Friday, May 21, 2010

Sexually dangerous

So. The other day the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government can indefinitely hold prisoners considered "sexually dangerous", after their sentences end.

"Sexually dangerous." This, in a country where teenagers taking naked pictures of themselves on their phones can be convicted of child pornography (and made permanently "registered" sex offenders). In a country where, for example, a man can be sentenced to ten years in prison (and maybe more, if someone decides he's "sexually dangerous" at some time in the future) for having sex with his fifteen year old girlfriend when he was seventeen. In a country where the first thing that leaps to mind (at least for me) when hearing the phrase "sexually dangerous" is this.

The primary reaction of our good liberals seems to range from indifference to complete silence. A notable exception is Melissa McEwan, who in this one post transforms in my eyes from an amusingly misguided and ignorant simpleton into an irredeemable, despicable monster. any extrajudicial detention policy, there is a huge potential for abuse.

But, unlike most other crimes, perpetrators of sexual assaults have a high recidivism rate and are more resistant to rehabilitation. Convictions for sexual assault frequently don't come with sentences that reflects that reality, with average prison terms being appallingly low. So, something's gotta give.

I'd personally prefer to see long mandatory sentences with multiple parole opportunities, with parole contingent on rigorous and comprehensive rehabilitation, some demonstrable evidence of success, and a required lifetime commitment to ongoing treatment, the failure to comply with which automatically triggers a reversal of parole.

Waiting until people re-offend is not working. For anyone.
(Incidentally, she closed the comments on the post after about twelve hours because a few people were questioning her baseless assertions, and when she said she had provided links to back herself up in previous posts, they responded by saying "Where?")

"Potential for abuse, but..." Nice. Yes, Melissa, there is a potential for abuse. A potential for abusing this ruling, that is in itself an abuse of a system that is an abuse; a potential for abusing this ruling made by a body that is by definition an abuse. And there is no fucking "but." Sexual assault is of course a horrible and all-to-common thing, but advancing the power of the prison-industrial complex is not the solution.

As for what she'd "personally prefer to see," anyone who thinks that "long mandatory sentences" (regardless of her caveats on it, which range from laughable to terrifying) are acceptable for any crime, particularly one so ill-defined, variable, and frequently (note I say "frequently," not "always" or even "a majority of the time") completely harmless as the vast range of acts our sick society lumps together under the sensationalistic umbrella label "sex crimes," is a horrifying beast who can only vaguely be recognized as human.

And another thing: she posted that horrific excretion just one day before sanctimoniously criticizing what seems to be a fairly useful article from the Guardian on the seldom-discussed, massive increase in the wealth gap between white and Black Americans in the past few decades, because it doesn't use the specific word "racism." MS. MCEWAN, LET ME REMIND YOU OF THIS.

I have a monster post bubbling up in me about our society's attitudes towards young people and sexuality. I've been thinking about it for several months now, trying to figure out how to structure it, and how to go about it so as not to say things I don't mean to say. It was inspired mainly by the popular reaction to the latest round of Catholic sex scandals, but shit like this ruling is pushing it along even more. I hope to have it written soon but make no promises.

Oh, and one more thing. This ruling split 7-2. Guess who the two were? That's right, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. And the person who successfully argued the case before the court? Elena Kagan. Tell me again why I have to vote Democrat because of the Supreme Court.


M said...

I disagree with you that sex offences are frequently completely harmless - I think that's more likely to be a small number of cases. It is wrong to see teen sex or sexting and similar things as sexual offences, but the fact that they are seen as such has less to do with seeing them as instances of sexual violence than with moral panic. I say that because this desire to punish teens for alleged sex offences is not reflected in the desire to punish other, actually violent, types of sex offences. The number of rape convictions is 6% in the UK and 13% in the US, and that's only the reported rapes, not the actual committed rapes which are several times higher. The cases where teens are prosecuted over sexting and similar are not likely to improve society's record on dealing with sexual violence, they're just an expression of outrage over sexual liberty - a legal expression, like slut shaming is a social one.

As for this ruling: I understand the desire to protect potential victims - I certainly understand that - but punishing people for something they have not yet done is not a "potential" for abuse, it is abuse.

Senescent said...

Remember when the official solution to unpleasant formative experiences was talk therapy? That wasn't working too bad, really.

M said...

I don't normally read Shakesville, so I don't know anything about McEwan, but I came across the information that she herself is a rape survivor. (Have you ever read any of the blogs/stories by rape survivors? I'd recommend Unnatural Forces.) Given that information, I don't think it's justifiable to call her anything like an "irredeemable, despicable monster" because she seeks to punish sexual offenders. I mean, it would be justifiable if, instead of calling for long mandatory sentences with multiple parole opportunities, lifetime treatment and reversal of parole upon failure to comply, she called for a public beheading and displaying the heads of sexual offenders on town squares, for example. But I honestly think it is completely unjustifiable - taking into account that rape frequently causes a lifelong trauma, goes overwhelmingly unpunished in society and, worst of all, is blamed on the victim instead of the perpetrator at astonishing frequency - to refer to a rape survivor as a despicable monster for wanting to severely punish perpetrators of sexual assault. Especially given the rape culture that permeates society and the fact that most instances of sexual assault are not punished - hell, most are not even reported, because of the fact we live in a society that is more likely to blame the victim of a sexual assault than the perpetrator. There's no way you can call a rape survivor a monster for having this kind of reaction to society and sexual violence and how we (fail to) deal with it.

Ethan said...

ASP, yes, she is a rape survivor. And yes, I've read blogs and stories of survivors, and yes, I'm very much aware of all of the awful things that happen to them in this society. Nevertheless, I believe that the things she says, particularly in the post I linked to, are unacceptable and, again, monstrous.

First of all, her own personal experiences, awful as they may be, have no bearing on whether or not this SC ruling is an abomination. It is an abomination for everyone, no matter what has happened to them in their own lives. Having a loved one murdered may make a pro-death penalty stance understandable, but it does not make it acceptable. This is no different. Or, for a more related example, if a family member had been killed in the WTC, I would still not be justified in approving of indefinite detentions and torture at Guantanamo or Bagram or anywhere else. Two wrongs, I am told, do not make a right.

Second, as she is fond of saying herself, nothing happens in a void. As I have discussed here before, and as McEwan has all of the information available to her to realize herself, the American prison system is quite literally the contemporary version of what used to be called American slavery. The continuity and the similarity is complete. To consign human beings to slavery for, as you pointed out earlier, crimes they have not yet committed, is monstrous.

The fact that rape is itself rampant in prisons is not irrelevant.

There are ways to advocate for rape survivors that do not include indulging in the worst kind of punitive impulse.

As for your first comment, while I'm sure we disagree on many things (and I have a distinct feeling some of them will be brought up in my next post on subjects related to this one, should I ever manage to complete it), I don't think what you mention there is one of them. I agree with everything you say there, with the exception that a huge part of my original point was that the trivial offenses you list there--sexting and so forth--are in fact considered dangerous sex crimes, both by the American legal system and by large portions of its populace. The possibility of human beings being thrown into jail, indefinitely, without any notion of when they may be released, all the while being tortured and quite likely raped themselves, and forced into involuntary servitude, for taking a naked picture of themselves, or for having sex with their consenting but slightly younger partner, is not a remote one.

To endorse this policy is monstrous. I cannot think of a better word for it.

Ethan said...

Senescent, I'm probably just dumb, but I'm not sure what you mean. If you feel like it, could you elaborate?

M said...

the trivial offences you list there--sexting and so forth--are in fact considered dangerous sex crimes

Could you back that up with some statistics or something? I am aware of several prominent media cases, but I don't know how prevalent this trend of severe punishment for trivial offences is. I wasn't under the impression that it was extensive, but I could be wrong. I don't think the perceived dangerousness of these sex crimes stems from the concern for suppression of sexual violence, but out of a desire to suppress teenage sexuality - or sexuality in general. (As I have learned a few days ago, randomly surfing Wikipedia, the selling of sex toys has until recently been prohibited in some US states. Presumably because they lead to greater sexual liberty and consequently promiscuity.) But a desire to punish sexuality and a desire to punish sexual violence are two completely different things. And whereas society keeps displaying the willingness to punish the former, it's not particularly diligent or inclined to punish the latter. (That is exemplified perfectly in victim-blaming, when the society seeks to punish the victim for her sexual behaviour/promiscuity etc, by blaming her for the rape, instead of blaming the rapists for an act of sexual violence.) What happens to rape victims is monstrous. The society's unwillingness to punish sexual violence and protect rape victims is monstrous. McEwan's desire for punishment for people who serially rape is not any more monstrous than the society itself and the monstrosity of pain and trauma that is inflicted on rape victims. In that respect, it is an understandable response. You are right, two wrongs don't make a right. But people who have been wronged will not always think like that. That is because people, ultimately, are not rational beings (religion being the most obvious proof of this). They are guided by their emotions and experiences and beliefs that arise from those experiences, not by reason. McEwan strongly advocates for a sexually liberated and more permissive society, and severe punishment for people who serially rape and molest (oblivious to the all the possible abuses such practice might provoke). I don't think that makes her a monster. But then again, I am missing a whole lot of context here, with respect to the US prison system and conditions, for example, etc. So I may be wrong.

Richard said...

I'm looking forward to your post on youth and sex. Regarding which, allow me to recommend the book Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, by Judith Levine. An excerpt can be found here.

JM said...

How would you want to see sex offenders handled then? She does mention rehabilitation in the post actually. You're really making a fucking large jump to conclusions here.

Ethan said...

ASP, please don't take it personally when I say I don't have the energy to respond to you fully right now. I really just don't, and it has nothing to do with you. I am, however, afraid that if I don't say something now I'll just end up not saying anything at all, which is jerky and I don't want to do it. So for now, let me just say that your But a desire to punish sexuality and a desire to punish sexual violence are two completely different things. And whereas society keeps displaying the willingness to punish the former, it's not particularly diligent or inclined to punish the latter is exactly my point, minus the focus on punishment per se, which I find both unhealthy and unproductive. In fact a great deal of what you say is exactly my point, and I'm uncertain where the miscommunication is coming from--I think to a large degree we're talking past each other rather than to each other, and I apologize for that.

Richard, I've been meaning to read that book for quite some time now. Thanks for putting the fire under my ass or whatever that weird expression is. Thanks also for saying you're looking forward to my post, that's another ass-fire you've lit.

Jenny, I'm sure you're already determined to misunderstand each and every one of my words, but let me just say to you that the whole concept of "rehabilitation," at least as promoted by people like McEwan who think they know exactly how everyone should think and behave, is at best unsettling.

M said...

Why is the idea of rehabilitation unsettling? (It's an honest question, not a provocation or anything.)

As for society's negative stance towards sexuality and failure to punish sexual violence, I understand your point, I just wanted to add more context in order to explain why I think that, given that context, McEwan's desire for punishment of sexual offenders is understandable. Because I do think she seeks to punish violence, and not sexuality; as far as I could gather, she is very in favour of freedom to express one's sexuality without constraints and shame or sanctions, etc. Your post (third paragraph after the quote) suggests you think she's in favour of long mandatory sentences for all sex crimes indiscriminately, even those that are not actually crimes but people's expressions of sexuality, the ones you refer to as harmless. I've read the comments on that post, and I'm not under that impression. Though I could be misreading things (both your post and hers), it wouldn't be the first time.

JM said...

Jenny, I'm sure you're already determined to misunderstand each and every one of my words, but let me just say to you that the whole concept of "rehabilitation," at least as promoted by people like McEwan who think they know exactly how everyone should think and behave, is at best unsettling"

Not really, you're just somewhat misreading her opinion. She doesn't want to punish sexuality, she wants punish sex crimes..really. And even people in the comments who oppose imprisonment perfer rehabilitation.

Ethan said...

ASP, Jenny: I don't care what McEwan says her goal is. She says she supports this ruling. This ruling will have the effect of giving our government the power to lock up whoever it feels like indefinitely because it says so even more than it already does. In the name of sexual panic. If you can't see why that's bad, I honestly don't know what else to say.

M said...

I didn't say it's not bad. In fact, if you read my first comment, my position that it is bad is pretty clear. My point is not that this ruling is bad, but that you seem to conflate McEwan's position on sexual assault with society's desire to repress sexuality and derive from that the irredeemable, despicable monstrosity of the desire to punish serious, serial sexual crime. That's where I disagree with you. Not in the fact that the ruling is bad.

Richard said...

I just looked at the thread over at McEwan's site. Two things. First, it does seem that she's very aware that some things get labeled "sex crime" that should not be (e.g., the 19 yr old boyfriend/17 yr. old girlfriend scenario). Second, she's hanging her opinion on the allegedly high recidivism rate for true sex offenders. But, as you note, Ethan, when challenged, she refuses to say where the data comes from, and in fact treats as a troll the one person asking for data. I've always been suspicious of this bit of received wisdom, that recidivism rates are so much higher for sexual "predators" (a concept that I don't have much confidence in either). The whole thread is evidence of how poor our public discourse is even without the existence of right wing lunatics. No one can make a case, or explain things clearly. People think assertions are the same as explanations and that re-assertions amount to clarifications. Gah.

M said...

With regard to sexual predators, I would suggest reading this:

Richard said...

Thanks for the link, ASP. I haven't finished reading it, but it's very illuminating. I should say that I was not understanding the term "predator" in that way. I was thinking more of the predator who we are told hangs out in chat rooms, etc, preying on children. The manner in which those images come to us, combined with some of what I've read about statistical evidence, has led me to doubt the prevalence of those such predators. So I apologize for any confusion.

Jack Crow said...

If this is true,

"Many of the motivational factors that were identified in incarcerated rapists have been shown to apply equally to undetected rapists. When compared to men who do not rape, these undetected rapists are measurably more angry at women, more motivated by the need to dominate and control women, more impulsive and disinhibited in their behavior, more hyper-masculine in their beliefs and attitudes, less empathic and more antisocial."

It contains the beginning of the answer of how to "handle" rapists.

Don't make them.

I know that may sound flippant, but it's not. People are not born clean slates - but neither are they born with behavioral patterns.

Conduct is learned. We inherit our limbic systems, and our autonomic and automatic functions (breathing, heart beat, etc) but we do not inherit how we act with and towards others.

We are mammalian primates with a high degree of *necessary socialization.* It is social environment which provides the template for conduct, and the damages to and early thwarting of healthy development.

As for McEwan - she fails to take her own logic to its conclusion. Whether or not that is knowledge coupled with cowardice in the face of it, or just plain ignorance, I don't know. But, if she endorses the idea that some people merit - that is, they earn and deserve - lifetime incarceration for crimes they have not committed, then she must either extend that premise to all crimes, and endorse paternal, patriarchal totalitarianism in the name of safety and a harm free world, or she can pretend that her logic has no consequences, and betray herself and her beliefs with every word and breath.

I don't know if that makes her a despicable monster - but it makes her relatively useless as a examplar.

M said...

We are mammalian primates with a high degree of *necessary socialization.* It is social environment which provides the template for conduct, and the damages to and early thwarting of healthy development.

Well, feminists have been trying (very hard) to influence how people are socialized: how ideas of men and women are formed and disseminated, and how society and culture represent men and women, how they treat relationships between men and women in all spheres. People like McEwan write long posts about rape culture (like the one I linked to earlier), expose objectification of women in popular culture, point out the way sex is frequently represented as violent while violence is represented as sexy, etc. It's an ongoing effort. :)

Jack Crow said...


McEwan writes. We all just write. With respect, that's not effort.

I don't want to dismiss the importance of rethinking how people relate.

But it's a springboard only, and in the case of the Shakescult, wholly self-reinforcing - so much so that it becomes an echo chamber.

If we really, actually want to shape our social environment, we're going to have to do a lot more than whimble about "objectification" and "agency" and all the other watchwords of the new liberal feminist essentialism.

"Objectification" is like "commodification" or "reification." It means fuck all if you don't place it in an actual context. The word becomes a totem, a replacement for actual observation, a way to feel a new, preserved identity, instead of identifying those aspects of the world which we reject, and how we're going to go about turning that rejection into action.

At some point, you have to stop worrying what movies some committee of shits wants to make, you have to stop identifying as a consumer of social images, and social identities (which is all the Shakescult is about) - and get about the project of renovation, revolution or, if you're a misanthrope, abstention.

Ante up and kick in, or stay a cog in the machinery of the corvee, however aware of the problems in the machine you might be...

M said...

I wouldn't refer to women who write (the written word has so far been successful at acquainting people with different experiences and opening up to them new areas of knowledge), organize, protest, fight discrimination, harassment and injustice in their daily lives, however big or small, as cogs in the machinery. I wouldn't say they fail to place objectification into context. And I certainly don't think that they - who have a construed female identity imposed on them, and spend their whole lives navigating between what they are and what society expects and wants them to be - don't actually reject aspects of the world and turn that rejection into action.

At some point, you have to stop worrying what movies some committee of shits wants to make

And I don't think we should ever stop worrying about the culture that surrounds us.

M said...

(which is all the Shakescult is about)

I will admit I don't know anything about this. Generally, I have an incomplete view of US feminism.

I will say, though, that writing is an effort, especially if you're the sort of person who needed a lot of time and courage to find her voice (I am one of them). And it helps because once you start writing, or you find people who write about experiences you share, you're more courageous to do stuff in the real world as well. They may not be big stuff, but not everyone can do the big stuff.

Ethan said...

Way way way too much to respond to--thanks for all the comments, people.

Richard, on recidivism: I don't have any hard data, but the claims people make on this subject make no logical sense to me. "Stranger danger," anyone who's honest about the subject, is vastly overblown--and yet we're still terrified of these recidivist serial predators? I realize that I'm painting with a bit of a broad brush here (as ASP's link shows), and I could be completely off-base. But it doesn't quite add up to me.

Jack, your summation of McEwan is exactly what I'm trying to get at and not managing to phrase well. And your "Don't make them" is a big part of what I want to discuss in my youth + sex post, which I hope to have finished by late in this week.

As for the discussion between Jack and ASP towards the bottom of this thread, I think I lie somewhere in the middle. I do think that many even mainstream feminists do good work. In regard to some of the discussion that's been going on here, at Jack's place, and over at ladypoverty recently, I do tend to find the eagerness of mainstream feminism to simply insert women into the horrible power structures and work hierarchies that already exist craven and hurtful, but at the same time, we have the world we have, and in it women need to make a living. And I can't find it in myself to consider cultural criticism worthless (if only because I enjoy it so much).

However, I think the self-refuting tendencies Jack points out are often far more powerful than whatever good they might do. And at this point, I'm far too tired to continue. If anyone has anything else to add or anything else in response to what I've said, I'll be back tomorrow evening, probably.

Thanks again, this has been a pretty great discussion all around I think.

Jack Crow said...


I hope I made clear enough that I think writing is important. I just don't think it's enough.


Glad to be of some use.

Anonymous said...

Jack Crow has the goods here.

Don't make them.

I know very well someone who survived sex abuse as a child. This friend doesn't respond to that hellish history by acting like Melissa McEwan does.

I also have an ex-girlfriend who was raped. She didn't respond to it as McEwan does.

IMO -- McEwan has a lot of psychological problems, the foremost of which is that she identifies mainly as a victim, and engages in broad-spectrum blamecasting. In her world, everyone else is responsible for her physical and psychological problems.

Would be interesting to know what kinds of examples were set for her in her youth. My bet is that they were much as she is -- physically and psychologically unwell people who prized lethargy and excused it with victimhood.

Instead of ranting on blogs and blaming scapegoats, they probably cursed at the television or newspaper or radio, much as Melissa curses the world on her blog.

And Melissa's apologist... or is it pen name?... "Jenny" or "JM" will likely respond to me with personal attack here.

Go on, Jenny.

Anonymous said...


The SCOTUS ruling paves the way for the e-snooping done by Uncle Sam (see ATT v Klein) and therefore provides the keystone to a Big Brother labelling of porn-viewing internet users as "sexually dangerous."

The roundup of random porn viewers will begin as soon as the citizenry starts showing a backbone.

Clear your cookies? Sorry, too late.

Ethan said...

CF, I kind of wish I hadn't even mentioned McEwan in the original post, because I think a good deal of my horror at the ruling (part of which is exactly what you say in your PS) got covered up in my disgust for her. But I have to say, your little psychoanalysis or whatever of her is interesting and puts her in a perspective I hadn't thought of before. Did you see that recently one of her minions banned a commenter for suggesting that it was difficult to post in disagreement with her? The irony is totally lost on them.