In the DSM-5 it is known as pedophilic disorder and is categorized among paraphilic disorders.
The term paraphilia denotes any intense and persistent sexual interest other than sexual interest in genital stimulation or preparatory fondling with phenotypically normal, physically mature, consenting human partners […]
Pedophilic disorder is characterized by an anomalous target preference, specifically sexual focus on children (“generally age 13 years or younger”).
Strictly speaking, it is included in the APA’s manual for mental disorders. However, there are caveats, for example:
In most situations, the clinical diagnosis of a DSM-5 mental disorder such as […] pedophilic disorder does not imply that an individual with such a condition meets legal criteria for the presence of a mental disorder or a specified legal standard (e.g., for competence, criminal responsibility, or disability)
It is also important to understand the epistemology behind the DSM, such that diagnosis has to fulfill a harm criterion, such that one of the criteria to diagnose pedophilic disorder is that:
B. The individual has acted on these sexual urges, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.
And more specifically:
Such individuals may still be diagnosed with pedophilic disorder despite the absence of self-reported distress, provided that there is evidence of recurrent behaviors persisting for 6 months (Criterion A) and evidence that the individual has acted on sexual urges or experienced interpersonal difficulties as a consequence of the disorder (Criterion B).
Likewise, the ICD-11 categorizes pedophilic disorder among paraphilic disorders: “In addition, in order for Pedophilic Disorder to be diagnosed, the individual must have acted on these thoughts, fantasies or urges or be markedly distressed by them.”
In principle, and today, pedophilia or pedophilia is (or can be) considered a mental disorder, specifically a paraphilic disorder.
I state “today” because previous editions of these manuals had different terminology, such that the ICD-10 categorized pedophilia among disorders of sexual preference.
In a past edition of the DSM-5, the term sexual orientation was used: “The term sexual orientation ordinarily reflects an individual’s subjective awareness of the category (or categories) of persons toward whom he or she is erotically attracted”. Some researchers argue that it is a “sexual age orientation“, as in that it denotes a sexual and potentially romantic attraction towards a certain age, that emerges early in life and is potentially stable over time. Of course, it is controversial because of the social implications.
I have never heard about pedophilia being “exclusively a European phenomenon” and I consider that improbable. In any case, “[t]he prevalence of pedophilia in the general population is unknown because large-scale epidemiological surveys have not yet been conducted. Much smaller surveys of convenience samples suggest that the upper limit for the prevalence of pedophilia is around 5%”.
If we put aside pedophilia as a paraphilia or as a diagnosis and only consider the criminal behavior, this meta-analysis about child sexual abuse suggests the contrary:
As regards the continent from which study samples were drawn the highest prevalence rate of child sexual abuse is found in Africa (34.4%; 21.1–50.7, 95% CI), represented by Morocco, Tanzania and mainly, South Africa. Europe, including many different countries (e.g. Spain, Finland), shows the lowest prevalence rate (9.2%; 6.8–12.3, 95% CI). Finally, America, Asia and Oceania have prevalence rates between 10.1 and 23.9%.
Specifically, the prevalence in the American continent is 15.8%. There are differences among countries, such that: in the USA, the mean prevalence of reported male and female child sexual abuse is respectively 7.5% and 25.3. In Spain, it’s 13.4% and 18.5%. I would be prudent in stating that the US has worse prevalence than European countries because comparing different studies with different numbers has potential methodological issues (e.g. differences in counting rules and legal definitions), so I will just suggest that the US and Europe have similar prevalence and that it is far from being “exclusively” European.
There are a lot of debates around this topic, but currently, it is classed as a disorder — although its definitions change with each iteration of the DSM. IIRC it’s currently listed as a type of paraphilia (perversion) alongside various fetishes considered abnormal. There have been a few studies which indicate that pedophiles experience arousal patterns which make their attraction to children analogous to a sexual orientation–but the decision of whether to categorise it as an orientation or a disorder IMO is (and should) always be an institutional one based on how best to reduce the harms associated with paedophiliac tendencies.
Regarding what you were told about pedophilia being a European phenomenon, there is a degree of truth in the claim insofar as the pedophile as a medicalised identity was developed in a European context. Prior to the 19th and 20th century there was no category of “pedophile”, and it is only with modern testing and examination of humans through clinical and carcereal practices that such an identity could develop and make sense. This is not to say that before Post-Enlightenment medicine people did not have paedophiliac tendencies, or that child sexual abuse did not occur–but it is to say that the way pedophile has been constructed is something that draws on European forms of social categorisation.
Here’s biblio references on the matter if you’re interested in further reading:
Seto (2012) Is Pedophilia a Sexual Orientation? Archives of Sexual Behaviour (41).
Cowburn & Dominelli (2001)Masking Hegemonic Masculinity: Reconstructing the Paedophile as the Dangerous Stranger. The British Journal of Social Work (31:3)
First (2014) DSM-5 and Paraphilic Disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online (42:2),
Bickley & Beech (2001) Classifying child abusers: Its relevance to theory and clinical practice. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, (45)
Harrison, Manning, & McCartan, (2010) Multi-Disciplinary Definitions and Understandings of ‘Paedophilia’. Social & Legal Studies (19:4)
The Sociological Mail