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Why language matters: why the term ‘paedophile’ can be problematic and should be used with caution

Last updated: 23 Feb 2024 Topics: Blog
A child clasps their hands together

Since the mid-1970s public awareness of child sexual abuse has increased, receiving considerable media attention.1

In many ways the publicity around cases has enabled people who experienced child sexual abuse to better understand what has happened to them and has helped them to report abuse in greater numbers.

However, as public awareness and media interest in child sexual abuse cases has grown, the word ‘paedophile’ has taken on a life of its own, being used as shorthand to refer to all types of sexual abuse and all people who sexually abuse children.

Focusing discussion about child sexual abuse on paedophilia is reductive. The term has a specific meaning, and not all forms of child sexual abuse fall within this definition. Using the term interchangeably with child sexual abuse can mask specific contextual factors and concerns. It can also create barriers for professionals seeking to understand the complexities of child sexual abuse, and prevent them from putting in place appropriate safeguards.

Defining paedophilia

The tenth edition of the International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD-10) classifies paedophilia as a sexual preference for children, usually of prepubertal or early pubertal age. The person diagnosed must be at least 16 years old and at least five years older than the child or children who are the focus of their sexual preference.2,2

A diagnosis of paedophilia can help with the treatment of people with this specific psychiatric disorder. However, the terms ‘paedophilia’ and ‘paedophile’ may prevent people from identifying they have a problem or seeking help to change their behaviour.4,5,3 

Identifying concerns

Thinking of child sexual abuse as something perpetrated by ‘paedophiles’ ignores the fact that not all sexual abuse is motivated by a paedophilic interest in children, and not all people diagnosed with paedophilia sexually abuse children.

The assumption that sexual abuse is perpetrated by people over the age of 16 risks leaving other concerns unrecognised and unaddressed. Research suggests that a significant proportion of child sexual abuse is by other children and young people.4

> Read more about recognising and responding to harmful sexual behaviour

Similarly, the perception of sexual abuse as something which only effects young children overlooks the fact that older children are also at risk of sexual abuse. This can lead to serious miscalculations of the risks posed by people who have sexually abused children. For example, in one case review the mislabelling of a sex offender as a paedophile meant that while safeguarding measures were put in place to protect young children, other older children and vulnerable adults were left at ongoing risk of harm.5

There is no one ‘type’ of person who perpetrates sexual abuse, and there is no one ‘type’ of child at risk of experiencing abuse. Instead, recognising and responding to child sexual abuse relies on a good understanding of the different forms sexually abusive behaviour can take; and the physical, behavioural and emotional signs which may indicate a child has experienced sexual abuse.

> Read more about protecting children from sexual abuse

Addressing the context in which abuse takes place

Focusing discussions about sexual abuse solely on the individuals involved in perpetrating child sexual abuse also risks overlooking the importance of the conditions which provide opportunities for sexual abuse to take place, and the contexts in which it occurs.6

Thinking more widely than individuals’ motivations, to consider when, where and how abuse might take place, can help professionals take action to help mitigate potential risks.7 For example, this might involve introducing more rigorous safer recruitment practices; checking regularly on areas that are infrequently used or left unsupervised; putting in place measures to keep online spaces safe for children; or having age-appropriate discussions with children and young people about sex and relationships.

> Find out how Talk Relationships supports secondary schools to deliver inclusive sex and relationships education

Looking beyond labels

Applying the label ‘paedophile’ indiscriminately risks obscuring the complexity of child sexual abuse.

An understanding of child sexual abuse, based on the available evidence, is critical if abuse is to be prevented and responded to in effective ways.

By gaining a clear understanding of the indicators of child sexual abuse, professionals are in a better position to recognise and respond to safeguarding concerns.

And by having a clear understanding of the contexts and conditions in which sexual abuse takes place, professionals are better able to put in place the robust safeguarding measures needed to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in the first place.

It’s only by understanding this complexity that professionals can appreciate the whole picture. By doing this they are better able to effectively recognise and respond to child sexual abuse.


Bingham, A. and Settle, L. (2015) Scandals and silences: the British press and child sexual abuse. London: History and Policy Policy Papers.
World Health Organisation (WHO) (1992) The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioural disorders: clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines. Geneva: WHO
Stop It Now Living with unusual sexual interests: terminology. [Accessed 26/01/2024].
Levenson, J.S., Willis, G.M. and Vicencio, C.P. (2017) Obstacles to help-seeking for sexual offenders: implications for prevention of sexual abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 26 (2): 99-120.
McNeish, D. and Scott, S. (2023) Key messages from research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour. [Accessed 16/02/2024].
Wiffin, J. and Unnamed safeguarding children partnership (2022) Child safeguarding practice review: Anya, Rosa, Whitney and Lena. NSPCC on behalf on an unnamed Safeguarding Children Partnership.
McNeish, D. and Scott, S. (2023) Key messages from research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour. [Accessed 16/02/2024].
Wiffin, J. and Unnamed safeguarding children partnership (2022) Child safeguarding practice review: Anya, Rosa, Whitney and Lena. NSPCC on behalf on an unnamed Safeguarding Children Partnership.
Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse and Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies, Middlesex University (2020) A new typology of child sexual abuse offending (PDF). Ilford: Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse.
Firmin, C. (2017) Contextual safeguarding: an overview of the operational, strategic and conceptual framework (PDF). University of Bedfordshire: [Luton].

Key points to take away:

  • The label paedophilia has a specific meaning and not all child sexual abuse conforms to this definition.
  • Recognising and responding to child sexual abuse requires a good understanding of different types of sexually abusive behaviour, the contexts and conditions in which abuse takes place and the signs that a child might be experiencing sexual abuse.
  • To take effective preventative action all the factors which enable child sexual abuse to take place need to be addressed.