The Public Policy Implications of ‘‘Hebephilia’’: A Response to Blanchard et al. (2008)

Archives of Sexual Behavior

Franklin, Karen; Oct 16 2008
Type of WorkLTE
Publication LanguageEng
Refereed DesignationRefereed

DOI10.1007/s10508-008-9425-y - Published online: 16 October 2008

Letter to the Editor

Blanchard et al. (2008) present their article on "hebephilia" as an objective analysis of research data. In fact, it is a textbook example of subjective values masquerading as science. Avoiding the crucial public policy implications of their argument, Blanchard et al. advance hebephilia as if it exists in a cultural vacuum. Their recommendations are even more troubling in light of their study's methodological flaws.

Blanchard et al. assert that their mere identification of hebephilia as a "discriminable erotic age-preference" qualfies it for inclusion in the forthcoming fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association's influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). They ignore a crucial question at the heart of the current debate over how the DSM should conceptualize sexual disorders (Kleinplatz & Moser, 2005): What makes hebephilia a pathology, as opposed to a normal variant of human sexuality? Indeed, Blanchard et al.'s logic applies equally well to homosexuality, which was gradually removed from the DSM between 1973 and 1987.

The absurdity of describing erotic attraction to adolescents as a mental disorder is that large proportions of heterosexual men are sexually attracted to young pubescent girls

  • (Freund & Costell, 1970; Quinsey, Steinman, Bergerson & Holmes, 1975)

and indeed such attractions are evolutionarily adaptive (Kenrick & Keefe, 1992). Even Blanchard et al. acknowledge that "few would want to label erotic interest in late- or even mid-adolescents as a psychopathology." A diagnosis of hebephilia would be even more unreliable than the current DSM-IVdiagnosis of pedophilia (Marshall, 1997), thereby inviting arbitrary and biased application.

To fully appreciate the radical nature of this proposal, we must understand its context. Whereas Blanchard et al. express surprise at the dearth of previous research on hebephilia, it is actually the sudden interest in this ubiquitous and age-old phenomenon that merits explanation. The construct, which descends from German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld's efforts to catalogue the many varieties of sexuality back around 1906 - 1908, has only exploded into common parlance in the past few years. This timing is inextricably linked with the advent of modern sex offender civil commitment laws and a punitive era of "moral panic" (Jenkins, 2004).

Since 1990, 20 U.S. states and the federal government have enacted laws enabling the civil incapacitation of certain sex offenders. The legal requirement that these civil commitments be predicated on a mental disorder or abnormality (Kansas v. Hendricks, 1997) has spawned a booming cottage industry in the mental health field. Because many sex offenders do not suffer from traditional mental disorders, forensic evaluators have developed a highly contested -- some would say pretextual -- diagnostic nosology centering around the triad of Antisocial Personality Disorder, Pedophilia, and Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified

It is into this last category that some government-retained clinicians are attempting to shoehorn the unofficial diagnosis of hebephilia.

The study's significant methodological flaws underscore its goal of legitimizing this quasi-diagnosis.The most conspicuous of these are the absence of a control group of non-deviant men and the curious omission of 15 - 18-year-old models as a target stimulus group. Also problematic is the exclusion of a majority of the eligible participants

  • (1,440 of the original pool of 2,355, or 61% by my calculation).

This was accomplished by labeling as potentially "noncooperative" any man who had sexually offended against children but claimed a sexual preference for adults. Blanchard et al.'s assumption that these men were being duplicitous runs counter to evidence from other studies that only about half of sex offenders against children are pedophiles (Seto, 2008).

Thus, the finding of "a remarkable concordance between the participants' self-reported age-preferences and their phallometric profiles" was predetermined by the researchers' a priori selection procedure.

In the forensic arena, the DSM is increasingly used as a tool to legitimize the government's capacities to civilly incapacitate unwanted citizens. Especially in light of mounting evidence of special-interest influence over the DSM (Lane, 2007), creating a controversial new diagnosis without compelling scientific support would set an alarming precedent.


Blanchard, R., Lykins, A. D., Wherrett, D., Kuban, M. E., Cantor, J. M., Blak, T., et al. (2008). Pedophilia, hebephilia, and the DSM-V. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9399-9.

Doren, D. M. (2002). Evaluating sex offenders: A manual for civil commitments and beyond. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

First, M. B., & Halon, R. L. (in press). Use of DSM paraphilia diagnoses in sexually violent predator commitment cases. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Freund, K., & Costell, R. (1970). The structure of erotic preference in the nondeviant male. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 8, 1-20.

Jenkins, P. (2004). Moral panic: Changing concepts of the child molester in modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kansas v. Hendricks, 521 U. S. 346 (1997).

Kenrick, D. T., & Keefe, R. C. (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 75- 133.

Kleinplatz, P. J., & Moser, C. (2005). Politics versus science: An addendum and response to Drs. Spitzer and Fink. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 17, 135-139.

Lane, C. (2007). Shyness: How normal behavior became a sickness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Marshall, W. L. (1997). Pedophilia: Psychopathology and theory. In D. R. Laws & W. O'Donohue (Eds.), Sexual deviance: Theory, assessment, and treatment (pp. 152-174). New York: Guilford Press.

Quinsey, V. L., Steinman, C. M., Bergerson, S. G., & Holmes, T. F. (1975). Penile circumference, skin conductance, and ranking responses of child molesters and "normals" to sexual and nonsexual visual stimuli. Behavior Therapy, 6, 213-219.

Seto, M. C. (2008). Pedophilia and sexual offending against children: Theory, assessment, and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Zander, T. K. (2005). Civil commitment without psychosis: The law's reliance on the weakest links in psychodiagnosis. Journal of Sex Offender Civil Commitment: Science and the Law, 1, 17-82.