Some people distinguish between pedophilia -- the attraction to and/or behavior with prepubescent children, and ephebophilia -- which involves post-pubescent but underaged actors. Personally, I'm of the mind that both activities are wrong for the same reason: They harm, or have the potential to greatly harm, the underaged actor involved. And that the younger the actor, the wronger it gets (and vice versa) and that our laws and social mores should reflect this.
On a related note, check out this interesting article by John Derbyshire, no social liberal, which contradicts the current moral sentiment of the National Review and Weekly Standard crowd in which Derb hangs. He seems to argue that ephebophilia (unlike pedophilia) is deeply rooted in human nature, that it is as natural and normal as natural and normal can be for adults to lust after post pubescent but underaged teens.
When a woman gets past her mid twenties, in fact, her probability of being raped drops off like a continental shelf. If you histogram the figures, you get a peak around ages 12-14… which is precisely the age Lolita was at the time of her affair with Humbert Humbert. As Razib noted, my own “15-20” estimate was slightly off. An upper limit of 24 would be more reasonable. The lower limit really doesn’t bear thinking about. (I have a 13-year-old daughter.)
Behind such sad numbers, and in the works of literary geniuses like Vladimir Nabokov, does the reality of human nature lie. It is all too much for our prim, sissified, feminized, swooning, emoting, mealy mouthed, litigation-whipped, “diversity”-terrorized, race-and-“gender”-panicked society. We shudder and turn away, or write an angry email. The America of 1958, with all its shortcomings, was saltier, wiser, closer to the flesh and the bone and the wet earth, less fearful of itself. (It was also, according to at least one scholarly study, happier.)
One of the first media sensations ever to impinge upon my consciousness was the visit to Britain by rock star Jerry Lee Lewis in May 1958, four months before Lolita’s American debut. This was supposed to be a concert tour, but 22-year-old Jerry had brought his wife Myra along, and the British press got wind of the fact that Myra was only 13. This wasn’t an unusual thing in the south of that time; Jerry himself had first been wed at 15 (when he already had a drinking problem). Myra was his third wife, and also his second cousin once removed. Back then country people grew up fast and close to their kin. Neither Jerry nor Myra could understand what the fuss was about. He: “I plumb married the girl, didn’t I?” She: “Back home you can marry at 10, if you can find a husband.” (This was not true, even in the south, though Myra likely believed it. She also, according to the British press, believed in Santa Claus.) It didn’t help that Jerry’s new record was titled High School Confidential.
How long ago it seems! Nowadays our kids are financially dependent on us into their mid-twenties, and can’t afford to leave home till they are 35. Marriage at 13? Good grief! And so, while Lolita met with a fair share of disapproval in 1958, and was denounced from many pulpits, I believe its reception would have been much more hostile if it appeared now.
On the issues of history and morality. My own understanding of the facts are (and please correct me if I am wrong), throughout most cultures including the West, and up until recently, no distinction was made between ephebophilia and pedophilia. Cultures followed the line nature draws between adult and child, which is puberty. After puberty, you are an adult ready for sex (provided it takes place within whatever social arrangements the society deems necessary for sex to occur, i.e., a marriage). The Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs clearly remind us of this.
Yet, in our evolutionary state and for most of recorded history, people tended to die much younger and enter their vocational life much earlier. Back then, you really could be a young adult in your early teens and middle aged by your twenties.
Now people are living longer and longer; we don't graduate high school until we are 18 and most of us don't really start our adult lives, with all of its inherent responsibilities, until we are in our twenties.
Those are the historical facts; now onto the moral issues. Some argue that there are absolute transcendent moral facts, applicable to all times, everywhere (morality doesn't evolve). Others argue that morality is entirely determined by history (morality evolves). And there are variations in between. To crudely characterize these moral views in political terms, the transcendent moral order theory is more associated with social conservatism; morality is historically determined, more with social liberalism. Although, the reverse can be true; there are social conservatives who do believe that morality is entirely historically determined and thus evolves (many are Burkean traditionalists who want it to evolve as slowly as possible). And there are social liberals who believe their morality -- gay rights, equal treatment of women, etc. -- is objectively true, and applicable to all times, everywhere. (I know leftist who make the theoretical case for this are probably rare; but certainly many social liberals act as though their morality is part of a transcendent moral order. And they love to judge past illiberal Western times by these present day moral standards.)
Social conservatives who believe in a transcendent moral order may complain that present conventional morality, especially sexual morality, seems to be evolving in the socially liberal direction and these changes have been, by in large, malign. Indeed, previously things like fornication, missing the Sabbath, homosexuality, contraception, miscegenation all violated conventional morality, (which was supposed to be based on transcendent moral truths); but now they don't.
What's interesting about ephebophilia is that, even though generally sexual morality, over the past 50 years or so (especially since the sexual revolution) has evolved in a more socially liberal direction, with ephebophlia, sexual morality is evolving in a more socially conservative direction.
Again, correct me if I am wrong, but there is a marked upward drift in age of consent laws, which demonstrates that having consensual sex with underaged but post-pubescent teens is becoming less acceptable in our present, post-60s modern times. Anti-ephebophilia is truly novel and hence a "chic" notion.
And I personally support this change. As mentioned in the facts above, we are in a historically unique period of time where people are living and we are delaying childhood for much longer periods. Plus, recent studies I think have confirmed that brains continue to mature well after teen years and on into early twenties such that an adolescent seems to be a strange product of nature: fully biologically adult and yet still mentally and emotionally "kids."
As I've mentioned before, even though I don't approve of adults having sex with anyone under 18, I find it quite disturbing, Orwellian even, that we would call a consensual sex act between an adult and a post-pubescent mid or late teen "child rape" (which term connotes horrible evil). In a factual sense, this is not child rape; regardless of what "statutory rape" laws say, you cannot enact 2+2 = 5 into law. If we rather called adult/underaged teen sex, "improper sexual conduct with a minor," I think we would more soberly react to the crimes, and not become hysterical about it when we think it may be occuring.