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Overview of Paraphilic Disorders


By George R. Brown, MD, Professor and Associate Chairman of Psychiatry; Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, East Tennessee State University; University of North Texas

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Paraphilic disorders are recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors that are distressing or disabling and that involve inanimate objects, children or nonconsenting adults, or suffering or humiliation of oneself or the partner with the potential to cause harm.

Paraphilias involve sexual arousal to atypical objects, situations, and/or targets (eg, children, corpses, animals). However, some sexual activities that seem unusual to another person or a health care practitioner do not constitute a paraphilic disorder simply because they are unusual. People may have paraphilic interests but not meet the criteria for a paraphilic disorder.

The unconventional sexual arousal patterns in paraphilias are considered pathologic disorders only when both of the following apply:

  • They are intense and persistent.

  • They cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, or they harm or have the potential to harm others (eg, children, nonconsenting adults)

People with a paraphilic disorder may have an impaired or a nonexistent capacity for affectionate, reciprocal emotional and sexual intimacy with a consenting partner. Other aspects of personal and emotional adjustment may be impaired as well.

The pattern of disturbed erotic arousal is usually fairly well developed before puberty. At least 3 processes are involved:

  • Anxiety or early emotional trauma interferes with normal psychosexual development.

  • The standard pattern of arousal is replaced by another pattern, sometimes through early exposure to highly charged sexual experiences that reinforce the person’s experience of sexual pleasure.

  • The pattern of sexual arousal often acquires symbolic and conditioning elements (eg, a fetish symbolizes the object of arousal but may have been chosen because the fetish was accidentally associated with sexual curiosity, desire, and excitement).

Whether all paraphilic development results from these psychodynamic processes is controversial, and some evidence of altered brain functioning and functional anatomy is present in some paraphilias (eg, pedophilia).

In most cultures, paraphilias are far more common among males. Biologic reasons for the unequal distribution may exist but are poorly defined.

Dozens of paraphilias have been described, but most are uncommon or rare. The most common are

Some paraphilias (such as pedophilia) are illegal and may result in being imprisoned and being labeled and registered as a sex offender for life. Some of these offenders also have significant personality disorders (eg, antisocial, narcissistic), which make treatment difficult.

Often, more than one paraphilic disorder is present.