June 5, 2009

Hebephilia struck by third blow

Down but not out?

It may be too soon to call it the death knell, but this week's ruling by a federal judge in Massachusetts certainly dealt a reeling blow to the highly contested pseudo-diagnosis of hebephilia and its ever-more-marginalized adherents.

In the third of three back-to-back decisions in federal court, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro said hebephilia just doesn't pass muster as a basis for civilly committing someone as a "sexually dangerous offender."

Hebephilia -- sexual attraction to adolescents -- certainly exists in nature, but the Government failed to meet is burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence that it amounted to "a serious mental illness, abnormality, or disorder" as required for civil commitment, wrote the judge. Simply put, "hebephilia is not generally recognized as a serious mental illness by the psychological and psychiatric communities."

The case involved Todd Carta, who was due to be released from federal prison after serving time for computer-based child pornography. Carta has a lengthy history of sex with underage males, ages 13 on up, and has acknowledged an attraction to adolescent boys.

The Government's expert, psychologist Amy Phenix, diagnosed Carta with "Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified: Hebephilia," which she defined as a sexual preference for "young teens . . . 'till about age seventeen."

Phenix's position was countered by psychologist Leonard Bard, who testified that Carta had no diagnosable mental disorder. Bard identified numerous problems with the diagnosis of hebephilia, including its absence from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the prevalence of sexual attraction to adolescents among normal men.

The judge got it. In a thorough and well reasoned decision, he deconstructed the legal use of this nebulous diagnosis brick by brick. Perhaps most impressive was his clearly articulated understanding of the importance of adequate empirical research to support a diagnosis:
"Most importantly, the Government has failed to demonstrate that a diagnosis of hebephilia or paraphilia NOS: hebephilia is supported by research in the field of psychology…. Most of the articles put forward by the Government were published by coauthors Dr. Blanchard and Dr. Cantor. Dr. Bard criticized the work of Dr. Blanchard and Dr. Cantor, testifying that they are both on the editorial board of the journal that publishes their findings, which has at least the potential to damage the integrity of the peer-review process. Dr. Bard also criticized the research underlying their conclusions for failing to include a control group and for eliminating a large portion of the samples, among other problems. The five replies criticizing Dr. Blanchard's recent article proposing inclusion of hebephilia in the DSM-V suggest that Dr. Blanchard's work is not widely accepted. Dr. Bard testified that 'it’s the same group that is published over and over again trying to justify [a diagnosis of hebephilia], and they have failed.' "
The judge acknowledged that by ordering Carta's release he was not suggesting the convicted sex offender is a model citizen, but just drawing a line in the sand between criminality and mental disorder: Absent a widely recognized mental disorder it is Unconstitutional to "order indefinite commitment on the basis of the offensiveness of Respondent's conduct alone."

This is the third federal ruling in a row against hebephilia. The only other federal courts to address its use both rejected it as a basis for civil commitment. Those cases were U.S. v. Shields and U.S. v. Abregana, both decided last year.

Normally, this might be a "Three Strikes and You're Out" situation. Put the tired old construct to bed.

But fans are frantically trying to rehabilitate and rejuvenate hebephilia by getting it added to the next edition of the DSM (DSM-V). This would get around at least one of the many concerns expressed by Judge Tauro and others, over "the lack of any clear criteria" for making the diagnosis. Spearheading the DSM-V effort is Raymond Blanchard of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, who not only sits on the editorial board of the journal that published his research (as Judge Tauro pointed out in his opinion), but also serves on the DSM-V Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders Work Group. From that influential position, he is lobbying for the addition of hebephilia or a newly minted term – pedohebephilic disorder (what a mouthful!) to the diagnostic bible.

With the DSM-V work groups stacked (see my related posts HERE), we may just have to wait and see. But in the meantime, All Hail to Massachusetts, for landing a solid blow against pseudoscience in the forensic arena.

Judge Tauro's decision is HERE. A list of articles on "Hebephilia and the DSM-V Controversy" is HERE; for more on hebephilia see my essay, "Invasion of the hebephile hunters: Or, the story of how an archaic word got a new lease on life."

Photo credit: Noel Kerns' "Closed," Creative Commons license (entrance to the defunct Mission Four Outdoor Theatre in San Antonio, Texas)