The seven ages of sexual attractiveness

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Neologophilia is a terrible disease that can wreak havoc on its victims, especially those who become trapped inside neologisms emanating from the warped minds of mad scientists.

It all started over a century ago with Richard Fridolin Joseph Freiherr Krafft von Festenberg auf Frohnberg, genannt von Ebing, a man apparently destined by an odd quirk of nominative determinism to become obsessed with strange names. For it was Krafft-Ebing, as he is usually known, who gave us the term “paedophilia erotica” and a whole lot of other new words for sexual “perversions”, now known as “paraphilias”. In more recent times the palm for linguistic inventiveness in the sexual field passed first to John Money and then to Ray Blanchard, who is still with us.

Money, for instance, dreamed up “formicophilia”, which translates roughly as “insect-love”. The insanity of thinking the world needs such a word might seem self-evident. On the other hand, a glance at the symptoms suggests otherwise, as does the case of a 10-year-old boy who was diagnosed as a formicophile. Beaten by his father for a sexual relationship with another boy, he focused instead on getting sexual satisfaction from having ants crawl over him. By adulthood he had graduated to getting his jollies from cockroaches crawling on his thighs and testicles, and snails on his nipples and penis.

So maybe we should not be too hard on the neologophiles, including Blanchard, who came up with the terms hebephilia and teleiophilia for sexual age-orientations. It’s not the terms themselves that count, necessarily, so much as what is done with them. Blanchard, for instance, is a highly-rated researcher whose experimental work distinguishing hebephilia from paedophilia is of considerable theoretical importance. Unfortunately, he massively blotted his copy book by trying to have hebephilia classified as a mental illness, which would make it easier for sex offenders to be kept locked up indefinitely under civil commitment laws until they are “cured”.

There is no such black mark against the name of the newest big-time word coiner on the block, Michael Seto. I know Dr Seto from the Sexnet forum. He absolutely does not agree with my radical views but he once very nobly expressed his appreciation of my “informative and thoughtful posts” after some of his professional colleagues had been grumbling about the presence on the invitation-only forum of a few non-academic activists like me.

Seto’s textbook Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention, published by the American Psychological Association, was by far the most authoritative guide to the research literature when it appeared in 2008. Now he has come up with an exciting new paper, “The Puzzle of Male Chronophilias”, thereby introducing us to another term of Money’s, chronophilia, an umbrella expression covering the various forms of sexual attraction to those within a particular age range, or stage of physical development.

What is exciting about it? Well, Seto unveiled the brand new term “mesophilia”. It hasn’t set the world ablaze but it did float journalist Jesse Singal’s boat. He wrote an article, “Being Into Middle-Aged People Is Probably a Sexual Orientation”, which neatly sums up both the meaning and the (as yet) rather shaky level of support for the idea. Seto merely wrote that “The existence and relative prevalence of mesophilia is hinted at by the relative popularity of the MILF (for ‘‘Moms I’d Like to Fuck’’) genre in pornography”, adding that DILF (with the expected meaning) is out there too.

Even BoyChat, straying from their usual focus, featured a lengthy thread on the topic after poster “Filip” (who must surely be the same Filip who has posted very informatively here) introduced it. As someone who makes the effort to do his own research, Filip commented acidly “It is interesting to see that sexual age preferences are born by writing an article and not by doing research…” But that didn’t stop him from seizing on an interesting thought: How many boys and girls are “mesophilic”?

But mesophilia is just an attention grabber. The really interesting aspect of Seto’s paper is its review of age attraction across the board, including how it is conceived, and the relative prevalence of attraction to the different ages/stages of life.

Shakespeare gave us the Seven Ages of Man. Seto nominates seven ages to which anyone might be sexually attracted, and names the desire: nepiophilia (infants/toddlers), paedophilia (prepubescent children), hebephilia (pubescent children), ephebophilia (postpubescent, sexually maturing adolescents), teleiophilia (young sexually mature adults, typically 20s and 30s), mesophilia (middle-aged adults, typically 40s and50s), and gerontophilia (elderly adults, typically 60s and older). See Table 1, which I have adapted from Seto’s own Table 1.

chronophilias-table-1

He is at pains to emphasise, though, that these labels are not meant to pigeon-hole us into neatly separate categories. Rather, we each have our own individual, idiosyncratic, pattern of sexual attraction: we might be hot for women and boys but indifferent to men and girls; or crazy for the smooth, hairless genitals of little boys and girls alike but distinctly turned off by the hirsute turn that comes to both sexes with puberty. A friend jokingly tells me he is bisexual, the two “sexes” being boys and men! He is in effect saying females of any age are so sexually uninteresting to him they might as well be a different species.

Seto speaks of us each occupying “blobs” in a multi-dimensional sexual space, a territorial concept which to my mind has much in common with Money’s “lovemaps”. Seto’s dimensions include not just the most obvious ones, the gender and age to which we are attracted, but also some far more exotic axes, such as human/animal, alive/not alive and forced/consensual. But age is both interesting and puzzling, so I’ll stick with it.

Starting with nepiophilia, Seto admits that not much is known about sexual attraction to infants or toddlers, but data held by the FBI indicate that few cases of active sexual involvement with such young children come to the attention of the authorities. Also, this sexual interest is rare as judged by child pornography content. Quayle and Jones (2011), we are told, found that only 1–2% of the more than 24,000 child pornography images in their analysis of a large police database depicted babies or toddlers. As for Seto’s own research, “Only 1% of our sample of 286 child pornography offenders had images of such young children compared to a third with images of prepubescent children and 20% with images of pubescent children (Seto &Eke, 2015).” We frequently encounter lurid claims in the media of “baby rape” images being discovered when a child porn ring is busted. Based on Seto’s figures, though, the strong suspicion must be that such claims often amount to no more than black propaganda.

The prevalences of paedophilia (with nepiophilia usually included by default) and hebephilia have been studied much more but the figures are hotly contested. I will return to these major categories of minor attraction, but a word first about ephebophilia, which, like nepiophilia, has been remarkably little researched. The first question to ask about this is why not? After all, while many women are known to find older men attractive (especially wealthy, high-status guys), men are notorious for trading in their wives and long-time lady friends for much younger females: the images that work best for advertisers when trying to grab men’s attention tend to be of young models, no older than early twenties and down to mid-teens. And as Filip pointed out in a comment here recently, studies have shown that the highest risk of sexual assault for females is when they are in their mid-to-late teens, which looks a reasonable indicator of maximum sexual attraction. Seto cites research putting the highest risk at 14-15, though these figures must include consensual “statutory” encounters, thereby artificially inflating the “assault” rate against minors. Either way, it is entirely possible that ephebophilia is even more common than teleiophilia, at least among males.

Or is it? Somewhat belatedly, I realise that I have been carrying at the back of my mind the traditional idea of the ephebe, which is of course the inspiration for the modern term ephebophilia. The Oxford Dictionary tells us an ephebe was “(In ancient Greece) a young man of 18-20 years undergoing military training”. Forget the male-only bit, and the military training. Just look at the age: 18-20. As we have seen, though, Seto defines ephebephilia as attraction to those aged approximately 15-17.

His rationale for this, reasonably enough, is that what distinguishes different age-attraction categories is not so much age itself as the size, shape and other physical characteristics that are typical of any particular age group, including visible primary and secondary sexual characteristics such as the appearance of  the genitals, size of breasts or testes, and development of pubic hair. Using the Tanner stages of physical development, Seto defines ephebophilia on the basis that it corresponds to Tanner Stage 4, whereas teleiophilia is Tanner Stage 5. You can check these stages for yourself, from the link. Personally, I would say there is not a great deal of difference between stages 4 and 5. The young people in both of these stages are clearly well past puberty, with extensive genital development, and female “ephebes” are quite full breasted. So it seems artificial to limit ephebophilia in the way proposed. It would make more sense to designate Tanner Stages 4 and 5 as the target of ephebophilia.

What we need, perhaps, is a different scale. Let’s call it the TOC Scale. Babies and toddlers are clearly a very different shape to older children, being typically much chubbier, with shorter limbs and relatively larger heads. So there should be TOC Stage 1 (nepiophilia). Then we would have prepubescent children as TOC 2 (paedophilia); pubescent as TOC 3 (hebephilia); sexually mature (nubile, typically ages 15-25) as TOC 4 (ephebophilia); then straight to dad bod and mum bod as TOC 5 (mesophilia); finally, elderly as TOC 6 (gerontophilia).

Filip might want to start TOC 4 a year earlier, after spotting a very important problem with Seto’s age scheme. He wrote that “Girls in Tanner stage 4 are 14.0 to 15.2 years according to one German study. According to that study 99% of the girls have reached the Tanner stage 4 with 16.8 years. So nearly no 17-year-olds are in Tanner stage 4. Most of the ‘typical men’ would probably prefer a 16- or a 17-year-old over a 30-year-old.”

In addition to being more realistic, the TOC Scale would stop obscuring the obvious truth that men, especially, are mainly attracted to youth. Not to prepubescent children though: we minor-attracted types should not exaggerate the prevalence of Kindness out of desperation to make ourselves feel normal or to claim that our tastes are not that different to the mainstream. I say this in the full knowledge that a lot of research (reviewed extensively in comments here and in papers by Filip Schuster and Philip Tromovitch: see below) show that around a quarter of all men, or even more, have a significant level of sexual attraction towards children. But this should not be allowed to obscure the fact that many among this 25% or so feel a more powerful degree of attraction to their preferred age/stage of attraction, which tends to be young but physically mature. [TOC adds, 11 Sept: Actually, I stand corrected. Filip has pointed out in a comment below that research has shown a quarter of men taking part as control group participants in lab studies show at least as much sexual arousal to depictions of children as to adults. TOC further adds 12 Sept: However, Filip now gives further information. If he is right, my original intuition may have been reasonably accurate after all. See below.]

Neither should researchers downplay the rarity of such desires in order to pathologise and Other us. With this in mind, I asked the researchers on Sexnet last year what would have happened if Blanchard had included a set of ephebophilic stimuli in a major paper of his on sexual attraction. Ray Blanchard replied in person.

“Just for the record, he said, “the phallometric stimuli were assembled by Kurt Freund long before I met him – long, in fact, before I ever thought of studying sexual behavior. My guess is that Freund did not include mid- or late-adolescent photographic models because his immediate agenda was clinical diagnosis. If my assumption is correct, he deliberately built this discontinuity into the stimulus set, in order to make the differentiation between teleiophiles vs. pedo- or hebephiles simpler… I suppose I could, in principle, have made the effort to add later adolescent models and middle-aged or elderly models to the stimulus set, and that might have strengthened my theoretical studies of erotic gender-age preferences. To a large extent, however, I used the modus operandi that Freund had taught me: Piggyback your research onto your clinical operation.”

This strikes me as an honest answer, and one that gives a real insight into how research projects, even those by such a careful and highly regarded scientist as Blanchard, tend to be cobbled together in ways that potentially allow convenience to trump accuracy. In this case, allowing their work to be influenced by clinical considerations has meant that both Freund and his protégé Blanchard have focused on issues predefined by society as problematic rather than on truly objective research. Their work has been led by the perceived need to fix the presumptively sick minds of their clinical patients, or at least to stop paedophiles and hebephiles from “offending”. The effect has been to emphasise the pre-declared abnormality of these often involuntary patients and simultaneously to misrepresent what constitutes normal male attraction: the very common male preference for youth, including freshly nubile teenagers, has been wiped out of consciousness by the simple act of not researching it.

chronophilias-figure-1

Figure 1 shows Seto’s view of the relative frequency of his “chronophilias”. The TOC Scale would define ephebophilia in a way that would put it at the top of the curve, reflecting men’s overwhelmingly common attraction to youth. Allen Frances, best known for producing DSM-IV, wrote that “Evolution has programmed humans to lust for pubescent youngsters – our ancestors did not get to live long enough to have the luxury of delaying reproduction.”And as Filip noted here, the age of puberty is steadily getting lower, so the age to which adult males are attracted may also be falling.

On the other hand preferential paedophilia is probably rare. Some years ago Seto’s estimate was that up to 5% of the adult male population could be exclusive or preferential paedophiles. Now he tells us his best guess is that it is probably only 1%. He says his new, lower, figure is based on recent large Finnish and German surveys (Santtila et al., 2015).

I read the Santtila et al. study when it appeared last year. It is a complicated paper that I found difficult to interpret, so I asked about it on Sexnet. Mike Bailey, one of the top guys in the world on statistics in this field (he stoutly supported the controversial meta-analysis by Rind et al. 1998, showing that “CSA” causes little if any long-term harm even based on figures including coerced contacts) did not dispute Seto’s estimate but conceded that despite a large database, the Santtila et al. data “aren’t very good. … The truth is, it’s very hard to get good data on this.”

As for hebephilia, Seto reckons the figure is only “slightly higher” than the 1% for paedophilia. My guess – in the end we are all guessing – is that 1-3% seems about right for paedophilia but it looks crazy to claim hebephilia is not considerably higher bearing in mind Blanchard’s work, which shows that typically there is a smoothly curving gradient in the strength of sexual interest people feel between adjacent age categories. Thus those whose strongest sexual preference is ephebophilia have a lower, but still quite strong, attraction to those in the next age two groups, one a bit older, the other a bit younger. In this case the immediately younger category would be pubescent i.e. the hebephilia group. If there are thus a large number of people whose second preference is pubescents, it would seem odd to claim only a vanishingly small number whose strongest preference is for this physical stage of development. Phallometric testing of control samples of men also support the claim that preferential hebephilia is quite prevalent. See “Tromovitch sets a poser on prevalence” here at Heretic TOC and also “Every fifth boy and man is pedophilic or hebephilic” (Schuster, 2014). Schuster comes up with prevalence rates of 3% for paedophilia and 16% for hebephilia. These figures, carefully derived and explained, look more realistic to me than Seto’s, for which he does not set out a clear rationale.

Sorry to get bogged down in figures and technicalities and for the taxing length of this blog. I had hoped to go further as well, to a discussion of sexual orientation in its relation to identity politics. But that must wait until another time.

New quests sparked by fading old charts

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Heretic TOC is delighted to report that readers here are increasingly leaving comments on old blogs – even from last year – as well as the latest one, and these comments include some excellent contributions. This reflects the fact that Heretic TOC aims to do more than just respond to the latest headlines: a goodly proportion of the blogs so far have engaged with topics that will remain live issues long after many “major” news stories have been forgotten.

Admittedly, the mainstream media is where the “dominant narrative” is at its most comprehensively, well, dominant, and this blog is pledged to challenge that dominance. But the narrative doesn’t just spring out of nowhere: its sources and headwaters need tracking down, with careful exploration and mapping of some remote and obscure places. The commentators I am talking about are actively engaging themselves in that process: where Heretic TOC’s fading charts may say little more than “Here be dragons”, a new and determined quest may yield more accurate knowledge .

This is great, but it presents a bit of a problem because it is easy to miss some of these wonderful responses to the older blogs. One solution is to offer a guest blog slot to the best contributors. This has already worked very well, in my view. But what do you do when a new contributor simultaneously sends in four superb comments, amounting to over two thousand words in response to old blogs, raising  all manner of interesting discussion points? A useful way forward, I think, is simply to trumpet their presence, which I will now do.

These four posts all come from “A”, who I gather is female, but about whom I presently know nothing else. Two of her comments are in response to Tromovitch sets a poser on prevalence; another is about How to take a vacation from yourself; finally, there is one on Adultophilia or teleiophilia? This last item is on a long page with 35 comments, and quite hard to find: the search term “curly hair” will get you there. I absolutely urge everyone to read all of these posts, and to read especially carefully those in response to the Tromovitch piece, as they require some concentration.

I am tempted to wade in with some response of my own to A’s detailed points, but further words from me will only distract from what she is has written. So I say no more, except go to the links and see for yourself!

Tromovitch sets a poser on prevalence

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I promised (or threatened !) more about the Cambridge conference on DSM-5. Groan ye not, though, dear heretics, as this week’s despatch will be a tad less arcane.

Turning to the poster presentations, in particular, several of these were lively sessions, with subject matter of wider potential interest than the knotty diagnostic concerns that constituted the main business of the event. Three stand out: Noëmi Willemen, from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, speaking on “Liberating the paedophile: a discursive analysis”; Diederik Janssen, editor of Culture, Society & Masculinities, on “Specification of the perverted: anthropologizing bad sex”, and Philip Tromovitch, of Doshisha University, Japan, on “The prevalence of pedophilia: What little we know”.

Liberating the paedophile! Wow, we don’t hear that kind of talk much these days. Unfortunately, interesting though it was, Willemen’s poster was an analysis of the rhetoric of paedophile liberation in the Olden Days several decades ago, rather than a rousing call for liberation right now. Janssen’s work, by contrast, is far more radical than his use of expressions like “perverted” and “bad sex” might suggest. For colourful, provocative mischief, though, I must hand the palm on this occasion to Tromovitch, and thus will focus on his contribution.

But first, a fanfare is in order. Tromovitch will be revered by many here as part of a team, Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, whose valorous deeds set them among the immortals of heresy over a decade ago.  Their work had the temerity to challenge the term “child sexual abuse” (CSA) as unscientific, and demonstrated through careful statistical analysis that the psychological harm thought to be caused by child-adult sexual contacts is instead far more strongly associated with non-sexual factors such a poor family background, including issues such as violence and neglect. Their meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin in 1998 was so powerful, so high-profile, and so threatening to the entrenched interests of the abuse industry that it was condemned in a resolution passed by both house of the United States Congress – the first and only time any academic paper has been thus attacked in the nation’s history, in a move many have compared to the Pope having Galileo tried for heresy in the 17th century based on his “heretical” view that the earth orbits the sun.

After more than three hundred years the Catholic Church finally admitted that Galileo was right. While it is to be doubted that the US Congress will ever rescind its vote against Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, even in a thousand years, the tremendous trio, a veritable holy trinity of heresy, can at least take satisfaction from the fact that in the academic world, at least, their work has earned lasting respect and is widely cited.

There is a price to be paid for heresy, though. Work in cancer research, say, or particle physics, of a similar quality to Rind et al.’s contribution, might lead to a Nobel prize, or at the very least a top professorship in a world famous university. The careers of Rind, Tromovitch & Bauserman, by contrast, have all suffered, and getting further work published has been a struggle. So it should not have come as a surprise to me that Tromovitch’s role at Cambridge was relatively modest. Presenting a poster is a fairly humble task, whereas he might have been invited to give the keynote speech in more favourable political circumstances.

Never mind, the modest status of the presentation was more than made up for by the punch it packed: in its way, the claim put forward was just as shocking and sensational as the paper denounced by Congress. Put it this way: What proportion of the male population do you think are paedophiles? One percent? Five? Surely it has to be less than the number of adult-orientated gays, right, a figure variously estimated at between five and ten percent?

Well, no, it ain’t necessarily so. According to Tromovitch – and I quote directly from his poster – “the majority of men are probably pedophiles and hebephiles”. Of course, much depends on precisely how those terms are defined, but it has certainly long been known that when so-called normal men are used as control group subjects in laboratory research they will typically show arousal (usually measured by increase in penis volume) when exposed to sexual stimuli featuring children, such as erotic pictures or stories. Startlingly, as Tromovitch points out, “89% of community males exhibited some sexual arousal while viewing slides of female children” (Hall et al., 1995).

Whether a small degree of arousal to children is significant is open to doubt, but Tromovitch’s presentation brought together a range of research data which together introduced startling evidence that around 20-25% of men actually test as paedophiles, by which he appears to mean significantly or preferentially so, although this would need further elaboration. What is more, these figures are supported by self-report studies, of which Tromovitch cites a good few, including these:  22% of male students reported that they were sometimes attracted to little children (Briere et al., 1996); 19% of male students reported unwanted, personally unacceptable, sexually intrusive thoughts involving sexual acts with a child or minor (Byers et al., 1998). Perhaps most strikingly, based on a number of studies, Tromovitch reveals that “Approximately 10% of normal men report that they would have sex with a child if no one would know and there would be no punishment”.

All this, says Tromovitch, need not surprise us if we think about the characteristics of different age categories and their likelihood of either eliciting or inhibiting sexual arousal in adult men. Older children (pubescent, 8-12), he points out, and young biological adults (adolescent 11-15) are the only groups in seven age categories, from infants to the elderly, whose characteristics comprise no factors usually regarded as off-putting (such as sagging breasts and blemished skin) along with the positive presence of factors usually regarded as sexy (arousing body shape, high libido, not too hairy).

Is he right? Well, you can check out the details of his poster, Page 1 and Page 2, and decide for yourself. I would just note that in his authoritative book Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children, Michael Seto puts preferential or exclusive attraction to prepubescent children at around 4% or less. The most obvious reason for scepticism, though, seems to me to be this: If such a high proportion of men really are significantly or preferentially attracted to children, how come our political presence is so feeble? Why don’t we organise and fight the oppression against us far more powerfully, like the massively successful gay movement? Is it just fear of the majority’s ferocity? Or is it mainly, as I suspect, that most minor-attracted adults have fallen prey to all the moralistic propaganda that so besets our ears on a daily basis?

But, hey, enough of the heavy stuff. Who’s ready for some tittle tattle about personalities?

Phil Tromovitch and Diederik Janssen, I am pleased to say, both proved to be “up for it” when I suggested chatting over drinks in a riverside pub garden after the conference ended. Huge guys, both of them – black-clad, shaven-headed, muscleman Janssen, especially, would make a very credible night club bouncer, an image massively at odds with his subtly teasing academic prose – so it felt like I had a couple of body guards. Not that I needed any: the atmosphere in the ancient university city on a lovely English summer’s evening was very relaxed. So was the conversation, which flowed most agreeably, along with the drinks and the beautiful River Cam.

Unsurprisingly, after his defeat, Blanchard himself was not at the conference, but other big-name figures did attend, such as Richard Green, emeritus professor of psychiatry, UCLA, a leading figure behind the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness thirty years ago, who courageously attempted to do the same with paedophilia early in the new millennium. As President of the International Academy of Sex Research (IASR) he even invited me to address that august body in a symposium on paedophilia.

I guess he had to take some flak for that, some of it quite probably coming from the far more conservative Ken Zucker. As IASR’s conference treasurer at the time, he found himself obliged to hand me a cheque to cover my speaker’s expenses – and judging by his cool demeanour he was none too happy about it.  But Zucker, present in Cambridge having been chair of the DSM-5 work group on sexual and gender identity disorders, has had to take his share of flak too over the years. A psychologist working with children, he has long been under attack by activists for allegedly pushing transgender kids into accepting their biological gender. Transsexuals even demonstrated against him outside the conference building: they included a female-to-male trans guy dressed as a baby and holding a placard saying “Ken Zucker – hands off our kids!” And I learned in Cambridge that a recent journal article published under the auspices of  the British Psychological Society was memorably titled “Zuck off!”

Wonderful! It was a rare few days when I could feel relatively popular!

That was fun, and even more so was the chance to chat to so many folks (including the demonstrators) on a one-to-one basis. Why, I was even able to pin Zucker to the wall over not answering my emails in recent years! He denied it was on account of personal animosity. I don’t believe him but I was too polite to say so. Well, he can read it here!

Approaching gay historian Jeff Weeks for the first time in decades, I was delighted he recognized me but saddened that his speech “Beyond the categories”, which closed the conference, was tired, bland and utterly devoid of the radical edge that characterized his exciting early work. Again, unfortunately, I was too nice to tell him so, although a question I raised from the floor was a pretty big hint. Was the current obsession with crushing paedophilia, I asked, harmfully also leading to the denial of children’s sexuality, and leading to sexually active children themselves being criminalized as sex offenders? His answer was evasive and vacuous. Very disappointing.

Shit! Every week I tell myself I must make these blogs shorter and snappier but I still haven’t delivered on saying I would tell you more about the interesting exchange when I was buttonholed by philosopher Patrick Singy, a conversation also joined to great effect by the delightful Noëmi Willemen. It would take too long to start on that now but I should add a couple of brief and hopefully useful points about my earlier Cambridge blog (11 July):

  1. I have added a paragraph to it (in square brackets and italics) in connection with Singy’s argument.
  2. Also in that same Cambridge blog I mentioned Blanchard’s fraternal birth order effect on sexual orientation in males. A brief, sharp, interview with Blanchard about this, Did having a big brother make me gay?, has just appeared in the Boston Globe online. Recommended.

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