Risky Bodies and Dangerous Desire [II]

This is part two of some comments on sex offenders and lie detection (part one here). It is also a bit of a promo for my recently published paper on the topic, which you can download here.


We are in a period in which child sex offences cause moral panics and thus help further the measures we are willing to take in punishing and policing them. Laws are passed under the names of the victims to remind us of the cruel and brutal acts committed against children. The media drives up fear and anger because it sells print, and because they know we need an enemy. The paedophile is now the sexual terrorist – his actions undermine the structural organisation of Western society by explicitly challenging the notion of ‘childhood’. This notion is not simply natural consequence of our biology but an entangling of ‘social’ and ‘material’ phenomena. Amongst a number of other causes of the entrenchment of the notion of the innocent child, was the fact that once we had machines and automation in factories, on farms, etc., we no longer needed children to do hard labour.  The contemporaneous emergence of psychiatry also welcomed a whole host of ways in which adult sexuality was connected to childhood experience, and thus the fracture of innocence became connected to criminal and deviant behaviour in adulthood. This is not to say that our bodies do not change as we grow older or that our emotional ability to manage relationships both sexual and familial does not similarly develop. Instead, it is to point towards the cultural production of a relation between innocence, sex and criminality that underscores the construction of sex offenders as contemporary monsters and underpins media and moral panics.

A boy walks through a field back home from school in order to advertise a new tractor. Against this background, a number of Western strategies of governance in education, sexual health and criminal behaviour can be seen to be geared around securing healthy, happy, playful and above all innocent lives for our children. The corollary of this is the ‘adult’ – the sexually, intellectually, economically mature individual now capable of work, reproduction and decision-making. Challenging the norms of childhood and adulthood, paedophiles are thus not only coded as monstrous because of the acts in which they engage but because their symbolic function is to uphold the binary they seek to destroy. This helps explain our punitive obsession with them and with their bodies. The paedophile is at the far edge in terms of the lengths to which we go to monitor, manage and predict criminal behaviour, and unique in regards to the kinds of treatments and punishments we mete out.

Indeed, current responses to sex offenders are not entirely oriented towards their criminal and violent acts. They also evidence a fear about the offender’s desire itself. In treatment, we don’t just want them to change their behaviours; we want them to change their desires. Practices of role-play, lie detection and plethysmography are sometimes used (particularly in the USA at the moment) to help steer desires towards ‘normal’ objects, both in terms of being age appropriate (not simply above the age of consent, but rather of a ‘normal’ age for the male being treated), sexually conservative (the desires should be quite vanilla) and heteronormative (male-male desire is coded as increased risk).

Is the response to terrible acts of violence that we just accept that because of the crime any punishment, any treatment is justified? Is it a woolly (or worse, ‘suspect’) argument to claim that sex offenders have rights too and that punishing their acts is sensible but changing their desires is not? Trying to put philosophy and politics aside, a pragmatic approach alone tells us that this isn’t a sensible system. If we accept – as we should – that a great many sexual offenders have committed violent and abusive acts against children, and that these should be criminal acts, then we should think pragmatically about how to respond. Whatever notion of punishment or law we wish to adopt, we can probably all agree that we would like to see fewer instances of such abuse. The social isolation of offenders in post-probation settings (named and shamed in the community, on the register, by the media) results in a lifestyle that facilitates further offending. Training the offender’s desires to fit the norms of a sexually conservative society surely only serves to further stigmatise their non-criminal sexual behaviours and desires.

By avoiding offenders and ostracising them we don’t protect children from further suffering, we place them at continued risk, precisely because offenders have no social resources to draw upon in changing behaviours and avoiding risky situations. If the only people who will talk to them are other offenders, it isn’t hard to see how recidivism becomes connected to social factors. The conceptualisation of the offender as monstrous and incurable at the level of desire conflicts with the demands that they change these desires. Orienting treatment using these binaries and norms is an impediment to the development of non-criminal sexual behaviour.

The days of chemical castration aren’t behind us and nor is the use of the polygraph. The recent reports of the ‘success’ of the polygraph trials for use with sex offenders here in the UK are evidence that further measures are consolidating around the criminal act of paedophilia in such a way that it constitutes fundamentally deviant human monsters. Our obsession with the bodies of these offenders comes at the cost of understanding their social practices and, ultimately, at the cost of actually reducing the risk of future criminal acts. We have to stop seeing sex offenders as monstrous and stop panicking about their crimes in order to be more able to respond effectively to them.