By Andrew Extein, MSW is the Executive Director of The Center for Sexual Justice, a non-profit that advocates for fair legal treatment of sexually diverse populations and encourages community building among sexual minorities and families impacted by the criminal justice system, West Hollywood, California
“So, how are the pedophiles doing?”
As a group psychotherapist for convicted sex offenders on parole and probation who also operates a private practice for queer people, I am bombarded with comments and questions from friends and family:
“Aren’t you scared?”
“I could never do that.”
“What’s it like to talk to all those child molesters?”
At first I was surprised to hear some of my most educated, liberal friends ask questions that were, to me, biased and misinformed. I had assumed that, as queers and allies, my friends would have a greater sensitivity to the persecution sex offenders face in American society. I have since come to realize that queer folk are not more prone to find empathy for this population.
I often find myself feeling defensive, and almost guilty, in the line of such questioning. “So… why are you interested in them?” they ask, a look of distaste on their faces.
Here’s the thing: I don’t consider “them” my bizarre, special interest. All queer people are invested in the plight of sex offenders, whether they like it or not.
Deviance and the Dangers of Othering
Although I studied many subjects in college, my interest especially aligned with the radical thinking of my queer theories coursework. Queer theory obliterates the idea of good and bad sex and what should and should not be deemed deviant. As such, my courses covered gay history, the timeline of the gay rights movements, queer theory, and the burgeoning transgender studies, as well as genderqueers, kink, sexual fluidity, and asexuality.
But there was a strange silence in these class discussions as well. As my education continued, I began thinking about other people who transgressed cultural norms of sexuality, other people whose sexual desires had been labeled deviant — people who even queer theory courses weren’t talking about. There might be no group more maligned, marginalized, and disconcerting as modern-day America’s “sex offenders.”
In treatment, lawmaking, and cultural discourse, sex offenders are referred to as participating in deviant sexual behavior, having deviant sexual fantasies, and being inherently “deviant” themselves. From one angle, this is true; all sex offenders have deviated from the boundaries of one or more laws regarding sex or the body.
But sociologist Joel Best describes the problematic nature of how the term “deviance” is used in our culture. In his book Deviance, he emphasizes that “a deviant label was simply a sign that some groups with power had singled out some acts or conditions for disapproval.” The term means that, according to the rules of a powerful few, something is inherently wrong with you if you are not like everybody else. In other words, deviance becomes a viral social construct that serves as a moral imperative to dictate and intimidate people into behaving.
Queer theory has well documented how those in power have employed the terminology of deviance to oppress queers. In recent history, society has labeled gays, lesbians, and transgender folk as abnormal, problematic, and threatening. Gay men, for instance, threatened to lure, groom, and convert children into the homosexual lifestyle; they were not to be trusted or validated. At one point, they were considered mentally ill and criminal. Sex between consenting adult males was illegal and morally reprehensible and served to mandate a gay man to a mental hospital or jail cell. Gay men and trans people socially congregating in bars, such as at Stonewall, was a valid reason for police to raid, frisk, and arrest mass numbers of them.
This is an important part of history that needs to be retold, to serve as a reminder of what happens when authorities dictate the lives and behaviors of “deviant” populations. In fact, this history is still among us; trans, gay, and queer people are currently arrested and incarcerated at a rate disproportionate to the general population. In this infographic, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project outlines how trans and gender-nonconforming people are at a high risk of incarceration, police harassment, and violence. Despite the existence of these contemporary systems of inequality, I worry that in the era of gay marriage, pinkwashing, and assimilatory LGBT politics, we queers may be forgetting the dangers of othering.
Because there’s no use mincing words here: The same methods historically used by the government to imprison and pathologize homosexuality and gender variation are being used today to justify the extreme marginalization, lifetime institutionalization, and oppression of people who have violated sex laws.
Sex offenders are the new queers.
Who Sex Offenders Are and What We Are Doing to Them
There is a widespread assumption that all sex offenders are child molesters, pedophiles, and violent rapists. This is not true. A large spectrum of acts are considered sex offenses. These include public nudity, urinating in public, public masturbation, peeping, photographing or videotaping without consent, consensual sex with a 17-year-old, sexting, and downloading unlawful pornography; many of these acts will put the offender on the public registry. There is no single “type” of sex offender; they can be from any walk of life, and any race, class, gender, or sexuality. They are fathers, mothers, brothers, teachers, and friends.
Let me be clear: I am not advocating for the legitimization of these acts as appropriate. A forceful, coercive, violent sexual assault is not to be tolerated. But I am saying that the public perception of the sex offender, and of the laws violated to become a sex offender, is inaccurate.
It is also important to explain the ramifications of this label. In California, many sex offenders must be publicly profiled for life on the online registry created as a result of Megan’s Law in 2004. In 2006, Jessica’s Law increased the penalties for sex offenders, created a residency restriction of 2,000 feet from parks and schools, and mandated GPS tracking for felony offenders. Chelsea’s Law further tightened the restrictions and increased monitoring.
The Supreme Court recently upheld a law that allows for the indefinite civil commitment of those sex offenders deemed unfit to reenter society. This means that they are placed in a forensic mental hospital for the rest of their lives, or until it is decided that they have been appropriately rehabilitated. Very few of these people have been released from civil commitment.
As a treatment provider for sex offenders, I have seen the effects of these punishments firsthand. One of the main issues faced is homelessness. According to the California Sex Offender Management Board, the number of homeless registrants rose from 88 to 6,012 in the five years after Jessica’s Law was enacted. It is almost impossible to find steady work as a felon, and especially difficult if you are listed on the public registry, photo and all. The sex offenders that I see have been socially ostracized, often by family and friends, and suffer from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. GPS units, parole visits, and yearly registration serve as constant reminders of their crimes, their victims, and their newfound labels as deviants with no hope of recovery.
However, it is a misconception that the majority of sex offenders reoffend, as the actual number is around 2 to 5 percent for recidivism from a sex crime. A 2008 study by the California Sex Offender Management Board reports 3.38 percent of sex offenders released in 1997 and 1998 were convicted of a new sex offense in the decade after release. A far larger number reenter the prison system as a result of parole violations, an understandable sum considering the severity and rigidity of parole terms.
The sex offender treatment models currently in use are mostly based in cognitive behavioral therapy, helping offenders reevaluate their thoughts and beliefs and make healthier decisions to reduce risk of reoffense. Despite this good-natured approach, these treatment models still speak of sexual deviance. One manual recommends ammonia aversion therapy, in which the offender repeatedly inhales ammonia while reciting his most “deviant” sexual fantasies. The intended goal — to rid the offender of whatever sexual desire is deemed unhealthy or deviant by the treatment provider — echoes gay conversion therapy methods. If queer theory allows for one’s right to a diversity of sexual desire, shouldn’t we question the “reprogramming” of an offender’s sexual feelings?
The main problem with the ammonia aversion therapy is that it presupposes that the sexual feelings motivate and explain the crime. It assumes that if you rid the sexual desire, then you rid the possibility of criminal sexual activity; sexual feelings are understood as uncontrollable dictators of sexual activity. If a man has sexual feelings for children, it is assumed that he is at a high risk of nonconsensual contact with a child. As such, sex offender treatment emphasizes sexual desire as a motivator for a sex crime over other factors, such as low impulse control, a history of trauma, lack of social support, and emotional instability. “Deviant” sexual desire is thereby equated with criminal sexual activity. This is a dangerous stance, as it heightens paranoia and fear in our culture’s understanding of all abnormal sexual feeling, thought, fantasy, belief, or identity.
Why Queers Should Care
Any queer person should feel a pang of familiarity reading about the vilification of people based on sexual desire. At one point, the idea of the predatory, untamable homosexual was a widely held belief; the very fact that a man would think of desiring another man was reason enough to criminalize his existence. Whether growing up in the early 20th century or the early 21st century, a cultural condemnation of queer desire, affect, and identity is consistently reaffirmed.
While mainstream cultural perception of queer people is shifting, it affirms monogamous sex between married, consenting gay and lesbian adults. Gender variation and other forms of sexual desire and behavior, including heterosexual female desire outside of monogamy, still face condemnation. If queerness is teetering on the edge of what culture says is deviant, othered, or wrong, an alliance across marginalized communities is vital for acquisition and maintenance of civil liberties for all.
I need to emphasize that many sex offenders are queer themselves. Many gay men, lesbians, and trans women are labeled sex offenders as a result of survival sex, prostitution, cruising, and public sex. Many queer people don’t realize the legal risks associated with a number of cultural behaviors that have become somewhat normalized, such as public cruising.
A recent example of criminalizing queer relationships is the case of Kaitlyn Hunt. Kaitlyn is a now-18-year-old girl who is being charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child resulting from an allegedly consensual relationship with her 15-year-old girlfriend. The Internet has seen a groundswell of support for Kaitlyn, finding her persecution homophobic, unfair, and misguided. This reaction is certainly warranted and points to a larger issue with age-of-consent legislation. This type of legal action takes place all the time, in all types of communities, resulting in new sex offenders to label, monitor, and vilify. The case of Kaitlyn Hunt should open our eyes to the ways in which sex laws are abused in our country — not just for queers but for everyone.
The people we have labeled sex offenders are a multifarious group, with a wide spectrum of sexual desires. Empathy is needed for the group as a whole to ensure that they do not continue to be the cultural pariahs that we queers, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender folk once were, and arguably still are. If we allow for the continuation of inhumane imprisonment based on what dominant culture and the government deem “bad sex,” we put ourselves at risk of further condemnation.
Clearly this is a tricky, complex, and imperfect dialogue to be holding. But I fear that if we queers do not engage in conversations about moral gray areas and uncomfortable topics, we put ourselves at risk and lose the fervor, innovation, and critical thinking that once defined queerness.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post