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.


  1. Yes indeed a good article about Dr Cantors work towards a better understanding of something different in the pedophile brain function which highlights a mention of some other research for others who may not be as well read as the first responder may be and in that respect the problem with a one size fits all solution as the first responder suggests is probably best illustrated by the work of Dr Money who in the later 20th century so enthusiastically advocated a surgery, medication and re socializing prescription in the belief medical science was knowledgeable enough to be able to achieve a nurture cure by applying what he called ‘the theory of gender neutrality’, meaning that a child’s biological birth sex could be changed by surgery, medication and re socializing.

    The unsuccessful long term result of his pioneering experiment has served well the inspiration of many for a better understanding the range of extreme human behaviour variations and very arguably energised the supporters of the gay culture to achieve greater acceptance as part of mainstream culture in the later 20th century.
    ‘Extracts from an article by Chandler Burr’ is a well written long post over viewing the long history of research for a biological cause of Homosexuality and well worth reading as an educational treatment for homophobic bias.

    The finding that there is significantly less white white matter density occurs in numerous other conditions as well as in pedophiles, as compared with other criminal behaviours, is an important observation that agrees with the general evidence that lower educational achievement arguably increases the possibility of the inappropriate behaviour which also makes the normal animal like behaviour of Homosexuality a past its sell-by date argument that has been to frequently offered as evidence for homosexuality being normal-being so the theory suggests that is, that man is biologically just another mammal. To accept the behaviour of animals as a social norm for human society denies the full dignity of what it means to be fully human as in a level above the animal kingdom.

    More generally other investigations of the brains white matter density have indicated that the CAH condition is also associated with a difference in the brains white matter density, CAH for example is an inherited recessive disorder carried by an estimated one third of US Ashkenasi Jews and the complexity of the problem is brought into focus by the 19 other conditions known to be associated with this ethnic group, so I was most interested to read about the visit to the Jewish community one third of which in the US are affected as genetic carriers of CAH, for those who may not know CAH means simply over activity of the adrenal glands that has big implications for biological birth sex.

    With the brains function now being, be it slowly, better understood I began to wonder if the emerging science could not only offer both candidates for the top US Job a better option than the usual drugs test to help decide brain fitness for such an important top job it would also if combined with a lie test help set at rest the minds of people wondering as to who actually is telling the truth about those increasing numbers of women who claim to have been sexually assaulted, however after the last debate I am not so sure the evidence of a brain scan however expertly done would be acceptable to Mr Trump even though it is an opportunity to also set peoples minds at rest about his spontaneous comments where women are concerned so that they may share his wife’s confidence that he is not really serious about her being ‘out the door at 44’ brain fitness being arguably far more important than the drugs test he suggested to help determine fitness for purpose of such an important office.
    In the bigger picture brain scans and lie tests could also help reduce the time and expense of major inquiry’s into child abuse which has been so much more problematic in the UK as compared with the Australian inquiry.

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