Understanding the terminology

Many people who have a sexual attraction to children also have a sexual interest in others, including people their own age or older. Terms such as ‘paedophilia’ are generally used in the media and society to refer to any sexual interest in children, but this is not always correct.

You may also encounter other terms, such as ‘paraphilia’, when looking up information on sexual disorders. The following information, while not intended to be used diagnostically, may be helpful in explaining some of the terms.

What is a ‘paraphilia’?

A paraphilia is a sexual arousal to something regarded as unusual. There appears to be no single commonly accepted definition and it is acknowledged that what is regarded as sexually ‘unusual’ varies across time, place and cultural norms. Paraphilia may be preferred as a term by some therapists as it can be seen as less judgmental than other terms, such as ‘sexual deviance’. However, there remains some debate about the terminology.

What is ‘paedophilia’?

The tenth edition of the International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders (ICD-10) classifies paedophilia as a disorder of sexual preference. A disorder of sexual preference involves unusual sexual urges and fantasies that are strong and recurrent, and which lead the person to act out the urges or be distressed by them. To be classified as a disorder, the problem has to have been present for at least six months.

Paedophilia relates to a specific disorder where there is a preference for sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children. Therefore, it would not usually be the correct description for someone with a sexual preference for under-age teenagers (see hebephilia, below).

The term ‘paedophilia’ should not be used to describe young people under the age of 16 who have a sexual preference for younger children. ICD-10 criteria stipulate that the person with the disorder is at least 16 years old and at least five years older than the child or children who are the focus of their sexual preference.

Hebephilia and ephebophilia

Hebephilia is the term used to describe a preferential sexual interest in pubescent (i.e. early adolescent) individuals, rather than adult partners. As with paedophilia, it is not a term that would be applied to under-16s. A related term is ephebophilia, used to describe a preferential sexual interest in adolescent individuals (usually mid-late teens).

Hebephilia and ephebophilia are not formally defined as specific clinical disorders, but if the focus of the sexual preference leads to problematic behaviour and/or emotional distress, and if these problems are persistent (more than 6 months), they would likely meet ICD-10 criteria for disorders of sexual preference. This would need to be assessed by a professional.

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