Mr. Smith was a 27-year-old man referred for psychological treatment after sexually offending against a 13-year-old boy. He initially denied the charge, but eventually admitted to sexually abusing multiple youth. He later admitted he’d been attracted to boys since his own adolescence.
Mr. Smith is actually a case composite from my first book on pedophilia. But the description is representative of stories I’ve heard from the hundreds of individuals I’ve talked with as a psychologist and researcher over the past 25 years.
Most men are sexually attracted to sexually mature young adults. But a small minority of men are sexually attracted to other age groups, from infants to the elderly. These age-based attractions are called chronophilias.
My research focuses on chronophilias and sexual offending against children. Recently, I’ve started to think about these age-specific attractions as sexual orientations for age, similar to how we understand sexual orientation for gender. This is quite different from the traditional way that psychologists view chronophilias, as sexual preferences that are distinct from someone’s identity.
This idea – that chronophilias can be understood as sexual orientations for age – is provocative, because it raises ethical, legal and scientific questions about how we think about sexual orientation, the etiology of sexual preferences and how we respond to sexual offenses against minors.
Attraction to an atypical age group
The best-known atypical chronophilia is pedophilia, referring to sexual attraction to prepubescent children (no physical changes due to puberty). Pedophilia has received the most attention because it helps explain many cases of child pornography use and child sexual abuse.
Hebephilia (some physical puberty changes, but still obviously immature) is becoming better known to researchers and the public. Though ultimately rejected, the American Psychiatric Association considered including hebephilia in the latest version of its diagnostic manual (DSM-5), where it would have joined pedophilia as a recognized mental disorder.