Isn't it natural and normal for adult men to want to have sex with teenage girls? And aren't we being unfair to them by prohibiting them from doing so? These are questions you'd be likely to see on Reddit, but this week they've been addressed to Scientific American's new advice column. And our favorite science writer Jesse Bering has some answers.
Here's the question posed by "A Deep-Thinking Hebephile":
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?
Bering challenges DTH's Polanski-esque assertion that most men are primarily sexually attracted to underage girls. He writes,
[I]t'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.
However, Bering agrees that maybe hebephiles and their sexual activity get a bad rap. He cites research showing "that many adults, especially men, have positive, meaningful memories of their 'technically illegal' relationships with non-exploitative adults during their adolescent years." Then he tells a story about a 14-year-old boy who lost his virginity to a prostitute just before dying at Auschwitz. And he laments the fact "that today's moral panic dictates that this teenager should be called a 'survivor' of sex abuse had he actually escaped Auschwitz."
I doubt many people would compare a single underage sexual experience to living through a concentration camp. And it's certainly true that some adults have positive memories of consensual sex they had as teens with older partners. However, many have very negative memories of such experiences. Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory cites research showing that in case studies of girls who had been in sexual relationships with older men, "once girls left the relationship, negative views seemed to predominate. That is, girls who were no longer in these relationships viewed the adult men as perverts who could not find willing partners their own age so they resorted to exploiting young, naïve girls." Clark-Flory also quotes researcher Lynn Phillips, who writes,
Whether or not older men consciously seek to exploit their adolescent partners, women who had been in adult-teen relationships tend to feel, to varying degrees, manipulated, dominated, or cheated out of their youth as a result of their involvement with adults. In contrast to the enhanced sense of self-worth many teens anticipated from their involvements with adult men, several adult women felt ultimately that their sense of self-respect, trust, and independence was diminished as a result of their earlier relationships.
DTH might dismiss these findings as "soft science," but it's difficult to say what he would consider "hard" proof that sex with adults can be harmful to teens — brain scans, perhaps? In any case, the evidence Bering offers for the claim that many adolescents (Rind focuses on boys) aren't harmed by sex with adults is psych research of equivalent softness to the studies Clark-Flory cites. Again, it's true that some teens emerge from sex with adults unscathed and even happy. But given that many seem to feel enduring pain and regret over the experience, the safest bet is for adults to refrain from sex with them. Since DTH is such a deep thinker, perhaps he could weigh the chance of leaving a young girl with lasting hurtful memories against his own sexual satisfaction, and decide whether his pleasure is worth her potential pain.
"Dear Jesse, I Like Very Young Girls." [Scientific American]
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