Risky Bodies and Dangerous Desire [1]

Part one of two posts (second post here) related to my recently published paper on sex offenders and lie detection.

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We recently had the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, mathematician, cryptanalyst, and pioneer of computer science, who was responsible for significant developments in academic spheres but is perhaps best known for his secret work at Bletchley Park. As a gay man living during a period in which homosexuality was a criminal behaviour he lived two secret lives, until he was outed and criminally prosecuted in 1952 for being gay. Forced with a choice between imprisonment and probation, Turing chose probation, the caveat being that he had to undergo chemical castration. The procedure involved injections of the female hormone, oestrogen, leading him to develop breasts and causing Turing’s depression, which ultimately led to his committing suicide using cyanide in 1954, at the age of 42. Much has been written about Turing’s prolific and creative mind, but far less about his criminal body. Recent calls at the University of Manchester and a widely-signed petition have failed to secure an official pardon. The Justice Minister, Lord McNally, commented that Turing, “Was convicted of a crime that now seems barbaric and cruel,” (BBC News 06.02.12) but that it was, nonetheless, a crime at the time. That Turing’s death might have been prevented if we had been more enlightened regarding sexual difference is lamentable, tragic and must certainly serve to remind us of the debt that we must ceaselessly try to repay in establishing universal equality of sexual freedom.

Earlier in the year, news of the results of a round of chemical castrations has been quite different in tone to our mournful celebration of Turing’s centenarian anniversary, different because it wasn’t gay men this time, but paedophiles that were being treated. A pilot experiment conducted at HMP Whatton by Don Grubin, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Newcastle University, used anti-androgens as a drug to suppress testosterone production in hopes of reducing sexual desire. Importantly, not all the inmates were treated with these drugs; others took selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are used to treat depression. Also important to note is that the programme was voluntary, and that inmates could – ostensibly – stop taking the drugs at any time they wished.

What motivated the study was the contemporary logic as regards sex offender management: that they are dangerously risky because their desires are fundamentally deviant. The drug treatments therefore, were principally used as a mechanism for reducing desire. As Grubin is quoted in the Huffington Post UK: “The former [anti-androgens] can remove all sexual desire, but in some cases men can still maintain sexual relationships; the latter [SSRIs] reduce the intensity of fantasies and urges, but do not remove sexual drive. In both cases psychological treatment should be provided alongside the medication.”

Thus sex offenders have become caught somewhere between the law and medicine, somewhere between criminal and sick. They are the modern monster. In an interview with BBC News, Grubin is quoted as saying, “You are not giving these drugs to make them safe – you are giving them to lower the risk.” Indeed, because sex offenders are understood to be fundamentally deviant, and abnormal, to be inescapably monstrous, the medical profession have given up hope of a ‘cure’ for paedophilia, and instead understands these offenders in the context of risk management.

Chemical castration and medication are not the only ways that we have found to code, manage and measure the risk of sexual offender’s bodies and desires. Since around the 1980s, the infamous lie detection device, the polygraph machine, has been used in the USA to monitor offenders’ behaviour in post-conviction probation programmes. Checking up on them periodically to ask questions about whether they’ve breached the terms of their probation (Have you have any contact with…?) forms a temporal mode of surveillance, in which the polygraph exam is understood to increase the fear of future discovery. In this respect, we imagine that sex offenders make rational decisions weighing up the costs and benefits of criminal activity in the moment of deviant decision-making.

More confusingly still, the device is being used as part of their therapy, such that the polygraph machine isn’t only for surveillance but for treatment. It becomes part of the ‘containment approach’ to sex offending, in which we have to manage the offender’s risk by knowing as much as possible about his various desires and sexual proclivities. In a sexual history examination the polygraph is used to assess the offender’s habits and fantasies, so that we get information about what he likes to masturbate to, how often, what he thinks about, whether he’s into transvestism, using tools and implements in sex, and a range of other details. All of this is collected to determine his risk in an actuarial manner, coding him with a specific figure and categorising him within various risk levels.

These uses of the polygraph are sometimes supplemented with the penile plethysmograph, a device that measures the tumescence of the penis by use of a rubber ring or a volumetric chamber during exposure to various pornographic (both consensual and non-consensual, adult and under-age) materials. The changes in his penis during this exposure are used as a proxy for his desire and thus feed into determining his riskiness. These examinations, like those of the polygraph, ultimately serve to reinforce the notion that the sex offender is fundamentally different, by showing how his body responds differently and by exploring the fine detail of his sexual imagination.

This isn’t the first time such devices of lie detection and bodily arousal have been used to police sexuality. It should be no surprise that during McCarthyism homosexuals were victimised as being particularly vulnerable to blackmail and as such had to be outed and fired from government. This became known as the ‘Lavender Scare’, the homosexual hue of the communist ‘Red Scare’. Outing homosexuals involved uncovering deception, determined by the body’s responses during interviews with CIA operatives and the ominously titled Miscellaneous ‘M’ Group. In this period it was gay men and women that were the sexual danger, the monster of the times against which sexual normality was defined.

Alan Turing was only one victim of practices targeted at gay people; his suicide just one of the more visible of what must have been a great number of tragedies. As laws changed and homosexuality was de-criminalised, the medical definition of gay people as being sick was similarly removed from the diagnostic manuals and the emphasis of the abnormal category of sexuality shifted towards paedophilia. The various panics around homosexuality and the array of techniques we had developed to police it went along with the shift in target.

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In the next part coming next week I’ll discuss the relationship between these developments and the constitution of childhood. I’ll also briefly explain an alternative approach that has been trialled with sex offenders.

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One thought on “Risky Bodies and Dangerous Desire [1]

  1. Hi Andy!

    This post made me think of a study I recently read of that you might be aware of already – that is, a piece on female arousal. The piece described the use of a machine that measured female desire by monitoring vaginal engorgement and lubrication, whilst viewing a series of pornographic images.

    What was interesting about the piece is that women respond to an array of sexual images – so long as the images are sexual in nature. I.e. They responded to lesbian, gay, straight and even animal sexual images, despite the fact that all the women tested were straight.

    Men who identified as straight on the other hand, responded in line with predictions – to straight and lesbian sex, for the most part.

    This is interesting don’t you think? I wonder – as contraversial as it might be – what would happen if either party was shown ‘deviant’ sexual material?

    Also, I wonder if this has anything to do with mirror nuerons? I read yesterday that there’s an idea that women possess the capacity to empathise more. Blanket, reductive sciene by an english grad yes I am aware! X

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