Hebephilia is a sexual preference for children in early adolescence, between ages 11 and 14. The concept is distinct from pedophilia, which is marked by a sexual preference for prepubescent children, rather than those who have finished puberty and entered adolescence. Ephebophilia refers to an attraction for older adolescents around 15 to 18 years old.
Hebephilia in Psychiatry
Hebephilia describes people who have a sexual preference for pubescent children around the ages of 11 to 14. It is not considered a mental disorder, but the discussion of its role in psychiatry raises questions of mental illness, criminal justice, and societal beliefs.
Is hebephilia a mental disorder?
Hebephilia is not a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. It was a hotly contested debate when the recent edition was created. Some research suggests that hebephilia can be distinguished and diagnosed, and that it occurs more frequently than pedophilia. But many experts argue that the concept lacks valid data, that it counters evolutionary biology, and that the diagnosis would offer a legal loophole to perpetrators sex of crimes.
How is hebephilia distinct from pedophilia?
Most people today would believe that acting on the desire to have sex with a young adolescent, hebephilia, is abhorrent and a crime. But simply experiencing that attraction, from an evolutionary perspective, is not pathological—attraction to a teen who has undergone puberty and can reproduce is a valid reproductive behavior. Humans are wired to perceive beauty in youth, as it can be a strong indicator of fertility. But of course, that doesn't provide any justification whatsoever to predators who perpetrate abuse in today’s day and age.
What’s the legal criticism for making hebephilia a mental disorder?
Three proposals for sexual disorders were considered for inclusion in the DSM-5: hebephilia, paraphilic coercive disorder (a proclivity toward rape) and hypersexuality (compulsive sexual behavior). These proposals were critiqued, and ultimately rejected, by mental health professionals such as those working in forensic contexts. Critics believed that designating hebephilia as a disorder could lead sex offenders to psychiatric facilities, perhaps indefinitely, rather than the criminal justice system.
What factors are associated with hebephilia?
One risk factor for sexual offending is having a history of sexual abuse in childood, especially if that abuse has gone unacknowledged, undefined, and untreated. However, not all sex offenders have a history of sexual abuse—and not all people who were sexually abused as children become abusers themselves.
Helping Survivors of Sexual Abuse
The #MeToo movement has sparked greater awareness of hebephilia. Historically, works of fiction like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita have popularized and fetishized hebephilia. Real world institutions such as the Catholic Church have come under fire for pervasive sexual misconduct. The #MeToo movement has unearthed celebrities and coaches from R. Kelly to Larry Nassar who have committed abuses against adolescents for decades.
These scandals raise critical questions about society and safety. How should society handle individuals who have a proclivity for hebephilia? What precautions need to be taken to keep young children safe from sexual harassment and assault? How can parents discuss these difficult topics with their children?
What are the signs that a teen has been sexually assaulted?
Sexual abuse often goes unnoticed, so it can be valuable to recognize how it may manifest in adolescence. Signs that a teenager may have been sexually assaulted include:
• Atypical angry outbursts
• Sleep problems and nightmares
• Withdrawal from friends and family
• Decreased self-esteem
• Increased substance use
• Running away
• Suicide attempts
How do I ask my teen if he or she has been sexually assaulted?
If you are concerned about a potential sexual assault, you should gently but directly ask your teenager. Explain that your teen can tell you anything, and that you will listen without judgment.
If you learn that your teenager has been abused, report the crime and help your child avoid any future contact with the perpetrator. You may then want to reach out to a medical doctor, a mental health professional, and a hotline or organization (The National Sexual Assault Hotline number is 800-656-4673).
How can adolescents heal from sexual abuse?
Therapy can help teenagers understand and process the trauma of the assault through therapeutic techniques such as Cognitive Processing Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. Trauma-focused therapies for sexual assault aim to help survivors process their memories, feel comfortable doing activities avoided since the assault, challenge trauma-based thinking, restore self-esteem, and address symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Young survivors of sexual abuse may struggle with shame. They may not understand if the act constituted abuse, they may think that they were to blame, or they may be too fearful to tell anyone that it happened. Developing self-compassion in therapy can help heal this sense of shame.