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September 11, 2001, stirred national outrage, Sandy Hook and Aurora sorrow and sympathy for the victims, but the sexual abuses attributed to Catholic clergy, Jerry Sandusky or former congressman Mark Foley stir emotions that reach even deeper than that. Felons imprisoned for sex crimes against children are treated very harshly by their fellow inmates. Behind all of those feelings lies the ugly word “pedophilia”.
Pedophilia is, in fact, classified as a sexually‑based psychiatric disorder involving a sexual attraction to prepubescent children. Medically speaking, it is a condition that applies to adults. The previous edition[i] of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) defines it as applying only to people 16 or over who have an abnormal sexual interest in children 11 years old or younger (or, in the case of teenagers, children five or more years younger). The definition is not precise, since puberty and mental maturity proceed at different rates in individuals, but it does, at least, provide a standard for professionals to evaluate behavior.
Clinically, sexual attraction based on age is a chronophilia, a sexual fixation on partners of a particular age group. Where minors are concerned, it is divided into pedophilia, confined to an attraction to prepubescent children (under 11) ; hebephilia[ii], an attraction to children at the onset of puberty (11 to 14) and ephebophilia, an attraction to teens 15 and older. In order for a person to be considered in one of these categories, requires three basic things. Let‘s consider a hypothetical subject named Pat (as in It‘s Pat – could be a man or a woman).
First, Pat‘s attraction must be an overwhelming preference for children rather than adults of a his or her age. Second, the attraction must persist for a period of six months or more. Finally, it must lead Pat to either feel anxiety over those desires or try to enact those desires, perhaps indirectly through child pornography or directly by sexual contact with a victim of the desired age. Pat‘s actions must be deliberate, sexual, and repeated. If Pat‘s attraction is to prepubescent children, a psychiatrist considers her or him just as much a pedophile for just having a collection of ads for children’sunderwear as for being an actual molester. The clinical definition is based on the attraction, not the actions. Okay, that‘s enough for the textbook stuff.
Many people extend the notion of pedophilia to sex with anyone who is a minor, regardless of the age of the child. It‘s also almost the exact opposite of the clinical definition – based on acts, not urges. The law is also in conflict with popular opinion. Many countries and US states have laws establishing ages of consent that are below (sometimes well below) the age of majority. Nor is history on the side of modern sensibilities. Over time, the age of consent has gone up, while other markers of maturity and adulthood have moved down. Throughout most of human history, women have been considered of marriageable age at the onset of puberty, typically anywhere from 12 to 14, and their husbands tended to be much older. One commenter, responding to a news blog post about the Jerry Sandusky case, referred to Shakespeare‘s character of Romeo as a pedophile (Romeo‘s age is generally assumed to be around fourteen or fifteen, but dialogue in the play puts Juliet at thirteen[iii]). Of course in Renaissance Verona, both protagonists were of marriageable age and any notion to the contrary would have been ridiculed. Among the high nobility, this was sometimes carried to extremes; betrothals and actual marriages between young children or even infants were not unknown. This does not sit well with people – most notably conservatives – who assume that modern conditions reflect the majority of human history.
However, throughout most of that history, the only thing defining marriageable age and age of consent was the onset of puberty for both boys and girls. Gradually, restrictions emerged, usually in terms of other sex-related, and usually criminal, matters such as rape and prostitution. A thirteenth-century English law defined rape as forced sex with a woman ‘within age’ meaning age of marriage, which was twelve at the time. It‘s important to note that the criminal act was not the sex itself, but the use of force[iv]. Still, there was more force in custom than in law. Records from American colonial times commonly show dowries being paid to girls twelve years of age, sometimes as young as nine. In Middlesex County, Virginia, there is a record of fourteen‑year‑old Sarah Halfhide marrying twenty‑one‑year‑old Richard Perrot; Sarah was already a widow. By the eighteenth century, emerging democracies and consolidated nation-states began to establish consent laws. The constitution of the French Revolution made it eleven. Most of the monarchies of Europe varied between ten and twelve, as did the newly formed United States, following English common law. In 1875, England made consent statutory at age thirteen, largely to keep children with ages still in single digits from working in brothels. It should be noted that all of these laws only dealt with the consent of girls; boys were not considered in matters of consent, and, since homosexuality was almost universally illegal, it wasn‘t even addressed
In the US, the age of consent remained between ten and twelve until the 1880s, although in Delaware it was seven as late as 1895. The late nineteenth century saw the Third Great Awakening, a religious movement that gave rise to politicizing a number of moral issues. The best known of these were prohibition and women‘s suffrage. Less noted in popular history was a crusade to raise the age of consent and marriage. Reformers at the time wanted both ages to be at least sixteen and preferably eighteen. Many of these movements succeeded, at least for a time. Prohibition was ratified on 16 January 1919 and the women‘s vote on 18 August 1920. The push to raise the age of consent was fueled by lurid accounts of child prostitution, first in England[v], whence it spread to the rest of Europe and America, and, by the mid-1920s, the age of consent had risen from between ten and twelve to between sixteen and seventeen. In most of these countries, ruled by monarchies with parliamentary legislatures, these reforms were enacted on a nationwide basis. In the US, they were enacted state by state, resulting in a patchwork of laws with many inconsistencies from one to another.
There‘s another issue as well: the increase in the age of consent gradually criminalized behavior, namely sex and marriage with girls aged ten to sixteen, which had been a societal norm. The commenter who called Romeo a pedophile was speaking from modern mores against social norms of Shakespeare‘s day. It‘s not enough to say, perhaps frivolously, that sixteen is the new ten, but to consider whether, and how quickly, human behavior can adapt to changes in law, society and popular notions of morality.
To be continued.
[i]. The current edition of the DSM, DSM 5, was published on 18 May 2013.
[ii]. DSM-IV used the umbrella term pedophilia whereas DSM-5 separates it from hebephilia on the basis of the age the persons who are the focus of the desires.
[iii]. Just accept these figures. I‘m not going to get drawn into an argument about Shakespeare. The Bard, for his part, would not be able to understand why Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita caused such a sensation.
[iv]. It is interesting to note that a nine hundred year old law defines rape in terms of force, violence, aggression and consent, while modern-day Republican lawmakers consider it only in sexual terms and as a result of raging hormones.