With the constant hustle and bustle of everyday life, it is easy to fall into the habit of taking everything at face value. That’s how our brains have evolved in order to cope with the insane amount of information that we are constantly being exposed to. However, this adaptation is not best suited for interpersonal and intrapersonal interactions. Have you ever felt strong emotions about something or someone, but you couldn’t really figure out why you felt that way? Rather than contemplating it, most people would just assume that “that’s just how I am” and move on with their life. In some people, those strong emotions show up as biases, which in turn, affect how they interact with the outside world. In others, these strong emotions present themselves as mental illnesses which can often be linked to past traumatic experiences.
The link between the development of mental illness in someone and the past exposure to a traumatic event has been researched at length over the past century. The overwhelming consensus is that trauma experienced at any point in someone’s life increases their odds of developing some form of mental illness. Now that might seem like common sense to some people, as the concept of trauma has to do with something that affects us both physically and emotionally. However, one aspect that is not as well-known is that mental ailments that are linked to trauma are not just depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. Other mental ailments can include paraphilic disorders, which are now beginning to be linked to past traumatic events.
Paraphilic disorders (mainly pedophilia) are often the topic of debate (similar to how serial killers were discussed in the 1970s & 1980s) as to whether these people’s mental illnesses are products of nature or nurture. The easiest line of thought that most people subscribe to is that the ones who have these disorders and commit morally reprehensible acts are merely just one bad apple out of a large good bunch. However, this way of thinking only shifts the blame away from society and onto these people. Now, there are plenty of cases where people who commit such terrible and catastrophic acts are truly mentally ill or impaired from the time that they are born. The important distinction that should be made is that people who have paraphilic disorders have not necessarily committed a crime; rather, they just have an insatiable urge to soothe whatever fixation they have, leading them into potential legal trouble. This inability to properly soothe their urges is believed to devolve from the lack of coping strategies with traumatic events. As a result, deviant sexual fantasies are their only means of coping, thus resulting in the insatiable urge, which is characteristic of a paraphilic disorder (Maniglio, 2011).
The biological specifics regarding how trauma affects the brains of people who are diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder are relatively unknown. The most studied group of individuals with a paraphilic disorder are pedophiles, and much of the research that has been done regarding them cannot be used to draw a definite conclusion (Freund et al., 1990). However, one case study surrounding a patient with a “Sleeping Beauty” paraphilia highlighted a potential link between sexual aggressive behavior, neurological disturbance, and self-representation (Bianchi-Demicheli et al., 2011). The patient suffered neuronal damage to a section of the frontal lobe and developed a fixation with sleeping women and their hands. The sexual attraction to hands had to deal with an incomplete self-image stemming from a post-accident trauma, which could only be appeased while touching a sleeping woman’s hand.
It is critical that people understand that in the same way that trauma can lead to depression, anxiety, and other “less taboo” mental illnesses, paraphilic disorders are not just a product of “a couple of bad apples.” Accepting this possibility allows for less demonization of people with paraphilic disorders; just like people with anxiety, they cannot control how they feel. It may seem like an extreme stretch to think this way, but it truly is the only route to getting people the help they need. What’s the incentive to seek help for your mental illness if you are just going to be met with hostility and disdain?
Maniglio, R. (2011). The role of childhood trauma, psychological problems, and coping in the development of deviant sexual fantasies in sexual offenders. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(5), 748–756. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.03.003
Freund, K., Watson, R., & Dickey, R. (1990). Does sexual abuse in childhood cause pedophilia: An exploratory study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 19(6), 557–568. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01542465
Bianchi-Demicheli F;Rollini C;Lovblad K;Ortigue S. (2011). “Sleeping Beauty paraphilia”: deviant desire in the context of bodily self-image disturbance in a patient with a fronto-parietal traumatic brain injury. Medical Science Monitor : International Medical Journal of Experimental and Clinical Research, 16(2). https://doi.org/