Sex Offenses and the Imaginaries of Punitive Reason

The sex offender has been labeled the monster of our times. The past two decades have seen the dramatic rise of mandatory sex offender registries and community notification practices as well as sexually violent predator laws and indefinite civil commitment for people perceived at risk to commit sex offenses. These new technologies of surveillance and punishment represent sex offenders as compulsive creatures who can only be deterred through expanded policing and penality. And among sex offenders, those who have sex with children are characterized as particularly inhuman and incorrigible. Thus laws expressly targeting sex offenders—most frequently sex offenders against children—transform society as a whole, including how modes of imagination and reason intersect with domains of the state.

Recent academic studies of sex offenders have often split focus between imaginary offenders—or “making monsters” (Lancaster p. 59)—and the actual human beings who populate the cells and institutions forged through such penal imaginaries. Roger Lancaster’s Sex Panic and the Punitive State (2011) and James Waldram’s Hound Pound Narrative: Sexual Offender Habilitation and the Anthropology of Therapeutic Intervention (2012) exemplify these two approaches to the contemporary sex offender. Lancaster examines the sex offender as a monster or folk demon, asking how populist imaginaries helped craft the punitive state. According to Lancaster, 1960s and 1970s crime panics were transformed into 1980s and 1990s panics about children’s vulnerability to sexual predators. Sex panic produced the neoconservative conditions for expanded penalty, which in turn was incorporated into the specific mode of United States neoliberalism associated with the punitive state. Waldram, on the other hand, examines the experiences of people incarcerated for sex offenses. Waldram takes his readers into the Hound Pound of a therapeutic prison in Canada, an institutional space where prisoners participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to demonstrate readiness to re-enter society. Here men undergo a contradictory process of narrative reformation in which their own imaginaries come under strict scrutiny for signs of moral habilitation and conformity to therapeutic paradigms.

Given their very different approaches, these two texts provide a unique overview of the landscape of sex offender policing and punishment, revealing how new institutional and intersubjective relations emerge within this landscape. Lancaster makes a strong case for using “sex panic” to understand the “punitive turn” (p. 222) in U.S. popular, political, and legal culture. Lancaster takes up familiar definitions of sex panic to argue that sexuality offers a particularly fertile ground for imaginary threats to social hygiene and moral order. Earlier twentieth century panics, such as the 1937 invention of sex crime by the New York Times, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s “war on the sex criminal” (p. 33), and the sexual psychopath statutes of the 1950s, laid the groundwork for 1970s anti-homosexuality “Save Our Children” (p.42) campaigns and 1980s panics about the sexual abuse of children in daycare settings. In the later twentieth century U.S., sex panic about pedophilia or child predators in particular fueled a “paranoid style” (p. 186) that fostered greater demands for punishment and retribution. The dismantling of the welfare state and the turn to the punitive state depended upon these sex panics, rather producing them (as other scholars have argued). This is a shift in dominant interpretations of the emergence of punishment through neoliberal restructuring. For Lancaster, “crime and sex panics bridge the gap between social backlash and economic retrenchment” (p. 138), providing a more contingent, ad hoc, and discontinuous “history of the neoliberal punitive state” (p. 220). Thus even as Lancaster notes the limits of sex panic as an explanatory concept, he reminds readers that the concept of “economic panic” (p. 31) is no less problematic, particularly when used to explain complex institutional and interpersonal change.

These broader structural claims are outlined in the book’s Part Two (primarily Chapters 7 and 8), where Lancaster makes the clearest case for the central role of sex panic in the structural adjustment of U.S. society. Part One unfolds in a more provisional way, seemingly performing the ad hoc and contingent historiography theorized in the final chapters. Lancaster describes his method as a “mix of fine-grained analysis, robust polemic, and ethnographic writing” (p. 17), with Part One in particular moving between summaries of existing research, legal case histories, the ethnography of a friend’s false accusation of sexual offenses, and stories from the author’s own youth. These earlier chapters offer a somewhat familiar analysis—“sex panics give rise to bloated imaginings of risk, inflated conceptions of harm, and loose definitions of sex” (p. 2)—found in work by Lauren Berlant, Lee Edelman, James Kincaid, and Judith Levine (among others). But these chapters also provide a thick description of existing scholarship and law, including a more precise elaboration of how homosexual stigma intersects with racist mobilizations of sex crime in the making of the white pedophile as folk monster. Here he adds to existing scholarship by exploring how white middle class protocols of hygiene and purity are imaginatively universalized even as that class is structurally dismantled, resulting in a populism whose “paranoid style” (p. 186) is institutionalized in legal and social regimes of punishment. According to Lancaster such institutionalization is achieved through the “rhetorical forms” of “moral entrepreneurs”(p.220) whose alleged prognostic powers link “punishment to imagined risks and anticipated future victimizations”(p. 11).

Waldram picks up where Lancaster leaves off: inside the “actuarial illogic” (Lancaster p. 80) organizing sex offender treatment inside carceral facilities. Waldram’s ethnography depicts the experiences of men incarcerated for sex offenses in Canadian federal prison who are admitted to a therapeutic prison unit for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In this unit men live for eight months in a collective space that blurs the line between “custody and caring” (p. 26). They participate in group therapy and shared housing organized around “the Bubble,” a “combined nursing and security station” (p. 27) whose glass walls allow staff and inmates mutual observation. This “panoptic” is linked to the “synoptic” (p. 45) of the therapeutic process itself—all participants must participate in a process of narrative disclosure that includes an Autobiography (treated in Chapter Five), a Crime Cycle (Chapter Six), and a Relapse Prevention Plan (Chapter Seven). Each step in this process requires the participant to present a narrative that is subject to public interrogation and at times combative revision from nurses and other prisoners. Successful completion of each step requires the participant to adapt their own subjective narrative to what Waldram theorizes as a “paradigmatic” (p. 10) narrative adjusted to fit the putative forensic facts in their profile and the principles and theories of CBT. The aim of this process is to reduce the risk of re-offending upon return to society, which is somewhat paradoxical since men too near release are not admitted in the program and those who complete the program are often returned to carceral facilities.

This tension between paradigmatic “habilitation” (p. 11) and actuarial prediction is a central focus of Waldram’s analysis. In order to be admitted to this unit, the prisoner must have a psychological diagnosis that can be treated. And yet sex offenses are crimes, not psychiatric disorders, and the fantasies and urges subject to therapeutic intervention inside prison are not “criminal activity” (p. 53). CBT bridges the gap between this “forensic black hole” (p. 75) and paradigmatic habilitation. Participants must come to identify and reduce those “cognitive distortions” (p. 55) or “thinking errors” (p. 59) that cause sexual offenses and to replace these errors with paradigmatically acceptable thoughts. They must then express CBT approved affective responses such as anger management and empathy along with those thoughts. Participant success is achieved by persuading other inmates and staff that CBT cognitive and affective strategies have been subjectively adopted while at the same time scoring appropriately on forensic tools such as phallometric testing (p. 69) and “risk assessment instrument[s]” (p. 69) such as the Static 99 assessment tool or the Violence Risk Scale—Sexual Offender Version (VRS-SO). CBT codes assumed predictive of supposed success outside prison are subject to forensic verification inside prison, under static conditions that cannot match the dynamics of either the nontherapeutic prison or the outside world. This does little to enable success for prisoners who are returned to prison or for those who are released into society; the former must return to the “con code” (p. 67) at odds with CBT, the latter to the brand of “modern-day lepers” (p. 217) facing the stigma, isolation, and paranoia described by Lancaster.

Both Lancaster and Waldram reflect on the anthropological challenges posed by research on sex offenders. First, they both suggest that their research findings require alternative strategies of representation. For Lancaster, this mixes ethnographic material with scholarship synthesis and direct address (what he calls polemic), presumably to counter the existing “rhetorical forms” of “moral entrepreneurship” (p. 220) which dominate the topic. For Waldram, this results in a complex and “jagged” (p. 21) form interspersing direct citation of research subjects and more conversational inter-chapters with his own analysis. Waldram also points out the problem of doing ethnography in “nonvoluntary contexts” (p. 22) and the difficulty of gaining trust from both incarcerated subjects and corrections staff who perceived participant observation as “loitering” (p. 35). Second, they both describe the limits of “social suffering” (Waldram, p. xi) as a preferred focus of anthropological research. Waldram suggests recent anthropology exhibits a bias toward studies of the sympathetic or oppressed, which can discourage development of deeply needed ethnographic approaches to the experience of reviled or oppressive groups. Lancaster launches a more sustained critique, arguing that “lov[ing] trauma” (p. 181) is less an ethnographic problem than a dominant cultural logic produced through the punitive turn. He argues “the Left” should “reconsider its fixation on injury” (p. 212) as political strategy and instead consider “getting over it” (p. 205) or “forgetting of trauma” (p. 244) as a strategy. As Lancaster summarizes his position: “Injury ennobles no one; it makes no one any smarter; it gives no one insight beyond the simple experience of pain”(p. 212). The only thing it enables is a “perverse politics of identity” (p. 212) which “can only be the psychological and organizational building blocks of the punitive state” (p. 213).

Lancaster’s rather bold pronouncement draws attention to the limits of his own approach to sex offenders as well as the central role concepts of reason—in contrast to paranoia and injury—have in both studies. Lancaster is right that enclosing distributions of humanity in a penal logic of injury, especially one that can be rationalized through a “forensic black hole” (Waldram p. 75) and CBT, is a problem. But Lancaster’s analysis of paranoid style overly universalizes “loving trauma”and the politics of injury. Valorization of trauma and injury may be a rhetorical form used by various moral entrepreneurs, but this moral and political valorization does not operate uniformly across institutions and actors. One easy counterexample can be found in Waldram’s text, in which incarcerated subjects are cognitively and affectively denied a subjective narrative of injury—their empathy training does not allow them to draw explicitly on their own experiences of abuse or pain. Waldram clarifies that a specific mode of paradigmatic (and forensically verifiable) reason is at the heart of both diagnosis and treatment of offenders. Yet Waldram reminds readers that the line between reason and paranoia is highly variable across institutional spaces, since CBT reason requires adopting cognitive and affective behaviors that are maladaptive to their future contexts (whether prison or society). Situated in relation to Waldram’s study, Lancaster’s own argument that we should replace loving trauma with “getting over it” (p. 205) might also be characterized as paranoid. Neither loving nor forgetting injury address the complex conditions in which recognition and harm are distributed in subjective or paradigmatic modes of penality. Read together, these books task scholars to find new ways to contest the inequitable distributions of power and resources which conceal negative impacts (or constructed suffering) on human lives and communities and to reveal how heterogeneous affects and imaginaries may be mobilized against the forensic and paradigmatic reason of carceral penality.

These two books offer an important overview of institutional practices related to sex offenses in North America. Waldram’s Canadian case undermines Lancaster’s U.S. exceptionalism, since there are similar legal and institutional mechanisms in place across North America (Canadian law is outlined in Waldram’s Chapter Three). And Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is popular as a treatment technique inside U.S. facilities as well, including facilities specifically for sexual offenders such as the Butner Federal Correctional Institute in North Carolina. Both texts also confirm the statistical preponderance of white men sentenced for sex offenses against children (although Waldram points out that his regional case study was anomalously 50/50 white and Aboriginal). There is certainly an urgent need for analyses of this sort, and both books contribute importantly to understanding emerging regimes of penality and penitence.

© American Anthropological Association
Originally published in Political and Legal Anthropology Review 36(2): 410-414.