Thoughts on Castration for Sex Offenders

The NY Times has a story on debates raging in Europe over whether is ethical and/or smart to castrate sex offenders as a form of punishment or rehabilitation.

Whether castration can help rehabilitate violent sex offenders has come under new scrutiny after the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee last month called surgical castration “invasive, irreversible and mutilating” and demanded that the Czech Republic stop offering the procedure to violent sex offenders. Other critics said that castration threatened to lead society down a dangerous road toward eugenics.

The Czech Republic has allowed at least 94 prisoners over the past decade to be surgically castrated. It is the only country in Europe that uses the procedure for sex offenders. Czech psychiatrists supervising the treatment — a one-hour operation that involves removal of the tissue that produces testosterone — insist that it is the most foolproof way to tame sexual urges in dangerous predators suffering from extreme sexual disorders.

[. . .]

Now, more countries in Europe are considering requiring or allowing chemical castration for violent sex offenders. There is intense debate over whose rights take precedence: those of sex offenders, who could be subjected to a punishment that many consider cruel, or those of society, which expects protection from sexual predators.

Poland is expected to become the first nation of the European Union to give judges the right to impose chemical castration on at least some convicted pedophiles, using hormonal drugs to curb sexual appetite; the impetus for the change was the arrest of a 45-year-old man in September who had fathered two children by his young daughter. Spain, after a convicted pedophile killed a child, is considering plans to offer chemical castration.

Last year, the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, signed legislation requiring courts to order chemical castration for offenders convicted of certain sex crimes a second time.

The way that this article sets up the debate is between two sides.  The first side says that castration, whether chemical or surgical, will reduce sexual offenses — and anyway, sexual offenders don’t have any rights.  The second side says that castration is a violation of sex offenders rights, including the right to reproduce, and that even those offenders who “choose” castration aren’t really doing so of free will.

While on a theoretical level, the human rights of even the worst criminals mean something to me, on an emotional level, I will admit to saying “their sexual rights? Boo-fucking-hoo.”

Yet, I still think that castration as a form of punishment and/or rehabilitation for sex offender is a really bad idea.  And though I hardly think that the rights-related arguments are wholly invalid, the argument that I’m about to make against castration has absolutely nothing to do with the rights of rapists.

Castrating rapists and other sex offenders may indeed prevent many of them from reoffending.  The numbers provided in the NY Times are admitted to be faulty, seeing as how they rely on self-reporting by the sex offenders.  So I don’t know, and neither apparently does anyone else.  But the idea that it would stop the castrated rapists from raping again, as a general rule?  I can believe that.

But it won’t stop rape.  Not even close.  And in the process of stopping a few rapes while failing to stop the vast majority of them, a false sense of what rape is about is heavily stitched onto the public’s consciousness.

One does not need to produce testosterone and/or achieve an erection in order to commit rape.  Though it’s far less common, women commit rape against both men and other women.  And rape can be and regularly is committed by men using fingers.  Rape can be and is committed using objects.  And as the NY Times article only briefly notes, castrated rapists have been known to rape again.

Rape, just like sex, is not all penises in vaginas.

And rape, unlike sex, is almost always about power and not about mere sexual desire and release.

Some of the offenders profiled in the article may be the exception to the rule, in that they have serious mental disorders that cause them to seek out only non-consensual sexual contact, and to do so compulsively.  In these cases, though, the culprit again is not sex.  This time it’s mental illness.

And to conflate the small number of sexual offenders who rape because they are severely mentally ill with the much larger number of sexual offenders — who are never arrested, let alone convicted, and who rape due to misogyny, entitlement and a desire for power — is incredibly dangerous.  It reinforces the “well he doesn’t act like a rapist, so he must not have done it” myth.  And it reinforces myths about just how violent a rape must be in order for it to really be rape.

To conflate rape with testosterone production is even more dangerous.  It portrays rape as an inherent part of being a man, and an urge which they must control by their nature.  It says that rape is a crime that we cannot stop without also stopping both heterosexual sex and what many (falsely) perceive to be what makes a man really a man.  This is false, and giving far too easy of a pass to rapists.  And importantly, it presents rape prevention as necessarily entailing something that far too many people are (rightfully) unwilling to do.  It presents rape prevention as man-hating, impossible, and therefore unworth our time.

The rapes that governments are trying to prevent using castration could just as easily be prevented, without the problems regarding the violation of rights and the reinforcement of rape myths, by putting these offenders in prison (or high security mental health facilities, as the case may be).  If they’re dangerous enough to “require” castration, they’re dangerous enough to require incarceration, in my opinion.  And if there’s reason to believe that the offender may rape his fellow inmates, then he needs to be kept separately from them.

And we could prevent far more rapes, the majority which are not committed by crazed strangers to their victims, by employing anti-sexual violence education methods that have been proven to work, by changing public perceptions regarding sex and consent, and improving the place and rights of both women and children (the most common victims) in the world.

That there seems to be no hint of these kinds of initiatives to go along with the proposed or enforced castration programs is extremely telling.  It says that the point here isn’t likely to really do the hard work of changing patriarchal rape culture, but to merely act “tough on crime.”  And that’s not going to get us anywhere near where we want to be.

0 thoughts on “Thoughts on Castration for Sex Offenders

  1. frau sally benz

    Though it’s far less common, women commit rape against both men and other women. And rape can be and regularly is committed by men using fingers. Rape can be and is committed using objects.

    Those are all the things that ran through my head when I started reading this. I don’t think it would really do much good in stopping rape in general, and it might have the opposite outcome in some repeat offenders — they’ll have even more desire to show they still have power and just rape or abuse in another way.

    Ignoring the preventative measures, as you highlight, also another problem.

    My vote is no.

  2. mzbitca

    I am generally against any gov’t ordering medical procedures as a matter of punishment for a crime.

    Also, especially when dealing with offenders who focus on children, rape is often not the most often method. What about all of the fondling and performance of oral sex and other such things that occur that are not tied to the penis. This seems to me to be more a way to placate people’s rage at these craimes than any type of true proactive solution.

    One solution could be that you don’t serve less time for child molestation than you do for heroin possession

  3. Brandy

    You have hit the nail on the head on every point you made.

    Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. A person chemically castrated may still wish to exhort power over women and children via various means, so I don’t see castration solving the problem (hell take a look at the history of castration for how much it actually does jack about any of this shit).

    Also, the whole idea that castration would “solve” the rape belittles the scope of the issue and the people it most affects. Not to mention that it completely ignores the real cause of the issue.

    Great post, I only wish it was required reading for every person in the world.

  4. Lalaroo

    I was also disturbed by the remark about the new law that said castration was required upon the second conviction. That makes me think that a previously-convicted rapist will be more likely to murder his next victim, so as to be more sure that no witnesses are left.

  5. karak

    They use chemical castration mainly on “the worst of the worst” those who are especially violent, those who kill, those who mutilate, who rape children, and those with multiple victims/repeat offenders.

    In other words– there’s no reason to let these people back into society, with or without a working penis. Moral conundrum solved.

  6. KaeLyn

    Brilliant post. I am literally in a Genesee Valley NYCLU board meeting right now where we are talking about a sex offender residency ordinance recently passed in East Rochester that essentially made it so any registered sex offender could not live in East Rochester. Because there is little to no place to live in East Rochester that is not within 2000 feet of a church, school, or park. Like similar laws that have come before it, it essentially banishes sex offenders from a community. There’s absolutely no evidence this makes children or communities safer. While I understand people having a emotional response people have to sex offenders and that the crimes of sex offenders are morally inexcusable, I agree with Cara that this does not exclude them from having basic civil liberties. Forced castration seems a fairly blatant violation of rights to me, though it’s hard to prove that the incarcerated have a right to privacy and self-determination. Anyway, great, thoughtful post. We need to actually address the root issues that sustain rape culture instead of devising reactive and usually politically and emotionally driven responses. Amen, Cara.

  7. OuyangDan

    Like mentioned above, rape isn’t about sex, it is about power, and all the castration in the world isn’t going to stop someone from exerting their power over another individual. I also kind of feel as though it would somehow encourage some people to do it more, as if to prove that the castration hasn’t in fact ruined their manliness.

    Like you said, it won’t stop them from lashing out in other way, and it certainly won’t stop those who already had violent tendencies.

    Anything else I had to say was already said, mostly by frau sally benz.

  8. Annie

    Quite frankly, the only problem I have with this idea is that there is a possibility that innocent men could be convicted and castrated by mistake. So it would really need to be carefully monitored and I’d imagine it would be best to reserve it for repeat offenders or people who had committed exceptionally horrific rapes.

    Even if it doesn’t prevent rape, it would at least prevent the unwanted pregnancies that can sometimes result from rape, and I think that’s a great way to prevent already-traumatized women from having to make a potentially traumatic choice. Obviously, that is not as important as actually stopping rape, but I think it’s important not to overlook.

  9. Becka

    Thank you for writing this, a really excellent post. I was so pleased to see the distinction made that rape is not an inherently sexual act, but one of dominance, power and violence. The sad thing about castration as a solution, is that it stems from the idea that we want a quick fix (and on an emotional level, and I can totally understand this) but are unwilling to look at the root cause of a problem.

  10. Anna

    Cara, I actually love you.
    I’d always thought I’m vaguely educated (or getting there), liberal and reasonable, but I’d for some reason never taken the time to think this one through and just assumed ‘yeah, cut it off, the fuckers’ – probably a remnant from my pre-feminist days when I thought rape was about sex and not power. But you’re right. It won’t solve anything.

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  15. Falyne

    Given that rape is about power and dominance, couldn’t someone who has been literally made impotent become MORE likely to try and violently ‘prove their manhood’? Even leaving aside all question of rights and morality, this could be flat-out counterproductive.

  16. depresso

    There’s a fascinating discussion on the historical context of castration (surgical and chemical) in Rape: A history from 1860 to the Present, by Joanna Bourke.

    And the author indicates similar conclusions; that’s missing the point and misunderstanding the motivations behind rape, and that it allows the offender to side-step the blame for his actions.

    If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend it!

    1. Cara Post author

      Thanks Depresso — it’s actually on my bookshelf. It’s just such a huge book that it’s been sitting at the bottom of my reading list!

  17. Holly

    I think castration is a really bad idea, as well, especially considering that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power and having power of someone else. I also agree with an above commenter when saying that castration may make men feel the need to “prove their manhood” even moreso. Also to add, not only men rape, which I think a lot of people don’t necessarily understand or believe, but women are also rapists and even by women offenders, there’s still the quest for power, not sex.

  18. depresso

    “such a huge book”

    oh yes, and how! It’s quite a lot to take in in each section, so it’s one to work through slowly. Well, for me anyway, partly coz I keep falling asleep after 4 pages!

  19. Renee

    I had a really hard time with this article and then I realized that part of the reason is because I as a victim still want revenge. It is certainly not a healthy emotion at all. I could not even comment on this post when I first read it. I think that we need to fight our initial instincts of disgust and realize that violating the rights of another will not protect us. I agree with putting them in prison for life if need be. That will keep us safer than forcing them to consent to a procedure that is inhumane. I think that we forget when dealing with criminals that though they have violated the social contract if we do not treat the humanely we are in no position to judge them.

  20. SunlessNick

    I also kind of feel as though it would somehow encourage some people to do it more, as if to prove that the castration hasn’t in fact ruined their manliness.

    That would be my fear too.

  21. Thealogian

    I think that castration just makes a rapist turn to another weapon to sexually assault someone–like in Eve Ensler’s monologue about the women raped in Bosnia, where they were raped with the barrel of a gun.

    That image still haunts me and it reminds me of a discussion I had when I heard about that anti-rape device that one could insert in her vagina that would clamp down on an unwanted penis–kind of vagina dentata. Once the rapists’ penis is “neutralized” as it were, he’d be REALLY PISSED OFF and probably just reach for a broom handle, a glass bottle, or something that could do even more damage.

    Rape is ABOUT VIOLENCE AND POWER not so much about sex, although rape culture wants to erase that truth.


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  23. Fionnabhair

    If they’re dangerous enough to “require” castration, they’re dangerous enough to require incarceration, in my opinion.

    This. A thousand times, this.

    Personally, there’s one side to this that has me a little conflicted: while I am absolutely against forced castration, what about sex offenders who want the procedure? I’m sure such people would be few and far between, but the question was nagging as me while reading this entry. One one hand, as a general rule, I don’t have objections to people doing what they want with their bodies, and a medical castration is safer than a DIY job. On the other hand, the option at all misses the point, as you mentioned. Rape doesn’t require a penis.

    Something Renee said also stuck out, to me (and I really hope no one takes this the wrong way):

    That will keep us safer than forcing them to consent to a procedure that is inhumane.

    Emphasis mine.

    Is forced castration a form of medical rape?

  24. amelia

    To me, castration combined with other preventative measures may be okay.

    Castration stops someone from being able to rape with a penis. Therefore it will successfully stop some forms of sexual reoffending.

    Castration also reduces sexual desire to some extent (I think!). Rape is about sex as well as power. Taking the sexual desire motive for raping away from convicted rapists will to some extent reduce their desire to rape again. This may be enough to prevent them raping or sexually offending again. Yes, they will still have a desire for exerting power that they may excercise through other criminal acts (ie. battery) – but at least they will have less of a desire for sexualised violence.

    If castration reduces rates of sexual reoffending castration is fine by me. Castrating & releasing sexual offenders is cheaper than incarcerating them for ever. There are also many repeat sexual offenders who are eventually released yet still pose a reasonable risk of reoffending. If they have to be released, at the least they should be castrated.

    Using castration as one method of rape prevention is problematic in that it sends the idea that testosterone predisposes men towards raping, and that all men must actively suppress their natural urges to rape (with castration being the threat looming over their heads if they do not manage to do so). However, if castration works with some sexual offenders, then using castration – alone with other methods of prevention – is fine by me.

    It is important not to overemphasis castration as a rape prevention method. It helps to prevent reoffending only among some offenders and only to some degree. Continued incarceration is the safest method, and offenders shouldn’t be released from prison unless they are deemed low risk for reoffending (however many are released even when they pose moderate risks of reoffending, IMO, and I would at least want these men to be castrated). Castration shouldn’t be seen as a punishment but as a method of risk reduction for reoffending. The importance of lowering the risk of sexual reoffending trumps the rights of a convicted sex offender to future sexual anything.

  25. andrea

    I as a victim of child molestation when i was 9 and 13 and as a victim of rape when i was 18(to make matters worse i lost my virginity then) i been hoping for a while now to see some real punishment for these pigs, its so irritating and saddening to see the news about a person who had committed crimes before rape/kill/molest a child or any other person for that matter, why are we being so lenient toward these criminals? i don’t get it, they destroy the lives of thousands but the law its too afraid to destroy their lives, this thing called justice does not seem too just to me.
    i don’t believe felons should have rights, incarcerating them its not enough they get out and do it again, its not fair to them so take their reproductive right taken away? boo freaking hoo we the victims didn’t have the choice so why should they? if it was up to me i would cut their balls and penis off, im sure if that was the punishment most guys would think twice about it, they would be less likely to do if they knew that would happen. no third strike, i believe in forgiveness once second offense u should be out for good.
    who knows maybe the judges and lawyers and all these other people are afraid that if they were too hard on criminals they would be out of jobs. how i hate them.


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