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.

15 comments:

  1. Thankyou Karen. It's extremely reassuring to see the current tide of pseudo-clinical sexual fascism receive some critical analysis from within the field of forensic psychology.

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  2. This is some damn good writing here. I checked out that montreal article... that woman seriously freaks me out. I try not to judge by pictures, so I read what she wrote first, but then when I looked at her eyes... there's great focus in them. That's a focus that could be admirable when applied to a good task, but when you can gaze like that while spouting rhetoric like this, it's seriously frightening.

    I really wish the whole -phile nonsense would be done away with, because there's clearly too much confusion between using it to refer to obsessions on a certain range of maturity, to simply people who find people within that range attractive.

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  3. Just curious ... at what age does this "disorder" occur? At 15? 18? 21? 25? 40? Wouldn't it be, well, NORMAL for an older teen or young adult to have an attraction to teenagers (especially older teens)? At what point does the offender become eligible for this diagnosis? Does a simple statutory rape charge suddenly make an 18 year old a hebephiliac? This is ridiculous.

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  4. You have hit on one of the problems with this label. Since it is not a formal diagnosis, there are no formal diagnostic criteria. Therefore, evaluators may use subjective judgments, moral values, and personal prejudices to differentiate between a budding hebephiliac and a "normal" young man who just exhibited poor judgment and broke the law.

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  5. Shelomith StowFebruary 10, 2010

    Karen, your comment above solidifies what I was feeling while reading the article: terror at the potential for findings, even civil commitments, based on subjective and personal values and judgments. Very good point also about the mental illness varying from state to state dependent on the local age of consent. Keep up the good work; there aren't too many prominent voices of reason and logic in this area out there.

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  6. On one hand, I am disappoint. On the other: I am really glad they are breaking this down into distinctions.

    Pedophilia should still be further subdivided in my opinion though, it's got a lot of power as a blank label applied too liberally for vastly different psychologies.

    Using nepiophilia to describe the lower range (say 0-4 years) would be helpful, I think, as there is a rather big difference in the brain of people fixated on crawling toddlers who can't talk about anything compared to those who are attending the early portion of elementary school, just the same as there would be between an elementary and middle school student.

    Furthermore, while they have not added it, I think at least mentioning the term 'ephebophilia' to describe the 14-18 age range (secondary/high school) as what follows after hebephilia would be instrumental in expanding the populace' vocabularies as even that often simply gets called pedophilia for some reason.

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  7. The best you could say about the notion of so-called hebephilia is that it is both ahistorical and ascientific.

    Males evolved to respond erotically to signs of nubility, with peak sexual attraction being to females between ages 14 and 17 (depending on the age of nubility, not consent). The only sense that a "preference" to girls of that age or even slightly younger could be "abnormal" is in the political sense of violating social norms.

    As Don Symons has pointed out,

    "An ancestral male who married a nubile (or somewhat younger) female would have had maximum opportunity to sire her offspring during her most fecund years and,more important, would not have had to invest in children that had been sired by other men..."

    "If in the EEA the optimal female mate was just beginning ovulatory menstrual cycles, selection would have penalized an error in the too-old and too-pregnant direction much more strongly than it penalized an error of the same magnitude in the too-young and not-quite fecund direction."

    See "Beauty is in the Adaptations of the
    Beholder: The Evolutionary Psychology of Human Female Sexual Attractiveness" by Don Symons in "Sexual Nature, Sexual Culture" (Ed. by Paul R.
    Abramson and Steven D. Pinkerton, University of Chicago Press, 1995). (The entire article is online at Google Books.)

    Of course if you spend your professional career caught up in silly minutiae such as shortness and left-handedness to identify perverts (anyone for phrenology?), you might tend to overlook little things like evolution and male mating psychology.

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  8. I realize this article is older, but I felt the need to respond just the same.

    Karen, I enjoyed your article, not only because of the implications conveyed, but also because it was written well. I am a writer/researcher who has found this entire subject fascinating, to say the least.

    I must also say that I am amused, annoyed as well as saddened that so many people cannot distinguish the difference between science, nature and law. For some inane reason, many people tend to think that the law determines what is natural or not, and that law is the only school of thought that matters here. What will it take to get people to realize that no amount of law or social pressure is going to change what humans (in this case, men) inherently are according to nature? [Most] men are psychologically wired and drawn to young fertile females, wouldn’t you agree? We see it everyday, everywhere, and it goes back to the first stages of human development. Does that mean we should condone such relationships (i.e. adult-young teen) today? No, as there a number of good reasons why we shouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean that we, as a society, should pathologize a man's natural inclinations either. That is not the solution; it just won’t work. A proclivity indicative of human nature cannot, in any way, be equated to the status of a mental disorder, even if it is registered in some book to suggest so.


    (to be continued)

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  9. (Par II)

    Is science being influence by politics? This scares me, and I am sure I am not the only one. Instead of caving to the pressures of public fears, why not EDUCATE the public as to the real nature, or is this naïve? (I prefer to think of it as more sensible than the former).

    By the way, I realize there are true dangers out there, but not all of these men (and women) are pathological, are they? How can we address the crime without treating them as if they were? How can we, as a society, accept this human male inclination without having an aversion to it or demonizing it as a sickness?

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  10. (Part III)

    Case in point: Roman Polanski allegedly committed a crime. The 'victim,' who was 13 years old at the time and sexually mature for her age, has said she wants the case dropped and that the media has done more damage to her than Roman ever had. In delving into this story, I have discovered that not all is cut and dry or what it seems to be. Yet, people automatically label him a "pedophile," even though he was attracted to young women (including teenagers), not prepubescent children, and that, as far as I have ascertained (please forgive and correct me if I am in error here), five--count them, FIVE--psychiatrists and a probation officer evaluated him and unanimously concluded that he is/was NOT a pedophile and was in no way a danger. Pedophilia, I presume, cannot be discerned merely by age alone as much as the physical development of the youth and other factors such as an adult’s ongoing attraction to said youth. However, engaging with a sexually developing teenager, though illegal, does not automatically make one a pedophile; the two are distinctly different. Law and nature become blurred somehow until the facts become indistinct or disappear altogether.

    Furthermore, pathologizing such an arousal factor (as I have come to call it) would convolute and blur the distinction of pedophilia even more than it already is, especially with regards to a blending of terms to create a whole new category. Age distinctions are necessary, perhaps, but not when they serve to describe two different sexual preferences at the same time. Pedophile is defined as the sole or predominant ongoing sexual attraction by an adult for prepubescent children (meaning not yet having entered puberty). That, to me, sounds simple enough for the sake of application. Why add to it? Am I missing something, Karen?

    (part III)

    By the way, I agree with the assertion that sexual arousal here might even be indicative of a totally different issue altogether, which is an even greater reason to hesitate with regards to pathologizing something because the law says it is problematic.

    My apologies for running on like this, but I had quite a bit to say.

    Karen, is there ANY chance that this joke of a proposal will be entered into DSM 5? What is going on with that so far?

    Thanks and take care.

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  11. How dare you interupt the witch hunt with you facts!

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  12. Again, the can of worms: what to make of same-sex attraction? Attraction to opposite-sex teenagers is socio-biologically functional, since it will provide the best odds of producing offspring; same-sex attraction, obviously, is a dead end. If the definition of a 'disorder' is something non-functional, then same-sex attractions fit the definition. I recall reading about the controversy, when homosexuality was purged from the 'disorders' category, in the DSM-III, at about the time that social norms concerning homosexuality changed. The whole hebephilia flap is just history repeating itself--psychology can hardly be regarded as a 'science,' if it's driven by social trends.

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  13. There's some sloppy thinking here. Just b/c some overzealous guy wants to make a condition grounds for civil commitment doesn't mean that condition isn't problematic. Of course the key distinction is between thought and action: if all the people who ever thought "I'd like to kill that SOB" were jailed for murder, the world would be incarcerated. But if a heterosexual male is primarily attracted to 13- and 14-year old girls, I'd say that's a disorder of sorts; whether it should be made "official" is a separate question. Also, the blogger states that "normal heterosexual men are sexually attracted to teenage girls." This is misleading and somewhat disingenuous. To be attracted to a sexually mature 17-year old is quite different from being attracted to, say, a slow-developing 13-year old. Eliding these distinctions doesn't serve clear thinking.

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  14. @ Jeffrey Gross--

    As far as I see it, we are talking science here—-science and the nature it reflects. Youth (distinguished as the body of individuals we consider not yet having reached adult status) is biologically divided into two stages: prepubescent and pubescent (both of which are collectively subdivided into approximately four Tanner stages).

    As for sexual preferences, one is pathological, the other is not; that is, one goes against the laws of nature and the other does not. The distinction is simple here. That’s the whole point behind the argument. How is that thinking problematic or unclear?

    Human sexuality relies on two people having reached sexual maturity (i.e. the ability to copulate and conceive). This has nothing to do with age (although the average mean age for the onset of puberty is early 13, which is considered the beginning of adolescence). If sex occurs between any two individuals having reached sexual maturity, the interaction is not unnatural with regards to evolution. An adult’s primary interest in 13- or 14-year-old youth wouldn’t be indicative of a mental disorder, but more likely social issues, which is a factor that veers off into cultural makeup. The behavior is not pathological, merely socially unacceptable.

    The whole reason behind the concern here is that ‘hebephilia’ is a social construct based on what is considered unacceptable and not on evolution or science; those who propose to enter said construct into the DSM-5 as a pathological diagnosis are doing so because of social and legal pressures and not scientific advancements or what is pertinent to nature.

    By the way, there is no elision in play regarding the distinction between stages of development; there is definitely a difference between a slow-developing 13 and mature 17, and we have been acknowledging that. Still, I see your point because pedophilia is based on the degree of sexual development, not age. As far as I can ascertain, most 13-year-olds show some sign of noticeable sexual development, like breast and pubic hair growth, so the example you describe would, according to Tanner stage 4, be rare, unless I am missing something.

    Simply put, however, both 13 and 17 are typically pubertal, and so an attraction to individuals in this age range does not necessarily suggest anything mentally aberrant, regardless of primary, secondary or tertiary sexual preferences, because an attraction to young fertility is natural on the part of the adult male (and, apparently, females). The sheer number of adults (predominantly male) who are drawn/have been drawn to adolescents attests to this.

    Am I at all in error here, Karen?

    a.k.a. R1


    By the way . . .

    Consider, too, that many European countries (and some in South America) have an AoC of anywhere from 14 to 16. Are these countries basing their laws on a mental pathology? (Sex between an adult and an adolescent is legal in those countries, as long as the interaction is [1] not forced, and [2] the adolescent’s age falls within the said AoC (e.g. Polanski’s sexual affairs with Charlotte Lewis and Natasha Kinski in the 1980s were not considered illegal because the AoC in France is and still is age 15. He was in his 40s, and they were 16 and 15 respectively. Both girls consented).

    Yes, this is cultural, but it does suggest that sex involving those in adolescence is not necessarily problematic in itself and thus reflects more with what nature has intended.

    Again, why do you think so many men (and women) are drawn to adolescents?

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  15. Our current laws reflect the fact that we are legislating morality and painting all violators with the same brush. Part of this is due to knee-jerk reactions fueled by grieving parents and vote hungry politicians. The end results are an overworked system that does not serve anyone except the prison and probation industry. Another result is the disenfranchisement of a certain group of individuals and their families which also places further strain on social welfare programs. New laws are being created to prevent this group of feared second class citizens and their families from receiving any kind of government assistance. Rather than providing therapy programs for offenders we seek only to punish ALL for the sins of a few and continue to punish them as well as their families after they have completed their sentences in the name of communal protection stating it is not punishment but safety we are promoting. This is akin to what happened to the Jews, African_-Americans, homosexuals, and communists in the past. In other words we seem to always have to fear a certain group of people and make laws punishing them for being different or not living up to our moral standards until we become educated about what is really going on. We need more psychologists to step up who will educate the public and lawmakers as to what is a real psychological danger and as to how these draconian laws are not effective and destroying thousands of families in the long run. Who is protecting the children of the hated and feared "sex offender"? As far as "grown" men being attracted to teenage girls sexual taunting using the lure of young nubile females is being flaunted all over TV ads/shows movies, and pornographic imaging. When men of any age react they become child molesters. As a side note my grandfather was 21 when he married my 14yo grandmother and no one called him a pervert.

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