While the field of psychology is ever-changing with new discoveries and terms being constantly coined, it is easy to forget the history behind it all. It is absolutely imperative that psychology’s past is not swept aside because it shows a vital link between its advancement and societal progression. This link becomes evident when looking at the history of certain mental conditions and how their diagnoses have changed as society’s sentiment toward them has changed. One such case is the existence of paraphilic disorders, which has undergone major changes to its classification definitions via dynamic societal shifts on particular matters.
The best example of public sentiment that moved towards a less favorable stance over time would be pedophilia. It may come as a surprise that although the attraction to pre-pubescent children has not been “accepted” since the civilizations of Ancient Rome and Greece, laws specifically against child sexual abuse were not put in place until 1973 (Ross, 2020). It was then when the US government decided to recognize child sexual abuse as a form of child maltreatment (About CAPTA: A Legislative History – Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2018). This was especially important because before this, these kinds of relationships were merely frowned-upon, but nothing could really be done about them. In 1952, the American Psychological Association classified pedophilia simply as a “sexual deviation” in the first edition of the DSM (a manual used for the assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders). The interesting part of its initial appearance in the DSM is that there were no diagnostic criteria that came with it, so it was merely placed in the manual to show others that this kind of “sexual deviation” existed (Tenbergen et al., 2015). It wasn’t until both society and psychology began to realize the dangers of these sexual attractions that made pedophilia to be viewed in the same sentiment that it is today. This evolution was seen with pedophilia being referred to as a paraphilia in DSM III and IV, and then as a paraphilic disorder in the DSM V. Essentially, pedophilia, like other paraphilic disorders, came to be classified as a sexual deviation, but one that has the potential to cause great harm to others.
As for the flipside on the history of pedophilia, a polarizing example would be the turbulent past of homosexuality in the United States. Homosexuality made its debut alongside pedophilia in the first DSM as a “sexual deviation.” However, in a controversial move at that time, the American Psychological Association decided to remove the diagnosis of homosexuality from the DSM II and all subsequent editions (Drescher, 2015). It became a battle on two fronts, both in the realm of science and in society. The disagreement within popular culture was most often between more open-minded people and those who believed that homosexuality was a sin, stemming from their personal religious beliefs or otherwise. Within the scientific community, the argument was a little more transparent in the sense that some believed that it was normal, while others stuck to the hardlined definition of a sexual deviation. What does it mean to truly deviate sexually? Does that entail merely deviating from “normal” sexual tendencies or is it more complex than that? This was a monumental discussion because it struck at the heart of what psychology is trying to accomplish. Is everything that deviates from what is deemed as “normal” considered a disease? The answer that the majority of experts came to was no, and moving forward, they took prior historical controversies into account when creating future editions of the DSM. Thus, the ceasing of treatment for homosexuality as a medical disorder served as an example of the APA’s new focus, one centered on mental conditions that may cause harm to oneself or peers or inhibit the ability to function in one’s daily life.
Understanding that science and society have been and will continue to be intertwined is an important step in understanding certain points of views on topics such as mental illness. It is also crucial to not be ignorant to the past, as this leads to the same repeated mistakes of our predecessors. Human behavior will continue to evolve and change and we must not look to label things that are different as “illnesses” because that only serves to divert attention away from people who are actually dealing with such mental conditions.
Ross, J. (2020, May 23). Pedophilia in Ancient Greece and Rome | TheCollector. TheCollector. https://www.thecollector.com/pedophilia-ancient-greece-rome/
About CAPTA: A Legislative History – Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2018). Childwelfare.gov. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/about/
Tenbergen, G., Wittfoth, M., Frieling, H., Ponseti, J., Walter, M., Walter, H., Beier, K. M., Schiffer, B., & Kruger, T. H. C. (2015). The Neurobiology and Psychology of Pedophilia: Recent Advances and Challenges. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00344
Drescher, J. (2015). Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality. Behavioral Sciences, 5(4), 565–575. https://doi.org/10.3390/bs5040565