June 27, 2011

Sexual violence prevention: Recommended journal issue

The current issue of the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry features an excellent collection of diverse scholarship on the prevention of sexual violence. Papers address the empirical and moral foundations of prevention from the perspectives of law, psychiatry, criminology, psychology, and public policy. Here's a preview of a couple of the articles I've read so far….
Paraphilia battle pivotal to future of U.S. civil liberties

Jerome Wakefield, a professor at New York University and an influential theorist of mental disorder, provides a searing analysis of the messy paraphilia debacle that the DSM-5 task force has waded into. After providing a brief history, he dissects the current proposals to show how their conceptual invalidity will open the door to widespread abuse in forensic practice:

Needless to say, prosecutors availing themselves of civil commitment processes and wishing to keep offenders from release find it in their interest to argue for the most expansive possible interpretation of the DSM criteria for paraphilic disorders -- lending enormous weight to the details of the diagnostic criteria…. The convenience of these criteria in forensic evaluations seems more than offset by the potential for prosecutorial abuse and the long-term undermining of the credibility of the distinction – sanctioned by the Supreme Court as a constitutionally crucial one – between mental disorder-driven behavior and other motives for criminal behavior.
Wakefield joins the ranks of other respected figures to recognize the high stakes involved in the battle over whether sex crimes equate to mental disorder. As he bluntly puts it, the struggle over how sexual paraphilias are defined is “tactically central to the future of civil liberties in our country.” If the government can indefinitely detain men who have served prison time for sex crimes based on bogus psychiatric labels that supposedly impair their volitional control, it's only a matter of time before other groups are rounded up, too. 

Of all of the controversial paraphilias, Wakefield asserts, the “most flawed and blatantly overpathologizing” is pedohebephilia, which would expand pedophilia to encompass attraction to pubescent minors. Arguments by its proponents are both weak and misleading, he writes:

The first argument for the expanded category is that hebephilia is similar to pedophilia in that both involve attraction to physically immature individuals. This is about as valid an argument as saying that both dyslexia and illiteracy involve difficulties reading, thus illiteracy should be considered a disorder. The kind of immaturity involved in pubescence is vastly different from the kind in prepubescence from the specific perspective of its ability to trigger normal sexual interest, so in fact the dissimilarity is more important than the similarity…. The other two arguments – that some prosecutors are currently using the diagnosis “Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified (Hebephilia)” and that the ICD [the World Health Organization’s diagnostic system] allows sexual preference for early pubescence as a disorder – ignores the critical question of whether these uses are valid…. Hebephilia as a diagnosis violates the basic constraint that disorder judgments should not be determined by social disapproval. This is a case where crime and disorder are being hopelessly confused.

Although the sexual disorders work group has backed down on two of its three most controversial proposals, it is clinging tenaciously to pedohebephilia, the brainchild of the Canadian laboratory that employs two members of the work group. Hopefully, a newly established scientific review committee for the DSM-5 will heed the increasingly strong warnings emitting from mainstream social scientists and psychology-law practitioners such as Wakefield, and have the common sense to squelch this ridiculous proposal. Otherwise, as Wakefield puts it, “the forensic tail [will be] wagging the validity dog, and we are likely to get criteria that possess a misdirected pseudo-validity that will not serve us in the long run and set a dangerous precedent for future tensions between civil liberties and civil commitment for mental disorder.”

Inevitable recidivism: An urban legend

Tamara Rice Lave, a law professor at the University of Miami, tackles the essential premise underlying current social policy toward sex offending: that apprehended sex offenders (especially child molesters) will continue to re-offend. As Lave shows, the courts and the public accept this premise with an unquestioning and almost religious fervor, ignoring a growing body of empirical evidence to the contrary.

Inevitable recidivism has saturated the media, political and popular discourse, and thus it has become the dominant frame due to its availability…. This sets up a dialectical process in which the public believes that sex offenders inevitably recidivate; the media write stories that bolster this belief, and politicians pass laws that are responsive to this belief. The effect is to have inevitable recidivism become a socially constructed fact.

When actual evidence of sex offender recidivism is examined, a huge gap exists between what is assumed and what the data actually shows because most sex offenders do not in fact recidivate. Thus there is a galaxy of sexually violent predator laws and an entire branch of Supreme Court jurisprudence that is founded upon a demonstrable urban legend.
The special issue, Beyond Myth: Designing Better Sexual Violence Prevention, was co-edited by professors Eric Janus (author of Failure to Protect, an essential text on sex offender law and policy) and John Douard. Both are, like myself, firm believers that we should be focusing scarce resources on primary prevention of sexual violence rather than on misguided campaigns rooted in moral panic and hysteria. Such campaigns are not only ineffectual, but they may actually increase the very problems they are aimed at solving.

The articles are:

Jerome C. Wakefield:  DSM-5 proposed diagnostic criteria for sexual paraphilias: Tensions between diagnostic validity and forensic utility [request from author HERE]

Tamara Rice Lave: Inevitable recidivism: The origin and centrality of an urban legend  [full text available online HERE]

A preview of all of the articles in the special issue, Beyond Myth: Designing Better Sexual Violence Prevention, is HERE. Clicking on a preview of an article allows one to email the author to request a reprint.