Former French Pres. Sarkozy on Pedophilia, Depression, and Genetics

October 28, 2014

Depression, Genetics, Pedophilia

Nicolas Sarkozy

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (Photograph: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2007 Nicolas Sarkozy made a controversial statement regarding pedophilia and depression by suggesting that they both have a genetic component. His statement (in translation) says:

“I’m inclined personally to think that you are born paedophile and it’s a problem that we don’t know how to treat this pathology.”

In reference to depression, he spoke of a “genetic fragility, a preconditioned pain.”

“I don’t want to give parents a complex. It’s not exclusively the parents’ fault every time a youngster commits suicide.”

Sarkozy took a great deal of criticism for his remarks from political opponents and members of the scientific community. Archbishop of Paris Andre Vingt-Trois called his remarks, “purely ideological nonsense, and completely out of touch with current scientific and genetic knowledge.” Geneticist Axel Kahn argued that there is “no such thing as a gene for an unhappy life.”

Sources: (The GuardianSociété, Turkish Press)

Before we criticize Sarkozy, it is important to separate the ethical and scientific debates to reach a clearer understanding of the issue. This piece will attempt to identify some of the most recent scientific research on both pedophilia and depression and the role that genetics plays in them.

1. Depression

Some facts about depression from Washington University in St. Louis:

  • Out of about 17.5 million Americans affected by some form of depression, around 9.2 million have major or clinical depression
  • 2/3 of sufferers do not seek necessary treatment
  • 80% of sufferers who receive treatment report significant improvement in quality of life
  • Women experience depression around twice as much as men
  • Major depression is 1.5 to 3.0 times more common among biological children of relatives with depression

This last empirical statement raises questions about factors leading to depression. The Stanford School of Medicine found evidence suggesting that in fact depression is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. (Source)

Science has not reached definitive conclusions on how much depression is influenced by one versus the other, but one way researchers have approached the subject is to study twins.

Stanford researchers found sets of twins to see if one or both suffered from depression. They found heritability to be around 40-50%, and possibly higher for severe depression. While it is difficult to make definitive conclusions, science does not exclude the possibility of depression being related to genetics.

Still, environmental factors can of course also contribute to depression, such as childhood physical or sexual abuse, childhood emotional or physical neglect, and severe stress, as well as losing a parent early in life.

The Stanford researchers found that if a person has a sibling or parent with major depression, they have a risk 2 or 3 times greater of developing depression.

Geneticist Axel Kahn’s remark that no single gene controls happiness seems to overlook the possibility that depression is influenced by a combination of genes.

2. Pedophilia

This is a much touchier subject, but deserves similarly impartial analysis.

First of all, we need to be careful with terminology. ‘Pedophile’ refers to someone who feels an attraction towards prepubescent children; it does not necessarily refer to someone who has acted on that desire. There are people in the world with an attraction towards prepubescent children who never act on this desire.

As of 2010, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines pedophilia with the following characteristics:

  • Sexual fantasies or urges involving prepubescent children (defined as 13 years or younger)
  • Urges or fantasies of this kind lasting at least 6 months or resulting in a person acting on them or suffering from severe stress
  • The sufferer is at least 16 years old, and at least five years older than the prepubescent child

Parts of the definition are admittedly arbitrary, and concerns over the definition included the fact that it excluded attraction to children going through puberty, also known as hebephilia. (Source)

Regardless of visceral reactions to the phenomenon, recent studies and scientific testimony suggest that treatment can help people manage their desires, but not alter them.

When testifying before the Canadian Parliament, Queen’s University professor emeritus of psychology Dr. Vernon Quinsey gave the following statement:

“First of all, pedophiles are people who prefer prepubescent children. They’re not interested in 15-year-olds who have an adult body shape or anything like that. They’re not interested in those kinds of people. They have quite a restricted area of sexual interests in terms of the kinds of body types that their victims have. There is no evidence that this sort of preference can be changed through treatment or through anything else.

Treatment for those offenders shades into management, where you essentially have to teach someone to live within their sexual preference structure. They have to find other kinds of outlets. They have to avoid high-risk situations. They have to do all those sorts of things. But I think that most people would agree that this kind of sexual preference pattern—an actual preference for prepubertal children—is not alterable by any kinds of current treatments.

Psychologist and former University of Montreal professor Dr. Hubert Van Gijseghem concurred with this opinion in his own statement:

“Further, research has shown that only a small proportion of individuals possessing pornographic materials act out. That is another point I wanted to raise. With respect to pedophilia, as I believe Dr. Quinsey just explained, in other words and perhaps better than I, as I have already said, it is a sexual orientation. Of course, even an individual whose sexual orientation involves a quasi-exclusive preference for prepuberscent children can remain chaste or abstinent. In fact, this has been seen among some members of the Catholic clergy. Chastity exists, but for the vast majority of pedophiles, the risk of acting out is far higher than for other sexual offenders. And in this case I would refer to intrafamilial abusers as an example, as my colleague has done.”

Again, it is important to strip away social and cultural connotations from terminology. By referring to this type of attraction as a ‘sexual orientation,’ Dr. Gijseghem is not condoning pedophilia or equating it to consenting relationships between human adults, but rather he means to say that it is a kind of unalterable sexual preference, albeit an unacceptable one in modern society.

Dr. James Cantor, Head of Research in the Sexual Behaviors Clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, led a study at the Kurt Freund Phallometric Lab to gauge sex offenders’ responses to sexually charged images. His findings (made available in this study) suggest that pedophilia could be related to brain growth, and in particular, early brain growth. In particular, he found that although there was no ‘pedophilia center’ in the brain, there seemed to be a problem with the brain’s white matter, a shorthand term for the myelinated axons and glial cells responsible for transmitting signals throughout the brain’s gray matter making up the cerebrum. Cantor suggested a way to visualize this:

“There doesn’t seem to be a pedophilia center in the brain. Instead, there’s either not enough of this cabling, not the correct kind of cabling, or it’s wiring the wrong areas together, so instead of the brain evoking protective or parental instincts when these people see children, it’s instead evoking sexual instincts. There’s almost literally a crossed wiring.” (Source)

If Cantor’s study is correct, this would suggest that improvements in prenatal care, such as better nutrition, and reducing exposure to toxins that can effect fetal growth could reduce the number of people who develop pedophilia.

While there is still research to be done, the point of this writing is to emphasize that regardless of our gut reactions to controversial statements made by politicians, it is still necessary to evaluate them objectively before making unfounded ideological criticisms.

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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381


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