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Does being attracted to teenagers make me a pedophile?

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curty asks:

I find myself more attracted to teenagers than females my own age (23). Am I becoming a paedophile? It's just that I imagine a teenager having a sense of awe and wonder when it comes to sex that is lost with time (not necessarily with experience).

I'm amazed at my own temerity in asking and having used the "p" word above I'm sure you won't answer my question but I assure you it is genuine. Any chance you know of some resources that may help? Thanks for taking me seriously.

Heather Corinna replies:

The term pedophile is about people who are sexually attracted to children: to juveniles, to pre-pubescent people. Teenagers are not children. The term for an adult who is sexually attracted to teenagers -- to someone entering or in puberty, but who is not yet a full-grown adult is, instead hebephile or ephebephile. Unlike pedophilia, it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A paraphilia, for the record -- whether we're talking about pedophilia, zoophilia, coprophilia or any other -- is clinically defined as a persistent, pervasive and often exclusive sexual fantasy, urge or behavior. Most paraphilias involve objects of those attractions or behaviors which are inanimate, nonconsenting or unable to fully, clearly or informedly consent or which involve distress, humiliation or suffering on someone's part.

There's not a clear line there when we're talking about at what age difference we're talking about a relationship between an adult and a teen and two peers: that's somewhat arbitrary. Personally, I think that if you're asking about someone 18 or 19, for instance, that strikes me as pretty same-age to a 23-year-old, and is not something I'd consider hebephilic behavior. If we're talking about someone your age and someone 14 or 15, on the other hand, I'd say we're no longer talking about peers, particularly when we consider how much change happens on all levels in just the handful of years that are our teens.

Frankly, I don't agree that young people have more of a "sense of awe and wonder" about sex than anyone else does. I don't think that is something based primarily on age, and I think the idea of teens being that way is largely projected adult romanticism and fantasy: I'd say it's also ageism.

You can take a spin through the index of the questions asked and answered here, or at the message boards for this site to give yourself a reality check on that point. Heck, I know that even speaking for myself, in many ways I was much more jaded about sex, more wary about sex in many ways, as a teen than I have been as an adult, and that's likely largely because I have less to lose and can afford to follow my whimsy more with adult liberties, with what privileges and freedoms adulthood accords me. If we're going to make any generalization about teens and sex, I think we can safely say that more teens feel uncomfortable, anxious, nervous, worried and stressed-out about partnered sex than full of shiny, starry-eyed wonder. Were the latter the case, teens as a whole would feel a lot more relaxed than they do, and I'd not have to work so many hours in a week.

I certainly observe and know that younger people (and I often would include someone your age in that, though not to the degree I would younger teens) will frequently have unrealistic expectations about sex, be those positive, negative or about simply expecting sex to be a different animal than it is. As well, younger people -- particularly younger women -- tend to less frequently report satisfaction (both in terms of orgasm as well as overall pleasure and physical and emotional comfort) with partnered sex than their older counterparts, likely due to both those unrealistic expectations as well as to the simple fact that more times than not, for sex to be the stuff of misty wonder, it takes time and practice as well as a kind of social and cultural environment sex happens within which many teens do not yet have, particularly outside their peer groups.

One thing we often see, too, when it comes to older people who are sexually active with teens or having a desire to be is...well, in some ways, exactly what you express, but I'm not so sure that comes from the best place, or from a place that's as much about a sexual partnership as it is about the older person's sexual insecurity or desire to seem god-like. In other words -- I'm trying to frame this delicately, but I will likely fail -- an older person wants a sexual partner who will be impressed by them, perhaps even a little intimidated by them, and is in some sense seeking to find someone with little sexual/life experience or expectations about sex because that seems to take the pressure off for the adult. I think we can also observe older partners in age-disparate relationships often looking to try and recapture or relive their own youth, or to avoid some aspects of adulthood.

Certainly, I think we can all understand that partnered sex comes with its pressures and vulnerabilities, and we can also probably all agree that it's understandable for any of us to want to minimize those so we can better enjoy sex and the rest of our lives. But what reads as "awe and wonder" from the perspective of an adult, or someone past their teens often translates as "nervous, inexperienced and vulnerable" for many teens paired with adults. And some adults capitalize on that for their own comfort or ego with teens, sexually and otherwise. When we come to a sexual partnership as equals, we're pretty balanced when it comes to who is vulnerable and who feels green. That may put more pressure on the table for one or both people, but it also means we're more assured that that sex really is about partnership, rather than performance, and that no one is being exploited or utilized primarily for someone else's personal benefit and comfort, or viewed not as an equal, active partner but as a means for comfort for one partner because of the discomfort of another.

Obviously, this is tricky business, because we know full well that many adults find teenagers attractive. You're not that far off from being a teen yourself, but I'm also including people who are one, two, three or four decades away from their adolescence. Teen pop divas are not just the stuff of wall-posters for teens. In the pornography and fashion industries, both largely driven by adult dollars, youth or the appearance of youth is where the big bucks come from. As well, in some ways, even the term and class "teenager"is a relatively new social construction, and is still to some degree cultural. Less than 100 years ago in the western world, that term and idea didn't yet exist, and the passage from childhood to adulthood was far more swift. You were a kid, then you started to become an adult, then at 17, there you were, married or working as an adult at your family farm. You were first financially independent at 16, not at 23 (or later). In many parts of the world, still, it goes a little more like that. I think it's also fair to acknowledge that biologically speaking, in both humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, it's not unusual for a person to be attracted to someone who has the physically markers of adulthood and fertility.

Artificial or not, that construction is institutionalized at this point, and it's not sage to deny that a teen person does not have the same rights or agency as an adult person, which makes it mighty hard to have close personal relationships of real equity with teens: it's tough enough to do that platonically or in guidance roles, let alone sexually. When it comes to sex and teens in western culture, sexually active teens often bear heavier burdens than any adult partners they might have will. Some pay a social price for being sexually active, access to sexual information, sexual healthcare, contraception and abortion is incredibly limited to many teens, and the lack of life experience between teens and adults makes it very easy for a teen to be in a more vulnerable position. As well, since puberty often doesn't end until or into the 20's, there are physical and emotional developmental differences between those who are not yet full-grown adults and those who are. For instance, with young women, cervical cell development isn't usually complete until or into the 20's, making them more susceptible to cervical diseases due to sexually transmitted infections.

This is not to say that relatively equitable relationships between teens and legal adults cannot exist, do not exist or have never happened. Sometimes, it is equitable, particularly when both partners are very aware of the inevitable power imbalances, acknowledge and discuss them openly rather than trying to pretend they don't exist (often with the infamous adage "age doesn't matter," something adults know full well very much does), and make real efforts to assure that everything going on is age-appropriate for the younger partner. That would certainly include not sexually tokenizing them.

But based on what I observe, read and know from teens, what we know from broad study on sexual health and pregnancy issues in teen/adult relationships, I think it's safe to say that it's the exception far more often than the rule when those relationships are equitable and beneficial for young people, especially the youngest teens. I'd implore you to take a look at some of that research through those links.

Honestly, sometimes (and forgive me for venting), if, in a given day, I have to read yet one more post about an adult male who, with a teen woman, refuses to wear a condom (because he assumes she is - and is often right in this -- less assertive than a woman his own age), tells a teen woman something seriously bogus about what is or isn't risky knowing he's seen as more knowledgeable than she, tells a teen woman how mature she is to get into her heart and her pants or talks things like marriage or long-term partnership knowing how receptive so many young people are to that flattery, sets himself up as an easy out -- and often with a sexual price tag that has more to do with his desires than that of his younger partner -- for a teen who wants to get out of a bad living situation, or gets a teen woman pregnant with little concern that that can change the course of her whole life, I have to remind myself I'm a pacifist and that I know full well there are many good men in the world who do not pull this kind of crap. Even in daily life, I can be sitting somewhere no one thinks I'm overhearing and hear older men talking about and sexually objectifying teens in a way that a) they'd never do to their faces, particularly when wanting to impress them, and b) makes me want to wretch, especially as a person who interacts with teens and knows them to be a group of people worthy of a lot of respect.

(In fact, one place we can see some of these inequities play out is even in the term or concept of "teen pregnancy." So much of the time, pregnant teen women or teen mothers became pregnant through sex with adults, not teens. And yet, the person who bears the brunt of not only that pregnancy and parenting, but that social stigma, is the teen. The adult male is allowed to be invisible and without fault or accountability. I was really happy to recently see this issue highlighted at the National Partnership for Women & Families a couple weeks ago.)

All the same, people are attracted to who people are attracted to: we can't ultimately change to whom or what we feel attraction. I'm of the mind that none of us have a lot of reason to be all that concerned about what attractions a person feels: it's our actions where our concerns should lie. Again, if you're an adult male attracted to teens (I say that because I get a sense you're male, but also because while women too can and do feel those attractions, what studies we have on adult attractions to minors tend to largely skew male), you're hardly a rare breed. And you feeling that attraction, in and of itself, is -- in my mind -- harmless and benign. It doesn't make much sense to feel guilty about it or ashamed of it. It is what it is.

It's what you do or don't do with it -- and from what motivation -- that matters in my book. If you become sexually involved with a teen because you feel they're more likely to leave you feeling like a winner in the sack, if it's mostly about what you get from a sexual experience with them, rather than how you both mutually benefit one another on all levels, that's not something I find respectful of young people or in the interest of their own quality of life. If your primary draw to any teen women you might get involved would be the fact that they have unrealistic expectations about sex which could personally benefit you, I think that seriously stinks.

I'm also of the mind that anyone trying to seek out sexual partners who they can make starstruck by doing little, rather than deeply connect with through both partners doing some challenging emotional and sexual exploration -- through both having sex be something that is, in part, about personal growth and evolving -- isn't doing their partner or themselves any favors. While I'm not of the mind that sex or relationships should be about "work," they do both certainly take effort, and both certainly require all partners to have similar levels of both vulnerability and things to learn from the other to be healthy and enriching all around.

If I don't stretch the muscles of my legs, they shorten, become less agile and capable of adapting to change. Eventually, they will atrophy. If I stretch them often, they lengthen, become more flexible, vital and healthy. I think we can easily say the same of relationships and the individuals within them. In other words, if -- and I only say this based on that "awe and wonder" business -- you're just looking for someone easy to impress, where you don't have to do a lot of learning and changing yourself, who has lower expectations of you than someone else might, you dishonor that person and neither of you is likely to have a sexual or overall relationship that truly knocks anyone's socks off. Sure, it's a bit scarier to come to another person as an equal, or when you know you're not dominant or given easy respect, authority or admiration. But rich sexual and interpersonal relationships require risks and vulnerability on everyone's part. If, in an equitable relationship, there's no sense of whimsy and wonder present, that's less likely due to someone's age and more likely because both folks just aren't feeling it or bringing that to the table. Point is, you can have that with people of any age, particularly when you challenge yourself to really understand that person and yourself and have interpersonal connections based in equity, mutual benefit and mutual risk.

I may well have told you things you already knew, or didn't need to know. I couldn't get a sense of it you intended to pursue your attractions by this basis or not, or what your existing relationships and/or sexual life is like. I also know this is an arena where I can get a little intense, in part because I dedicate so much of my time to both advocating for teens when so few people will (including the adults who do choose to sleep with them), and because over the last ten years, I've listened to a helluva lot of heartache from teens due to interactions with adults who saw them as they wanted to, or through their own lens of personal gain, rather than really seeing and appreciating them for who they are, where they're at, and what they struggle through.

I think as adults who have any kind of a relationship with teens or children -- including those of us who are helpers, mentors, teachers, parents -- the very least we owe them is to allow ourselves to be as challenged by them as they are by us. Not awe-struck, not intimidated, not starry-eyed, not worshipful, but challenged and seen and honored for who and what we are, rather than as who or what someone wants or needs us to be because they can't find what they're looking for in themselves.

written 31 Jul 2008 . updated 31 Jul 2008

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