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U.S. Sex Offense Policy: The Next “Surveiller et Punir”

U.S. Sex Offense Policy: The Next “Surveiller et Punir”

The legacy of the 40-year-long sex panic in the U.S. is
a vast regime of draconian penalties and “management”
of “sex offenders” – a category including anyone
from consensual teen lovers to armed rapists. Along
with long prison sentences, the sex offender registry,
and restrictions on residency, work, recreation, travel,
and family life, a crucial element of the regime is “sex
offender treatment.” Based on the notion that “sexual
offending” is a unique, incurable disorder, which must
be “contained” to protect the community, especially
children, from predation, such treatment is anything
but therapeutic. It is coercive, moralistic, often humiliating,
sometimes endless, and practiced in nonconfidential
collaboration with punitive authorities. In
many states a diagnosed “sexually violent predator”
may be detained indefinitely in a psychiatric facility
after completing a prison sentence.
Opponents of registries often promote treatment as
a humane and effective alternative. But not only is the
evidence of its effectiveness equivocal, “sex offender
treatment” should be understood in a Foucauldian
frame, as the criminalization of sexual deviance and
the medicalization of crime, deployed to repressive
ends from Salpêtrière to the Soviet gulags to gay “conversion
therapy,” exported globally from the U.S., especially
to Africa and Latin America. People who commit
sexual violence are indeed psychologically troubled.
What responses address sexual harm-doing while
upholding justice and nourishing diverse and free sexual
Keywords: U.S. sex law, criminalization,
Conflict of Interest and Disclosure Statement: None

Speakers: Judith Levine