Hebephilia refers to the primary or exclusive adult sexual interest in pubescent individuals ranging from age 11-14. Hebephilia is differentiated from pedophiphilia, which involves exclusive sexual attraction to prepubescent children (up to age 13 according to diagnostic criteria). Both of these conditions are noted as types of chronophilia, sexual preference for a specific physiological appearance related to age. Ephebophilia is distinguished by sexual attraction to individuals in later adolescence, ages 15-19.
These paraphilia distinctions were made after researchers recognized patterns of age preferences in individuals with these conditions. The term hebephilia was first recognized by Hammer and Glueck in 1955 in their forensic work of researching sex offenders at Sing Sing prison. Anthropologist Paul Benedict also used the term to distinguish pedophiles from sex offenders who targeted adolescent victims. Multiple studies assessing the patterns of hebephilic and pedophilic men suggest that the sexual attraction to children falls on a continuum, rather than a polarized spectrum.
Founded in Germany, the Prevention Project Dunkenfeld is a program providing therapy and abuse prevention treatments to adults sexually attracted to children. In a study of 222 men treated, approximately two-thirds had a sexual interest in pubescent children and reported high levels of psychological distress. The distressed was identified at “clinically relevant levels.”
The cause of hebephilia has also been explored. Scientists from the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto have studied various correlates with hebephilia including: brain structure, handedness, IQ, educational level, height, and various atypical factors of physical development.
The prevalence of hebephilia is uncertain, however it has been suggested that there are more individuals with sexual interest in pubescent teens than may be commonly believed. Due to the stigma and legal consequences, those who have these sexual desires are unlikely to uncover this.
Whether this condition qualifies as a mental disorder has been a source of controversial debate. There was discussion about whether or not to include Hebephilia in the DSM-5, the official criteria for mental health disorder diagnosis. Critics strongly propose the risks of having hebephilia as a diagnostic category, due to the risk of it being highly misused in the legal system. In addition, at a general level, some argue that the issue of sexual attraction to pubescent teens is not as unusual or uncommon as pedophilia behaviors. In many countries, the age of consent has been age 13 until recently. Also, in some cultures, it is acceptable, required, or encouraged for young teens to marry. Critics suggest feeling sexual attraction to pubescent teens is not a sign of mental illness, yet to act on such impulses is a crime that is deserving of punishment. Their position is that the proper consequence for breaking the law and violating the rights of the vulnerable is prison, not safe haven in a mental hospital.
The criterial proposed for the DSM-5 involved an adult who “for six or more months, experienced sexual attraction to prepubescent or pubescent children that was equal to or greater than their attraction to adults, and who also either found the attraction distressing, used child pornography or had sought sexual stimulation from a child, on at least three occasions in the case of the hebephilic type.” The adult identified must be aged 18 or older and are at least five years older than the children or teens they are experiencing sexual attraction to.
While the addition of Hebephilia being added to the DSM-5 was rejected, the definition of Pedophilia has been expanded to include pubescent children. Those who support including hebephilia in the DSM-5 suggest that the level of emotional distress that can be experienced by the individuals qualifies it as a mental health disorder.
Some signals that one is experiencing hebephilia would include the following symptoms:
- Strong sexual preference for pubescent kids
- Unusual amount of time spent thinking about pubescent children
- Routine excessive sexual fantasies and recurring urges related to pubescent children
Whether or not there are official diagnoses available, treatments for hebephilia must be identified. Those who act on such urges can be charged in court and face criminal consequences. It would make sense that preventative programs be made available for those who experience such sexual attraction and the distress and shame that can come with it to help avoid acting on such urges.
While there is not a treatment protocol strongly endorsed by scientific research, treatment methodologies can include:
- Cognitive therapy
- Behavior therapy
- Drug therapy
- Group therapy
Individuals with hebephilia may not seek treatment until they are forced or the situation requires it due to legal implications. Education and awareness may help more individuals come forward to get help before they act out on vulnerable victims. If you or someone you know is struggling with this challenge, seek help from a mental health professional.
Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.