In the last three decades of the twentieth century, rape, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and child molestation have increasingly become the focus of public concern. According to a 1993 National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, about 500,000 rapes or sexual assaults occur each year. Child protective services report approximately 200,000 substantiated cases of child sexual abuse annually. Moreover, the Department of Justice states that since 1985, “rape rates have risen nearly three times as fast as the total crime rate.” Although various other studies offer statistics that conflict with these numbers— for example, the National Women’s Study claims that about 683,000 rapes of adult women occur annually, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports 103,000 such rapes each year—most lawmakers and experts agree that sexual violence is a problem requiring persistent attention and investigation.
In the 1990s, a number of violent crimes committed by released sex offenders received wide media attention and prompted many states to pass laws specifying that communities must be notified about paroled sex criminals living in the area. In addition, some states decided to detain particularly violent sex offenders for mental treatment after they have served out their prison sentences. These measures reflect the public’s fear that released sex criminals will commit further offenses. According to CQ Researcher writer Sarah Glazer, even though “experts assert that recidivism rates vary among different kinds of sex offenders” and only “a minority of sex offenders offend again,” much of the public, as well as many lawmakers, remain unconvinced that releasing sex criminals is a sound policy. Increasingly, many debates on the issue of sexual violence focus on whether or not sex offenders can be effectively rehabilitated.
One approach to rehabilitation that is gaining popularity in various states is “chemical castration”—the use of Depo-Provera, a drug that decreases the level of the hormone testosterone in men. Lowered testosterone levels lead to a dramatic decrease in sexual thoughts and fantasies, proponents of Depo-Provera argue, and can often eliminate a sex offender’s urge to commit sexual crimes. For example, Steven, a Maryland rapist who received Depo-Provera injections during and after his incarceration, maintains that his treatment has been successful: “The will to have sex [is] still there. . . . But Depo-Provera allows you the time, mentally, to make the decision about whether this is an appropriate behavior. . . . Sex doesn’t control me anymore.”
Other supporters of Depo-Provera point out that in countries requiring surgical or chemical castration for sex offenders, the recidivism rate of child molesters has dropped from nearly 100 percent to 2 percent. Moreover, they argue, tests conducted in the United States report a repeat-offense rate of only 5 percent for sex criminals treated with the drug. In the opinion of Douglas J. Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute, “The use of hormone-suppressing drugs . . . holds great promise for reducing the level of sexual violence against women and children.” Besharov contends that the use of Depo-Provera provides assurance that the sex criminal will not be a threat to the community that becomes his home after his release.
Many medical experts and psychologists caution, however, that the usefulness of Depo-Provera is limited. Fred Berlin, director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention, and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, maintains that the drug works only for a subgroup of sex offenders—those whose crimes are driven by overwhelming sexual urges rather than by violent tendencies or by psychosis. Furthermore, he argues, “all studies on the drug’s effectiveness have been in carefully controlled settings, with men motivated to use it, and in conjunction with counseling and other follow-up therapy.” In other words, experts warn, the use of Depo-Provera alone does not guarantee a low rate of repeat offenses.
Opponents of the use of Depo-Provera note that the drug has many potentially damaging side effects, including weight gain, hypertension, and diabetes. These critics argue that it is unfair to use a treatment that may involve life-threatening health complications, particularly since released sex offenders have already been punished for their crimes by serving prison sentences. Moreover, these commentators contend, some sex criminals must stop the weekly injections because of the severe side effects. Since stopping the drug treatment causes hormonal levels to return to their former heights, thereby increasing the risk for repeat offenses, sex criminals in these cases must be monitored closely. These offenders end up having to choose one of three options: Continue to suffer side effects, return to jail, or agree to surgical castration. The third option is deemed “cruel and un- usual punishment” by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Carole Migden, a California assemblywoman, agrees with the ACLU in its opposition to both chemical and surgical castration: “There has to be another way. In the name of humanity, it is wrong for the government to mutilate the bodies of our citizens.”
Other critics also question the rationale for using either chemical or surgical castration to treat sex offenders. According to Denise Snyder, executive director of the Washington, D.C., Rape Crisis Center, supporters of castration “misfocus the issue and feed into the myths about rape. Sexual assault is a crime of violence and aggression . . . not the product of an uncontrollable sex drive.” Furthermore, argues Barbara Schwartz, director of the Sex Offender Treatment program at Two Rivers Correctional Center in Monroe,Washington, a castrated rapist “could still be a phenomenal danger. He can go out and . . . [sexually] assault [people] with broom handles or bottles or beat them up or kill them.” Sheila Kuehl, a California representative, agrees: “A person who has been castrated is still able to molest a child. [Molesters] need to be kept out of society—kept away.”
Despite these objections to the use of Depo-Provera, chemical castration as a treatment for sex offenders is gaining widespread support. In January 1997, California became the first state to require the chemical castration of twice-convicted child molesters, and several other states are considering similar measures. As such measures are implemented, the controversy over chemical castration is likely to increase. The authors in Sexual Violence: Opposing Viewpoints present differing opinions on this issue of offender rehabilitation as well as debate about the causes, effects, and prevalence of sexual violence in the following chapters: What Causes Sexual Violence? How Serious a Problem Is Sexual Violence? How Should Society Address Sexual Victimization? How Can Sexual Violence Be Reduced?