Since I first saw a post by Jesse Bering, responding to a question by a “Deep Thinking Hebephile”, I have wished to write a response of my own, covering more of the literature on the subject, and clarifying some points. It’s taken a while to gather my sources. For starters, I do not think that Jesse intended to, explicitly or implicitly, condone hebephilia. But this is where taking risks in scientific writing can lead to unintended consequences, and where choosing the wrong words, failing to adequately define the right ones, and mixing it all up with a lack of context and a paucity of references can produce a very unfortunate result. So I’d like to tackle this issue a little bit myself, from all the angles that were questioned in the original piece, with a few more sources, and a lot more context. This topic dovetails quite nicely with my upcoming Science Online discussion section with Kate Clancy, on writing about sex, and the line between education and titillation.
To begin: I do NOT in any way condone the practice of hebephilia (sexual activity between adults and children, in this case girls, at puberty, ages 11-14). I feel very strong disgust and aversion regarding this topic personally, but I also think there are sound medical reasons WHY we should feel that disgust, and place a taboo against this practice. What I’m going to cover is the medical and psychological issues associated, in particular the harm done to young girls by adult sexual abuse, and the concept and issues of “the measurable penile response”.
The original letter:
I am a non-practicing heterosexual hebephile—and I think most men are—and find living in this society particularly difficult given puritanical, feminist, and parental forces against the normal male sex drive. If sex is generally good for both the body and the brain, then how is a teen having sex with an adult (versus another teen) bad for their mind? I feel like the psychological arguments surrounding the present age of consent laws need to be challenged. My focus is on consensual activity being considered always harmful in the first place. Since the legal notions of consent are based on findings from the soft sciences, shouldn’t we be a little more careful about ruining an adult life in these cases?
I think it’s clear that this letter comes with a large dose of bias (if the “…feminist, and parental forces against the normal male sex drive” aren’t enough of a clue). But we’ll take this point by point:
“I am a non-practicing heterosexual hebephile—and I think most men are—”
As Bering himself noted (though I think it was not strong enough, and I think Stephanie Zvan made a better point of this), wishing that most men are like you does not make them so. Most heterosexual men are not hebephiles, and do not explicitly demonstrate a preference for girls ages 11-14. The vast majority of hetereosexual men are attracted to women older than that, with an age range of late teens and early twenties to women of their own age. The original study which characterized the definition of a “hebephile” was a study by Blanchard et al, 2009, doing a study of measurable penile response in a group of convicted sex offenders. The results of the study with regard to hetereosexual men are below.
You can clearly see that the vast majority of sex offenders studied preferred adult women older than 17 years of age. The concept of “hebephile” extended only to a total of 10% of those studied. Keep in mind, of course, that these are specifically convicted sex offenders who were studied, and the percentage in the general population is probably substantially different (and I would guess lower) than that shown here. Indeed, a study in 214 control men known to be primarily attracted to females showed measurable penile response decreasing steadily as age decreased (Lykins, 2010). All penile reactions to naked bodies were larger than those in response to nature scenes, but by far the biggest response was to adult women, and preference decreased drastically when presented with very young girls. It is clear that pedophilia and hebephilia are very much in the minority.
The “Measurable penile response”
I would also like to take a moment to clarify the idea of ‘measurable penile response”, and the idea of “natural”. When you spend a lot of time in one particular field of study (in this case, psychology), phrases and words like these can lose one context (the one used by wider society), and gain another (used by the specialty).
First, to have a ‘measurable penile response’ is NOT to immediately have to hump the nearest item eliciting the response. It is quite clear that the human brain is much stronger than “a measurable penile response” elicited in the laboratory, and a person’s actions in the wider environment are going to take into account not just whether a person is physically developed (which presumably elicits the penile response), but other things, such as the child’s probable age and the person’s relationship with that child. While some men may have a “measurable penile response” to any female that is close to physically developed, they are not attracted to children. The fact that the person in question is a child will negate any motion toward a “measurable penile response” that is elicited in the lab by looking at naked pictures of kids.
Secondly, I would like to spend a moment on the idea of ‘natural’ in evolutionary psychology, as opposed to in the world at large. When evolutionary psychologists speak of something that is ‘natural’, it is a term that does not have a value judgement associated with it. Something is natural because it EXISTS in the human behavioral spectrum. In the wider world, however, the idea of “natural’ has a great deal more to it. We connect it with positivity, things that are “natural” are supposed to be ‘good’ or ‘useful’. This is why we have Whole Foods stores, they take advantage of our current belief that something ‘natural’ must be good. But just because something is ‘natural’ does not in fact mean that it is good. There are natural poisons, natural diseases, and there are natural behavioral responses which are not in any way positive. Wanting to kill someone for some reason may be natural, but I do not think the vast majority of people would condone the impulse as good. So just because a “measurable penile response” is “natural” does not mean it is good, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it is ok to act upon that impulse. As Bering himself stated very well:
let me make it perfectly clear that a biologically based arousal to pubescent or post-pubescent females (or males) is not academically informed license to engage in illegal, harmful, or otherwise inappropriate sexual relationships with them.
“If sex is generally good for both the body and the brain, then how is a teen having sex with an adult (versus another teen) bad for their mind?”
The letter writer is making a couple of assumptions here which are not based on evidence. First off, sex is not necessarily good for the body and the brain in all cases. And sex between a young teenager and an older male is particularly fraught, for a variety of reasons.
We all know that sex, while pleasurable and useful for many things when performed between consenting adults, can be risky. To begin with, there are risks associated with pregnancy in women, which are important in all ages but particularly problematic in young adolescents, including premature labor and delivery, anemia, hypertension, and problems with the infant including low birth weight (both due to premature delivery and intrauterine growth restriction, where the the uterus and body cavity cannot expand enough to allow for growth of the fetus), and increased morbidity and mortality in the first year. The are only the immediate physical risks, there are a large number of studies showing that early sexual activity in girls increases risk for STDs, substance abuse, intimate partner violence and risky sexual activity such as decreased condom use. There is even increased risk for health problems including pulmonary, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, etc, etc. In Bering’s original response, he cited Browning, 1997 showing no association between childhood sexual activity and adverse outcomes in adulthood, but this finding is overshadowed by a large number of citations showing otherwise. And not just girls are at risk, men sexually abused as boys also have similar adverse health outcomes with regard to STDs, substance abuse, and risky sexual activity. Kate Clancy will be covering this aspect extensively in her post on the topic.
And this does not even begin to cover the psychological effects. It would be impossible in our society to have relationship between an older man and a young girl without a significant power imbalance. This exists even when a girl is having a relationship with a man only two years her senior, and the power differential associated with a fully grown male is truly vast. Adolescence is a very sensitive neurological time period, and there are many studies showing that victimization of men and women in adolescence is a risk factor for psychiatric problems in adulthood, including increased risk of suicide.
Finally, yes, older men did, and do, marry or have sexual relationships with extremely young girls in other countries and societies. But it should also be noted that, in those countries and time periods where this kind of relationship is acceptable, it is acceptable because women and girls in those time periods and societies have few to no rights or personal agency, increasing the power differential and creating many situations of untold suffering.
Thus, while there may be exceptions, it is obvious that in the majority of cases, there is a high risk of negative outcome associated with girls in young adolescence having sexual relations with adult men. there is no need to re-evaluation, the existing data are extremely strong and show negative physical and psychological outcomes. While Bering conveyed this strongly in his addendum to his original post, in the original post, there was a confusion of terms and a few references only for examples, resulting in outcries on several levels. So I want to highlight the extreme care that is necessary in talking about risky topics such as this one. It is important to define your terms in the scientific context as well as the context of wider society, and acknowledge where these differ. It is important to find a large number of references to determine the scientific consensus on the issue. And it is extremely important, as Janet Stemwedel notes, to draw a line between the display of certain opinions and studies, and moral justification. And in this case, there is no doubt. A measurable penile response, and a “natural” attraction, does not a healthy relationship make.
I am very thankful to Dr. Kate Clancy and Dr. Janet Stemwedel, who provided me with a lot of discussion and helped me to outline this article, and particularly thankful to Stephanie Zvan, who’s original posts on this topic helped me begin my own source hunting and who provided excellent evidence and scholarship.
Rind, B. (2003). Adolescent Sexual Experiences with Adults Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 15 (1), 5-22 DOI: 10.1300/J056v15n01_02
Blanchard R, & Barbaree HE (2005). The strength of sexual arousal as a function of the age of the sex offender: comparisons among pedophiles, hebephiles, and teleiophiles. Sexual abuse : a journal of research and treatment, 17 (4), 441-56 PMID: 16341604
Blanchard R, Kuban ME, Blak T, Klassen PE, Dickey R, & Cantor JM (2010). Sexual Attraction to Others: A Comparison of Two Models of Alloerotic Responding in Men. Archives of sexual behavior PMID: 20848175
Malamitsi-Puchner A, & Boutsikou T (2006). Adolescent pregnancy and perinatal outcome. Pediatric endocrinology reviews : PER, 3 Suppl 1, 170-1 PMID: 16641854
Santhya KG (2011). Early marriage and sexual and reproductive health vulnerabilities of young women: a synthesis of recent evidence from developing countries. Current opinion in obstetrics & gynecology, 23 (5), 334-9 PMID: 21836504
Lykins, A., Cantor, J., Kuban, M., Blak, T., Dickey, R., Klassen, P., & Blanchard, R. (2010). Sexual Arousal to Female Children in Gynephilic Men Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 22 (3), 279-289 DOI: 10.1177/1079063210372141
DiCLEMENTE, R., WINGOOD, G., CROSBY, R., SIONEAN, C., COBB, B., HARRINGTON, K., DAVIES, S., HOOK, E., & OH, M. (2002). Sexual Risk Behaviors Associated With Having Older Sex Partners Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 29 (1), 20-24 DOI: 10.1097/00007435-200201000-00004
Springs FE, & Friedrich WN (1992). Health risk behaviors and medical sequelae of childhood sexual abuse. Mayo Clinic proceedings. Mayo Clinic, 67 (6), 527-32 PMID: 1434879
Senn, T., Carey, M., Vanable, P., Coury-Doniger, P., & Urban, M. (2006). Childhood sexual abuse and sexual risk behavior among men and women attending a sexually transmitted disease clinic. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74 (4), 720-731 DOI: 10.1037/0022-006X.74.4.720
Lechner ME, Vogel ME, Garcia-Shelton LM, Leichter JL, & Steibel KR (1993). Self-reported medical problems of adult female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The Journal of family practice, 36 (6), 633-8 PMID: 8505606
Browning, C., & Laumann, E. (1997). Sexual Contact between Children and Adults: A Life Course Perspective American Sociological Review, 62 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2657425
Bartholow BN, Doll LS, Joy D, Douglas JM Jr, Bolan G, Harrison JS, Moss PM, & McKirnan D (1994). Emotional, behavioral, and HIV risks associated with sexual abuse among adult homosexual and bisexual men. Child abuse & neglect, 18 (9), 747-61 PMID: 8000905
Senn, T., Carey, M., & Vanable, P. (2008). Childhood and adolescent sexual abuse and subsequent sexual risk behavior: Evidence from controlled studies, methodological critique, and suggestions for research Clinical Psychology Review, 28 (5), 711-735 DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2007.10.002
Steinberg L (2005). Cognitive and affective development in adolescence. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9 (2), 69-74 PMID: 15668099
Gershon A, Minor K, & Hayward C (2008). Gender, victimization, and psychiatric outcomes. Psychological medicine, 38 (10), 1377-91 PMID: 18387212
Molnar BE, Berkman LF, & Buka SL (2001). Psychopathology, childhood sexual abuse and other childhood adversities: relative links to subsequent suicidal behaviour in the US. Psychological medicine, 31 (6), 965-77 PMID: 11513382