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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

"Dear Jesse, I like very young girls."

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And the Gold of Their Bodies 1901 Paul Gauguin (1848-1903 French) Oil on canvas Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France

 

Dear Jesse,

I am a non-practicing heterosexual hebephile and I think most men are and find living in this society particularly difficult given puritanical, feminist, and parental forces against the normal male sex drive. If sex is generally good for both the body and the brain, then how is a teen having sex with an adult (versus another teen) bad for their mind? I feel like the psychological arguments surrounding the present age of consent laws need to be challenged. My focus is on consensual activity being considered always harmful in the first place. Since the legal notions of consent are based on findings from the soft sciences, shouldn’t we be a little more careful about ruining an adult life in these cases?

Deep-thinking Hebephile

Dear Deep-thinking Hebephile,

Whenever society screams about some demon or another, it s probably just caught an especially alarming sight of itself in the mirror. Given the historical flux in age-of-consent laws, there are few among us who aren t the direct descendents of those who d be incarcerated as sex offenders today.

Yet it s also by no means clear that the majority of men are hebephiles, who, like you, exhibit a primary sexual attraction to pubescent-aged youth. Although a representative sample of the general population hasn t been assessed to determine the relative distribution of erotic age orientations, large clinical samples reveal that most adult males are either ephebophiles (most intensely attracted to older adolescents) or teleiophiles (aroused mostly by fully mature adults). That s not to say that the majority of men wouldn t exhibit some measurable penile response to sexualized depictions of very young teenagers in these studies (they often do), just that they get more intensely aroused by older targets.

Still, hebephilia certainly isn t rare, either, and as I ve argued previously, there s some reason to believe that a hebephilic orientation would have been biologically adaptive in the ancestral past (at least at the upper end of this age continuum, since there s a period of relative infertility for some time after menarche). The global age-of-consent laws reveal deep cultural disagreements over when, exactly, teenagers have the mental fortitude to make their own sexual decisions. In most of the US and the UK, a person under 16 cannot legally consent to have sex with an adult. In most of Europe, 14-year-olds are of legal age; and having consensual sex with a 12-year-old in Chile probably isn t wise, but it s legal, and the government would consider it your personal business.

Some psychologists, such as Bruce Rind of Temple University, have challenged the popular notion that sex with underage minors is uniformly negative for all adolescents in such relationships. His data paint a starkly different image than the one conventionally portrayed by the media. Rind finds that many adults, especially men, have positive, meaningful memories of their technically illegal relationships with non-exploitative adults during their adolescent years. Although too many minors are hideously abused, raped, and exploited sexually a fact to be met with merciless fury and disdain Rind points out that it s foolish and manipulative to demand that all teens frame their consensual trysts with all adults as inherently negative. He tells of a 14-year-old Jewish boy who lost his virginity to a prostitute in her 20s on the eve of the Holocaust only to soon perish at a concentration camp. On learning after the war from his son s friend that the boy died a man, the boy s father smiled and wept with pride. The irony, of course, is that today s moral panic dictates that this teenager should be called a survivor of sex abuse had he actually escaped Auschwitz.

The 19th-century post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin relocated to French Polynesia to satisfy his hebephilic lust with free-spirited Tahitian girls. But you re more likely to end up in a federal prison in Pennsylvania or in a kitchen with the very non-evolutionary minded Chris Hansen, pleading your case to the morally dumbfounded.

Dear Jesse,

I have tried hard to succeed in an IT career, but the industry is sensitive to busts in the economy. I find myself climbing and getting knocked down frequently; I am good at the work so I never left despite the deteriorating conditions. Up to 6 years ago, I lived a pretty good life of international travel in spite of wandering in and out of crappy job situations. I was unable to establish myself with any savings because of downturns. Now, I am a 41-year-old male, single, with low testosterone, increasing obesity, unemployed and isolated most of the time because I have been nomadic in my job pursuits. I am also anti-theist, anti-monogamist and anti-feminist, so my pickings in women are slim. I have no close ties, am exhausted and having trouble finding the motivation to improve myself. The road is too long and the reward insufficient to achieve some higher status in some group or society somewhere. Any advice?

Fatigued Existentialist

Dear Fatigued Existentialist,

Let s focus on the testosterone issue. About a decade ago, the psychologist Alan Booth and his colleagues attempted to disentangle the complex relationship between depression and testosterone in a sample of 4,393 middle-aged men. As you d expect, men with lower T-levels, just like you, tended to be more depressed, and presumably this was triggered often by a precipitous decline in social status, such as sudden unemployment. But things weren t so sunny at the opposite end of this hormonal spectrum either, where men with abnormally high T-levels also tended to be vulnerable to depression. Testosterone reduces depression up to a point, surmised the authors, beyond which it increases depression because of its relation to behavioral and interpersonal problems.

What they’re referring to are findings that high basal testosterone is positively correlated with a variety of detrimental factors, including antisociality, risk-taking, divorce, over-competitiveness, and low occupational success. In other words, being puffed-up on T may make you virile and self-confident both of which are traits you could benefit from at this stage in your life but it can also often make for a rather arrogant, short-sighted cognitive stance that triggers aversive responses from others, therefore creating a hostile social environment that is conducive to depression. So all of this is to say that although testosterone treatment may well be an effective therapeutic supplement to traditional antidepressants, and it may be worth looking into, be careful what you wish for. Too much of this good thing makes for a real asshole.

As for being anti-theist, anti-monogamist, and anti-feminist, for better or worse these attitudes do pose significant problems for your social integration, and this isolation is almost certainly depleting testosterone also. To give your T-level a salubrious boost, try placing yourself in social situations where these aspects of other people s differing worldviews are irrelevant. If you re on the job hunt and have some downtime right now, why not volunteer? Stressing your strong feelings about hot-button issues in your interactions with new people will only divide, inviting the type of awkward tensions that have led to your feeling excluded today.

This doesn t mean abandoning your opinions (and as you probably know, I m sympathetic) but making your anti- beliefs so central to your self-identity may keep you from finding the common human ground with other people that I suspect you really need to be on right now. Stay away not only from churches filled with monogamous feminists, but also from people who offer unrelenting critical commentary on them. Instead, find just one person–just one!–completely indifferent to these things, who genuinely needs you, and with whom you can laugh at life s absurdity, and soon you ll notice the clouds beginning to part.

Dear Jesse,

I am a psychotherapist who works mainly with teens. Teen girls frequently tell me about their drama and relationship problems and they blame everything on the other girls. They rarely blame the boy and this infuriates me. I recently contacted a guy that I dated once several years ago and we texted one night. I then spent three nights looking on all of his female friends Facebook pages and found myself screaming at their photos on my computer, calling them sluts and whores. Why am I able to be so rational about everyone else s issues but revert to a 13-year old-mean girl when I feel insecure? Does anything in evolution explain this?

Embarrassed To Be 29

Dear Embarrassed To Be 29,

You may have an unflappable poker face in the clinic, but you re also a young, reproductively viable female with diminishing mate value in the throes of intense intrasexual competition with potential rivals for a desirable mate. You can certainly discipline these potent emotional responses of jealousy and envy with sustained cognitive effort (and there are important individual differences with respect to their expression) but our species unique evolutionary heritage has all but ensured the immortality of these unladylike reactions in women s psychology. In other words, from an adaptive perspective, it s your inner mean girl that s working on behalf of your genes, not the cool psychotherapist looking on introspectively.

The most intensive body of research on female aggression which differs from male aggression in that it s much more likely to be indirect, in the form of gossip, rumor-mongering, and social exclusion has been conducted by the evolutionary psychologist Anne Campbell. One of the constructs she s recently introduced, along with her colleague Steven Muncer, seems especially pertinent to the form of anger you re exhibiting online. They d likely say that you re experiencing explosive anger, which involves venting-type actions while alone (hitting brick walls, screaming abuse, destroying property, and so on). From an evolutionary perspective, explosive anger can be seen as less costly for women because it avoids the threat of retaliatory violence that can incur physical costs such as bodily injury. It s also more strategic because it successfully avoids the type of interpersonal strife that leads to burnt bridges. So shouting demoralizing invectives at the pixilated phantoms on your computer screen may sound uncivilized, but at least you re not sending these ladies nasty emails or waiting on their doorsteps cracking your knuckles.

A soon-to-be published study by the evolutionary social psychologist Karlijn Massar and her team at The University of Groningen also sheds light on your Jekyll-and-Hyde debacle. Your calling these strangers sluts and whores and other scandalous oh-no-she-didn t s is in keeping with established findings showing that intrasexual competition in women normally is expressed as reputational warfare. Massar and her coauhors highlight recent data indicating that when an attractive woman (therefore a female of high mate value ) comments disparagingly on another woman s physical appearance or mentions her sexual promiscuity, any man in earshot of this negative appraisal rates that other woman as being significantly less attractive compared to those who didn t hear these catty remarks. Nature is a bitch, but she s effective. In Massar s investigation, married and unmarried women ranging from 20 to 50 years of age were presented with the following imaginary situation:

Meet your new neighbor, Karen. You are single, and you have been in love with a man that has been living on your street for a while now. Lately, Karen has also started to show an interest in this man. She is constantly flirting with him and trying to get his attention. You really like this man and are very upset that you now have a rival.

After reading this, the 83 women in the study were asked a series of 16 questions about the likelihood of their spreading rumors about Karen or gossiping about her. For example, on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being very unlikely and 5 being very likely, how likely is that, I would tell negative things about Karen to other people, I would tell my friends that Karen in unkind, or I would tell the man I am in love with that Karen isn t faithful in relationships.

Younger women said they d be more likely to gossip than did older women. But a stronger predictor of gossiping proclivity was the participant s self-perceived mate value. As long as you ve still got prized genes to bargain with in the game, in other words, your tendency to gossip about rivals will remain quite high. Interestingly, marital status didn t matter, presumably because while single women are competing against one another to attract mates, married women compete to retain their mates.

Stalking is probably a bit too strong a word to use here, but Masser might look upon your Facebook behavior of studying the images of your ex s female friends as an adaptive behavior also. It s basically a form of strategic information-gathering. Even though comparing oneself to the rival may produce negative emotions, it also provides an opportunity to assess which qualities of the rival might appeal to one s (prospective) partner, write the authors. It thereby also functions to highlight which qualities one needs to improve in oneself.

So keep your inner mean girl in check, but watch her go from time to time, too. She s an insightful person that will give your neutral clinical mind valuable access to what you deal with on a daily basis: raw adolescent phenomenology.

Have a question for the Bering in Mind advice column? Read the rules here first, then email beringinmind@gmail.com or submit through the “Ask Anything” portal at www.jessebering.com. Questions may be minimally edited for clarity and length.

 

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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