“First, the notion that recidivism (repeat offending) is inevitable needs a second look. Recently sex crimes researcher Jill Levenson of Lynn University in Florida and her colleagues found that the average member of the general public believes that 75 percent of sex offenders will reoffend. This perception is consistent with media portrayals in such television programs as Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, in which sex offenders are almost always portrayed as chronic repeaters.
The evidence suggests otherwise. Sex crimes researchers R. Karl Hanson and Kelly E. Morton-Bourgon of Public Safety Canada conducted a large-scale meta-analysis (quantitative review) of recidivism rates among adult sex offenders. They found a rate of 14 percent over a period averaging five to six years. Recidivism rates increased over time, reaching 24 percent by 15 years. The figures are clearly out of alignment with the public’s more dire expectations.”
Prison abolitionists have a duty, an obligation, especially those of us on ‘the outside,’ to seek to unite all prisoners against a) appalling conditions in the prison-industrial complex and b) for the abolition of all places of incarceration. Requiring an ability to see all prisoners as political prisoners, the prison abolitionist is not in an easy place. Let’s be frank: some of the most vile people inhabit today’s prisons. Murderers, rapists, people who have kidnapped and tortured; I met Ian Stewart, a man who – it seems – ” drugged and suffocated his fiancée before dumping her body in a cesspit under the garage of their Hertfordshire home.” We played chess together. He bought me dark chocolates. The first person I met in prison, and actually talked to in the “reception” of HMP Bedford, was Hardeep Hunjan (“H”), “a dope smoking thug” who “has been found guilty of murdering his girlfriend’s toddler son by beating him to death after binge-drinking vodka and smoking cannabis.”
Recalling the lines on his face, the tattoos, I felt afraid of my environment but not of him. I started to talk. I asked questions. He, was also visibly anxious (he was just back from trial), smiled and opened up when I said he should write a book about his life. For sometime I thought he might be innocent, and he maintained his innocence even after the trial, when I last saw him in September 2016. I received a letter from my HMP Bedford cellmate saying he’d seriously beaten someone, but after receiving a life sentence at 27, I might beat someone too. I am still unconvinced of his guilt, yet even if he bashed a toddler against the wall, I am not sure he remembered it. Ian Stewart’s ever-changing public narrative also had another layer: he told me that he remembered none of it, he had a head trauma; not that any of this was reported as his defense. The Guardian reports, “He claimed – somewhat outlandishly – that Helen had been taken by two men known only as “Nick and Joe”, who had assaulted and threatened him, saying he would never see Bailey again if he spoke out. He said he had “never stopped loving Helen”, but all the evidence suggested that was very far from the truth.”
After feeling particularly threatened with the general population on a particularly violent wing (A-wing, HMP Bedford), a Senior Officer (SO) decided to move me to the Vulnerable Prisoners’ Section (F-wing). Transferring during a lock-down part of the day to C-wing (F-wing overfill), I was rushed into a cell with “a man from Romania” (SO’s words). “I can’t tell you his crime, but most people on this wing are in for sex offenses.” OK! I had been told that F-wing was for “pedos,” yet I only cared about the fact that it was rumored (and truly was) safer. The Romanian turned out to be Hungarian. Csongor Sandor, who I’ve written about before, would become my cellmate for some 40 odd days. Being in a tiny space with someone (imagine being locked in your bathroom), for extended periods – sometimes 50 hours without any other contact – you get to know someone. We occupied an “overfill” space on C-wing, meaning that we didn’t have as much contact or out-time with F-wing because transferring us required clearing the entire wing. Having a background in psychoanalysis, after several days Sandor opened up to me. I wrote, in piece arguing for a) the difference between pedophilia and child sexual abuse and b) a greater acceptance of pedophilia as a sexual orientation, about our time together:
“Bringing my own personal discomfort, at times anger and frustration, to the ‘sessions’ I had with my pedophile cell-mate, coupled with the fact I was in prison for something I didn’t do, and as a result of being sexually misused myself, provided both a distortion and clarity in our work together. Yet, I knew that to understand this unique individual, to understand what is so often hidden and demonized in Western society, I needed to remain non-judgemental and open. This is not to say I wasn’t confrontational. During a session in the first week I had him rethink whether or not, in retrospect, his desires should have precluded him from having children. ‘Tony that session, so painful, was like medicine that hurts terribly, but I think it’s working, you are right, I thought about it and I should have never had children.’ Eventually, throughout the forty days with him, we unraveled (some of) the complexities of existence; he had been protecting his girlfriend, who also abused their daughter; he refused to give information to the police that would bring a criminal case against her. I suggested: where does your responsibility lie? You are existentially responsible for your child, you are partly the reason she exists at all; you have no such connection to your girlfriend. After being transferred I received a letter from him, that because the work we had done, and after seeing that his girlfriend would never admit to the abuse in family court, he instructed his counsel to inform the court. The girlfriend was immediately banned from contact with the child, and the case progressed; last I heard she had only supervised visitation. While she may not be criminally prosecuted, an outcome that my cell-mate and I did not want (he became a prison abolitionist during this time), it is almost certain that she will not have parental rights over her child. By being open the experiences, feelings and bonding with a pedophile further damage against a child was prevented. Paradoxically demonizing pedophiles does nothing to end their desires, and often places them in such social isolation that they cannot seek help. ‘If I went to my GP (doctor) and asked for help preventing myself from acting on my desire, they would call the police, I would be prosecuted even for asking for help,’ he said to me. I realized that something needed to change. We both came to the conclusion that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, and desire cannot be changed, but as with any sexual orientation there are responsibilities. Non-consensual sex between adults are acts of severe violence, and there can be no consensual sexual relations between an adult and a 20-month old child.”
A murderer putting their fiancee’s body in a cesspit to die (perhaps still alive) with her dog, or bashing in the brains of toddler, when I speak of these cases I get little to no backlash. There is, among the prison abolitionist networks I have met, a kind of acceptance of this kind of violence as something that is contextual, etc. We all love nuance until it comes to Csongor Sandor. Pedophiles who act on their urges, becoming child sex abusers, must be castrated, tortured and killed. Prison abolitionists have even said I should be handed an indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection sentence (abolished by the Tory government in 2012) for even mentioning that child sexual abuse by pedophiles is a complex issue. Critically, this type of rhetoric unhelpfully obscures the work we must be doing, which is improving services for all prisoners inside, including appropriate mental health care, and acting to get them out of prison as soon as possible.
Firstly, not all child sexual abusers are pedophiles, The Los Angeles Times reports,
“The best estimates are that between 1% and 5% of men are pedophiles, meaning that they have a dominant attraction to prepubescent children.
Not all pedophiles molest children. Nor are all child molesters pedophiles. Studies show that about half of all molesters are not sexually attracted to their victims. They often have personality disorders or violent streaks, and their victims are typically family members.
By contrast, pedophiles tend to think of children as romantic partners and look beyond immediate relatives. They include chronic abusers familiar from the headlines — Catholic priests, coaches and generations of Boy Scout leaders.
Other pedophiles are “good people who are struggling,” said Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist who heads the Johns Hopkins Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit. “They’re tortured souls fighting like heck not to do this. We do virtually nothing in terms of reaching out to these folks. We drive it underground.”
Secondly, if you doubt it has neurobiological etiology,
“In one case, a 40-year-old teacher in Virginia with no history of sexual deviance suddenly became interested in child pornography and was arrested for molesting his prepubescent stepdaughter.
The night before his sentencing, he showed up at an emergency room with a bad headache. An MRI revealed a tumor compressing his brain’s right frontal lobe.
When the tumor was removed, his obsession faded, according to Dr. Russell Swerdlow, a neurologist on the case. A year later he again became sexually fixated on children. The tumor was growing back.”
This is not to mention James Cantor’s research, also cited in the same LA Times article demonstrating neurological similarities in pedophiles (in particular less dense white matter).
Prison abolition is a hard position to take. We cannot offer omnia circumplectentem solutions. Yet, we can, and we must, stand with every prisoner. Recall that people are in prison not because of what they have done, but rather because of who they are. From Harvey Weinstein to Jimmy Saville, from Tony Blair and George Bush, the rich and powerful are shielded from any parametric application of the Law. Parametric application of the Law would implode the Law. Prison abolitionists are not here to solve and demand punishment for the crimes of individuals, we are here to understand what constitutes a criminal. Complex phenomena, especially when for most people who have no institutional power, create life-narratives they would have never “chosen” otherwise. An individual’s agency is subject to the facticity of the structural hierarchy they inhabit.
Pedophilia is a taboo subject; it cuts to the heart of capitalist social investment. Children are meant to remain separate from the world of adults, and – in Western cultures – magically become autonomous at an arbitrary age. Depending on where you live in the US or Europe, the age of consent varies from 14 to 18. Like capital, the child must not be allowed sexual circulation, even among their peer groups, until the parental investment has reached maturity. Of course, these norms are breaking down, yet people are still being placed in prison for consensual yet statutory rape (say a 20 year old and a 16 year old).
Corrinna Ferguson, in The Guardian, writes,
“In 2008, the House of Lords considered the case of a 15-year-old boy who was convicted of rape of a child under 13 after having sexual intercourse with a 12-year-old girl whom he believed to be 15. For the purposes of sentencing, the prosecution accepted that the girl consented and that she had said she was 15. Neither of those factors amounted to a defence, however, because the offence is committed if a person intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with his penis and that other person is under 13. The attitude of the victim towards the act is irrelevant, as is the perpetrator’s belief as to the victim’s age. The defendant argued that this “strict liability” was incompatible with the presumption of innocence guaranteed by article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights and that the decision to prosecute him with the offence of rape of a child under 13 (carrying a maximum penalty of life imprisonment) as opposed to the lesser offence of sexual activity with a child under 16 (maximum five years’ imprisonment for an under-18-year-old) breached his right to respect for private life under [EU Human Rights] article 8 …
The judges were divided on the issue of article 8, but the majority decided that there could be no breach of article 8 in prosecuting the defendant for an offense of which he was admittedly guilty. Issues of consent, the age of the defendant and his belief as to the age of the victim could be taken into account at the point of sentence, and indeed in this case the defendant had been given a conditional discharge (the second most lenient sentence available). The prosecutor was not therefore obliged to opt for the lesser offence of sexual activity with a child under 16. Nor was it unjustified to label the offense ;rape’. As Lady Hale put it, ‘the law has disabled children under 13 from giving their consent. So there was no consent. In view of all the dangers resulting from under-age sexual activity, it cannot be wrong for the law to apply that label even if it cannot be proved that the child was in fact unwilling.”
Prison abolitionists must challenge knee-jerk, lazy and habitual thinking. If we can work with murderers, drug dealers and other egregiously violent “offenders,” then why can’t we work with sex offenders, in particular people convicted of child sexual abuse? Why can’t we work to reduce sentences, call for a case-by-case analysis, question sometimes incredibly arbitrary notions of consent and harm?
Michel Foucault, author of both Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and The History of Sexuality, commented,
“But what is emerging – and indeed why I believe it was important to speak about the problem of children – what is emerging is a new penal system, a new legislative system, whose function is not so much to punish offenses against these general laws concerning decency, as to protect populations and parts of populations regarded as particularly vulnerable. In other words, the legislator will not justify the measures that he is proposing by saying: the universal decency of mankind must be defended. What he will say is: there are people for whom others’ sexuality may become a permanent danger. In this category, of course, are children, who may find themselves at the mercy of an adult sexuality that is alien to them and may well be harmful to them. Hence there is a legislation that appeals to this notion of a vulnerable population, a “high-risk population,”as they say, and to a whole body of psychiatric and psychological knowledge imbibed from psychoanalysis – it doesn’t really matter whether the psychoanalysis is good or bad – and this will give the psychiatrists the right to intervene twice. Firstly, in general terms, to say: yes, of course, children do have a sexuality, we can’t go back to those old notions about children being pure and not knowing what sexuality is. But we psychologists or psychoanalysts or psychiatrists, or teachers, we know perfectly well that children’s sexuality is a specific sexuality, with its own forms, its own periods of maturation, its own highpoints, its specific drives, and its own latency periods, too. This sexuality of the child is a territory with its own geography that the adult must not enter. It is virgin territory, sexual territory, of course, but territory that must preserve its virginity. The adult will therefore intervene as guarantor of that specificity of child sexuality in order to protect it. And, on the other hand, in each particular case, he will say: this is an instance of an adult bringing his own sexuality into the child’s sexuality. It could be that the child, with his own sexuality, may have desired that adult, he may even have consented, he may even have made the first moves. We may even agree that it was he who seduced the adult; but we specialists with our psychological knowledge know perfectly well that even the seducing child runs a risk, in every case, of being damaged and traumatized by the fact that he or she has had sexual dealings with an adult. Consequently, the child must be ‘protected from his own desires’, even when his desires turn him towards an adult. The psychiatrist is the one who will be able to say: I can predict that a trauma of this importance will occurred as a result of this or that type of sexual relation. It is therefore within the new legislative framework – basically intended to protect certain vulnerable sections of the population with the establishment of a new medical power – that a conception of sexuality and above all of the relations between child and adult sexuality will be based; and it is one that is extremely questionable.”
The discussion continues,
“DANET: When we say that the problem of consent is quite central in matters concerned with pedophilia, we are not, of course, saying that consent is always there. But – and this is where one may separate the attitude of the law with regard to rape and with regard to pedophilia – in the case of rape, judges consider that there is a presumption of consent on the part of the woman and that the opposite has to be demonstrated. Whereas where pedophilia is concerned, it’s the opposite. It’s considered that there is a presumption of non-consent, a presumption of violence, even in a case where no charge of an indecent act with violence has been made, that is, in a case in which the charge used is that of indecent act without violence, that is, with consenting pleasure – because it has to be said that this act without violence is the repressive, legal translation of consenting pleasure. It’s pretty clear haw the system of proof is manipulated in opposite ways in the case of rape of women and in the case of indecent assault on a minor. Question: Public opinion, including enlightened opinion such as that of the doctors of the Institute of Sexology, asked at what age there can be said to be definite consent. It’s a big problem.
MICHEL FOUCAULT: Yes, it is difficult to lay down barriers. Consent is one thing; it is a quite different thing when we are dealing with the likelihood of a child being believed when, speaking of his sexual relations, his affections, his tender feelings, or his contacts (the sexual adjective is often an embarrassment here, because it does not correspond to reality), a child’s ability to explain what his feelings are, what actually happened, how far he is believed, these are quite different things. now, where children are concerned, they are supposed to have a sexuality that can never be directed towards an adult, and that’s that. Secondly, it is supposed that they are not capable of talking about themselves, of being sufficiently lucid about themselves. They are unable to express their feelings about the whole thing. Therefore they are not believed. They are thought to be incapable of sexuality and they are not thought to be capable of speaking about it. But, after all, listening to a child, hearing him speak, hearing him explain what his relations actually were with someone, adult or not, provided one listens with enough sympathy, must allow one to establish more or less what degree of violence if any was used or what degree of consent was given. And to assume that a child is incapable of explaining what happened and was incapable of giving his consent are two abuses that are intolerable, quite unacceptable.
Question: If you were a legislator, you would fix no limit and you would leave it to the judges to decide wether or not an indecent act was committed with or without consent? Is that your position?
MICHEL FOUCAULT: In any case, an age barrier laid down by law does not have much sense. Again, the child may be trusted to say wether or not he was subjected to violence. An examining magistrate, a liberal, told me once when we were discussing this question: after all, there are eighteen-year-old girls who are practically forced to make love with their fathers or their stepfathers; they may be eighteen, but it’s an intolerable system of constraint. And one, moreover, that they feel is intolerable, if only people are willing to listen to them and put them in conditions which they can say what they feel.”
Ultimately, allowing (legal) children to express how they feel about sexual interactions with (legal) adults should be present, as Corrinna Ferguson’s article notes, at the very core of any jurisprudence. Nuanced, case-by-case adjudications whereby social hierarchies are questioned, and all parties are allowed to speak and be heard (including and especially children, witness Dylan Farrow versus Woody Allen, where the rich director is found more believable because he can amass a whole network of medical-juridical specialists to silence the child.)
Synthesizing a massive body of research, Chin-Kueng Li, in Adult Sexual Experiences with Children, writes,
“Research findings have several legal implications. The law is a practical arrangement for the peaceful coexistence of individuals living in a community. It does not have an absolute moral status, and it must take into account the socially constituted nature of sexuality. The author makes the following recommendations with respect to the law.
Legislation should differentiate between coercive contact and consensual activities, especially when a long sentence is being considered for the offender. If an evaluation of the offender’s dangerousness does not consider this issue, injustice may be done to pedophiles whose attractions are persistent but whose activities are always consensual.
Age of consent laws should consider the variation in sexual maturity among children and teenagers, their sexual rights, and the need for equal treatment of heterosexual and homosexual activities.
Government intervention into the private lives of families and individuals through the criminal justice system should be kept to a minimum.”
In summary, if we – as prison abolitionists – are willing to stand up for the rights of the incarcerated, for a massive reduction in the prison population, we must be willing to face the research, stop demonizing pedophiles and stop conflating them with child sex abusers (many have not acted on their desires, and maintain healthy adult relationships), encourage new forms of non-abusive sexuality for pedophiles: tactile Virtual Reality, sex dolls, stories and other forms of sexual engagement that don’t involve child pornography or child sexual abuse. Prison abolitionists: We must not perpetuate the pedophobic biases of our societies, including those of non-sex offender prisoners (who, as with the HMP Bedford riot, attempted to kill the sex offenders).
Prison abolition theory and praxis is not easy, we are working to free many people who have done terrible things, yet this is because we recognize our social organisms are the catalysts for much of this terror.
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