April 10, 2012

Open letter opposing DSM-5 paraphilias expansion

Photo credit: Dr. Joanne Cacciatore
As readers of this blog are aware, proposals to expand the sexual disorders in the American Psychiatric Association's upcoming DSM-5 have generated significant controversy among forensic psychologists and psychiatrists. Now, forensic psychologists are banding together to urge APA President John Oldham to reject the proposed diagnoses of pedohebephilia, paraphilic coercive disorder and hypersexual disorder. The text of an open letter drafted by Richard Wollert, an Oregon psychologist with extensive experience in sex offender treatment and evaluation, follows. If, after reading it, you would like to become a signator, just click on the indicated link, and provide Dr. Wollert with your name and professional credentials. Don't delay, as I understand that this important letter is being submitted very soon. 

Dear Dr. Oldham:

As a mental health professional and/or sex educator I am writing to you to encourage the American Psychiatric Association to leave invalid sexual disorders out of DSM-5. 

In 1999, the Dangerous Sex Offender Task Force of the American Psychiatric Association issued a strongly worded statement about psychiatry's failed efforts to meaningfully define and classify sexual deviance. In contrast to the cautious approach advised by the Task Force, a Paraphilias Subworkgroup of the DSM-5 is vigorously lobbying for the adoption of three highly controversial expansions of sexual disorders (Hebephilia, Paraphilic Coercive Disorder, and Hypersexual Disorder). The expansions would be a major mistake, due to poor reliability, unproven validity and -- most of all -- the potential for vast and harmful unintended consequences. 

The Subworkgroup is now proposing to add a "Hebephilic" type to Pedophilia, extending the diagnosis of Pedophilia from covering those with sexual attractions to prepubescent children to those with sexual attractions to pubescent children under age 15. It also proposes to add new diagnoses of "Paraphilic Coercive Disorder" and "Hypersexual Disorder" to the Appendix as "Criteria Sets for Further Study." I am dismayed by each of these recommendations for the following reasons. 

Hebephilia lacks conceptual coherence. Most men are attracted to sexually maturing 14-year-olds, as reflected in the large number of industrialized countries where the age of sexual consent is 14 (Green, 2010). Normative attractions may be criminal when acted upon, but they should not be labeled as mental disorders. "Hebephilia" is an archaic term that languished in psychiatric obscurity until the passage of modern civil commitment laws in the United States (Franklin, 2010). Since then, some evaluators who confuse statutory rape with mental disorder have invoked Hebephilia as a condition that justifies civil commitment (Ewing, 2011). Such usages do not provide a cogent explanation for behavior that is illegal in the United States but legal in other countries being classified as a mental disorder. Finally, Hebephilia lacks adequate diagnostic reliability (Wollert and Cramer, 2011). Most of the research has been conducted by a single Canadian research team that is overly represented on the Paraphilias Subworkgroup. Although the DSM-5 Task Force has indicated that final decisions about proposed revisions will be made on the basis of field trial data, a November 2011 change in the proposed criteria for the diagnosis rules out the application of even this meager safeguard. 

Paraphilic Coercive Disorder (PCD) was initially proposed for inclusion in DSM-5 as a diagnosis that would be limited to men who preferred rape over consensual sex. Because only a very small percentage of rapists prefer rape over consensual intercourse (American Psychiatric Association, 1999), clinicians are unable to reliably apply this label (Wollert, 2011). This is one reason for the American Psychiatric Association's consistent rejection of rape-based paraphilias in three previous editions of the DSM (Zander, 2008). In the face of overwhelming opposition, the Subworkgroup has taken the fallback position of recommending PCD only for inclusion in the Appendix as a condition meriting "further study." However, this would confer an undeserved back-door legitimacy to the invalid construct. Rather than a mental disorder, rape is a crime for which the proper placement is prison. 

The proposed criteria for Hypersexual Disorder (HD) are the product of a recent ad hoc literature review by Martin Kafka, a member of the Subworkgroup. His review indicated their validity has not been empirically confirmed. Given the inherent difficulty in determining at what point a normal human drive becomes abnormal, it is not surprising that the proposed diagnosis is marred by conceptual confusion and vague verbal anchors (Moser, 2011). Its poor reliability and validity will translate to a high rate of false positives in both civil commitment trials and outpatient clinics that serve the community in general. With the proposal becoming a magnet for ridicule both by academic scholars and the popular press, it too has been relegated to the Appendix. However, the Appendix was not intended as a storage site for criteria sets that, like Hypersexuality Disorder, have never been tested. 

These three proposals all lack adequate empirical support. They will increase false positive diagnoses by labeling behaviors that are normative, developmental, or criminal as mental disorders. Promoting the misclassification of juveniles and other vulnerable populations as dangerous sex offenders, they will undermine the reputation of forensic practitioners and those who study sexual behavior. Collectively, professions that endorse the use of unreliable diagnoses run the risk of losing their credibility. 

The British Psychological Society, the American Counseling Association, and the Society for Humanistic Psychology and many other divisions of the American Psychological Association have all submitted petitions or letters of concern to the American Psychiatric Association regarding revisions proposed for the DSM-5. These documents express concerns about the lack of empirical support for many DSM-5 proposals, the likelihood of “false-positive epidemics” flowing from decreased diagnostic thresholds, and the negative effects of "over-medicalizing" human behavior. They also point out that the prevention of false-positive epidemics should take precedence over "nomenclatural exploration" and that the temptation to adopt new diagnoses should be tempered by the recognition that diagnostic labels tend to be confounded with normative social expectations. 

I share these concerns as they apply to sexual disorders. I further support the adoption of sexual disorder criteria sets only after they have been established to have high true positive rates and acceptable false positive rates. Therefore, I urge the DSM Task Force to remove the Hebephilia qualifier from the proposed diagnosis of Pedophilia, and to eliminate Paraphilic Coercive Disorder and Hypersexual Disorder from any inclusion in the DSM-5. 


(email your name and professional credentials to Dr. Wollert)


American Psychiatric Association (1999). Dangerous sex offenders: A task forcereport of the American Psychiatric Association. Washington D. C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Ewing, C. P. (2011). Justice perverted: Sex offense law, psychology, and public policy. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Franklin, K. (2010). Hebephilia: Quintessence of diagnostic pretextuality. BehavioralSciences and the Law, 28, 751-768. 

Green, R. (2010). Sexual preference for 14-year-olds as a mental disorder: You can’t be serious!! [letter to the editor]. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 585-586. 

Moser, C. (2011). Hypersexual Disorder: Just more muddled thinking [letter to theeditor]. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 227-229. 

Wollert, R. (2011). Paraphilic Coercive Disorder does not belong in DSM-5 forstatistical, historical, conceptual, and practical reasons [letter to the editor]. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 1097-1098. 

Wollert, R. & Cramer, E. (2011). Sampling extreme groups invalidates research on the Paraphilias. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 29, 554-565. 

Zander, T. (2008). Commentary: Inventing diagnosis for civil commitment of rapists. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 36, 459-469.


researcherone said...

Very eloquent letter. Thanks for sharing.

By the way, are only those in the fields of psychiatry and psychology allowed to sign (i.e. "professional credentials")? I am a professional writer and researcher, but I have no actual credentials to provide. I would really like to sign this.

By the way, I have saved and read Dr. Wollert's evaluation more than once and found it intriguing and insightful to say the least how he went through the math step by step to show the incongruities and inconsistencies involved.

As for the issue with the safeguard, I hope the appropriate party takes action to cast away any questionable proposal.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Hi researcherone,

I think for this particular open letter they are limiting signatories to mental health professionals and/or sex educators. However, you -- and other non-mental health professional readers of this blog -- are welcome to send your own letter(s) to Dr. Oldham. His address is:

John M. Oldham, M.D.
President, American Psychiatric Association
1000 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1825
Arlington, VA 22209

researcherone said...

Thank you, Karen. I will certainly look into it. Perhaps he has an email available online. I hope he doesn't mind hearing from someone outside of the field of mental health.