Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Invasion of the hebephile hunters

Or, the story of how an archaic word
got a new lease on life

Stop a random passerby and ask what "hebephilia" means, and you’ll get a blank stare.

A few years ago, you would have gotten the same blank look from a forensic psychologist. Even from many who did risk assessments of sex offenders.

Not anymore. The obscure Greek word is gaining in popularity, and (for reasons I'll explain in a moment) may even be on the fast track to becoming a de facto psychiatric diagnosis. For that reason, it's a word worth knowing - and tracking.

Defining hebephilia is not as easy as you might think. I couldn't find it in my copy of Webster's dictionary, nor is it listed in several online dictionaries that I checked. Wikipedia (*) defines it as a variant of the word ephebophilia, meaning "sexual attraction to adolescents." Ephebia was the ancient Greek institution in which young men were trained as citizens and soldiers. Philein is the Greek "to love," as in philosophy (the love of wisdom) or philology (the study of literary texts).

Pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld is credited with coining the term around 1906-1908, as part of his efforts to catalogue the varieties of sexuality (the word transvestism is also his). A tireless campaigner for the rights of sexual minorities, Hirschfeld would roll over in his grave to see how his term is being used today - in the service of involuntarily committing people to state psychiatric hospitals.

Perhaps the most avid proponent of this creative new use is Dennis Doren, a psychologist who evaluates sex offenders for civil commitment and has authored a popular how-to manual for government experts, aptly named Evaluating Sex Offenders: A Manual for Civil Commitments and Beyond.

In his manual, Doren defines hebephilia as a "paraphilia." Another esoteric Greek word, paraphilia is a sexual deviancy characterized by sexual fantasies, urges, or activities involving nonhuman objects, suffering or humiliation of oneself or one's partner, or nonconsenting partners such as children. The paraphilias listed in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) include exhibitionism, fetishism, frotteurism, voyeurism, sexual masochism, sexual sadism, and pedophilia. Hebephilia is not among the listed paraphilias.

Since hebephilia is excluded from the diagnostic bible, Doren trains evaluators to give hebephiliacs a diagnosis of "Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified." This is but one of several efforts by Doren to broaden the diagnostic categories under which sex offenders can be civilly detained; in a previous post I discussed his use of the "Paraphilia NOS" diagnosis with rapists.

Hebephilia came close to extinction in 1933, when the Nazis plundered Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin and torched its massive archives in a public bonfire. Yet suddenly, 70-some years later and probably not coincidentally to the 2002 publication of Doren's manual, we are seeing a growing interest in the archaic construct.

In 2003, for example, a student researcher at the University of Montreal described "hebephiles" as an "alarming clinical reality" that was "almost completely absent from the scientific literature." In an unabashed display of self-promotion, she promised to "lift the veil of silence" on hebephilia through her research with Canadian men who had sexually offended against teens.

According to a 2007 publication by the esteemed Mayo Clinic, hebephilia is rapidly "becoming a generic term" to describe sexual interest in adolescents who are under the legal age of consent. The article defines a hebophile as someone interested in teenage girls, with ephebophile denoting attraction to post-pubescent boys. Basing a diagnosis on the legal age of consent seems to imply that a person could have a mental disorder in one jurisdiction but not in another, since the age of consent varies widely and adults may even marry teens under age 18 in many countries and U.S. states.

Hebephiles were the topic of another research study published this month in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. The study focused mainly on physical characteristics that purportedly distinguish pedophiles - men who are primarily attracted to prepubescent children - from normal men (who now have their very own label - teleiophiles). The study found that Canadian pedophiles are shorter on average than teleiophiles, with hebephiles somewhere in the middle of the height spectrum. This follows an earlier finding by the same research team, out of Toronto's Kurt Freund Laboratory, that pedophiles were more likely than teleiophiles to be left-handed. The researchers did not find any statistically meaningful relationship between hebephilia and handedness when using phallometry (penile erections) to measure primary erotic attraction. However, they still hypothesize that a neurological abnormality may underlie some men’s sexual attraction to teens.

The absurdity of describing erotic attraction to adolescents as a mental abnormality is that most normal heterosexual men are sexually attracted to teenage girls (who happen to be at the peak of their reproductive fertility). This fact is well established by multiple research studies over the past several decades. Such findings are certainly no surprise to the moguls of popular culture or to the advertising industry, which uses provocative images of teen girls and boys to sell everything from clothes to cars.

Given the scientifically unsupported nature of this emerging diagnosis, I suspect that clinicians will apply it arbitrarily, and especially to men who are sexually involved with male teenagers. I am already seeing this trend informally, in my reviews of forensic reports on sex offenders. Ironically, any such biased application will further turn the tables on Magnus Hirschfeld and the ancient Greeks' aesthetic appreciation for the adolescent male body.

FURTHER ARTICLES ON THIS CONTROVERSY ARE LISTED HERE

* Postscript: At the time that this post was written, Wikipedia did not have a page on hebephilia. Now, it does.

Painting: "The Death of Hyacinth" by Jean Broc. Hyacinth was the young lover of the God Apollo. Wikipedia public domain.

 
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