Pederasts and pedophiles

Benoit Denizet-Lewis reports (in the “Boy Crazy” chapter of his 2010 collection American Voyeur: Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life) on a terminological distinction made by members of NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association):

NAMBLA members have long disagreed over what they are and what kind of unified front they should show the public. [NAMBLA member] Socrates insists that the group is made up of a majority of pederasts (people attracted to boys in or after puberty) and a minority of pedophiles (people attracted to prepubescent children). Yet the Bulletin has rarely reflected that, angering many of NAMBLA’s members.

“The Bulletin is turning into a semipornograhic jerk-off mag for pedophiles,” NAMBLA cofounder David Thorstad wrote in a December 1996 letter to the magazine. “Has the Bulletin forgotten that NAMBLA has always consisted not only of pedophiles, but also of pederasts?” (p. 171)

Though I’m familiar with the conceptual distinction, the use of this terminology for it was new to me. Well, I am familiar with the restriction (in somewhat technical contexts) of pedophile (British paedophile) to people sexually attracted to prepubescent children (and ephebephile or ephebophile to people sexually attracted to older children, specifically boys). But pederast specifically for an ephebephile was something of a surprise, though I can see a etymological/historical justification for the usage, given that the ancient Greek practice involved an adult man and an adolescent boy.

Both common usage and the dictionaries vary as to what’s a pederast and what’s a pedophile, and there’s a considerable area of unclarity surrounding the words.

(Denizet-Lewis’s chapter appeared originally, in a slightly different form, in the May 2001 issue of Boston magazine.)

Before I go on, I have to stress that I’m not proposing to tell you what these words really mean, or what they should mean. That would be foolish. The words denote sociocultural categories, and like all such words their use is variable, context-specific, and contested, and changes over time. I am pointing out that you can’t assume you understand what someone intends by using such words — because of the factors I just mentioned. (Sometimes these factors have to do with categorizations, sometimes with the expressions used, usually with both.) And you can’t just insist that your understanding is right and other people’s is wrong.

A moment of abstraction: we’re dealing here with some relationship R between two denotata, which I’ll arbitrarily call A and B; A bears R to B.

Now: the areas of unclarity in the use of pederast and pedophile include, but are not necessarily limited to:

(1) whether A can be of either sex, or is specifically male: for many people, a pedophile can be of either sex, but a pederast is specifically male, and this difference is recognized in the OED (draft revision of March 2005 for paedophile | pedophile has “An adult who is sexually attracted to children”; draft revision of September 2008 for pederast has “A man who has or desires sexual relations with a boy” as its first meaning);

(2) whether B can be of either sex, or is specifically male: for many people, a pedophile can be attracted to either sex, but a pederast is specifically attracted to males, and this difference is recognized in the OED (“to children” vs. “with a boy” in the definitions above);

(3) whether R is sexual attraction to or sexual activity with: the OED definitions mention only attraction in the pedophile case, but desire for sexual activity or engaging in it in the pederast case; NOAD2 associates pederasts even more closely with sexual activity, defining pederast as “a man who engages in pederasty”, where pederasty is “sexual activity involving a man and a boy”;

(4) if R involves or can involve sexual activity, what acts these are, and what roles A and B take in them; there’s some association between pederasty (but not pedophilia) and anal intercourse, and some inclination to assume that A takes the insertive role in anal intercourse;

(5) what the age of B is: what counts as a child or boy varies from context to context, and matters are confounded by a welter of childhood-adulthood cut-offs for different legal or administrative purposes; in the absence of a “natural” cut-off (comparable to puberty), many people would like to take the legal age of consent as the cut-off, but age-of-consent laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in complex ways.

Pederast (earlier paederast) is by far the older word, attested in the OED from 1638 (with the noun pederasty attested since 1603), while the OED has cites for pedophile only from 1941 (though the noun pedophilia is attested since 1906). In the years since the 17th century, pederast has developed senses not specifically involving boys: in the OED, “a man who practices anal intercourse” (with possible unclarity in “practices”) and “a male homosexual”.

The fact remains that ordinary English has no widely used vocabulary for distinguishing sexual attraction to (or sexual activity with) prepubescents vs. older adolescents, though we tend to have different attitudes to the two cases. The NAMBLA people have pressed pedophile and pederast into service for this purpose, but at the moment the terminology seems to be very much an in-group thing, and given that NAMBLA is “one of the most despised and ridiculed groups in America” (Denizet-Lewis, p. 153), its jargon is unlikely to spread.

4 Responses to “Pederasts and pedophiles”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    In British English, “paedophile” usually has a long vowel in the first syllable, whereas “pederast” has a short vowel. This increased phonological distinction might serve to increase the semantic distinction.

    But to my ears, “pederast” simply sounds old-fashioned, like “buggery”, “gross indecency”, “lower classes”, or “Bolshevik”.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    mollymooly: “to my ears, “pederast” simply sounds old-fashioned …”

    Actually, to my ears as well. And a bit silly, thanks to the Firesign Theatre’s “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger”, in which, in an exchange with Danger, Lt. Bradshaw sneers, “Don’t get wise with me, Peeper. You’re lucky we didn’t burn you on the Anselmo pederasty case.” (How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All (1969))

  3. Ach Says:

    Among those working on DSM-V, there is a current proposal to change the diagnosis “pedophilia” to “pedohebephilia” with two subsections: pedophilia referring to sexual interest in prepubescents and hebephilia to refer to sexual interest in pubescent children. Those who have proposed this, use the term ephebophilia to refer to sexual interest in somewhat older adolescents. The nominal form of hebephilia is, of course, hebephile. If this (rather controversial) proposal is adopted by the APA, this terminology seems may stand a decent chance of gaining currency.

  4. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Ach: what you’re describing is a proposal to change the technical terminology in this particular domain. Technical terminology and ordinary-language vocabulary often go their separate ways, though historically there are influences in both directions. So it’s possible that a change in DSM-V might filter through to ordinary language eventually, but there’s no guarantee of that, and I suspect that a three-way distinction between pedophilia, hebephilia, and ephebophilia (while it might be useful in clinical contexts) is very unlikely to catch on in everyday usage.

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