Pedophilia Documentarian: "Eighteen Is Just A Number"
The documentary Are All Men Pedophiles? argues that we should be more accepting of sex between teenagers and adults. Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees.
The model in the above poster for Are All Men Pedophiles? is 14 years old. Dutch director Jan-Willem Breure says he chose such a young girl on purpose "to confront people with the issue." "For the general guy," he says, "she is attractive. But the next question is, if you find her attractive, is that or is that not pedophilia?" It's a provocative question, and while the response is unorthodox — and may be inaccurate — that hasn't kept the film from the minor festival circuit.
According to the documentary, released this year and already screened at several festivals, the answer is yes and no. Specifically, the film advances the claim (with the help of guest experts like a neuroscientist, a psychologist, and a model scout) that all men are "hebephiles" — that is, attracted to teenagers. It argues that we need to make a distinction between hebephiles and true pedophiles, who are attracted to prepubescent children. The film also claims that a variety of cultures — it mentions everything from ancient Greece to the Lolita community in modern-day Japan — have accepted sex between adults and teenagers, and implies that maybe everyone else should, too. It closes with the line "eighteen is just a number." Are All Men Pedophiles? jumps from graphic descriptions of child sexual abuse (a victim tells her harrowing story of being raped by her father) to suggestions that teen-adult sex really isn't so bad.
Breure, who is 23 and bankrolled the film entirely himself, said it was inspired by his own attraction to teenagers: recently, he said, he'd come to realize that he was attracted to girls as young as 15. He wanted to explore whether this attraction was truly pedophilia. Making the movie, he said, taught him that "there is a difference between the public definition and the real definition of pedophilia" — the public definition includes attraction to teens, while the "real" definition excludes this. He hopes that the film will teach everyone the difference between pedophilia and hebephilia, and perhaps lessen the "media hype" around pedophilia, which he says has made fathers fear showing affection for their own children.
Making the project more confusing is Breure's lack of a clear political agenda. Sex between teens and adults is illegal (at least for teens under 16) in both the US and the Netherlands, but the filmmaker is circumspect about whether Western countries should rethink their age-of-consent laws.
Breure appreciates that such laws encourage teenagers to finish school before they reproduce but says his ideal would be public policy that prevented teen pregnancy while acknowledging that "sex is a natural thing." In fact, many might argue that the Netherlands, where Breure lives, already has such a policy: sociologist Amy Schalet made a splash last year with her book on the country's permissive attitude to teen sex, coupled with readily available birth control and sex education.
When I asked Breure if he thought it should be legal for an adult to have sex with a teenager, he said that as long as the sex is consensual, "I don't look at ages."
Breure mentions the Lolita community — adult women who dress in a Victorian, girlish style — in the film as evidence that hebephilia has broad acceptance, but this assertion doesn't sit well with Lolita enthusiasts themselves. A Change.org petition argues that the community is really about fashion and self-expression, not about sex or making grown women look like actual children. The petition also says the film is "causing a massive harm to the Lolita community, leading people who [do] not know the movement to think that it's about sex."
A Lolita enthusiast on Tumblr, who goes by Rox, makes a more specific allegation regarding a poster for the film. She claims that the model in the poster was tricked into believing she was posing for a Japanese fashion photo shoot, not a promotional image for a movie about pedophiles. Breure says that's completely false, and that the model in question signed a release in which the title of the film was clearly specified. The model has not responded to a request for comment.
Breure's ideas may also conflict with the current thinking in psychology. While he claims that his distinction between pedophilia and hebephilia is firmly rooted in the psychological literature, psychologist Michael Seto, author of Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention, disagrees. "Hebephilia," he explains, "is clinically and scientifically defined as a sexual attraction to PUBESCENT children, i.e., kids who are showing some signs of pubertal development but who are still clearly physically immature." Hebephilia does not include sexual attraction to older teenagers who look physically mature, or to anyone who looks 16 or above.
Thus, he explains, all men are most definitely not hebephiles — most men aren't attracted to pubescent teens. "Many men are sexually attracted to older teens," he says, "but not as much as they are sexually attracted to young adults." He cites studies showing that on average, both straight and gay men show more sexual response to photos of adults than to photos of older teens.
Seto also notes that even if an older teen consents to sex with an adult, such sex can be harmful for teenagers: "they are less cognitively, emotionally, and socially developed, on average, compared to the adult, so the teens can be at risk of exploitation or manipulation." He adds that "the benefits of these kinds of relationships are obvious for the adult, but uncertain for the teen. To me, this imbalance justifies some legal and social prohibitions of adult-teen sex, even if the teen consents."
Sociologist Sarah Goode, author of Understanding and Addressing Adult Sexual Attraction to Children says that while it's "pretty normal" for men to be attracted to teenagers, it's by no means universal. She also says that adults' attractions aren't necessarily a good guide for setting the age of consent, adding "it is of course men such as the director Roman Polanski who argue that 'all men' want to have sex with teenage girls, in order to normalise the fact that he himself wanted to (and did)." And no matter where we set this age, some people will always want it to be younger: "I have met men who are sexually attracted to babies. Should we therefore argue that 'babies should have the legal right to consent to sex with adults'?"
Are All Men Pedophiles? will soon screen at Poland's Transatlantyk Festival, and Breure says the director of programming of the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis has been enthusiastic about it. Heartland Festival artistic director Tim Irwin told me the film was indeed under consideration (with the less-inflammatory title Crossing Borders), but that he hadn't actually seen it yet. Breure's next film, he says, will be about incest.