Fetishes I Don't Get

Thoughts on life, love, and lust.

Meet the Hebephiles, the Missing Link Between Pedophiles and the Rest of Us (Um, Except in Rome)

What distinguishes hebephiles from pedophiles and the rest of us.

Like the dinner party guest who manages to put more feet in his mouth than he even has, on Tuesday, the Vatican equated pedophiles and those who seek the ordination of women, at least in terms of their place in Church doctrine. Yes, apparently priests who use their office to repeatedly sexually assault children are now officially akin to those who might dare to suggest women are capable of serving the Lord in the same manner as men. The mind reels.

This whacked worldview is at least sort of cohesive. To do the Vatican Hustle, you just pair up any non-normative gender behavior with the devil (or his alleged earthly representatives), and dance! Damn to hell any women who might actively seek power, and tell the world that the root problem of the sexual abuse of young boys is gay men, not pedophilia

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

For those of you who haven't been following the Vatican edition of "Dancing with the Stars (around Your Head)", the issue of the ordination of women has arisen in this context because some have suggested that introducing women into the priesthood might help stem the problem of sexual abuse. And indeed, if the guys at the Vatican knew any sexology, they'd know there's something to this idea.

I realize that if the Vatican's troupe suddenly had an interest in science, they probably would start with some nice, safe organic chemistry, or maybe a little astronomy (to avoid ever falling behind again), and not sexology. But seriously. The fact is that adult women simply do not pursue sex with minors. Or at least such women are so very rare that you can fit them all easily on one website (and their "victims" tend to be late teenagers who are physically mature and relatively capable of consent). For reasons we don't yet understand, males are far, far more likely than females to have fetishes and paraphilias (sexual kinks). So, if you were nutty enough to want to wrangle up a group likely to manifest a lot of sexual problems, a good way to start would be to make it male-only and to take only those interested in (public) celibacy.

Church leaders would also do well to get over the sexologically-naive idea that, because many of the abuse victims have been males in the 11-14 year age range (i.e., they are pubescent boys, and not prepubescent little kids), their priest-abusers can't be pedophiles, and so the priests must be gay men. Various Church leaders have implied that there is no transitional group between men who are into little boys (pedophiles) and men who are into men (gay men). In fact, there is now substantial evidence that men attracted to pubescent (as opposed to prepubescent) children form a recognizable sexual orientation group, termed hebephiles.

Hebephiles are not sexually typical men who just happen to go for easy-pickin's because they can't get them a real man or woman. Don't get me wrong: there are some otherwise-sexually typical men, primarily attracted to adults, who will sexually abuse pubescent children (including their own children and step-children) because they can't get enough of what they really want. But hebephiles are different. They show offense histories and laboratory arousal patterns indicating that their peak sexual arousal is to pubescent body types. In this way, they are discernable, as a group, from men who show offense histories and laboratory arousal patterns indicating peak sexual arousal patterns to prepubescent children or to adults.

A good deal of this research has been conducted by my colleague (and friend) Ray Blanchard of Canada's Center for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto. Using an extraordinary compilation of data from thousands of men, Blanchard has convincingly shown that hebephiles consist of a sort of "missing link" between pedophiles (those attracted to pre-pubescent children) and teleiophiles (those of us attracted to sexually mature people). Blanchard's data clearly indicate that the sexual orientation of males (at least) isn't just composed of the sex of their partners, it's also composed of the age of their partners.

Blanchard presented his massive data collection at the twice-a-decade sexual orientation conference I attended at the University of Lethbridge last month, and those of us in the audience were stunned to see how well his data fit a mathematical model he developed to describe these components of male orientation. From these data, it was clear why Blanchard and colleagues have recommended changing the DSM entry on pedophilia to also formally recognize hebephilia.

A study of offending priests commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice bears out the notion that many of the culprits in collars are in fact hebephiles. The study showed that "the largest group of alleged victims (50.9%) was between the ages of 11 and 14." (The quote is from page 9 of the Executive Summary. The age breakdowns of victims, available on p. 70 of section 4.3, also show that clear clustering in ages 11-14.)

Objections to the formal recognition of hebephilia as a sexual disorder come from the quarters you might guess: hebephile activists who want to convince us all that pubescent children are really "mature," so that the hebephile is just a socially-oppressed niche teleiophile who has a greater respect for the decision-making capability of your average 12-year-old than the rest of us; and defense attorneys and their paid expert witnesses who hope to convince judges and juries that their clients, abusers of pubescent children, are actually social-misfit teleiophiles who just haven't been able to get no satisfaction, perhaps because they have "repressed homosexual urges."

I think we can implicitly add to the objectors to "pedohebephilic disorder" the Vatican, which seems to want to equate a priest having sex with a boy of 12 with a priest having sex with a man of 42. Personally, I think those with any reasonable objectivity who look at the data and at the stimuli used for the laboratory analysis will agree that a sexual orientation directed at pubescents is simply not the same as a sexual orientation directed at post-pubescent individuals.

But I expect that the Vatican will be as happy to ignore this science as they are to ignore the science that indicates men do not, in fact, have one fewer rib than women, and that the characteristic lump in a man's neck is not, in fact, a piece of fruit. Oh well. We can't ask law enforcement to make women priests, but it's at least clear why we must rely on law enforcement, and not the Church, to deal with sexual abusers. And we must ask law enforcement to take seriously the science.

My online writings on sex are now collected at Sex Research Honeypot.

Alice Dreger, Ph.D., is a Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

more...

Subscribe to Fetishes I Don't Get

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?