In a strongly worded rejection of hebephilia, a New York judge has ruled that the controversial diagnosis cannot be used in legal proceedings because of “overwhelming opposition” to its validity among the psychiatric community.
Judge Daniel Conviser heard testimony from six experts (including this blogger) and reviewed more than 100 scholarly articles before issuing a long-awaited opinion this week in the case of “Ralph P.,” a 72-year-old man convicted in 2001 of a sex offense against a 14-year-old boy. The state of New York is seeking to civilly detain Ralph P. on the basis of alleged future dangerousness.
State psychologist Joel Lord had initially labeled Ralph P. with the unique diagnosis of sexual attraction to “sexually inexperienced young teenage males,” but later changed his diagnosis to hebephilia, a condition proposed but rejected for the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Under the Frye evidentiary standard, designed to bar novel scientific methods that are not sufficiently validated, a construct must be “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific community before it can be relied upon in legal proceedings.
Judge Conviser found that hebephilia (generally defined as sexual attraction to children in the early stages of puberty, or around the ages of 11 or 12 to 14) is being promoted by a tiny fringe of researchers and in practice is used almost exclusively as a tool to civilly commit convicted sex offenders. Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such offenders must have a mental disorder in order to qualify for prolonged detention after they have served their prison terms.
“It is not an accident, as Dr. Franklin outlined, that hebephilia became a prominent diagnosis only with the advent of SVP laws,” the judge wrote in his 75-page opinion. “It is also not a coincidence that each of the three expert witnesses who testified for the State at the instant hearing either work or formerly worked for state [Sexually Violent Predator] programs.”
Conviser’s ruling analyzed both the practical problems in reliably identifying hebephilia and the political controversies swirling around it: Without any standardized criteria, “clinicians are free to assign hebephilia diagnoses in widely disparate ways, many of which are just plainly wrong.” Using age as a proxy for pubertal stage is no guarantee of reliability because pubertal onset is highly variable. Ultimately, he concluded, whether erotic interest in pubescent minors is deemed "pathological" is more about moral values than science.
APA secrecy faulted
The judge was harshly critical of the American Psychiatric Association for its refusal to publicly explain why it rejected hebephilia from the DSM-5 in 2013. The diagnosis was aggressively promoted by a Canadian psychologist, Ray Blanchard, and fellow researchers from Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who dominated the DSM-5 subcommittee on paraphilias.
Blanchard rewrote the DSM section on paraphilias (sexual deviances) in a broad way such that virtually all sexual interests other than a narrowly defined “normophilic” pattern became pathological. However, the APA rejected Blanchard’s proposal to expand pedophilia to pathologize adult sexual attractions to pubescent-aged (rather than just prepubescent) minors.
“The proposal was apparently rejected because it was greeted with a firestorm of criticism by the sex offender psychiatric community, which was communicated to the APA board…. As best as this Court can surmise, the APA rejected the pedohebephilia proposal because it was opposed by most of the psychiatrists and psychologists who worked in the field.”
“[S]trikingly,” wrote Judge Conviser, “the process through which proposed new diagnoses are approved or rejected is shrouded in a degree of secrecy which would be the envy of many totalitarian regimes…. With respect to hebephilia, the APA board’s actions will have a direct impact on both public safety and the fundamental liberty interests of hundreds or thousands of people.”
The APA forces those involved in the DSM revision process to sign nondisclosure contracts. That policy came in the wake of a series of published exposes – including Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis, and Ethan Watters’s Crazy Like Us (to name just a few of my favorites) -- that embarrassed the world’s largest psychiatric organization by shining a light inside the often subjective and political process of diagnosis creation and expansion.
Blanchard and his CAMH colleagues’ 2009 proposal to expand pedophilia into a new “pedohebephilia” diagnosis in the DSM-5 spawned a massive outcry, which mushroomed into at least five dozen published critiques.
In preparation for my testimony at this and similar Frye hearings in New York, I expanded on my 2010 article in Behavioral Sciences and the Law tracing hebephilia’s rise from obscurity, to produce an updated chart containing all 116 articles addressing the construct. If one tallies only those articles that take a position (pro or con) on hebephilia and are not written by members of the CAMH team, fully 83% are critical as compared to only 17% that are favorable. This, Judge Conviser noted, is strong evidence against the government’s position that hebephilia is “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific communities.
“The thrust of the evidence at the hearing was … clear: there was overwhelming opposition to the pedohebephilia proposal in the sex offender psychiatric community,” he wrote. “There is overwhelming opposition to the hebephilia diagnosis today.”
Courts scrutinizing nouveau diagnoses
With the APA’s rejection of hebephilia as well as two other proposed sexual disorders (one for preferential rape and another for hypersexuality), government evaluators continue to shoehorn novel, case-specific diagnostic labels into the catchall DSM-5 category of “other specified paraphilic disorder” (OSPD) as a basis for civil commitment.
Under a 2012 New York appellate court ruling in the case of State v. Shannon S., upon a defense request, a Frye evidentiary hearing must be held on any such attempt to introduce an OSPD diagnosis into a Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) case. That has triggered a spate of Frye hearings in the Empire State, affording greater scrutiny and judicial gatekeeping of scientifically questionable diagnoses.
Ironically, although the Shannon S. court upheld hebephilia by a narrow 4-3 margin, Shannon S. would not have met diagnostic criteria under the narrower definitions presented by the government experts at Ralph P.’s Frye hearing four years later, because his victims were older than 14.
“Assuming hebephilia is a legitimate diagnosis, Shannon S., like many SVP respondents, was apparently diagnosed with the condition not based on evidence he was preferentially attracted to underdeveloped pubescent body types but because he offended against underage victims,” Judge Conviser observed in his detailed summary of prior New York cases.
The three dissenting judges in Shannon S. were adamant that hebephilia was “absurd,” and an example of “junk science,” deployed with the pretextual goal of “locking up dangerous criminals” who had committed statutory rapes.
The opening of the Frye floodgates has led to a flurry of sometimes-competing opinions.
In 2015, in State v. Mercado, Judge Dineen Riviezzo ruled against “OSPD--sexually attracted to teenage females” as a legitimate diagnosis. However, she declined to rule on the general acceptance of hebephilia because it was not specifically diagnosed in that case.
A year later, relying on similar evidence, a judge in upstate New York ruled in State v. Paul V. that hebephilia was generally accepted, in large part because it was backed by the APA’s paraphilias sub-workgroup. Judge Conviser found that reasoning unpersuasive, pointing out that the subworkgroup was dominated by the very same CAMH researchers who were hebephilia’s primary advocates; it was therefore “not a valid proxy" for the scientific community.
In July, another court rejected both hebephilia and “OSPD--underage males” as valid diagnoses, in the cases of Hugh H. and Martello A. The court noted that hebephilia is inconsistently defined, was rejected for the DSM-5, and is primarily advanced by one research group; further, attraction to pubescent minors is not intrinsically abnormal.
Cynthia Calkins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, echoed those points in her testimony at Ralph P.'s hearing. She noted that in the United States, the main psychologists advocating for hebephilia are government-retained evaluators in SVP cases, who make up only perhaps one-fourth of one percent of psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S. and so cannot be a proxy for “general acceptance” in the scientific community.
The government’s choice of experts illustrated Calkins’ point: Testifying for the government were Christopher Kunkle, director of New York’s civil management program for sex offenders, David Thornton of Wisconsin’s civil commitment center, and Robin Wilson, formerly of Florida’s civil commitment center and a protégé of Ray Blanchard’s.
The third expert called by Ralph P.’s attorneys was Charles Ewing, a distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo Law School who is both an attorney and a forensic psychologist and has authored several books on forensic psychology.
Ultimately, New York State’s highest court may have to weigh in to resolve once and for all the question of whether novel psychiatric diagnoses like hebephilia are admissible for civil commitment purposes. But that could be years down the road.
The ruling in State v. Ralph P. is HERE.