I received a letter from an incarcerated individual recently, who describes himself as a nepiophile. The term means “baby lover.” He says that since early childhood he has felt like an alien on this planet because he has encountered no one else who has admitted to having these feelings. His letter prompted me to think a bit more about the taxonomies of love by which our society regulates what is permissible and what is not.
The list, LGBT, has been used to summarize those sexual orientations that society has frowned upon in the past, but which have become more permissible. Suggestions have been made that the list should be made more inclusive. Some, for example, would expand the list to LGBTTQQIAAP (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally, pansexual). “Queer” is an especially interesting designation. Queer, as I understand it, denotes a person who has a hodgepodge of orientations. I would suggest that most, if not all people, are “queer” by this definition. More about that shortly. But first, we might ask, why the long list? Why not just say “everybody?” I mean LGBTTQQIAAP is a bit cumbersome. And it lacks elegance. If one could make it into a true acronym rather than just an initialism, that would simplify the matter. But LGBTTQQIAAP is awfully hard to pronounce. Even LGBT is a challenge.
Closer scrutiny suggests that this inintialism, however many letters are put into it, is specifically meant not to include everybody. Naturally one wouldn't want too many heterosexual males hobnobbing with the LGBTTQQIAAP folk. So we don't see an “HM” in the list. Especially one would want to exclude the white ones. WHMs are bad types for the most part. But they are excluded also because, until the last few decades of male bashing, heterosexual males haven't earned the dignity of being a persecuted group.
But the point of the list goes beyond designating those who have been given a hard time by society. The aim is also to exclude certain groups of people – mostly males – who have been persecuted. I am not referring to boys who masturbate, who were once treated rather badly. (Perhaps we should add an “M” for masturbators to the initialism.) Nor am I referring to boys who want to wear dresses. Girly boys are on the in these days. After all, they are not so likely become HMs when they turn eighteen. But why beat around the bush? The one who cannot be included is the dreaded “pedophile.” We all know that. Never mind that “pedophiles” (whatever various people might mean by this term) are by far the most ruthlessly and irrationally persecuted group of all. Still, nobody wants to add a second P to the list. It would endanger LGBTTQQIAAP's acceptance in the mainstream. Really what the LGBTTQQIAAP group wants is not so much a list of people who are being persecuted, as those who used to be persecuted.
So we need a separate taxonomy for the unacceptable orientations – those who presumably deserve their persecution.
The central list of this second taxonomy includes all people who feel some attraction to anybody under eighteen. The problem is that almost everybody, with the possible exception of the asexuals, would find themselves somewhere on this list. After all, who doesn’t find at least some people between the ages of birth and seventeen sexually attractive? But somehow we are asked to believe that not even “queer folk” or “pansexuals” feel any attraction to people under eighteen. There are limits to just how pan we can get, and still be acceptable.
The unacceptables have been subdivided into four categories: infantophile (or nepiophile), pedophile, hebophile, and ephebophilile. That spells IPHE. Not bad. It works as an acronym. (Pronounced like “hippie”.) The dreaded IPHE. It sounds like something from the 60s – something we should definitely put behind us. It should be noted that the younger the object of desire, the more icky the man is who has those feelings. (It's usually men we are talking about.) I need a better word than “icky” – a more scientific one. Perhpas I should say “creepy,” “nasty,” or “vile.” In a legal context, “egregious” works well. In any case, separate from all of these abominations one finds the blessed teleiophile – the man or woman who is exclusively attracted to adults of legal age.
The impression one would derive from the current use of all these terms is that we can organize people into a set of more or less watertight categories. The analogy would be the taxonomies used to classify animals into domains and kingdoms, and on down into species. At least in the case of larger animals, we have a fairly clear-cut way of defining a species. To begin with, we can rely on dependable differences in appearance. Deer don't look much like hippopotami. If it has antlers, for example, you can be pretty sure it's not a hippopotamus. But there is a more dependable litmus test to distinguish one species from another. If two animals can mate and produce an offspring, then they are of the same species. If not, they aren't.
We could also categorize animals as good animals or bad animals, but most biologists would not consider this very scientific as it introduces moral judgments that they would not consider relevant. If, for example, we wanted to distinguish between two species on the basis of such characteristics as ickyness, creepiness, nastiness or vileness, most scientists would call us to task.
In any case the question arises: can we develop a taxonomy of desire that is roughly equivalent to the taxonomy of species that one finds in biology? I would suggest that the effort to do so leads to illusory and, in many ways, very damaging results.
A key issue has to do with what it is that we are putting into categories. Categorizing types of desire probably has some usefulness. It enables us to talk coherently about the subject. But that’s a very different thing than categorizing people. Let me illustrate this by a quick look at some psycho-dynamic categories. I have in mind such categories as schizoid phenomena, sociopathology, borderline phenomena, and narcissism. I think it can be said that there are psycho-dynamic/behavioral patterns that are more or less accurately described by these terms. People do, at times, behave in ways that can meaningfully be called schizoid, sociopathic, borderline, or narcissistic. But we run into difficulty when we use these terms to categorize people rather than phenomena. In point of fact, we all behave in a schizoid, a sociopathic, a borderline, or a narcissistic manner at one time or another in one situation or another. This or that dynamic may be stronger, or encountered more frequently, in one person rather than another, but people are complex and do not neatly fit into these categories. We do not find here the sort of mutually exclusive compartments we have with animal species. In the psycho/social realm the hippo may, so to speak, grow antlers.
With that point established I would suggest that the first problem with the current use of the taxonomies of desire that dominate our lives is that, insofar as they are used to categorize people, they don’t describe reality. In general we do not find people who fit neatly into this or that carefully delineated category. Rather we find a lot of people who have hodgepodges of feelings. Somewhat like the queer folk. Possibly there are as many hodgepodges of feelings as there are people. Some men may be almost exclusively homosexual, for example, but may feel attracted to all males from, say, the age of 6 to the age of 36, or so. Another person may be attracted to both adult women and to pubescent males. No evidence that I know of supports the notion that the patterns of desire that we find in real people fit neatly into the taxonomies with which society presents us.
So the first problem with the current taxonomies of desire is that they are often used, inappropriately, to categorize people rather than desires.
“Normal” versus “abnormal” is a second second taxonomical element that is frequently encountered. Normal is a very slippery term. Does it just mean that which conforms to the norms of society? If so, then that which is normal in one society is abnormal in another. Or does it mean that which is average, in which case someone with an unusual ability in music is abnormal. On the other hand, it could mean non-pathological. But that turns out to be matter of social consensus. That which is quite pathological one minute can become normal the next, by social consensus. It happened, for example, with homosexuality. A vote among those who co-author the DSM manual cinched it.
It is pretended that our taxonomies define an intrinsic quality of a person, and not just an attitude about that person that is prevalent in society. In reality, the term “abnormal,” as it is generally used, is very close to the term “icky” and its close relatives, “creepy,” “nasty” and “vile” – terms that we earlier ascertained are probably of limited scientific usefulness. We would do better to discard the terms “normal” and “abnormal” entirely when discussing ethics, and replace them with the terms “helpful” and “harmful.” And we would also do well to to apply those terms to behaviors rather than desires. After all, it's whether a behavior is either harmful or helpful (or neutral) that counts.
The second problem with the current taxonomies, then, is that the frequently encountered categories of “normal” and “abnormal” are muddled, repressive, unproductive and political rather than scientific.
A third taxonomical confusion surrounds the way our society divides love relationships into those that are sexual and those that are not. This presents us with the most subtle difficulty of all. The problem has to do with how we understand the nature of the love energy that draws us into various kinds of relationships. I like the term “Eros” to designate “love energy” and have for years tried to clarify exactly how I understand it. In an essay I published entitled “Eros and Wholeness,” (Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 1998.) I defined Eros simply as “the desire for wholeness.” The basic idea here was taken from Plato’s Symposium. In an essay entitled “The Phallic Child: Its Emergence and Meaning in a Clinical Setting,” (American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer 1995.) I defined Eros as “the desire for attachments that facilitate the survival and development of the self,” or more simply as “the desire for self-completing human relationships.” In a third essay dealing with this topic, “Interpreting the Satanic Legend,” (Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 1998.) I defined Eros as “the full range of intense love feelings between people.” While my thinking about Eros has shifted and developed over the years, these various definitions are not basically contradictory. They all define Eros, from an experiential point of view, as a form of desire. The desire may have a physiological basis, but its meaning is found in the social context. In order to highlight the social aspect of Eros, we need to add still another definition: “Eros is the desire for union with the beloved.”
It is very hard to give an adequate definition of Eros in one sentence. Let us review the definitions given thus far:
Eros is the desire for wholeness.
Eros is the desire for attachments that facilitate the survival and development of the self.
Eros refers to the full range of intense love feelings between people.
Eros is the desire for union with the beloved.
I could, perhaps, come up with a single definition that would unify all those given above. I am inclined, however, to allow these four definitions to stand as they are. Like the various facets of a diamond, each of the overlapping definitions highlights a different aspect of Eros. Together they represent my best effort to date for defining the meaning of that form of desire, or love-energy, we call “Eros.”
I confess that I am still not sure how best to define the relationship between sex and Eros. It would appear that one can have sex without love, or love without sex. Perhaps. But we do observe that whenever we have a physical expression of love, sexual feelings tend to seep in, whether invited or not. A man roughhouses with a boy he loves, and one or both of them find they are getting an erection. A mother breastfeeds her baby boy, and he gets an erection or the mother has an orgasm. (For an interesting summary of this issue check this well researched article: http://tinyurl.com/m9njllc .) Or, to use another example, while a nudist might make a seemingly clear distinction between “sensual” and “sexual” elements in the pleasure of being naked and seeing others naked, this distinction is at best a little fuzzy around the edges. Indeed, one wonders whether sex is always waiting in the wings whenever love is enacted on the stage. Perhaps not. But in the real world it can be difficult to distinguish between a truly asexual love and one with a sexual element or substrate.
A third problem with our current taxonomies, is that, at best, our ability to distinguish between non-sexual love and love that contains a sexual component is unreliable. Often it is just a matter of how something is labeled.
My central conclusion is that the taxonomies of desire, as they are currently used in our society, do not provide us with a reliable guide to sexual ethics. Most certainly they do not provide us with valid criteria as to whom should be included and whom excluded from society – or whom should be treated with respect and whom vilified.
Ethics has to do with harm. Where there is no harm there is no violation of ethical principles. Feelings do not harm other people. Behaviors may. Whether any particular behavior does, in fact, lead to harm needs to be established empirically. In short, we need to stick to behaviors and stay focused on the issue of harm when we are thinking about sexual ethics. Let me illustrate this point with the man who prompted this reflection – the “nepiophile.” Suppose he found it erotically gratifying to change the diapers of a nine-month-old baby. If he is gentle as he cleans the baby up and puts on fresh diapers, there is no harm. Therefore nothing unethical has been done. Or suppose he has fantasies of having sexual intercourse with the baby, or of hurting it in some way, but does not act on these fantasies. Again, no harm has been done. All people have fantasies that would be harmful if they were enacted in the real world. This does not make those who have the fantasies monsters, or even icky people – nor does it justify their demonization, persecution, or exclusion from society.
This is not to suggest that all ethical problems are simple or easy to resolve. But if we keep focused on behavior, and on what actually does cause harm, we are in better position to discuss ethical dilemmas in a rational and productive manner.