Rare Syndrome Turns People Into Pedophiles


People with Klüver-Bucy Syndrome experience runaway sexual urges — sometimes including pedophilia — due to damage to their brains. Does the existence of this disorder mean none of us really has control over our sexual behavior?

That’s the question Jesse Bering poses in his Slate piece on Klüver-Bucy. Triggered by brain surgery, tumors, encephalitis, or in some cases epilepsy, the syndrome is characterized by hyperorality (the compulsion to put things in one’s mouth) and hypersexuality. Bering describes patients who masturbate compulsively, and others who, seemingly out of the blue, begin to make sexual advances on family members or on children. He mentions one man who, after epileptic seizures, compulsively raped his wife, and another man who developed pedophilic urges while suffering a brain tumor (when the tumor was removed, they went away). Based on these cases, Bering asks,

If a “good” person’s brain can be rendered morally disabled by an invasive tumor or an epileptic fuse-shortage, subsequently causing them to do very bad deeds, then isn’t it rather hypocritical to assume that a “bad” person without brain injury — whose brain is anatomically organized by epigenetics (the complex interplay between genes and experiences) — has any more free will than the neuroclinical case? After all, perhaps it’s just a matter of timing: The “good” are born with brains that can “go bad,” whereas the “bad” are hogtied by a morally disabled neural architecture from the very start. And although it may be less common, if a “bad” person behaves in an upstanding manner, could that be the result of fortuitous brain damage or epilepsy, too?

In some ways it doesn’t matter if rape or child sexual abuse are caused by brain injuries or “badness” — we still need to work to prevent these crimes. It’s true that an understanding of the brain might change what such prevention looks like. If removing a tumor can also remove a man’s desire to assault children, then doing so is more efficient — and, one could argue, more just — than keeping him in jail for life. But of course, cases where surgery can “cure” pedophilia are extremely rare, as are cases where an act of rape can somehow be traced back to a specific brain disorder. And while Bering’s right that genetics may predispose some people to commit sex crimes, it’s hard to know what we can do with that information. Absent any method of diagnosing or treating such predispositions (such a method would bring up a host of political and moral problems, even if it existed), all we can really do is attempt to regulate behavior. The question of whether humans really have free will remains open — but when it comes to protecting people from sexual assault, the question is somewhat moot.

Naughty By Nature [Slate]

Image via marema/Shutterstock.com

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