Danger and Difference: The Stakes of Hebephilia

During the development of the DSM-5, a debate raged over whether hebephilia should be classified as a mental disorder. Among other things, opponents were concerned that a hebephilia diagnosis might be used by US courts to indefinitely detain hebephilic sex offenders under Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) laws. Ultimately, the proposed inclusion of hebephilia was rejected. In this new book chapter, philosopher Patrick Singy argues that, instead of debating the status of hebephilia, both sides should have challenged the SVP system itself:

Both teams have accepted much too quickly the rules of the game that the Supreme Court has set up for them. Those rules, as I will now show, are flawed, and instead of arguing about the best way to play the game, our critique should take the game itself as its target. Against both Blanchard and Frances, and ultimately against the Supreme Court, I will argue that whether hebephilia is a disease or not should be irrelevant. What should be at stake in the concept of hebephilia is not the problem of diagnostic validity, but the issues of danger and difference.

Singy firsts questions whether mental illness itself should be considered dangerous, as SVP laws presume:

First, is there really a direct link between mental illness and lack of self-control? The writers of the DSM, including of the DSM-5, do not think so: “a diagnosis does not carry any necessary implication regarding the individual’s degree of control over behaviors that may be associated with the disorder” (American Psychiatric Association 2013, 25). Unlike psychiatrists, the Supreme Court is victim of a supreme confusion between having a disease and suffering from an incapacity such as lack of self-control. One can have a disease and be able to control oneself, and one can be sane and unable to control oneself (see Singy 2015).

Even if mental illness correlates with danger to some degree, he argues it should not be used as the legal standard: “Think of it this way: most sexual predators are men, not women, but it would be discriminatory to write in the law that SVP laws can only target men, and never women. […] Being a man or being mentally ill might be correlated with being a dangerous sexual criminal, but this empirical regularity cannot serve as a legal criterion.”

Singy’s second point is that SVP laws “define [mentally ill people] out of humanity by transforming them into quasi animals.” He argues that society creates the illusion of an ontological difference between mentally ill “predators” and normal humans in order to alleviate its bad conscience over depriving them of liberty. Singy concludes:

When we reflect about hebephilia, we need to think about danger and difference, not about disease. At what point is someone dangerous enough that we want to cage him preemptively? How do we decide when we are dealing with a radical, ontological difference that justifies the suspension of basic legal rights in a liberal context? Psychiatry cannot help us decide what to do with hebephiles, not because this discipline has a questionable level of scientificity, but because the issues raised by hebephilia are not of a psychiatric nature. They are philosophical, legal, and above all political.


3 thoughts on “Danger and Difference: The Stakes of Hebephilia

  1. Of course, what determines if something should be considered a mental illness is whether it causes harm to the person or others. Homosexuality may not be statistically normal but we don’t class it as an illness and lock gay people up because it’s not a danger to anyone. Evolutionarily, it’s a mystery. Sociologically, it’s just a part of the range of variation of sexuality.

    We need to separate “abnormal” from “pathological”.


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