Dr. James Cantor on Pedophilia and the Brain

Dr. James Cantor. Credit: Sharon Altshul

This is the fourth post on the Tahel conference on “The Jewish Community Confronts Violence and Abuse.”

Dr. James Cantor gave the keynote lecture on the first day entitled,”Understanding Pedophilia and the Brain: Implications for Safety and Society.” Cantor is the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine.

Dr. Cantor’s talk was one of the most professional I have ever attended in Israel. He was well organized, made clear points that laypeople could follow, and illustrated them with relevant slides. I have tried to accurately represent his points in my summary below. You can read more about his research at Dr. Cantor’s website.

Cantor studies the brains of pedophiles, trying to answer the question of what makes a pedophile a pedophile. There is a huge difference between pedophilia and child molestation. Pedophiles are sexually attracted to children, but not all of them act on it. By comparing the brains of pedophiles to others in the general population, he hoped to learn if it was possible to prevent child molestation by pedophiles.

For many years, pedophilia was thought to be related to abuse as a child. But in 1886, Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing posited that it is a disease of the brain.

Cantor cited several studies that compared pedophiles who had committed sex abuse and those who had committed other crimes. The main differences included the following:

  • Pedophiles have lower IQs.
  • They score more poorly on memory tests (a different measure than standard IQ tests).
  • 60% of pedophile offenders failed a grade, or received special education.
  • A greater proportion suffered head injuries, especially before age 13. Cantor emphasized that the neurological issues disposed them to injuries, and were not the cause of the sexual inclination.
  • They are 2.5 centimeters shorter on average than the general population.

All of these differences can be affected by overall brain development, pregnancy, and childhood nutrition. Cantor’s team decided to add to this data and look at handedness, which is determined before birth. Left-handedness is known to correlate with improper brain development. The study showed that 30% of homosexual pedophiles were non-right-handed, vs. 10% of the general population.

Cantor received a grant from the Canadian government for his research. His team is one of only three research teams studying the topic. The other two are in Germany. His project cost only $1 million, a fraction of what the United States spends on the prosecution and incarceration of pedophile offenders. And this does not take into account the suffering of the victims.

With pedophilia, the newborn’s development is off in some way. Unlike abuse, pedophilia does not run in families. Over 99% of pedophiles are male, and the majority of victims are female. Pedophilia is not passed on to the next generation, and appears to be a sexual preference like homosexuality. There is no effective treatment. Our best hope is prevention, before birth.

Sexual abusers of children have a low recidivism rate of about 10%.

Scientists debated for years as to whether the temporal or frontal part of the brain controlled pedophilia. But in a large study, no differences were found between pedophiles and other criminals in either of these two sections of the brain. In 2008, Cantor studied MRI findings that indicated significantly lower white-matter density in the brains of pedophiles compared to men who committed non-sexual offenses. MRIs can predict pedophilia only among a population.


Pedophiles don’t differentiate between appropriate and inappropriate partners. People generally nurture children, and flirt with sexy adults. Cantor gave a simple analogy, explaining that pedophilia is a “cross-wiring” between nurture vs. sexual instincts because of brain differences.

According to Cantor, we are asking pedophiles to live a completely celibate life, yet we discourage them from asking for help. Unfortunately, anger and other emotions block us from acting rationally toward pedophiles.

For more on Cantor’s research, including podcasts, see his website.

More in this series:
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow on the Top Reasons for Divorce in the Jewish Community

Rabbi Yosef Blau on Religious Justifications for Abuse

Violence and Abuse in the Jewish Community: Is Religion the Solution or the Problem (Rabbi Cherlow)

Thank you to Sharon Marks Altshul for the photos.

Check out the 2016 fashions at Hydrochic modest swimwear.


  1. pedophiles need to be put to death, nothing helps them and the damage they do is immense and so far reaching for so many millions of little ones. death.

    otherwise interesting article.

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