A new Alabama law requires that felons convicted of having sex with children and now getting out on parole (a shrinking group to start with) take drugs that will chemically castrate them. If they refuse, or start and then stop, they can be sent back to prison—even if they have absolutely no sexual interest in children.
The argument favoring this is that by reducing the libido and possible predatory behavior of parolees, it will protect children.
I was invited onto CNN’s sister network HLN to discuss what science says about this. To summarize:
~ Convicted sex offenders have a lower recidivism rate than other serious criminals;
~ Over 90% of sexually abused children know their perpetrator;
~ A significant number of adults who sexually exploit children are NOT pedophiles; their offense is not driven by lust, but by issues such as power, mental health issues, family dynamics, etc.. Chemical castration won’t affect those adults’ impulses much.
Although I had been invited on as an expert, and promised that the segment would not be confrontational or adversarial, the TV host attacked me almost immediately. She used inflammatory language like “child rapist,” questioned my facts, and indicated that every instance of adult-child sex was a “life-long prison sentence for the child,” and therefore science had little bearing on creating a truly effective public policy response.
I asked if the bill was really about public safety, or if it were just punitive? Or symbolic? It seems that every public policy involving sex offenders is an irresponsible blend of punishment and symbolism. Rehabilitation and public safety clearly take a back seat to anger and fear.
The Alabama law was crafted without input from doctors, psychologists, or researchers. Other than politicians, who was involved? Victim advocates. Yes, as is so often the case when the justice system meets sexuality, it’s the victims—real or otherwise—who get a voice, not experts or anyone ready to challenge the dominant narrative.
~ Laws attempting to regulate pornography—supposed “victims” get a voice (“my husband left me for porn”), but not consumers;
~ School sex education is continually blocked by those irrationally fearing its results, regardless of data that is actually quite reassuring.
~ And back in 1930, a national program of censorship was established to challenge “immorality” in the new medium of motion pictures
In such cases, fear gets a louder voice than science, common sense, or beliefs that normalize sexuality.
And in Alabama, the further back in time the legislature goes, the better people seem to like it. One of the states that forced prison inmates onto chain gangs 150 years ago, Alabama only phased them out in the 1950s—and was then the first state to revive them, in 1995.
So castration—what could be a better blend of punishment and alleged protection? Rather than using a rusty kitchen knife, today’s “modern” state uses drugs like leuprolide. Unfortunately for those forced to take them, they have serious side effects—like depression, anemia, and osteoporosis. The side effects alone might motivate people to stop taking the drug. Then what do they do, even if they have no desire for kids? They must go back to jail.
The TV host aggressively demanded to know my alternative to chemically castrating people who had already served their prison sentence, paid their debt to society, and were judged ready for parole.
“If you really want to protect children,” I said, “Let’s start with actual treatment efforts for offenders in jail, which should continue with rehabilitation when these guys are on parole. And then let’s make sure they have a decent job and place to live. The sex offender registries around the country are driving paroled sex offenders to homelessness, living under bridges, away from their families, destroying any possibility of participating in a normal community.”
In fact, if you wanted to promote re-offending, it would be hard to do better than the cruel (and pointless) sex offender registries so popular in America. Other civilized countries, who presumably care about their children as much as we do, manage to deal with child sexual exploitation without the lifetime sex offender registration that strips these convicts of as much humanity as possible.
Of course, this is the kind of law that politicians find almost impossible to vote against. But don’t just blame them—blame people who fall for the “soft on crime” bit practically every time an election campaign uses it. And so it turns out that at least seven other states have experimented with chemical castration.
Besides, many people are more interested in punishment than protection—in effect sacrificing children’s safety on the altar of rage and bloodlust. It’s similar to people who are against teen pregnancy, but refuse to support the sex education that will reduce it. People say they’re desperate to protect children—and then demonize paroled sex offenders to the point where they can’t rejoin adult society even if they’re completely healthy.
The Alabama law is not men wanting to punish women, as the overwhelming majority of jailed sex offenders are men. It’s people wanting to punish perversion—the better to self-righteously deny the polymorphous sexual perversity that lives in us all, and which terrifies too many of us.
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