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.

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.


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.


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.