The NY Times has a story on debates raging in Europe over whether is ethical and/or smart to castrate sex offenders as a form of punishment or rehabilitation.
Whether castration can help rehabilitate violent sex offenders has come under new scrutiny after the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee last month called surgical castration “invasive, irreversible and mutilating” and demanded that the Czech Republic stop offering the procedure to violent sex offenders. Other critics said that castration threatened to lead society down a dangerous road toward eugenics.
The Czech Republic has allowed at least 94 prisoners over the past decade to be surgically castrated. It is the only country in Europe that uses the procedure for sex offenders. Czech psychiatrists supervising the treatment — a one-hour operation that involves removal of the tissue that produces testosterone — insist that it is the most foolproof way to tame sexual urges in dangerous predators suffering from extreme sexual disorders.
[. . .]
Now, more countries in Europe are considering requiring or allowing chemical castration for violent sex offenders. There is intense debate over whose rights take precedence: those of sex offenders, who could be subjected to a punishment that many consider cruel, or those of society, which expects protection from sexual predators.
Poland is expected to become the first nation of the European Union to give judges the right to impose chemical castration on at least some convicted pedophiles, using hormonal drugs to curb sexual appetite; the impetus for the change was the arrest of a 45-year-old man in September who had fathered two children by his young daughter. Spain, after a convicted pedophile killed a child, is considering plans to offer chemical castration.
Last year, the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, signed legislation requiring courts to order chemical castration for offenders convicted of certain sex crimes a second time.
The way that this article sets up the debate is between two sides. The first side says that castration, whether chemical or surgical, will reduce sexual offenses — and anyway, sexual offenders don’t have any rights. The second side says that castration is a violation of sex offenders rights, including the right to reproduce, and that even those offenders who “choose” castration aren’t really doing so of free will.
While on a theoretical level, the human rights of even the worst criminals mean something to me, on an emotional level, I will admit to saying “their sexual rights? Boo-fucking-hoo.”
Yet, I still think that castration as a form of punishment and/or rehabilitation for sex offender is a really bad idea. And though I hardly think that the rights-related arguments are wholly invalid, the argument that I’m about to make against castration has absolutely nothing to do with the rights of rapists.
Castrating rapists and other sex offenders may indeed prevent many of them from reoffending. The numbers provided in the NY Times are admitted to be faulty, seeing as how they rely on self-reporting by the sex offenders. So I don’t know, and neither apparently does anyone else. But the idea that it would stop the castrated rapists from raping again, as a general rule? I can believe that.
But it won’t stop rape. Not even close. And in the process of stopping a few rapes while failing to stop the vast majority of them, a false sense of what rape is about is heavily stitched onto the public’s consciousness.
One does not need to produce testosterone and/or achieve an erection in order to commit rape. Though it’s far less common, women commit rape against both men and other women. And rape can be and regularly is committed by men using fingers. Rape can be and is committed using objects. And as the NY Times article only briefly notes, castrated rapists have been known to rape again.
Rape, just like sex, is not all penises in vaginas.
And rape, unlike sex, is almost always about power and not about mere sexual desire and release.
Some of the offenders profiled in the article may be the exception to the rule, in that they have serious mental disorders that cause them to seek out only non-consensual sexual contact, and to do so compulsively. In these cases, though, the culprit again is not sex. This time it’s mental illness.
And to conflate the small number of sexual offenders who rape because they are severely mentally ill with the much larger number of sexual offenders — who are never arrested, let alone convicted, and who rape due to misogyny, entitlement and a desire for power — is incredibly dangerous. It reinforces the “well he doesn’t act like a rapist, so he must not have done it” myth. And it reinforces myths about just how violent a rape must be in order for it to really be rape.
To conflate rape with testosterone production is even more dangerous. It portrays rape as an inherent part of being a man, and an urge which they must control by their nature. It says that rape is a crime that we cannot stop without also stopping both heterosexual sex and what many (falsely) perceive to be what makes a man really a man. This is false, and giving far too easy of a pass to rapists. And importantly, it presents rape prevention as necessarily entailing something that far too many people are (rightfully) unwilling to do. It presents rape prevention as man-hating, impossible, and therefore unworth our time.
The rapes that governments are trying to prevent using castration could just as easily be prevented, without the problems regarding the violation of rights and the reinforcement of rape myths, by putting these offenders in prison (or high security mental health facilities, as the case may be). If they’re dangerous enough to “require” castration, they’re dangerous enough to require incarceration, in my opinion. And if there’s reason to believe that the offender may rape his fellow inmates, then he needs to be kept separately from them.
And we could prevent far more rapes, the majority which are not committed by crazed strangers to their victims, by employing anti-sexual violence education methods that have been proven to work, by changing public perceptions regarding sex and consent, and improving the place and rights of both women and children (the most common victims) in the world.
That there seems to be no hint of these kinds of initiatives to go along with the proposed or enforced castration programs is extremely telling. It says that the point here isn’t likely to really do the hard work of changing patriarchal rape culture, but to merely act “tough on crime.” And that’s not going to get us anywhere near where we want to be.