June 8, 2011

Leading psychiatrists critique proposed sexual disorders

  • Dangerous.
  • Unnecessary.
  • Sloppy.
  • Inaccurate.

These adjective express the sentiment of prominent forensic psychiatrists about a set of controversial new sexual disorders being proposed for the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Four critiques in the current issue of the flagship journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law follow two well-attended meetings in which forensic psychiatrists were "decidedly negative" toward the proposed paraphilias, in the words of psychiatrist Howard Zonana.

Pandering to legal pressure 

A primary concern of forensic psychiatrists is that the proposals are being developed not based on clinical need or scientific discovery but, rather, to meet demands from the legal system. Specifically, broadening of paraphilias will make it easier to:
  • Increase prison terms for Internet pornography users 
  • Win civil detention for repeat sex offenders who have no genuine mental disorders
"The sexual disorders in the current and proposed DSM contain a potpourri of categories that increasingly intersect with the criminal justice system," notes Zonana, a psychiatry professor at Yale:
"Caveats saying the DSM is designed for clinical and not legal purposes notwithstanding, our classification system has difficulty distinguishing what we consider criminal behavior from culturally unacceptable behavior and mental disorder. Several current proposals continue this trend and seem more responsive to criminal justice concerns than mental illness considerations. They also lack sufficient specificity to warrant being called a disorder."

Loosening categories will reduce accuracy

J. Paul Fedoroff echoed Zonana's concern about legal influence, and also highlighted the reduction in accuracy that the diagnostic expansions will engender:
"The [proposals] raise more questions than answers. The proposed revisions to current DSM-IV-TR criteria will decrease the specificity of ascertained and diagnosed conditions by dramatically loosening the diagnostic categories. While the proposed changes may increase diagnostic reliability, they will certainly decrease diagnostic accuracy. Given the consequences of mistaken diagnosis, the proposed revisions are both unhelpful and dangerous."

Federoff, chair of  AAPL's Sexual Behaviors Committee, also directs both the Sexual Behaviors Clinic at Royal Ottawa Mental Health Care Centre and the forensic research program at the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research. 

Hypersexuality: Pathologizing young adults

Both Zonana and Federoff critiqued the conceptual and practical problems with the big three proposals that were resoundingly rejected in an audience poll after a debate at last year's AAPL meeting. These include hypersexuality, pedohebephilia and paraphilic coercive disorder (which the DSM revisers recently agreed to shelve). Wrote Zonana:
"The amount of time a person spends thinking about and engaging in sexual behavior varies enormously across the life cycle, with a sharp peak in adolescence and early adulthood. The most striking feature of the current criteria for hypersexuality is that, in my experience, it will be especially hard to find a young adult of college age who does not meet all of the criteria. The same will be true of many adults. The amount of time adolescents spend fantasizing and engaging in sex-related behavior is enormous.... To call this a mental disorder will include far too many false positives."

Pedohebephilia: Confusing illegality with disorder

Zonana, Federoff, and two other prominent forensic psychiatrists – Johns Hopkins University psychiatry professor Fred Berlin and Columbia University professor Michael First – all criticized the proposal to expand pedophilia to include adults with sexual interests in minors who have reached puberty.

"What is the great need to expand the definition to make more diagnoses?" asked Zonana. "Their rationale seems to conflate law enforcement with mental illness even more. There certainly are no new good treatments to justify a need to identify more cases."
“Our culture has initiated a 'war on sex offenders' and the legal system has geared up to wage it. Since we have made the diagnosis almost completely overlap with the crime, we have become overly enmeshed with legal goals.”
Federoff agreed:
"With the broadening of the age range of interest that will satisfy the diagnosis, more people will be labeled. By definition, expansion of the range of diagnostic criteria reduces sensitivity (true positives). Is this a good idea?"
Critical voices encouraged

Introducing the critiques, Richard B. Krueger, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University and medical director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute's Sexual Behavior Clinic, invited others to submit input – especially in published form:
"We hope that these articles will stimulate further discussion and submission of thoughtful criticism. Forensic psychiatrists are particularly well suited to offer commentary concerning the use or misuse of paraphilia diagnoses in legal proceedings, and observations on any aspect of the proposed criteria would be welcome. Indeed, editors of relevant journals have been generous in publishing commentary and articles. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Sexual Abuse, the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the Journal of Sex Research, and The Journal of Sexual Medicine have published criticisms of DSM-5. There is still time to submit comments. Even if suggestions are not actually incorporated or reflected in the revised criteria, the published record would be valuable and relevant for the future."
While I would certainly echo Krueger's encouragement, I am skeptical that some members of the DSM-5 Sexual Disorders Work Group will willingly give up their pet diagnoses – especially the scientifically suspect pedohebephilia construct that is already being misused on a widespread basis in Sexually Violent Predator cases.

As psychiatrist John Sadler noted in his book dissecting the conflictual history of the DSM's, Values and Psychiatric Diagnosis, the DSM committees claim openness and seek input, “but how such input is to influence the actual decision-making process is not discussed.”

At any rate, Krueger makes the excellent point that having a formal record of the opposition will be important in the future. If any of these three proposals makes it into the DSM-5, vigorous Daubert challenges by increasingly sophisticated attorneys will be certain to follow. Indeed, use of any of the paraphilias in court only calls attention to the scientifically weak underpinnings of the entire category. As Zonana points out:
"The work group has a difficult set of disorders to contend with. The category lacks a principled basis for considering inclusions and exclusions, which makes it vulnerable to societal pressures rather than advances in science. The proposals discussed should not be accepted in their current form, as they create more problems than they solve."
Daubert challenges will be especially likely in that the American Psychiatric Association has decided not to conduct any formal field tests of the proposed paraphilias. This means that even their interrater reliability -- far easier to establish than actual scientific validity (accuracy) -- will remain in doubt. Unofficial field trials being conducted at the Sand Ridge Detention Center in Wisconsin and in California will not alleviate this concern, as the coordinators of these trials have a vested interest in a positive outcome. It's something like hiring the fox to guard the chicken coop.

I predict that the paradoxical consequences of this shaky endeavor are going to come back and bite organized psychiatry in the future. As I wrote in the conclusion to my historical review of hebephilia's sudden emergence:
Significant unintended consequences are likely if novel syndromes of primary benefit to the sex offender commitment industry are incorporated into the upcoming edition of the DSM. First, at a time of mounting controversy over partisan influence and lack of scientific rigor in the DSM diagnostic system, critics will seize on this as a glaring example of arbitrary and unscientific use of psychiatric diagnosis in the service of a pragmatic goal. This could have the paradoxical effect of reducing the scientific credibility of the DSM and the fields of psychiatry and psychology more broadly. In the forensic arena, where the diagnosis will most often be invoked, it may paradoxically invigorate defense challenges on the grounds that psychiatry is being deployed in a pretextual manner. In the end, hebephilia will come to haunt not only those who are civilly committed on pretextual grounds, but the entire mental health field, for years to come.
As always, the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law is available online for free downloading. The current issue includes some other interesting articles, including a critique by forensic psychologist Brian Abbott of a current push in the sex offender industry to combine actuarial scores with clinical judgment. I encourage you to check it out (HERE).