Dr. James M. Cantor
There has been world-wide discussion of child molestation perpetrated by Catholic priests. As the public has become more educated about the issues, the media have begun making the distinction between pedophilia and hebephilia. Very many of the priests’ victims were pubescent rather than prepubescent children, suggesting that such priests would be more accurately termed hebephilic, despite headlines referring to “pedophilic priests.” By the spring of 2010, when international attention on the Catholic church grew to a new height, I began receiving requests for more information about what the science says about hebephilia.
Hebephilia and the Church (FAQs)
What is hebephilia? How is it different from pedophilia?
Hebephilia is the sexual preference for pubescent aged children, usually ages 11–14. In research samples, it has been up to 2–3 times more common than pedophilia, the sexual preference for pre-pubescent aged children (usually under age 11).
In sex research, we also use the terms ephebophilia (the sexual preference for older children, usually ages 15–19), teleiophilia (sexual preference for adults), and gerontophilia (sexual preference for the elderly).
What causes hebephilia? Can celibacy cause it?
The research suggests that sexual attraction to children is caused by atypical brain development that starts before birth. In MRI research, both from my own research team as well as from other labs, such men have shown substantial brain-based differences from typical men, and have shown several other clues of having undergone perturbations during early physical development. These other clues include things like elevated rates of non-right-handedness (about three times the average) and being physically shorter (by about double the amount that would come from a mother smoking during pregnancy).
Sexual offenders against children have also been shown to differ from typical men in some personality characteristics. However, these personality characteristics could very possibly have emerged from spending one’s life dealing with and trying to hide or avoid one’s sexual preference for children—There is no evidence demonstrating that the personality differences caused the sexual preference for children.
Some people have asserted that hebephilia in the Church is caused by celibacy, but there is no good research to back that up: The existing evidence suggests that these men would have been hebephilic long before they became priests.
Why are so many of the victims in the media reports boys?
Can repressed homosexuality cause hebephilia or child molestation?
There is no evidence whatsoever that homosexuality, whether repressed or expressed, can cause hebephilia, pedophilia, or child molestation.
Although there is no known mechanism by which becoming a priest might cause one to develop hebephilia, it is possible that people who are already hebephilic are drawn to the priesthood. It is unknown, however, if hebephiles who joined the priesthood did so in order to have access specifically to boys, or if they are molesting more boys because more boys are more accessible in that environment. In general, the majority of sexual offenders against children actually have girls as victims. (Sizeable proportions have also offended against both boys and girls.)
Moreover, the research has shown that the sexual orientation of pedophiles and hebephiles is not structured the same way as is the sexual orientation of typical men (teleiophiles). In typical men, the sexual orientations are very far apart. In pedophilic and hebephilic men, however, the sexual orientations are much closer together. (Morphologically speaking, male adults are very distinct from female adults, whereas male children are much less distinct from female children.)
For more information on the false association between homosexuality and pedophilia, see the article Male homosexuality, science, and pedophilia.
Can hebephiles be helped?
There is no known way to turn a hebephile into a teleiophile (someone with a sexual preference for adults).
Most treatment today is aimed at helping someone manage or control their sexual interests, and many variations have been developed. How much treatment helps is unknown: Many studies have shown that people in treatment are less likely to commit new offenses, but we don’t know if that’s because of the treatment itself or because the people who go into treatment are trying harder to control themselves than are people who drop out or never go into treatment.
One should be careful in interpreting the above. Being unsure about the effects of a possible treatment is very different from concluding that treatment does not work. Providing treatment is very low cost relative to there being another victim. In my opinion, when someone requests treatment, I believe society would be wise to remove all obstacles to providing it.
Could the Church use a screening test to detect hebephiles?
The majority of research on test development examines people who have already committed a sexual offense. Scientists have been developing methods mostly to help ascertain who is more and less likely to do it again. (Risk prediction, as it is called by researchers and clinicians, can be useful to deciding how best to allocate supervision resources, such as by parole and probation officers.) There is very little known about people who are sexually interested in children but who successfully manage not to abuse anyone. [For more discussion on such people, see “Gold Star Pedophiles” by Dan Savage.]
There does exist a test, called a phallometric test, in which a man wears a small device on his penis and is shown depictions of adults and children, while a computer records his reactions. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the result on this test is one of the most—if not the single most—accurate predictor of which sexual offenders will commit another sexual offense. (Experts typically refer to that as recidivism.) Scientists, including my own research team, are currently investigating whether MRIs can improve upon the accuracy of phallometric testing. (See Current projects page.)
There are substantial issues, both statistical and ethical, with developing a screening test for this purpose, and great care must be applied to resolving both in creating a test for which both false positives and false negatives have serious repercussions.
Why do so many hebephiles enter the priesthood?
There isn’t any good research to answer this question. (It isn’t as if we can expect honest responses on a survey that asks.)
One possibility—and it is only a possibility—is that men who are uninterested in sexual or romantic relationships with women will join the priesthood (in part) to avoid the social pressure to date and marry women.
This could also be some of the motivation that some gay men have to join the priesthood. Although there is no meaningful relationship between being gay and being a hebephile, both gay men and hebephilic men are put under pressure to marry women, and joining the priesthood can provide a socially acceptable reason to both for escaping that pressure.
What can be done?
Society’s efforts in dealing with pedophilia and hebephilia address both treating the victims of sexual abuse and incarcerating and rehabilitating the offenders. Without at all reducing the priority of those needs, I would add that society’s long-term interest would be best served by including pedophilia/hebephilia research as a genuine initiative. Although punitive measures are often the first to come to mind when making policy, the most effective tool we can ever have is better information.
For information on specific social policy issues, visit the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
The information provided on these pages is for educational
Last updated 5 April 2010