Credit: Jesse Bering

Michael Jackson probably wasn’t a pedophile—at least, not in the strict, biological sense of the word. It’s a morally loaded term, pedophile, that has become synonymous with the very basest of evils. (In fact it’s hard to even say it aloud without cringing, isn’t it?) But according to sex researchers, it’s also a grossly misused term.

If Jackson did fall outside the norm in his “erotic age orientation”—and we may never know if he did—he was almost certainly what’s called a hebephile, a newly proposed diagnostic classification in which people display a sexual preference for children at the cusp of puberty, between the ages of, roughly, 11 to 14 years of age. Pedophiles, in contrast, show a sexual preference for clearly prepubescent children. There are also ephebophiles (from ephebos, meaning “one arrived at puberty” in Greek), who are mostly attracted to 15- to 16-year-olds; teleiophiles (from teleios, meaning, “full grown” in Greek), who prefer those 17 years of age or older); and even the very rare gerontophile (from gerontos, meaning “old man” in Greek), someone whose sexual preference is for the elderly. So although child sex offenders are often lumped into the single classification of pedophilia, biologically speaking it’s a rather complicated affair. Some have even proposed an additional subcategory of pedophilia, “infantophilia,” to distinguish those individuals most intensely attracted to children below six years of age.

Based on this classification scheme of erotic age orientations, even the world’s best-known fictitious “pedophile,” Humbert Humbert from Nabokov’s masterpiece,Lolita, would more properly be considered a hebephile. (Likewise the protagonist from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, a work that I’ve always viewed as something of the “gay Lolita”). Consider Humbert’s telltale description of a “nymphet.” After a brief introduction to those “pale pubescent girls with matted eyelashes,” Humbert explains:

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”

Although Michael Jackson might have suffered more disgrace from his hebephilic orientation than most, and his name will probably forever be entangled darkly with the sinister phrase “little boys,” he wasn’t the first celebrity or famous figure that could be seen as falling into this hebephilic category. In fact, ironically, Michael Jackson’s first wife, Lisa Marie Presley, is the product of a hebephilic attraction. After all, let’s not forget that Priscilla caught Elvis’s very grownup eye when she was just fourteen, only a year or two older than the boys that Michael Jackson was accused of sexually molesting. Then there’s of course also the scandalous Jerry Lee Lewis incident in which the 23-year-old “Great Balls of Fire” singer married his 13-year-old first cousin.

In the psychiatric community, there’s recently been a hubbub of commotion concerning whether hebephelia should be designated as a medical disorder or, instead, seen simply as a normal variant of sexual orientation and not indicative of brain pathology. There are important policy implications of adding hebephilia to the checklist of mental illnesses, since doing so might allow people who sexually abuse pubescent children to invoke a mental illness defense.

One researcher who is arguing vociferously for the inclusion of hebephilia in the American Psychiatric Association's revised diagnostic manual (the DSM-V) is University of Toronto psychologist Ray Blanchard. In last month’s issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, Blanchard and his colleagues provide new evidence that many people diagnosed under the traditional label of pedophilia are in fact not as interested in prepubescent children as they are early adolescents.

To tease apart these erotic age orientation differences, Blanchard and his colleagues studied 881 men (straight and gay) in his laboratory using phallometric testing (also known as penile plethysmography) while showing them visual images of differently aged nude models. Because this technique measures penile blood volume changes, it’s seen as being a fairly objective index of sexual arousal to what’s being shown on the screen—which, for those attracted to children and young adolescents, the participant might verbally deny being attracted to. In other words, the penis isn’t a very good liar. So, for example, in Blanchard’s study, the image of a naked 12-year-old girl (nothing prurient, but rather resembling a subject in a medical textbook) was accompanied by the following audiotaped narrative:

“You are watching a late movie on TV with your neighbors’ 12-year-old daughter. You have your arm around her shoulders, and your fingers brush against her chest. You realize that her breasts have begun to develop…”

Blanchard and his coauthors found that the men in their sample fell into somewhat discrete categories of erotic age orientation—some had the strongest penile response to the prepubescent children (the pedophiles), others to the pubescent children (the hebephiles), and the remainder to the adults shown on screen (the teleiophiles). These categories weren’t mutually exclusive. For example, some teleiophiles showed some arousal to pubescent children, some hebephiles showed some attraction to prepubescent children, and so on. But the authors did find that it’s possible to distinguish empirically between a “true pedophile” and a hebephile using this technique, in terms of the age ranges for which men exhibited their strongest arousal. They also conclude that, based on the findings from this study, hebephilia “is relatively common compared with other forms of erotic interest in children.”

In the second half of their article, Blanchard and his colleagues argue that hebephilia should be added to the newly revised DSM-V as a genuine paraphilic mental disorder—differentiating it from pedophilia. But many of his colleagues working in this area are strongly opposed to doing this.

Men who find themselves primarily attracted to young or middle-aged adolescents are clearly disadvantaged in today’s society, but historically (and evolutionarily) this almost certainly wasn’t the case. In fact, hebephiles—or at least ephebephiles—would have had a leg up over their competition. Evolutionary psychologists have found repeatedly that markers of youth correlate highly with perceptions of beauty and attractiveness. For straight men, this makes sense, since a woman’s reproductive value declines steadily after the age of about twenty. Obviously having sex with a prepubescent child would be fruitless—literally. But, whether we like it or not, this isn’t so for a teenage girl who has just come of age, who is reproductively viable and whose brand-new state of fertility can more or less ensure paternity for the male. These evolved motives were portrayed in the film Pretty Baby, in which a young Brooke Shields plays the role of twelve-old-old Violet Neil, a prostitute’s daughter in 1917’s New Orleans whose coveted virginity goes up for auction to the highest bidder.

One unexplored question, and one inseparable from the case of Michael Jackson, is whether we tend to be more forgiving of a person’s sexual peccadilloes when that individual has some invaluable or culturally irreplaceable abilities. For example, consider the following true story:

There once was a man who fancied young boys. Being that laws were more lax in other nations, this man decided to travel to a foreign country, leaving his wife and young daughter behind, where he met up with another Westerner who shared in his predilections for pederasty, and there the two of them spent their happy vacation scouring the seedy underground of this country searching for pimps and renting out boys for sex.

Now if you’re like most people, you’re probably experiencing a shiver of disgust and a spark of rage. You likely feel these men should have their testicles drawn and quartered by wild mares, be thrown to a burly group of rapists, castrated with garden sheers or, if you’re the pragmatic sort, treated as any other sick animal in the herd would be treated, with a humane bullet to the temple or perhaps a swift and sure current of potassium chloride injected into the arm.

But notice the subtle change in your perceptions when I tell you that these events are from the autobiography of André Gide, who in 1947—long after he’d publicized these very details—won the Nobel prize in literature. Gide is in fact bowdlerizing his time in Algiers with none other than Oscar Wilde.

Wilde took a key out of his pocket and showed me into a tiny apartment of two rooms… The youths followed him, each of them wrapped in a burnous that hid his face. Then the guide left us and Wilde sent me into the further room with little Mohammed and shut himself up in the other with the [other boy]. Every time since then that I have sought after pleasure, it is the memory of that night I have pursued.

It’s not that we think it’s perfectly fine for Gide and Wilde to have sex with minors or even that they shouldn’t have been punished for such behaviors. (In fact Wilde was sentenced in London to two years hard labor for related offenses not long after this Maghreb excursion with Gide and died in penniless ignominy.) But somehow, as with our commingled feelings for Michael Jackson, “the greatest entertainer of all time,” the fact that these men were national treasures somehow dilutes our moralistic anger, as though we’re more willing to suffer their vices given the remarkable literary gifts they bestowed.

Would you really have wanted Oscar Wilde euthanized as though he were a sick animal? Should André Gide, whom the New York Times hailed in their obituary as a man “judged the greatest French writer of this century by the literary cognoscenti,” have been deprived of his pen, torn to pieces by illiterate thugs? It’s complicated. And although in principle we know that all men are equal in the eyes of the law, just as we did for Michael Jackson during his child molestation trials, I have a hunch that many people tend to feel (and uncomfortably so) a little sympathy for the Devil under such circumstances.

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering on Facebook and never miss an installment again.