Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Louis Theroux and 'A Place for Paedophiles'

I caught last night's Louis Theroux doco (or as much as I could, around children who refused to go to bed), and found it really though-provoking. 'A Place for Paedophiles' documented Theroux's visit to Coalinga Mental Hospital in California, a place where about 500 sex offenders are incarcerated. Most have already served prison sentences, but continue to be held at Coalinga (a fortified, secure unit) because they're deemed too dangerous to release.

A treatment programme is made available to Coalinga inmates, but only 30% of them have opted to take part - perhaps because over the hospital's history, only 13 graduates of the programme have been deemed able to be safely released. The majority of the inmates will be there for their whole lives.

I don't have any philosophical objection to preventative detention, if there is no other way to keep the public safe, and if the conditions the detainee is held in are humane. But the thing about the documentary that set me pondering was the way the hospital treated the sex offenders, not by teaching them to resist and deal with their sexual attraction to children, but by trying to train this attraction out of them altogether (with varying amounts of success).

For a start, I wondered if it's actually possible to force yourself to no longer be attracted to something. That's not my experience of sexuality - but then, I don't have illegal sexual desires. Secondly, I didn't understand why therapy didn't focus on equipping offenders to choose not to offend, rather than getting rid of the urge to offend. This implies that the powers that be think of paedophilic urges as a sort of illness that can't be controlled; and if that's the case, paedophilia can't really be considered a crime. People with acceptable sexual urges are deemed to be able to control their behaviour, and are usually expected to do so (although the 'boys will be boys' defence for rape still occurs far more often than it should).

Deep philosophical questions about human sexuality aside, the thing that really struck me about this doco was the inmate who was given the OK to be released into the community. So strong was his commitment not to reoffend that he'd had himself surgically castrated. His social worker had made over 1000 applications to find him a home in the community: no one would have him. I had a great deal of pity for him - but I'm not sure I'd be willing to risk having him as my neighbour, either.


Anonymous said...

I thought the test they did on the sex offenders was the strangest thing I've ever heard of. I didn't understand how it was supposed to work. If they showed images of "acceptable" sexual practices were the offenders supposed to show arousal? Or were they supposed to show no arousal the entire time. Honestly, so weird.

Anna said...

I thought the same, Anon - the arousal tests were bizarre and kind of degrading. The whole idea of trying to force someone to be 'sexually normal' seemed strange to me. I would have thought a person's attractions - whether they like adult women, have shoe fetishes, or whatever - mattered less than their ability to control their sexual behaviour.

Anonymous said...

Re: "I don't have any philosophical objection to preventative detention, if there is no other way to keep the public safe, and if the conditions the detainee is held in are humane."
I suppose there can be many safeguards and caveats hidden in "if there is no other way to keep the public safe", but even given that, I have a lot of philosophical objections to preventive detention. One being, what we need to keep the public "safe" from is always (read: always) culturally determined and so always suspect. Even, I would argue, re sex offenders and pedophiles.

Anonymous said...

Exactly Anna. I found it interesting that they called paedophilia a 'sexual preference' but then sought to change that 'preference' through behavioural therapy.

That seemed a bit 'slipperly-slope' to me.

Anna said...

That's a really interesting point, Anon - can you elaborate? I don't necessarily believe that paedophiles are an example of a group that preventative detention is needed for, simply because I don't know how likely paedophiles are to reoffend, or how successful 'treatments' are. (If the treatments on the Theroux doco are anything to go by, they could be pretty dubious).

A really important point this doco made (kind of in passing) is that the public safety argument for detaining paedophiles tend to gets mixed up with the distaste most people have for their crimes. Distaste obviously isn't a good enough reason to detain someone indefinitely - but I think it is can be really hard to separate the emotive from the factual around this issue.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree Anna. My point was pretty much that if paedophilia is a sexual preference like being gay or straight (which is what it seemed like they were saying on the doco) then it's not morally right to try to 'change' that sexual preference.

I'm trying really hard to put this in a way that isn't offensive - and makes sense. So sorry if I'm not making sense.

I just mean that I would be horrified and appalled if people said that someone could be 'treated' to change their sexual preference. I mean the slippery-slope I was meaning is that I'm disgusted when fundamentalists say homosexuals can be retrained to be straight.

If we say that paedophilia is a sexual preference and that preference can be changed through behavioural therapy - well that's dangerous.

Because it might imply that homosexuality or heterosexuality could also be changed (to something more 'normal' to certain parts of society) through behavioural therapy. Or God forbid drugs.

As a disclaimer I don't think you can change at all your sexuality. And I don't think sexual preference is a choice.

Ok I'm not sure that made any sense. I hope it did. I find the whole subject so confusing.

Anonymous said...

Oh I see you were referring to the other anon. Sorry.

Anna said...

No need to apologise, second Anon - that was really interesting. I've been trying to make the same point, without being offensive. To say that sexual orientation can't be changed isn't to say that all sexual behaviour is acceptable - a straw man argument that you occasionally get from some groups of Christians. There is one good reason why trying to change your sexuality might be a good idea - to have strong sexual urges that you could never act on might be distressing for a person.

Society can very rightful expect all of us to control our behaviour, especially those people who are afflicted with the desire to engage in sexual acts that are illegal and harmful. Therapy to help a person control their behaviour could potentially be really useful. But as for trying to change someone's urges ... is it a wee bit 'Clockwork Orange'?

Anonymous said...

I found the facility fairly bizarre - the massive size of it, as well as the odd tests. Particularly as there seemed a great deal of removal of the (councillors? facilitators?) from the everyday lives of the men in the facility - the man who said he knew his patient quite well because they had monthly meetings; and was it the same man who had never noticed that the pictures of adolescent-looking boys in stylised suggested poses in the drawing on his wall before Louis Theroux pointed it out?

And then we come to NZ, where we have a sex offender placed in a home near a school, even though it seems that he is considered at high risk of reoffending, simply because he has done his time, is legally able to be released (which is fine and not the point I'm making; especially as I imagine, hopefully wrongly, that there are few programmes in prison to assist sex offenders). It seems in both the release and place of residence, there is little the justice dept and police can do.

Which is the better option? Incarceration away from the community in a weird place, or release into a community despite a risk of reoffending?

Anna S said...

I'm not sure that pedophilia is a 'preference' in the same way that heterosexuality or homosexuality are preferences.

In most cases the perpetrators are victims of sexual abuse as children themselves, and to my way of thinking this has damaged them, and prevented a healthy sexuality developing.

By healthy I mean the desire to engage in consensual sex, and not sex that involves abuse.