Ephebophilia: it's today's word, and it matters
When is underage sex under age?
Carol Sarler, The Times Online, UK, November 20, 2006
Given the fussing and carrying-on, you would think the poor man had advocated massed orgies with infants. He hadn't.
All that happened was that Terry Grange, the Chief Constable of Dyfed-Powys and spokesman on child protection for the Association of Chief Police Officers, suggested greater clarity in the labelling of sex offenders: for instance, he says, it is incorrect to say that those who have sex with underage teenagers are paedophiles -- and if we say they are, we risk overestimating the scale of the problem of paedophilia.
With predictable fury, Michele Elliott, the director of the children's charity Kidscape, rounded on the policeman's wish to reclassify those who have sex with youngsters between 13 and 16:
If Miss Elliott would care to borrow my dictionary, she would discover that they bloody well aren't.
What our teen fanciers are, in fact, is ephebophiliacs: adults attracted to post-pubescent adolescents.
Now I grant you ephebophilia is not a word that would sit easily in a News of the World headline but the distinction is actually important.
The reason for the revulsion felt for paedophilia is not just sympathy for the trauma suffered by the child, nor a judgment of the abuse of imbalanced power, even though both are real enough. It goes deeper; it goes to the defiance of a law of Nature, whereby to have sex with somebody who has not reached sexual maturity is to have sex with somebody who is, if you will, not "ready".
By contrast, to have sex with somebody who has passed the age of puberty is merely to defy a law of Man -- and a pretty arbitrary law at that. We cannot agree between one border and the next at what age a boy or girl is emotionally developed enough to give informed consent:
A lad in Dover with a girlfriend of 15 may not have his wicked way, but if they hop a ferry to Calais they'll be fine. Meanwhile, in some American states not only may you have sex at 13 but you may marry at the same age, allowing for the theoretical absurdity that a man could marry in, say, New Hampshire but should he bring his bride to old Hampshire for their honeymoon he could be imprisoned for statutory rape.
Quite why it is 16 in the United Kingdom is not clear. To my knowledge no studies have been done to show that the Canadians pay for the laxity of 14 with posses of the psychologically disturbed teenagers that we are spared by our relative strictness.
Sooner or later, one imagines, at least the Europeans will have to come to some agreement. Yet for all that I'd give teeth to be the fly on the wall at that particular European Union committee, this is not, for the moment at least, an argument in favour of changing our own age of consent.
It is certainly the case that we shall one day need to reconsider; unenforceable laws are a waste of paperwork, and only last week a YouGov poll showed a third of British girls already thumbing their noses at this one by engaging in sexual activity below the age of 16.
It is also the case that there are heartening signs from elsewhere that one can lower the age of consent while preserving safeguards; for instance, although Malta allows for consent at 12, it rises to 18 if the older partner has any authority over the younger. Predatory teachers, priests or care-home workers must therefore keep their grubby hands to themselves.
Furthermore, when it comes not to the seriously predatory but to a young couple where one is perhaps 18 and the other 14, the law has far less to do with whether they choose to have sex than does peer habit: when I was young my circle enjoyed a group dumping of virginities at around 16 or 17; these days, for many, it has just shifted forward by a couple of years.
Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that for the time being most of us will continue to prefer that there is a legal stalling process, however slight, that might encourage some young people to cautionary second thoughts -- and given that the age of consent currently coincides with the age until which we try to force some education into their heads, it is very probably in their better interests to keep it.
But then, the lambasted Terry Grange wasn't arguing to change it, either. He was simply asking a society already unhealthily in thrall to paedophilia to think twice before using the word. He correctly points us to a difference between the tabloid nation's favourite bogeyman, a kind of latterday Fagin beckoning a crooked finger through kindergarten gates, and the excited hormones of a young man in the close presence of a buxom, bosomy come-hither girlie who, in other cultures and, indeed, at other times in this one, he would be perfectly entitled to embrace.
As long as the law is the law, he deserves a smacked paw if he gives in to his excitement. But he does not deserve the same opprobrium as the bogeyman -- and nor do we deserve that our police forces' time be needlessly spent in his pursuit rather than that of the far rarer, but far more dangerous, bogeyman proper.