Jesse Bering Image:
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.