head, twisted facial features, a bald forehead, disheveled hair, and a general aura of faggotry. Used in conjunction with other indicators, the pedosmile is an excellent method of early pedophile identification. http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Pedosmile"

[Added due to comments: Note that I myself do not agree with the definition nor the obvious homophobia implied by words like 'faggotry'. I am not calling for introduction of screening by "pedosmile". I am calling for proper study of it since the idea is already 'out there'. Please take the time to read the entire article before becoming hysterical and calling me a Nazi or making claims about what I do or do not say, thank you.]

The original website for the pedosmile includes a series of images of both pedophiles and non-pedophiles and asks the reader to guess which ones are which. After completing the quiz, you are assigned a score on your ability to detect pedophiles. The website’s owner is rather full of himself but, I have to admit I am wondering if he is on to something.

Before we go any further let me make something perfectly clear. First, I define a pedophile as a paraphilia in which an adult has recurrent, intense sexual urges or sexually arousing fantasies of engaging in sexual activity with a pre-pubertal child. Pedophilia, by itself, if not acted upon, is not a crime. There are a lot of adults out there who find children sexually attractive but never touch them sexually because they know how damaging it is to children. One of the only treatments for child molesters that works is treating the attraction to children as an inappropriate urge not dissimilar from the alcoholic's craving for alcohol. As the alcoholic can learn to resist the urge to drink, so a child molester can learn to resist the urge to molest children. This requires overcoming denial, excuses and the stresses relieved by molesting children for the criminal pedophile and drinking and driving for the criminal alcoholic. Once a pedophile always a pedophile, but once a child molester, maybe not always a child molester with the right kind of treatment. 

Child molestation, as in actively engaging children in sexual acts, is a crime and rightfully so. Looking at kiddy porn is also child molesting because a child had to be molested to get such images. Children are simply not old enough to be able to consent to the activity, their bodies aren’t physically ready for sex as documented by the damage that pediatric surgeons are left trying to repair after a sexual assault. Children can suffer long term emotional and physical damage when used for sexual gratification by adults. People who engage in sex with children are people who are, well to be perfectly blunt, are utterly and absolutely repugnant and criminal. All those things they say about how it doesn't really harm children and the children want it and all the other excuses for child molestation are just that, excuses, springing from a more dangerous denial than that of the alcoholic who is sure he can safely drive drunk. Adults having sex with a child equals a crime against that child in all circumstances.

Now that we have that clear, why do I think the “pedosmile” might be important? Active pedophiles, or child molesters as I prefer to call them to distinguish them from those pedophiles who do not sexually assault children, are a rarely studied criminal type about which we know little or nothing. We are not very good at spotting them before they do terrible damage. We don’t know much about protecting our children from them. We don't know how to treat them when we do catch them. By the same token, our society’s near hysterical fear of child molesters, means innocent people have been damaged by the mere accusation of being one. Exploring the pedosmile and its implications might improve that sorry situation.

We know, for example, that specific genetic disorders are frequently marked by specific facial characteristics. In the old days, geneticists kept careful catalogues of specific characteristics and used these to diagnose genetic disorders. Today geneticists tend to diagnose by genetic testing. When today's geneticist is trying to decide what tests to order, he or she takes into account those characteristics. For example, one abnormal gene on the X chromosome can cause “Chudley Syndrome” which includes an almond shape eye opening, forward tilted nostrils and an unusually wide mouth1.Therefore, one possibility is that the “pedosmile” does exist and if it does it indicates that pedophilia has a purely genetic basis.If so, we could test for it and figure out what the gene is doing and maybe come up with a way to compensate for the faulty gene of the child molester other than prison yard euthanasia.

We also know that environmental insult in utero can cause a different facial appearance even if the genes are normal. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)is an unfortunate example of this. Children who were exposed to alcohol during pregnancy have a characteristic facial appearance that includes an indistinct groove between the nose and upper lip.Therefore, if there is a “pedosmile”, it may be due not to some gene for pedophilia but rather to some environmental insult that occurred before birth. The pedosmile could thus be symptomatic, a measurable sign of some physical basis to pedophilia, such as a form of brain damage. If we knew that, we could potentially educate women to avoid this insult in pregnancy and possibly come up with some way to treat the damage.

The cause of pedophilia is uncertain but we do have some clues. Human sexuality appears to develop via three strands. Each of these strands develops independently. They are gender identity, dyadic relationships, and sexual response. Gender identity is generally accepted to have been formed after conception but well before birth. We know it happens after conception because of the condition known as complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. Affected individuals are genetically male but have a completely unresponsive receptor for androgen. Individuals with complete androgen insensitivity develop into phenotypic females complete with a female gender identity even though genetically they are male.

We also know gender identity is fixed before birth as evidenced by the miserably failed experiments of changing boys to girls after some mishap causes them to lose the penis as infants. For many decades it was felt that simply converting these boys to phenotypic girls and raising them as girls would result in little girls. Instead, this procedure resulted in miserably mixed up individuals who often reclaimed their male gender identity on becoming adults. They suffered so much along the way that some of them committed suicide2. We can safely conclude that while we are born with our gender identity fixed, it is fixed sometime after conception.

The second strand in human sexual development is our experience with dyadic relationships. These are the ability to form and maintain relationships with others. This ability is developed via a learning process that begins at birth and continues through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. Parents are the most important factor for young children. Peers are most important during adolescence. The environment we are raised in plays an important role in this developmental process but so too do basic traits of temperament such as irritability or resilience an individual child is born with. Dyadic relationship development can be seen as a combination of environmental conditions and genetic predisposition3.

The third strand is sexual response. It appears that sexual response is highly variable in individuals. There is a range from a general lack of sexual response in childhood to clear sexual awareness including masturbation to orgasm from early childhood onward. The large variability in sexual response means that the three strands, gender identity, dyadic relationships, and sexual response and their normal pattern of development can be “derailed”. One area can develop out of synch with the other. This out of synch development can prevent the growth of normal adult sexual relationships.

Pedophiles are considered to not be born so much as made. They were short circuited somewhere along the path to normal adult sexuality and get stuck with an adult sized sexual interest focused on children instead of other adults. Most people think a history of child sexual abuse lies at the root of child molesters. However, the majority men who were abused as children do not go on to become abusers. Furthermore, a substantial minority of men who are abusers were not themselves abused as children. There is even evidence suggesting child molesters become molesters while they are still children themselves. If an underage child molester joins up with an adult child molester they get tutoring and commit far more aggressive acts than their child molesting peers who did not get such tutoring.

What are the biological factors that are known to contribute to pedophilia? The field is rife with poor research, little data and confounding factors. Nevertheless, three factors have been reliably shown to be part of the offender profile. Lower IQ than the general population is one factor and when stratified, the lower the IQ, the younger the child molested. Furthermore, left-handedness and lower cognitive function are also more common among pedophiles. The combination of left-handedness and lower cognitive function are suggestive of, but not proof for, a prenatal developmental error contributing to child molesting. Such a developmental error, if it does exist, could also be expressed in the pedosmile. 

One interesting observation is that pedophiles suffer from depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are known to have a genetic predisposition as part of the pathology. Of course, being a pedophile, something our society hates, which can also land you in jail for life or worse, may be a source of depression and anxiety all by itself. The balance of the data on biological or genetic factors associated with pedophilia is fascinating, suggesting frontal lobe abnormalities, higher or lower testosterone levels, and other clues that are suggestive of a biological basis for pedophilia. Unfortunately, this body of work is also fraught with methodological errors, sometimes of the most basic sort. All we can do with it is call for more and better research to follow up on what are presently only tantalizing suggestions.

Another of the puzzles is why is it that such a large proportion of pedophiles are male? There are two common explanations. The first is that men are generally more aggressive and physically larger and due to their higher levels of testosterone have a higher sex drive and so are more likely to offend sexually. The second is that female pedophiles are actually just as common as males but simply don’t get caught as often because our society stereotypes offenders as male. We just don’t watch women around children as much as we do men. We have great difficulty accepting the idea of a female pedophile. I will propose a third possibility that would be in accord with the pedosmile as a biologic signal.

If you examine the X chromosome and compare it to other chromosomes two things are immediately obvious. One is that the X chromosome is a large one. It has a lot of genes compared to most other chromosomes. Second, the X chromosome contains a high proportion of genes related to brain development. The Y chromosome is tiny and has very few such genes. Why would this be? 

Evolutionarily,human females have a lot invested in each offspring and are normally highly selective about whom they mate with. Even after choosing a mate an astonishing number of pregnancies (2-10 percent) are due to non-paternity (i.e., the husband thinks he is the father but he is not). Studies of non-paternity show that women tend to cuckold their mates with men of higher social standing5.

Human females have two X chromosomes. Males have one. Early in development, when the female embryo is a ball of cells inside her mother, one X is inactivated at random in each cell. Females are a blended mixture of cells each with one X chromosome activated and one X chromosome inactivated. This is nicely demonstrated if you look at the calico cat. In cats, the gene for coat color is also on the X chromosome. So in cats with one black gene and one orange gene for coat color you will see patches of orange and black. All normal mammalian females have these blended patches producing a genetic pattern called mosaicism, but we can really only see it visually in female cats.

Because females are mosaics due to X inactivation the effects of recessive genes on one X chromosome are compensated for by dominant corresponding genes(alleles) on the other X chromosome. Females are carriers for recessive traits on the X chromosome but are themselves unaffected. In males the reverse is true. Males have only one X chromosome so all their recessive genes on the X are exposed. With so much in the way of brain development inherited on the X chromosome, the male brain readily expresses recessives that could be either deleterious or advantageous. Females will then presumably seek out and mate with the men expressing desirable brain traits and avoid the deleterious ones. Over evolutionary time this results in offspring that are increasingly intelligent and genetically healthy. One unfortunate side effect of this evolutionary selection process is that males with a deleterious gene, such as propensity to violence or mental defect, will express such traits. And so maladaptive genes, or more likely genetic predispositions to maladaptive behaviours such as pedophilia, will be much more common in males than females simply because in females they are recessive and are therefore hidden. Perhaps one symptom of this is the pedosmile.

Alternatively the pedosmile could be explained simply as the defense mechanism of predatory child molesters that they develop over time because it works to disarm their prey, children. The smile is reminiscent of a young child’s toothless and endearing smile. Pulling the top lip over the top teeth may simply serve to make the offender seem less threatening to a child. This would allow the offender to more easily acquire the trust of a child and more easily gain access and compliance from the child. It may be that the pedosmile, if it exists, is simply a useful disguise child molesters employ that they learned works, consciously or unconsciously, by simple trial and error.

Where does this leave us? Almost nowhere. We know so little for certain. There may or may not be a pedosmile and it may or may not be relevant to understanding pedophilia. Using a pedosmile to diagnose, prevent or treat chid molesters is extremely risky. The concept of the pedosmile does lend interesting potential insights and can guide us to some specific research designed to test the hypothesis. I therefore propose the following studies be done:

  1. Using school pictures, do a largeretrospective analysis of convicted pedophiles from school age toadult compared with an appropriately matched control sample lookingfor evidence of the pedosmile. Facial recognition software shouldaid in that endeavor.

  2. If the pedosmile is present inchildhood and predictive of pedophile offenses, then intenseresearch should be undertaken to understand the biological, socialand environmental inputs in its creation. This would includestandard genetic analysis and comparison of family members with andwithout the pedosmile, twin studies, and the entire gamut of geneticanalyses for locating the suspect gene(s). The purpose is not todevelop a genetic test for a pedophile but rather to identify whatthe function of the genes involved is. This information can then beused to tease out environmental insults before birth that mightcontribute to pedophilia so, like alcohol in FAS, the trigger couldbe avoided.

  3. Simultaneously, the pedosmilecould be used to test therapies useful in treating younger adultsotherwise destined to become child molesters.

Even if there is no pedosmile, undertaking the research in and of itself would help us to better understand the child molester. The actions of the child molester are so repugnant and so sickening that as a society we avoid trying to unravel the child molester puzzle. We prefer to pretend they don’t exist and then when they are caught, either try to deny the problem exists, blame the victim or the non-offending adults, kill the molesters outright, or warehouse them for life in prison. These reactions are not particularly useful in protecting children. We have an obligation to study the child molester, learn what a child molester is, learn how to prevent child molestation, treat the offender, and in doing so stop the assaults. Anything less is a failure to protect our children.

Selected References:

1) Chudley AE, etal, “Mental retardation, distinct facial changes, short stature, obesity, and hypogonadism: A new X-linked mental retardation syndrome.” Am J of Med Gen. Volume31, Issue 4, pages 741–751, December 1988.

2) Sex Reassignment at Birth: A Long Term Review and Clinical Implications Archives of Pediatric&Adolescent Medicine
March 1997 (vol.151. pp.298-304)

3) Bancroft J,“Normal Sexual Development” in Barbarbaree, HE, Marchall WL (eds)The Juvenile Sex Offender, The Guilford Press, New York 2nd Ed 2006.(Kindle ed, Location 392)

4) Blanchard R,Cantor JM, Robichaud LK, “Biological factors in the Development ofSexual Deviance and Aggression in Males.” in Barbarbaree, HE,Marchall WL (eds) The Juvenile Sex Offender, The Guildford Press, New York 2nd Ed 2006. (Kindle ed, Location 1117.)

5) King, TE, &Jobling, MA, “Founders, Drift, and Infidelity: The Relationship between Y Chromosome Diversity and Patrilineal Surnames.” Molecular Biology and Evolution Vol 26,1093-1102, 2009