In the past 30 years, a vast cottage industry has sprung up to treat and warehouse juvenile sex offenders. Whereas in 1982 the United States had 20 programs to treat such youths, by 2002 that number had skyrocketed to upwards of 1,300 specialized programs, most of them private, for-profit residential centers. What is especially startling about the continuing expansion of this fledgling industry is that rates of serious offending, including sex offending, by juveniles is staying steady or even declining.
In The Perversion of Youth, forensic psychologist Frank DiCataldo says this new field may be harming both youth and society, by labeling typical delinquents as sexual monsters and thereby forcing them down a deviant path from which there is little hope of escape. In other words, our very process of labeling and treatment may breathe life into the bogeyman of our cultural imagination.
Like many failed social experiments, this one is driven by good intentions. But its underlying premises are based not on scientific evidence but on misguided faith and lore. DiCataldo, a psychology professor at Roger Williams University, meticulously presents the empirical evidence suggesting that the "juvenile sex offender" is not a natural category distinct from other delinquents. Rather, youths so labeled are typical delinquents whose offending happens to include a sex offense. And their sex offenses stem not from sexual deviance, but from a panoply of developmental factors, including sexual experimentation, thrill-seeking, poor social skills, emotional neediness, and rigid gender scripts that encourage sexual conquest as proof of masculinity.
In the past, many of the so-called sex offenses for which even young children are now being locked up and subjected to treatment would have been regarded as sex play, experimentation, or -- more seriously -- evidence of general criminality. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the natural course is for youths to mature out of sexual misconduct and other delinquency as they become adults, the data show.
Since only a tiny handful of youths who commit a sex offense are budding sexual deviants, the dominant treatment -- a one-size-fits-all, deviancy focused relapse prevention model -- is not helpful. In fact, by labeling normal adolescent boys as deviants, it may be very harmful, encouraging them to see themselves as the very monsters that the label makes them out to be.
DiCataldo is not peering down from an ivory tower. Long-time director of the Forensic Evaluation Service for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, he devotes special attention to the practices in the treatment trenches. Instead of taking the time to really see the individual adolescent for who he is, well-intentioned but dogmatic clinicians administer manualized treatment based on a “mind-boggling” array of unsupported global beliefs:
All adolescents who have committed an inappropriate sex act must receive this particular form of treatment; all juvenile sex offenders have a history of sexual victimization, and if you look deep enough, you will find it; adolescents must admit that their sexual abuse was traumatic and damaging; their denial must be broken down with persistent in-your-face confrontation; they must admit to deviant fantasies or hidden perversions and are provided fantasy logs in which to record them; … they must make their offense fit a stock, prefabricated dynamic involving the need for power and control or the presence of perversion or deviancy; they must face the fact that they have an incurable condition, like a chronic disease….Ironically, he points out, the only empirically supported treatment for juvenile sex offenders, Multisystemic Treatment (MST), does not endorse these unproven tenets. Indeed, it does not even directly address sexual deviancy, instead focusing on client strengths and environmental supports in the family and community.
Like the misguided treatment programs, efforts to design instruments that will accurately predict which juvenile will go on to reoffend are also doomed to failure. It is not the fault of the instruments themselves, the author contends. Rather, because the base rates of sexual recidivism are so low (an estimated 5% to 15% across many studies), the most reliable prediction for any individual boy is that he will NOT commit a future sex offense.
In warning of the siren call of the sex offender narrative, DiCataldo echoes scholars such as James Kincaid and Philip Jenkins who have written about its alluring promise to simplify simplify the world and safely contain its dangers. But unlike in previous historical cycles of moral panic and sexual hysteria, he points out, this time around the pathologizing discourse of deviance is more securely embedded in systems such as the schools and the juvenile justice system. The ever-expanding and lucrative cottage industry devoted to juvenile sex offending has so firmly entrenched itself as a part of modern culture that, absent some serious attention to the lack of underlying science, it is unlikely to fade away anytime soon.
The author could have benefited from a good editor, as the presentation becomes repetitive. Still, in meticulously summarizing virtually all of the existing research and case law pertaining to juvenile sex offending, this well-researched book is an essential one-stop resource for anyone interested in understanding the contemporary phenomenon of juvenile sex offending.
So, here's a modest idea:
In recent years, a small-scale civil rights movement has emerged among mental patients, former mental patients, and their allies. One of their aims is to remove mental illness as the core construct of a person's identity. As such, they recommend not using terms such as "schizophrenic" as nouns to describe a person. Rather than calling someone "a schizophrenic," they would say: "A person with schizophrenia" or, even better, "a woman who has had some bouts of psychosis." I would love to see this applied in the sex offender field. Instead of calling a child "a juvenile sex offender," why not call him "a 15-year-old who engaged in sexual misconduct" or "a boy with a sex offense arrest"? As DiCataldo so thoroughly explains, within the current legal and treatment climate, the mere act of labeling a child as "A SEX OFFENDER" can effectively derail that person's life, potentially forever.
And, finally, I leave you with a related book recommendation:
The Trauma Myth, by Susan Clancy. The New York Times book review is HERE.
Related Amazon book reviews: