Karen Franklin, Ph.D.

Karen Franklin Ph.D.


Psychiatry Rejects Novel Sexual Disorder "Hebephilia"

Diagnosis used as weapon against in controversial civil detention trials

Posted Dec 03, 2012

To hear government experts on the witness stand in civil detention trials in recent months, the novel diagnosis of "hebephilia" was a fait accompli, just awaiting its formal acceptance into the upcoming fifth edition of the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

They were flat-out wrong.

In a stunning blow to psychology's burgeoning sex offender industry, the Board of Trustee

s of the American Psychiatric Association rejected the proposed diagnosis outright, not even relegating it to an appendix as meriting further study, its proponents' fall-back position.

The rejection follows the failure of two other sexual disorders proposed by the DSM-5's paraphilias subworkgroup. These were paraphilic coercive disorder (or a proclivity toward rape) and hypersexuality, an inherently hard-to-define construct that introduced the committee members' value judgments as to how much sex is within acceptable limits.

After abandoning those two disorders, the subworkgroup clung tenaciously to a whittled-down version of its proposed expansion of pedophilia to cover sexual attraction to early pubescent youngsters (generally in the age range of 11-14), ignoring widespread opposition from both within and outside of the APA.

The buzz is that senior psychiatrists in the APA were unhappy with the intransigence of psychologists in the subworkgroup who communicated the belief that if they just stuck to their guns, they could force the unscientific and ill-considered proposal into the new manual, despite a lack of scientific support.

All three proposed sexual disorder expansions were widely critiqued by mental health professionals, especially those working in the forensic contexts in which they would be deployed. They led to a spate of critical peer-reviewed publications (including a historical overview of hebephilia by yours truly, published in Behavioral Sciences and the Law), and an open letter to APA leadership from more than 100 professionals, including prominent forensic psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S. and internationally.

The unequivocal rejection sends a strong signal of the American Psychiatric Association's continuing reluctance to be drawn into the civil commitment quagmire, where pretextual diagnoses are being invoked as excuses to indefinitely confine sex offenders who have no genuine mental disorders. In marked contrast with the field of psychology, psychiatry leaders have expressed consistent concerns about the use of psychiatric labels to justify civil detention schemes.

Backpedaling on paradigm shift

As readers of my professional blog know, the DSM-5 developers' grand ambitions to bring forth a revolutionary "paradigm shift" produced alarm among mental health professionals and consumer advocacy groups both in the United States and internationally. The British Psychological Society, the UK's 50,000-member professional body, issued a strongly worded critique, and a coalition of psychological associations garnered more than 14,000 signatures on a petition opposing the wholesale lowering of diagnostic thresholds for disorder.

Yesterday's news release marked an about-face, with the APA now stressing that diagnostic changes in the DSM-5 were intended to be "very conservative."

"Our work has been aimed at more accurately defining mental disorders that have a real impact on people’s lives, not expanding the scope of psychiatry," said David J. Kupfer, MD, chair of the DSM-5 Task Force.

Consistent with this, several of the proposed changes that generated the most widespread alarm were rejected. The Board of Trustees rejected the highly controversial "attenuated psychosis syndrome" that could have created an epidemic of false positives, stigmatizing eccentric young people and lowering the threshold for prescribing potentially harmful antipsychotic drugs. It also backed away from an equally controversial, and complex, revamping of the personality disorders. These conditions, as well as a contentious Internet gaming disorder, will all be placed in "section 3" of the new manual as conditions meriting further study.

Allen Frances, the DSM-IV Task Force chair and a high-profile critic of the DSM-5 project, called the spin that the DSM-5 will have minimal impact on psychiatric diagnosis and treatment "misleading":

"This is an untenable claim that DSM 5 cannot possibly support because, for completely unfathomable reasons, it never took the simple and inexpensive step of actually studying the impact of DSM on rates in real world settings…. Except for autism, all the DSM 5 changes loosen diagnosis and threaten to turn our current diagnostic inflation into diagnostic hyperinflation. Painful experience with previous DSM's teaches that if anything in the diagnostic system can be misused and turned into a fad, it will be. Many millions of people with normal grief, gluttony, distractibility, worries, reactions to stress, the temper tantrums of childhood, the forgetting of old age, and 'behavioral addictions' will soon be mislabeled as psychiatrically sick and given inappropriate treatment."

Among the controversial diagnostic changes that will go forward in the DSM-5, due to be published in mid-2013:

  • Asperger’s syndrome is being eliminated as a separate disorder (it will be folded into an autism spectrum disorder)
  • Depression is being expanded to include some grief reactions
  • A brand-new "disruptive mood dysregulation disorder" has critics fearing psychiatric labeling of children who have temper tantrums

Two other sets of changes have particular relevance to those in the legal field. Substance abuse disorders have been reframed as "behavioral addictions," which Frances warns could be a "slippery slope" leading to "careless overdiagnosis of internet and sex addiction and the development of lucrative treatment programs to exploit these new markets."

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be included in a new chapter on trauma and stress-related disorders, with four distinct diagnostic clusters instead of the current three, and "more attention to the behavioral symptoms that accompany PTSD." Some worry that the reconfigured PTSD may lend itself to misuse of the hot-button diagnosis in forensic cases.

Yesterday’s APA news release outlining the changes can be found HERE. My hebephilia resource page is HERE.

More Posts