Thinking Out Loud

December 12, 2011

The Slippery Slope of Semantics

“It’s gonna seem like kicks just keep gettin’ harder to find
And all those kicks ain’t bringin’ you peace of mind…”

’60s pop song, “Kicks” by Paul Revere and the Raiders

Here in the United States and Canada, the news media have been preoccupied for the past two weeks or so with the story of a college football assistant coach who is alleged to have crossed the line in terms of sexual contact with young boys.  The story has been getting a lot of airtime — possibly too much, actually — and while it’s not characteristic of this blog to wade into this type of current events, there are few things spinning off from this story that I think need to be looked at from the perspective I want to present.  (So, if you comment, please restrict your remarks to the specific thing we’re going to look at here.)

The Sandusky story deals with the larger issue of mature adults being attracted to people far outside (i.e. beneath) their peer group.  In many ways we live in a youth-saturated culture.  In The Pornography Effect, I wrote:

Our culture is infatuated with youth. From female tennis stars to pop singers, it’s not unusual to find the media spotlight on girls who are 14 or 15 or 16. Fresh faces. Healthy hair. No worries. They say what they’re thinking. They make good news copy and good cover stories.

…Either as front-and-center or as subtext we see innocence and, more often its related theme, the destruction of innocence.

With that thought in the background, I want to consider the language we use to describe things.  For example, look at your arm, and think of the word you would use to describe the joint halfway between your armpit and your wrist.

Of course, that’s your elbow.  Now without peeking ahead, what is the other word for elbow?  If you were a poet or a  songwriter and you were going to avoid repeating the word, what is the obvious synonym?

Personally, I can’t think of one. The elbow doesn’t suggest a synonym any more than I come up with a rhyme for orange. And I’m equally stuck trying to come up with another word of knee.

But what about certain male and female body parts?

Between you and me and our other readers, we could probably, using the same type font and size, fill your computer screen with all the various words — some not so socially acceptable — that English speakers have come up with to describe those particular locations on the human body.  Why is this the case?

It’s because the more we as a society attach importance to something, the more likely we are to come up with words. And here’s the really interesting part: The more we refine and deepen our interest in a particular thing, the more likely we are to create new words to reflect the different nuances of a subject.

Which brings me to the two new words I learned in the wake of the recent news story, Hebephilia and Ephebophilia.  (Cue the Wikipedia theme music… okay, they don’t have music…)

Hebephilia refers to the sexual preference for individuals in the early years of puberty (generally ages 11–14, though onset of puberty may vary). Girls typically begin the process of puberty at age 10 or 11; boys at age 11 or 12.Hebephilia differs from ephebophilia, which refers to the sexual preference for individuals in later adolescence,and from pedophilia, which refers to the sexual preference for prepubescent children.

Ephebophilia is the sexual preference of adults for mid-to-late adolescents, generally ages 15 to 19.  It is one of a number of sexual preferences across age groups subsumed under the technical term “chronophilia”. Ephebophilia strictly denotes the preference for mid-to-late adolescent sexual partners, not the mere presence of some level of sexual attraction.

(Excuse me for a minute while I calm down my spell-checker…)

Wow! Life is sure getting complicated. They never taught this stuff on Sesame Street or even Seinfeld. The world is getting curiouser and curiouser (a term which spell-check has no issues with).

Now remember, the more a society refines its interest in a subject, the more it is forced to invent words to describe the various nuances. So now, it has come to this.

I find it interesting that while this distinction exists, it has no real basis in law.  If I make or distribute inappropriate pictures of, for lack of a better word, non-adults in either category, I am breaking the law.  And if I act out on the aforementioned preference and engage in activity with non-adults in either demographic sub-group, I am still engaging in illegal activity.

But the breakdown in terminology gives the experts some leeway to find one category somehow less objectionable than the other;  not unlike the manner in which people wade into theology with the verdict that there is a hierarchy to sin, wherein murder is more serious than lust, forgetting that the Bible would seem to suggest that all sin is sin.

And sure enough, if you click the links above, you find out that the distinction allows each preference to be looked at differently as to its inclusion in the DSM-5, which is the “bible” used by professionals for classifying mental disorders. And those distinctions inevitably lead to a softening of our response.  The man who gets turned on by thoughts of preschool children is “sick;” we all agree, but the man who is obsessed or infatuated with his next door neighbor’s 14-year old daughter? Suddenly we have a category into which he nicely fits which is simply not so bad, and a category in which many free thinkers out there would have us say; “Well, that’s just normal.”

In fact, there is opinion out there that says that the DSM-5 is simply conforming to legal standards, and that, absent those standards, the experts wouldn’t be classifying these two categories as disorders at all. As is the example with the change in Western society’s view of homosexuality. And as some would have it with our view of incest.

…Now remember — and this will have bearing on which types of comments I allow on this, and which ones I don’t — today’s post is all about language. Technology is forcing us to accept new words into the dictionary on an almost daily basis, and existing words — like Google — often transition from nouns to verbs. But we have to keep an eye on what the lexicographers already know: That words are powerful and they can be used to both signal and even to create societal change.

Robbing a bank may not bring law enforcement to bring the same charge as stealing a candy bar, but both are examples of theft. While society may go lighter on the latter crime, it doesn’t diminish its nature. In God’s eyes, the standards never change.

When it comes to God-given sexual attraction that we can actually act out on, God has a best plan that he wants us to find and execute, and if you’re a middle-aged businessman, if you’re done fantasizing now; trust me,  it has nothing to do with your neighbor’s teenage daughter. As the song “Kicks” says, “that road goes nowhere.”

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